Predicting Second Year Tight End Production

Predicting Second Year Tight End Production

By TJ Hernandez (Associate Editor), last updated Aug 28, 2015

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TJ is a former full-time poker player who has been playing fantasy football for more than a decade. After online poker was outlawed, TJ ended his poker career and dedicated himself to fantasy football. His background in poker statistics and analytics translates to success in both daily and season-long fantasy football.

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Last week, I examined rookie tight ends to see how often they “hit”. The results were that, outside of Rob Gronkowski, rookie tight ends are virtually never usable for fantasy purposes. In this study I’ll analyze tight ends who have impressed in their sophomore season and discuss rookie stats that might be predictors for second year breakout candidates.

Second Year Tight End “Hits”

For this exercise, I went back 10 seasons and divided second year tight ends into the same tiers that I divided the rookies into, with the same baselines:

Elite (TE6 or better; 189+ PPR FP)
Starters (TE12 or better; 149+ PPR FP)
Streamers (TE18 or better, 125.5+ PPR FP)
Low-End Streamers (TE24 or better, 101.4+ PPR FP)

Since 2005, 41 second year tight ends have played in at least 10 games, and of those 41 tight ends, 27 finished the season as at least low-end streaming options. 22 second year tight ends that played 10+ games ended the season as streaming options, 12 as baseline starters and 5 posted elite tight end production. 

The “hit” rates for second year tight ends that played in at least 10 games are as follows:

Elite: 12.2%
Starter: 29.3%
Streamer: 53.7%
Low-End Streamer: 65.9%

A reasonable hypothesis here is that if a team is willing to stick with a young tight end after his rookie season, and keep him on the field, he is likely to offer at least some fantasy value, especially in deep leagues. If there is no predictive value from their rookie seasons other than that a player might play a lot, this information is nothing more than an answer to a trivia question.

Predicting Second Year Tight End Success

When dissecting the rookie seasons of successful second year tight ends, the most obvious stat at first glance is targets. Of the 27 second year tight ends that finished as at least a low-end streaming option since 2005, 14 saw at least two targets per game in their rookie season.* Only eight tight ends since 2004 were targeted at least twice per game in their first season and failed to finish their sophomore campaign as at least a low-end streamer, and two of those instances were due to injury (Dwayne Allen, 2013 and Tyler Eifert, 2014).

* Both Travis Kelce and Jake Ballard sat out their rookie seasons.

Although some volume in their first year seems to be a decent indicator of success for second year tight ends, the eye test is not enough. Going back to 2005, the rookie statistic that correlates the strongest with second year tight end fantasy points (PPR) is touchdowns, followed by fantasy points per target (FP/T).

Statistical Correlation to 2nd Year Tight End Fantasy Points, 2005-2014
  Correlation to 2nd Year Tight End Fantasy Points
Reception TD 0.58
Fantasy Points/Target 0.42
Fantasy Points 0.34
Yards/Target 0.29
Receiving Yards 0.21
Receptions 0.16
Targets 0.06
Yards/Reception 0.01
Catch Rate -0.08

Tight ends that have finished their second season in fantasy starter territory have averaged 4.3 touchdowns and 1.8 FP/T in their rookie seasons. Second year streaming options have posted an average of 2.5 touchdowns and 1.56 FP/T in their first year.

An interesting phenomenon has been occurring of late, though. The rookie stats that correlate strongest with second year tight end success seem to be trending towards efficiency metrics. From 2010-2014, FP/T tops the charts as the rookie stat that most strongly correlates with second year tight end fantasy points:

Statistical Correlation to 2nd Year Tight End Fantasy Points, 2010-2014
  Correlation to 2nd Year Tight End Fantasy Points
Fantasy Points/Target 0.88
Receiving TD 0.84
Yards/Target 0.77
Catch Rate 0.72
Fantasy Points 0.63
Receiving Yards 0.47
Receptions 0.31
Yards/Receptions 0.21
Targets 0.04

Here’s a look at how the correlation between rookie tight end FP/T and a rookie's catch rate has steadily increased in strength in relation to second year fantasy scoring (Yards/Target has also increased greatly in strength, but has moved little in relation to other stats):

While the sample size does get smaller as we move toward more recent trends, the movement towards efficiency metrics as an indicator of tight end success is so strong that it’s worth taking into consideration.

If you look at the individual seasons in this study, the obvious point to debunk this theory would be the ridiculously efficient 2010 rookie seasons by Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Aaron Hernandez, who all finished their first year with catch rates over 70% and over 2.2 FP/T. 

When we remove these three players from the research, however, the strength of correlation between second year fantasy points and rookie season FP/T and catch rate actually strengthens at a quicker pace, along with touchdowns scored.

Explained non-quantitatively, what these numbers are trying to tell us makes sense. We already know that targets correlate most with tight end fantasy scoring. Rookies that show the ability to catch the balls that are thrown their way and also have a knack for finding the end zone in their first year are going to see increased opportunities the following season. As metrics become a bigger part of sports, in general, teams may be slowly moving towards efficiency as a deciding factor in who sees the field. 

(One might argue that stats such as catch rate and touchdowns are functions of quarterback play, but this list of second year tight ends varied greatly in terms of quarterback quality.)

What This Means for 2015

Going back through the 2014 tight ends, four rookies approached the production and efficiency metrics that are outlined here as the best predictors of second year success.

2015 Second Year Tight End Breakout Candidates
Player Targets TD PPR FP FP/T Catch Rate
Jace Amaro 53 2 86.5 1.63 71.70%
Eric Ebron 47 1 55.8 1.19 53.20%
Austin Seferian-Jenkins 38 2 53.1 1.4 55.30%
Richard Rodgers 30 2 54.5 1.82 66.70%

While no rookie tight end showed much promise as a touchdown scorer, the two second year tight ends with the highest expectations, Eric Ebron and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, underwhelm in the efficiency metrics. 

Meanwhile, unheralded sophomore tight ends, Jace Amaro and Richard Rodgers stand out in both FP/T and catch rate. Amaro is one of just two rookie tight ends (Josh Reed) with a catch rate over 70% on at least 50 targets since the decorated tight end class of 2010. 

Though Richard Rodgers didn’t get quite the volume in his rookie season that we’d like to see out of a second year breakout candidate, he did post FP/T numbers above average for tight ends turned fantasy starter in their second year. With Jordy Nelson out for the season, Green Bay is without their top receiving touchdown threat, and with Andrew Quarless’ status unclear going into the season, the door could be open for Rodgers to take on a bigger role in the Packers’ offense.


Filed Under: Preseason, 2015

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