Fantasy Equity Scores: Top Tight Ends And Chasing Bad Game Script
July 18, 2016 | C.D. Carter
We write, read, and tell stories to better understand the incomprehensible world in which we live. Fantasy football, as you probably know, isn’t an exception to the power of storytelling.
We spin tales all season in flailing attempts to justify our lineup decisions. I’m guilty of it. You are too. It’s what we do: compose narratives that run like a bad movie between our ears. Then we follow the script.
One provably wrong story goes like this: we want passers who will face large deficits. They’ll throw a lot, and the more throwing, the better. That’s almost universally untrue. That doesn’t mean that the same goes for those quarterbacks’ pass catchers. Chasing those guys — the ones who are furiously running routes for three quarters after their team falls behind three scores — have proven to be fantasy difference makers.
Tight ends, who are running more routes and seeing more targets than ever, have benefited from volume of opportunity spurred by almost constant negative game script. Think Delanie Walker 2015, when he out-targeted all tight ends as Tennessee was drubbed by all comers. Think Zach Ertz 2015, when the Eagles lost five of their final seven games and were continually forced to the air. Ertz saw 9.4 targets over that stretch. Think Gary Barnidge 2015, as Josh McCown peppered the no-name tight end and Barnidge benefited from the Browns’ dearth of red zone options.
And that’s just from last season.
The trick, it seems, is finding a tight end whose fantasy prospects could be boosted by relentlessly bad game flow, but doesn’t have that potential built into his average draft position. Walker went in the mid-ninth round last season, after nine tight ends were off the board. Ertz was drafted in the 11th round. Barnidge was undrafted in all but Browns-only leagues.
We won’t get to the possible 2016 Barnidge types until we explore the TE13-24 tier. I think the impact of game script is worth keeping in mind even with the first dozen tight ends off the board.
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- I’m neither a doctor, nor do I play one on Twitter, though my account is in need of medical attention. That’s why I hesitate to write off Jimmy Graham at his re-draft price point, even if his 2015 knee injury was described as brutal. Graham, after being predictably over-drafted in August, was TE10 when his season ended 11 weeks into the season. He was on pace to see 99 targets come his way, which would’ve been eighth among tight ends. He was way off his career 12.2 percent touchdown rate (his 2015 touchdown rate was a meager 4.1 percent). A lot of uncertainty is priced into his ADP of TE11 (110th overall). I’m very much willing to take Graham at that ADP, if it stays steady. Seattle is reportedly primed to take a more pass-first approach this season, as they did in the second half of 2015, when the Seahawks threw the ball much more than usual in the first half of games (overall pass-per-game numbers leveled out because the Seahawks had no reason to throw in the second half of many of those games). When Graham saw at least six targets last season, he posted an average line of 4.7 receptions, 77.6 yards, and 0.3 touchdowns. That comes out to 14.2 fantasy points. Equity scores tell us not to write off the former pride of First Round Tight End Twitter.
- As stunning as it is to see an unknown like Barnidge go from undrafted to an ADP inside the top-90, I don’t believe his best-case scenario is incorporated into his re-draft price. Walker, Fleener, Kelce, and Barnidge all have similar median and high equity scores, but only Barnidge is outside of that tight end cluster in the sixth and seventh rounds. Vegas projects the Browns to once again be among the league’s worst teams in 2016, meaning Barnidge and likely one more pass catcher could see a not-insigificant boost from negative game script in Cleveland. Barnidge saw 125 targets last year as the Browns lost 13 games. They’re not expected to be that much better, and besides the addition of Corey Coleman, they remain lacking on the pass catching front. Barnidge, at 6’5″ and 241 pounds, is the team’s most logical red zone threat, as he was in 2015. Tyler Eifert, with Hue Jackson as his offensive coordinator last season, saw 16 red zone targets in 13 games. Even Jermaine Gresham saw 14 red zone targets in 15 2014 games under Jackson. There’s a lot of reason to think Barnidge’s touchdown upside remains sky high. Barnidge’s top-end 2016 comps include Antonio Gates’ 2010 campaign, when the Chargers’ tight end scored 188 fantasy points in a mere 10 games.
- Greg Olsen has little appeal at his ADP. The entire Carolina offense is set to regress, at least a little bit, from its blistering 2015 pace. The Panthers scored 3.7 touchdowns per game last season, more than any other team. They averaged 2.3 touchdowns per game in 2014, and 2.5 in 2013. Olsen’s 2015 yards per reception (14.3) was well above his career YPR, and he scored more touchdowns (seven) than in any of his previous four seasons in Carolina. I suppose it’s in the range of outcomes that Cam Newton continues his torrid play, entering some sort of fantasy nirvana that bolsters everyone in the Panthers’ offense. But is it likely? I’d say no. Olsen is going just six picks after Reed, whose median prospects appear to be far superior to that of the wily veteran. I see Olsen’s ADP as a sort of fantasy football No Man’s Land, where you can also land players like Michael Floyd, Jeremy Maclin, and Doug Baldwin. I’ll pass on Olsen unless his ADP ticks down in August.
- I don’t see Fleener rising much higher than his TE7 ADP, if only because fantasy footballers think so little of the new Saints’ tight end. People are obsessed with drops — they’re easy to grasp, ugly on the field — so Fleener has become a punchline for Pass Drop Twitter. Here’s the thing though: Ben Watson, a totally and completely replaceable tight end, finished 2015 as a top-7 tight end thanks to Drew Brees’ offense. I used the Rotoviz projection machine, giving Fleener the benefit of Watson’s 2015 target share, and he comes in at TE8 numbers. Bump up that target share a bit, adjust his yards per target and you get Fleener into elite territory. If you hate Fleener, ignore the name on the back of the jersey and remember: you want Brees’ tight end.