9 Undervalued Tight Ends in Fantasy Football
When it comes to fake football, players are constantly looking for an edge to propel them above their league mates, something different, that perhaps others haven’t thought of yet. The fantasy football landscape is constantly evolving, and with it comes new ways to approach roster construction. While there are a few tiers of solid players who are consistent from year-to-year, each season brings a new crop of breakout stars who potentially can have a direct effect on whether you are hoisting that league trophy, or stuck with a dirty toilet brush with the words “I suck at fantasy football” written in sharpie across it.
Editor's Note: Click here for 2018 TE break out players.
In this piece, I will take a look at a few statistical categories to project the breakout potential of tight ends for the 2017 season. According to research done by T.J.Hernandez on the most predictable year-to-year stats for the TE position, red zone numbers tend to fluctuate wildly from one year to the next. Studies have shown that only a very limited number of TEs are actually targeted significantly in the red zone, so as a whole their efficiency numbers are too erratic to include in this article.
The term breakout can have several meanings in the fantasy football universe, much like the real world. Most of the guys mentioned below have had varying successes in the NFL thus far and a few have even entered the conversation as a team’s TE1. For this article, I’m defining breakout as finishing the 2017 season higher than their ADP would suggest, or metaphorically breaking the TE tier ceiling.
Targets Per Game
One stat that does work well to project a TE’s potential is Targets per Game (TGTs/G). Looking at the year-to-year correlations for TEs on the same team in consecutive seasons, TGTs/G had the third largest absolute value with .53, meaning targets are very likely to carry over the following season. It's also been shown that targets correlate with fantasy points almost as strongly as any other stat for tight ends.
An excellent example from last season is Minnesota TE, Kyle Rudolph. In 2015, he was TE28 in TGTs/G with 4.5. The next year, he jumped up to the first overall TE spot with 8.3 targets per game as he became more involved in the Vikings offense. Rudolph’s total fantasy points in a PPR format went from 128.5 in 2015 to 209 last season, earning himself a seat at the breakout TE table.
Here’s a look at some TE candidates who are trending upward when it comes to TGTs/G in 2017, and could experience a breakout this season.
Jack Doyle, Colts
2016 was a mini-breakout year for Doyle, as he went from 14 total targets all season in 2015, to a respectable 4.7 TGTs/G, good enough for TE13 overall, with 145.4 PPR points. With Dwayne Allen in New England and out of his way, look for Doyle’s targets to increase, especially with Andrew Luck’s love for TEs in the red zone. His ADP is currently somewhere in the 11th round, so Doyle should present a decent value. (Note that Erik Swoope is generating some buzz and may cut into his targets, but Doyle should remain the starter with the majority of TE TGTs/G.)
Austin Hooper, Falcons
Entering his sophomore season in the NFL, Hooper is now the clear starting TE in Atlanta, as Jacob Tamme was released from the 2016 NFC Champions’ roster, following season-ending shoulder surgery. In 14 games played in 2016, Hooper’s role was limited to just 1.9 TGTs/G, to Tamme’s 3.9 TGTs/G in eight games. The Falcons invested a third-round pick in Hooper just last year, so will want to play with their shiny new toy as much as they can this season. In his limited role last year, Hooper showed flashes of brilliance in stretching the field, something that I expect Matt Ryan to look for, and count on in 2017.
With a dirt cheap price tag of the 12th round, Hooper makes an excellent investment this season and has the potential to put up TE1 numbers.
Julius Thomas, Dolphins
Injuries have sidelined Thomas for the past two seasons in Jacksonville, resulting in just 21 games played for the 29-year old TE. In 2016, he saw 5.7 TGTs/G, which translated to just 82 PPR points, the 32nd highest at the TE position. This season, he is reunited with former Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase in Miami, and if he can remain healthy, should see an uptick in TGTs/G. Due to his ceramic-like past, the Dolphins’ TE has a low ADP in the late 11th round or so, so could certainly be a value pick if he can go for 16 games in 2017.
Fantasy Points Per Game
The stat with the strongest correlation from year-to-year for TEs was found to be PPR Fantasy Points per Game (PPR FP/G), with a .61 on the scale from -1.0 to 1.0. An absolute value of 1.0 signifies a perfect correlation so PPR FP/G have a moderate to high relationship year over year.
The following TEs have shown promise in terms of PPR PF/G with the potential of increasing numbers for the 2017 season.
