Fantasy Equity Scores: Tight End Floors to Fade, Ceilings to Chase
July 10, 2017 | C.D. Carter
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I tried for years, in total and complete vain, to crack the tight end code. Breaking down tight end production per target, per snap, per route run, per egg eaten on game day — none of it whispered the sweet secret. It offered only false hope and fleeting success.
Stung by my failure, I took up the anti-tight end cause. I met with others who hate the tight end position and its maddening volatility, often in church basements in the wee hours of the morning, to plan our campaign to eliminate the rotten position from fantasy football. But our group was infiltrated by Gronk truthers who got us drunk and told us “sixty-nine” jokes until we lost sight of our stated goal: to free fantasy football of the wretched tight end spot.
Our defeat was total. The tight end position stands today, just as it ever was, forcing us to fill that roster spot with guys we think of as every-week starters or streamers or just a warm human body designated by an NFL team as a tight end. Our Resistance only needed some good Jon Oliver late-night burns and thorough well-actually fact checks and we could’ve beaten the Gronkian monster. Make tight end great again, I suppose.
Tight end, as you might know, is the most volatile position in fantasy outside of team defense. There are, however, stats that closely correlate to tight end fantasy success, as TJ Hernandez found. Yards per game and targets are the two stats on which to focus if we’re intent on nailing our tight end selection.
Below is a look at the fantasy floors and ceilings of the first 12 tight ends off the draft board, as determined by the Rotoviz sim score app and my slight tweaking. Tight end ADPs aren’t likely to swing drastically in the weeks before opening kickoff — not like receiver and running back ADPs that blast off with the trickery of a preseason highlight reel play or three.
Zach Ertz’s lofty fantasy equity scores are surprising for a guy who doesn’t score touchdowns in such a touchdown-dependent position. Ertz posted a 5.1 percent touchdown rate in 2016, which seems low until you consider his career touchdown rate of 5.2 percent. Tight ends scored on 7.5 percent of their receptions in 2016, for the record. He had his usual late-season outburst last season, putting up 13 catches and two scores against Dallas in Week 17. An average of 10.8 targets per game over his final five games gave Ertz 106 targets on the year — fifth among tight ends — though the concentration of opportunity is worrying for those drafting him as an every-week fantasy starter. I think it’s at least reasonable to argue that the Eagles being bad (or terrible) in 2017 would be good for their tight end, as Carson Wentz threw 41.7 passes in Philly losses last year at a clip of 5.7 adjusted yards per attempt. A tight end might be very much in play for a barrage of short passes. Antonio Gates’ 2014 campaign — in which the Chargers tight end as fantasy’s No. 3 tight end with an austere 98 targets — sits atop Ertz’s sim score comps for 2017. The problem with that comp, of course, is that Gates scored a dozen touchdowns that season. There’s no way Ertz — with a grand total of 25 red zone targets over the past two years — does that in the computer simulation in which we exist. A side note on ADP: Ertz is going in the middle of the eighth on MyFantasyLeague, or a full two rounds earlier than he’s being drafted in mock drafts tracked by Fantasy Football Calculator. There’s almost no way I’m passing on Ertz in the tenth. The eighth, however, is squeezing some critical value out of the tight end. Either way, his equity scores are gleaming. Ertz, for whatever it’s worth, exceeded his high equity score in 2016.
Jimmy Graham wasn’t able to break the 100-target mark in a season that saw the Seahawks throw it (far) more than any other season in the Russell Wilson era. Graham netted 16.75 percent of Seattle’s targets in 2016. If the team returns to its 2014-15 pass-run splits, that target share would produce something just north of 80 targets, which would’ve ranked 18th in tight end targets last year. Graham’s excellent fantasy campaign wasn’t thanks to an absurd touchdown rate (he scored six times on 65 receptions, or 9.2 percent), though I can’t help but notice Graham posted a career high in yards per catch. Last summer, Graham’s 2016 fantasy equity scores pointed to an undervalued guy whose opportunity was locked in, unlike a couple tight ends drafted before the Seattle tight end. That opportunity — and the fading fears of Graham’s once-shattered knee — are now baked into his fantasy valuation like pot in a brownie. This means Jeff Sessions and his jackbooted drug warriors could bang down your door if you go in on Graham at TE5 this summer. Beware.
