2014 Tight End Draft Strategy: Opportunity Cost, Tiers, Upside and Streaming
Draft season is officially upon us, and the weeks leading up to kickoff will be dominated by talk of when to draft players and how to find value in your fantasy drafts. As 4for4’s 2014 weekly TE By Waiver Wire (TEBWW, a new feature this year) columnist, I will present my philosophy on how to value tight ends in your draft and discuss why tight end streaming isn’t necessarily our primary objective on draft day.
Opportunity Cost and Supply & Demand
Fantasy football drafts have as much to do with the players that you don’t choose as the players you do. This is called opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is defined as: “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.”
When it comes to drafting a tight end, especially early in drafts, we are forgoing the opportunity to roster an elite wide receiver or running back, positions where we must start multiple players, in favor of of an elite player at a position where you only need to start one player.
In a vacuum, forgoing this opportunity may be well worth it, because, as the league currently stands, the top tight ends are far superior to their counterparts. When we consider the draft in its entirety, the cost may not be worth the reward.
Because most leagues start 2 RBs and 2-3 WRs, the demand on these positions is very high, requiring a league to start anywhere between 24 to 40 players at either position, when we consider the flex. The issue is that the supply of RBs, and to a lesser degree WRs, rarely meets the demand of the starting requirements.
Conversely, the demand for tight ends in standard leagues is relatively low and there is usually a surplus of supply. In fantasy football terms, it’s not hard to find a TE1 in standard leagues, even after the draft. The same can’t be said for backs and receivers. That said, TEs like Graham and Gronks don't grow on trees.
Valuing the Tiers
As has been the case since Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski entered the league, tight end is extremely top heavy this year. When I consider the draftable tight ends in 2014, there are essentially three tiers: the elite*, the probable TE1s, and the high upside plays. You can check out the tiers yourself by looking at our TE Rankings. Tiers are created organically through spread in projected fantasy points.
* A note on the elite tier: Many analysts have included Julius Thomas in the same breath as Graham and Gronk this year. I’m not quite as high on Thomas. On a historic 2013 offense, Thomas still finished almost 70 standard fantasy points behind Jimmy Graham. Denver’s entire offense is due for regression in 2014, and with so much talent on the Broncos, Thomas will never be the focal point of the passing game like Graham and Gronk are.
Whether or not you roster one of the top two tight ends is a matter of draft slot and your overall philosophy on roster construction. Unless I’m drafting near the turn in a 12 team league, I would not consider a TE in the first round, and even then, I might pass. The only exception would be if I’m in an expert PPR league with a RB/WR/TE flex and am convinced that a contrarian TE-TE start is the best road to a fantasy championship. In most home leagues, against lesser competition, going this much against the grain is probably unnecessary. After the first round, though, both Graham and Gronk are tremendous values, and in some drafts, Gronk can be had as late as the early 3rd round.
As I mentioned in my note on the elite ranks, Julius Thomas should probably be categorized by himself. He is the clear third option at tight end this year, but, depending on league make up, Thomas doesn’t become a value to me until the mid-late 3rd round.
After the top tier of tight ends, the rest of the top 12 is more or less interchangeable this year, in that none of them are worth investing an early-mid round pick on. In a 12-team league, my general goal is going to be to take the 12th tight end off the board, if draft flow permits.
Should there be an early run on tight ends and the top 12 are gone by round 8 or 9, I’ll happily wait until the double digit rounds and draft one of my high upside targets. At the same time, if a player like Jordan Cameron falls significantly, I’d consider taking him.
Beyond the top 12 tight ends, I want to target high upside plays, and typically wait until round 11 or later. If we find ourself targeting a late round tight end, it means that the probable TE1 tier was drafted too early for our liking. Since other owners showed confidence in the top tight ends, they should be in no rush to draft a backup, and we should be able to wait as long as we want to use a draft pick on a tight end.
When searching for high upside tight end options late in drafts, I’m looking for youth (not a rookie) and an opportunity to become the main red zone target in their offense. Limited prior success is a bonus (fantasy points per target is a great indicator). Because catch volume is usually going to be relatively low at the position, finding a tight end that has a real chance to be an elite scoring threat is paramount.
Potential scoring threats are going to be tight ends in offenses that move the ball relatively well, but rely on a small wide receiver(s) as their primary target(s), don’t have a dominating goal line back, or both. Another indicator of a possible elite scoring tight end, is someone that may take over for an incumbent that has historically been a primary scoring threat (the most glaring example this year is if/when Ladarius Green supplants Antonio Gates).