Hunter Henry, Chargers
As a rookie, Henry began to slowly creep into Antonio Gates’ field time last season, but finished the year with fewer snaps than the then 36-year-old TE. Heading into 2017, we expect Henry’s youth and athleticism to propel him past his TE22, 8.7 PPR FP/G from 2016, into the top-15, or possibly top-10 spot somewhere north of 10.5 PPR FP/G. That number could skyrocket if Gates is sidelined at any point, as Gates is a threat to take some touchdown points away from the sophomore TE.
Henry’s ADP is hovering around the mid-draft point, so if he does pan out as a TE1, selecting him in the ninth or tenth round could prove to be a smart move.
Eric Ebron, Lions
I feel like Ebron has made the breakout list for the past couple of seasons, and hasn’t quite hit his full potential yet. He did make a significant jump from 2015 to 2016, going from the TE20 with 9.3 PPR FP/G to TE12 in PPR FP/G with 11.1 at the end of last season. There is however, room for improvement in 2017, and the Lions made the proper off-season moves in an attempt to make it happen. With Anquan Boldin off the roster, there are upwards of 20 red zone targets now available, plus the addition of two block-first TEs in Darren Fells and Michael Roberts will allow Ebron to take on more of a receiving role.
The Detroit TE’s ADP is currently sitting in the eighth round, which could pan out nicely if he elevates to solid TE1 numbers in 2017.
Martellus Bennett, Packers
Last year in New England, Bennett finished with the fifteenth highest PPR FP/G at 10.5. He was a bit banged up with shoulder, ankle and knee injuries for a large portion of the season, but did an excellent job filling in for Gronk when needed. In 2017, he’s now in a Green Bay uniform, brought in to replace Jared Cook, who when on the field late in the season was heavily involved in the Packers offense. Bennett offers a high TD ceiling this season, as the Aaron Rodgers-led offense has averaged 36.3 passing TDs over the past three seasons. The 30-year-old TE could easily break into the top-10 this season if he can stay healthy and on the same page with Rodgers.
Fantasy Points Per Snap
Another interesting stat used to identify players with the potential to breakout is fantasy points per snap (FP/snap). Using 4for4’s Player Snap App, the filters were set for tight ends who played between 30% and 80% of their respective team’s snaps for the 2016 season. I also sorted the list by PPR scoring since the majority of today’s leagues are headed that way. The following tight ends showed a sound correlation in PPR points scored when they were on the field.
Cameron Brate, Buccaneers
Yes, there is hype surrounding rookie TE O.J. Howard in Tampa Bay, but Brate is still the man and should continue to own the Bucs’ TE1 job, unless he’s seriously injured this season. He was tapped as the starter in Week 3 of the 2016 season, and finished the year with a 66% snap percentage, and the seventh highest FP/Snap, with .24. As long as the 6’5” TE is on the field, he should put up TE1 numbers again this season, similar to the 114 PPR points he ended with last year. While your opponents are ignoring the pattern of struggle for rookie TEs and drafting Howard in the 11th, stay patient and wait for Brate in the 13th round.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jets
Formally in competition with Brate for the TE job in Tampa, ASJ is now a member of the NY Jets and is supposedly sober, leaner and killing it at the team’s OTAs. His FP/Snap in 2016 was .18, good enough for the 12th highest among league TEs. With relatively no competition at the position -- or if we’re being honest in the Jets receiving corps as a whole -- ASJ’s snap percentage should increase significantly from the 33% he saw last season. We also can’t overlook quarterback Josh McCown’s affinity for TEs, as he and Gary Barnidge flourished together in Cleveland.
Currently, the Jets TE is virtually undrafted, so his price tag is ridiculously low. He’s certainly worth a late-round gamble, or one you should keep in mind for streaming purposes.
CJ Fiedorowicz, Texans
Last season, Fiedorowicz was a streamer’s delight, quietly ending as TE17 with 133.9 PPR points in 15 games played. He saw 65% of Houston’s snaps, with an FP/Snap of .20. The 25-year old TE emerged as a legitimate possession target for the Texans’ offense and should only see increased usage in the 2017 season. Look for him to crack the top-15, and finish as a TE1 for fantasy owners.
Fiedorowicz’s ADP seems to be holding around the 14th round, making him a steal in both MFL contests and redraft leagues.
Players are eternally seeking the upper hand in fantasy football, constantly sorting through all the noise to emerge with an advantage over their opponents. By using and identifying which advanced stats have the highest correlation from year-to-year, along with which players fit the criteria to repeat them, you can walk into that live draft, or belly up to your computer feeling confident and ready to draft the best squad possible.
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- OJ Howard, Evan Engram and the Rookie Tight End Depth of 2017