Gronk gonna Gronk, as the kids and Kenny Darter say. The guy averaging 75.4 yards and 0.73 touchdowns per game over the past five seasons is, in fact, good. Gronkowski is still (rightfully) going as the first tight end off the board, though the Gronk premium has dipped from its pinnacle amid Gronk hysteria two summers ago. Gronk, per MFL data, is going as the 21st player off the board. He was the 12th player drafted in 2015 and 2016. The TE1 hasn’t been drafted this late since 2013, opening an opportunity for those who can turn a blind eye to Gronkowski’s horrific injury history. New England in 2016 used Gronk in some ways we hadn’t seen: the tight end averaged an incredible 21.6 yards per reception, of five yards over his career average. Gronk this summer falls in a part of the draft in which there are very few appealing plays; Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, and Marshawn Lynch are being picked right before and after him. I’d take Gronk over any of those guys. Sixteen games of dominant Gronk — the kind we saw last year in Weeks 3-7, when he caught 20 passes for 529 yards and three scores — is the stuff of fantasy upside for which we strive.
Hunter Henry last year scored on 22.7 percent of his receptions. Yes, he notched 52.3 yards and 0.67 touchdowns per contest with Antonio Gates on the bench, but with Gates in the lineup, Henry’s yardage dropped by 20 yards per game and his targets fell from five to 3.8 per game. Ladarius Green truthers had their year of mourning, regrouped, found Henry, and must be behind his ludicrous ADP. Please @ me on Twitter if you have insider information about Gates being phased out of the Chargers’ offense in 2017, or retiring at midseason, or spontaneously combusting at midfield at some point this fall. That’s what we in the industry call actionable information. The elder tight end statesman had 24 red zone targets in 2016, the most of all tight ends but one. What I’m saying is this: I’m fading Henry — pretending he’s not even on the board unless I’m in a fantasy league full of hateful Chiefs or Raiders or Broncos fans and Henry plummets to the 11th round. His price is too high and his median score drops off the face of the planet.
Eric Ebron missed three games, scored a single touchdown, and finished just outside TE1 (top-12) territory in 2016. While I don’t think anyone is clinching their fantasy title by taking Ebron in the 11th or 12th round, the opportunity is there. That’s all we can ask for with a late-round selection. The Lions finished fourth in pass attempts in 2015 and 10th in attempts in 2016. I view Ebron — who saw at least five targets in 12 of 13 games last year — as a bottom-barrel cheap investment in an offense that will once again throw a lot.
Kyle Rudolph scored 209 PPR points last season and finished as fantasy football’s second highest scoring tight end. That was a thing that happened in the Year of Our Lord 2016. Trust me, I looked it up. I’m an expert. And yet, six tight ends are flying off the draft board before the lumbering favorite of Sam Bradford. Rudolph, who led all tight ends in red zone targets, posted a rock-solid season without the help of an unsustainable touchdown rate — something we should always watch with a position that hinges so heavily on touchdowns. His 2016 rate of 8.4 percent was markedly lower than his career mark of 10.9 percent. If opportunity is king (it is), Rudolph is tight end royalty: there were three games in which he didn’t collect at least seven targets in 2016. He managed double-digit targets six times. Rudy’s target pace in Minnesota losses was 138, so a bad Vikings team could translate into massive opportunity in 2017. I’m not often champing at the bit to scoop up a tight end in the eighth round, but you can’t do better than Rudolph if you’re in the market for a plug-and-play tight end at an extraordinarily reasonable cost.