I already mentioned Ladarius Green, who could emrge as the Chargers' number two target behind Keenan Allen at some point this season. A few of my other favorite high upside tight end targets are Dwayne Allen, Marcedes Lewis, and Tyler Eifert. Both Allen and Lewis showed up in C.D. Carter's Strength of Schedule Beneficiaries study, and John Paulsen has pegged Lewis as a late sleeper.
Allen has already shown promise, posting an impressive 1.75 PPR fantasy points per target on 66 targets in his 2012 rookie year. The Colts don't have a consistent running back and TY Hilton and Reggie Wayne lack the size to be dominant in the red zone.
The Jaguars have improved their offensive skill positions in the off season, but their projected starting wide receivers are made up of two rookies, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, and Cecil Shorts. Only Robinson is over 6'0", and rookie wide receivers rarely offer consistent production. If the Jaguars can move the ball relatively well in 2014, Lewis might finally be able to benefit from his 6'6" frame and maybe even approach the 10 scores he had in 2010.
Tyler Eifert was drafted in the first round by the Bengals in 2013, but failed to outproduce Jermaine Gresham last season. Both Cincinnatti tight ends finished as top 30 fantasy scorers last year, combining for 85 catches, 906 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Marvin Jones recently suffered a broken foot, so if the Bengals rely on more two TE sets, or Eifert plain beats out Gresham for the starting gig and absorbs most of the tight end work, the second year tight end could be a late round steal.
Although I generally don't advocate drafting rookie tight ends, owners with deeper rosters may want to take a chance on Lions' rookie Eric Ebron. Detroit invested a top 10 pick on Ebron, who is a classic "move" tight end. Ebron will have to battle Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria for snaps, but the rookie is clearly the best receiver of the three and will benefit from playing in a high powered, pass first offense, should he emerge as the clear starter.
While targeting upside late in drafts might seem like the obvious tactic, year after year, fantasy owners draft a late round tight end that will consistently provide TE2 production with no TE1 upside, out of fear of getting no production from their investment. At this point in the draft, that low floor is accounted for in the price.
Tight End By Committee
You might have seen John Paulsen’s QBBC Matrix and immediately thought about drafting a tight end committee if you have to wait on the position. There are a couple reasons why this might not be necessary or even a viable option.
In a standard 12 team, 16 round draft, most owners aren’t going to draft two tight ends. The owners that do are probably drafting their second one as insurance, rather than accurately identifying the high upside plays that we want. Since viable tight end options will be readily available on the waiver wire, we can use the pick that we would use on a second tight end on positions that are in higher demand, namely running backs or wide receivers.
Unlike quarterbacks, tight ends have low predictability from week to week. This means it would be very difficult to find two mediocre tight ends in the draft and confidently alternate them throughout the season based on a strength of schedule matrix. Again, plenty of tight ends should be available weekly, so it makes sense to use just one roster spot on the position, rather than marry ourselves to two players, like we might have to do in a QBBC situation.
In leagues with deeper rosters, where there is room to roster two tight ends, the late round committee approach is still suboptimal. To maximize return in deeper leagues, the optimal late round tight end strategy is going to be drafting two upside plays and increasing your chance of hitting on a high end TE1, rather than opting for one or two tight ends with higher floors but very low ceilings.
Streaming As A Last Resort
The bottom line when it comes to drafting tight ends is that, just like with all other positions, we are looking to maximize value and recognizing that, at some point in the draft, any player or tier can become a good value. Our goal is to identify when tight ends become a good value and have a chance to exceed their draft price. Some owners believe in early round tight ends, while others will wait as long as possible. Whatever your philosophy is, we want to give ourselves a chance to fill our roster with dominant players at every position.
If our tight end pick doesn’t pan out for some reason, streaming the position is a backup plan that, when executed properly, can lock in TE1 production over the course of the season. Don’t go into your draft looking to stream; go in looking to dominate. When things don't work out, and you’re left searching the waiver wire to fill your TE spot, we’ll be here to point the way.
For owners that might miss out on their upside targets and find themselfves in an early season streaming situation, 4for4 has already released the 2014 SOS Hot Spots. The official Week 1 streaming article will go into more detail, but a quick glance suggests that Scott Chandler (BUF), Jared Cook (STL), and Travis Kelce (KC) could be tight ends to target late on draft day if you'll be streaming right away.