That Just Happened: Tight Ends (Part I)
March 28, 2017 | Scott Cedar
If you asked me immediately after the 2016 season how the tight end position had fared, I would have said it was an apocalypse and this article was going to read like the Book of Revelations. Upon further review, it really wasn’t that bad. You probably didn’t love your tight end last year, but you probably didn’t lose too many games because of your opponent’s tight end, either. The position was just kind of… there. So what happened?
Really, the only problems were at the very top. I’ve copied and pasted that last sentence because it pretty much explains what happened in 2016. Overall, tight ends did what they always do. Except at the very top.
Looking at the top 12 tight ends in 2016 (measured by ppg), there were slight declines from 2015 in per game targets, receptions, and yards. Only slight, though, and even fantasy scoring wasn’t down that much. TE1-12 scored 8.97 ppg in 2015, compared to just 8.03 in 2016. A ~1 ppg drop is notable, but doesn’t put us at DEFCON 1. Or DEFCON 5. Whichever is the bad one.
The only real difference among the top 12 came in touchdowns: TE1-12 scored 64 touchdowns in 2016, down from 84 in 2015 and well below the average over the prior 5 years (84.2). And the real difference within that real difference…
*Control + V*
The only problems were at the very top.
In 2015, there were four tight ends with at least 9 touchdowns (Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed, Tyler Eifert, and Gary Barnidge). In 2016, there were… none. Cameron Brate and Hunter Henry tied for the lead with 8 scores. Gary Barnidge turning back into a pumpkin was foreseeable, but what happened with Gronk, Eifert, and Reed? All three put up lofty touchdown/target rates in 2015 that were due to regress a little, but injuries were also a big factor. This triumvirate played 42 games in 2015 versus just 28 games in 2016, including many games where they were limited by injury. The result: 35 combined scores in 2015, just 14 scores in 2016. With the three most talented players at the position banged up, no one stepped in to fill the void.
5 Year Trends
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and all of those words are @#%&. The top was just brutal. Rob Gronkowski led the way, of course, but his 9.0 ppg was the lowest for a #1 TE since Shannon Sharpe’s 8.6 ppg in 1998. To put into context how long ago that was, in 1998 Sharpe was the most dominant tight end in NFL Blitz, a game on a cartridge featuring Kordell Stewart. For comparison, Gronkowski’s 2016 would’ve made him just the 7th best tight end in 2015.
Buuuuuut, say it with me: the only problems were at the top. Usually, there’s a Gronk or Jimmy Graham all the way on the top left corner, after which the rest of the graph is gently sloped downward. This year we jumped right into the flat, gradual decline. If you don’t focus too much on the left, you’ll see it wasn’t such a bad season overall. By the time you get to TE6, the 2016 line is right back in the middle. By TE9, 2016 performance was actually better than in 2015. And in this supposed down year for tight ends, that 2016 blue line sits at or around the top between TE13-24.
Not that a bunch of tight ends scoring between 5 and 6 ppg really helps you in fantasy, but it does speak to the replacability of the position. This summer, when talk inevitably turns to how deep the position is, remember that’s a misnomer. The position is flat, not deep, with a very long list of guys who aren’t very good and aren’t very different. Case in point: the difference between the TE5 (Delanie Walker) and the TE25 (Dennis Pitta) was a mere 3 ppg.
The big takeaway from the graph is, unlike prior years, there wasn’t anyone who provided much of a weekly advantage. If it felt like your tight end was crushing it last season… he wasn’t.
Despite everything I’ve said about the top tier crashing, we were actually pretty good at picking tight ends last year. The first 5 tight ends drafted in 2016 all finished in the top 6 in ppg. It would’ve been a clean 6 for 6 if not for Eifert falling down draft boards due to a lingering ankle injury. That’s not to say drafting tight ends was foolproof. Coby Fleener, Gary Barnidge, and Julius Thomas were all top 100 picks, and none of them finished higher than TE17.
Of course, that doesn’t leave much room for late-round breakouts. Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate each cracked the top 10 after going undrafted in most leagues, but they were more “passable starters” than “stars.”
I guess this can be an argument for going early-round TE in 2017. They were a safe bet in 2016, in one sense of the word, and you’re probably not finding an every week starter later in drafts. But with just 1.9 points separating TE1 and TE12 this year, you didn’t really get a return on early investment either. This has me more inclined to pay up for a solid TE in MFL10s, but in redraft leagues I’m going to wait. If my late-round gamble busts—and odds are he will—there should be plenty of equally disappointing fill-ins on the waiver wire.
I think what this all shows is that the tight end position hasn’t changed that much over the last decade. For a long time the position was Tony Gonzalez and a bunch of Not Tony Gonzalezes (Gonzali?). Then it was Antonio Gates. When Gronkowski, Graham, and Aaron Hernandez emerged in the midst of an increasingly pass-happy league, and blocking became a plus rather than a necessity, the position seemed like it was entering a new age. It wasn’t. What would the tight end position have looked like over the past 5 years without Gronkowski or Graham? A lot like it does today. The “emergence” was really just a couple of transcendent players, and if Gronkowski, Reed and Eifert can stay healthy in 2017 then we’re back to business as usual. Otherwise, we’re probably in for another year where tight ends aren’t much of a factor in fantasy leagues.