The fantasy tight end position has been a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma stuffed into a mystery. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. Let’s try to make sense of it together. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of the series here.
Back in the Before Times, when we used to work in offices and had communal kitchen and eating areas, the corner office types at NFL Media had an idea to offer snacks. This isn’t a particularly new or cutting-edge idea. Plenty of other big companies do the same for their employees.
The twist is that our snacks were billed as “healthy.” They mostly felt like a collection of ingredients that almost went together — but not quite. That left you with deciding how good some of these things could possibly be. Sometimes you’d score with the cauliflower pretzels. Other times, you’d swing and miss on peanut butter ginger chews. Yes, these are all real things.
I’m guessing you didn’t come here to hear about our company snacking habits. (Side note: I do appreciate a lot of you wading through so many of my esoteric, borderline-emo asides to dig out a few kernels of fantasy knowledge.) But in so many ways, our breakroom goodies relate to the mid-tier of tight ends that has caused us to throw up our hands in frustration. Sometimes everything on the label looks good, but then you just want to be rid of it before too long.
That was probably how a lot of fantasy drafters felt about Evan Engram in 2020. All of the ingredients were there – an athletic pass-catcher with a large target share in an emerging offense with a young quarterback. Engram turned out to be a short-yardage option who was plagued by drops and didn’t see many looks near the end zone. That’s no way to live.
How should we look at these mid-tier tight ends to end up with something that looks more appealing week-to-week than your average streamer? You can break it down into four categories.
- The Target Monsters
- The Air Yards Brigade
- The YAC’ers
- The End Zone Mavens
Each comes with their own level of risk and ideally, you’d like to find a player who combines two or more of the attributes. But let’s dive in, shall we?
Examples: Logan Thomas, T.J. Hockenson, Mike Gesicki
This is self-explanatory. Some of these players aren’t going to be big-play specialists. They’re volume shooters. In tight end parlance, that’s around five or more targets per game. They might offer mediocre catch rates and yardage totals. But catch enough check downs and you could end up with a decent number. Let’s ignore for the moment the point about some of these players being the reason for any kind of full-point PPR backlash.
These guys are on the field a lot and quarterbacks are looking in their direction. In a perfect world, a lot of these looks are coming because they are among the primary reads in a passing game. Those types of targets are sustainable. It’s why the Mark Andrews, Hunter Henrys, and T.J. Hockensons generate fantasy draft buzz. On the flip slide, 89 targets for Dalton Schultz in an aerial attack that leans on three talented wide receivers feels very hard to duplicate, regardless of Blake Jarwin’s 2021 status.
Of course, it’s fair to examine some of these numbers a little deeper. How much did our target monsters eat at someone else’s expense? Would Hockenson or Gesicki have seen the same target share if their respective teams had healthier wide receivers? What exactly is the offensive plan in Washington … and does it really involve Logan Thomas long-term?
None of those “what-ifs” will take away what happened in 2020, but if we’re looking for sustainability next year and beyond, it could be important to ask yourself some of those questions in advance of draft day.
Examples: Jared Cook, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Gesicki
Last week, I wrote that while air yards per target isn’t the most elegant way to forecast a player’s fantasy potential, it’s at least reason to be hopeful about a player’s ceiling. After all, it’s a lot more satisfying to take a few large bites rather than a lot of small nibbles.
Which, coincidentally, is my philosophy with eating pretzel sticks and smokehouse almonds.
The reason I describe this metric as inelegant is that it only means that an offense is targeting a player farther down the field. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the quarterback and pass-catcher are connecting. Anyone who started a Steelers receiver during Duck Hodges’ reign of terror understands what I’m talking about.
But targets are a big part of opportunity. And opportunity is the lifeblood of fantasy production. I would personally prefer that those opportunities come farther away from the line of scrimmage — especially if they aren’t coming that often.