Using Advanced Stats to Identify 9 Breakout Tight Ends

Using Advanced Stats to Identify 9 Breakout Tight Ends

As fantasy football players, we’re always looking to get a leg up on our competition. The fantasy football landscape continues to evolve, and with that evolution comes new ways to approach roster construction. While there are tiers of elite players that 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 standing on a street corner in drag with an “I suck at fantasy football” sash draped around you. 

In this piece, I will take a look at a few statistical categories to project the breakout potential of tight ends for the 2016 season. According to research done by T.J.Hernandez on the most predictable year-to-year stats for the tight end position, per-game stats tend to have the highest correlation from year-to-year and can assist us in identifying players who could potentially see an increase in volume for the upcoming season. 

Similar to the wide receiver position, tight ends tend to maintain their target volume from one year to the next, and year-to-year fantasy points correlate stronger for their position than any other relevant statistic. Knowing this in conjunction with team specific circumstances, allows us to prognosticate which players are trending upwards towards a rise in production, translating to more points for your fantasy team. 


Targets Per Game Trending Up

One stat category that does work well to project a tight end’s potential is Targets per Game (TRG/G). When checking out the year-to-year correlations for tight ends on the same team in consecutive seasons, the category of TRG/G had the third largest absolute value with .64, meaning there is a high relationship between the two variables. 

An excellent example from last season is Washington tight end, Jordan Reed. In 2014, he was #11 in TRG/G with 5.9. The next year, he jumped up to the second overall tight end spot with 8.1 targets per game as he became more involved in Washington’s offensive scheme. Reed’s total PPR fantasy points went from 94.5 in 2014 to 244.2 in 2015, earning himself a seat at the breakout tight end table.

Here’s a look at some tight end candidates who are trending towards an increase in TRG/G in 2016 and could experience a breakout (or a return to the top) this season. 

Julius Thomas, Jaguars

In his first year in Jacksonville, Thomas missed the first four games of the season with a hand injury, but finished 2015 as the 16th tight end with 6.7 TRG/G. Heading into 2016, I expect that with another year of chemistry between Thomas and his quarterback, Blake Bortles, along with the young quarterback getting more comfortable in the NFL, we will see another jump in Thomas’ TRG/G, propelling him into the top 10 for fantasy tight ends. His current ADP is sitting somewhere between 9.06 and 10.4, which represents a nice value.  

Eric Ebron, Lions

As a rookie, Ebron finished the 2014 season as the 28th overall tight end averaging 3.8 TRG/G, a bit disappointing for the highly touted talent from North Carolina. In his sophomore season, he bumped up slightly to the 23rd spot with an increase to 5.0 TRG/G. Entering his third year in the NFL, Ebron is primed for a breakout, as he not only has had more time to gel with signal caller Matthew Stafford, but he will also be targeted more with star wideout Calvin Johnson’s decision to hang up his cleats. Ebron has been coming off the board with a 13th round ADP and could finish the season among the top 15 tight ends. 

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings

In Vikings’ quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s first season in the league, Rudolph played a limited role in the offense with only 3.8 TRG/G, 39th among tight ends in 2014. Minnesota’s offense struggled that season without the presence of Adrian Peterson along with a rookie under center. Last season, Rudolph’s TRG/G increased to 4.5 and his expanded role in the offense led to the 22nd overall tight end spot in terms of TRG/G. With an aging Adrian Peterson in the backfield, offensive coordinator Norv Turner needs to transition his offense more towards Bridgewater’s arm, creating more targets for his receiving corps, including Rudolph. He makes a nice breakout candidate with a very low price tag, as his ADP sits around 16.4. 


Promising Fantasy Points Per Game

The stat with the strongest correlation from year-to-year for tight ends was found to be PPR Fantasy Points per Game (PPR FP/G), with a .66 correlation. An absolute value of 1.0 signifies a perfect correlation so PPR FP/G indicates a moderate to high relationship between the variables. 

The following tight ends show a history of a solid PPR FP/G with the potential for an increased workload in 2016 season. 

Zachary Miller, Bears

Last year, the Bears offense utilized two tight ends, who split the targets and the points. Martellus Bennett, who fled to the Patriots in free agency, ended 2015 with 10.4 PPR FP/G while Zachary Miller’s PPR FP/G was 7.2 with 107.9 total fantasy points, enough for 22nd among tight ends. Miller was actually the fifth highest scoring tight end in points over the final nine weeks of the season even with an absence in Week 17. Now the lone tight end target, Miller should soar in PPR FP/G and could finish the 2016 season among the top 15 at his position.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Buccaneers

As a second-year tight end in 2015, Seferian-Jenkins finished as the 11th overall at his position with 11.3 PPR FP/G and 78.8 total fantasy points. His points total was low due to a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for nine games in the middle of the season, yet his average points per game placed him just outside of the top 10. Despite an off-field issue during OTA’s, Seferian-Jenkins is heading into a make it or break it season and his numbers show him trending upward towards a breakout. At an ADP of 13.04, he’s worth the gamble in 2016. 

Zach Ertz, Eagles

Although the Philadelphia Eagles are a hot mess, someone has to catch the ball this season and it could be Zach Ertz’s year to shine. In 2013, Ertz averaged 6.7 PPR FP/G as the 34th overall tight end that season. The next year, his PPR FP/G jumped to 9.0 and he ended 2014 in the 16th tight end spot. His PPR FP/G was elevated again in 2015 to 11.4 as the 10th tight end with a season fantasy total of 170.3 points. 

Heading into 2016, 4for4 rankings project Ertz to end in the seventh overall spot with a total of 184 points, and with an ADP of 8.05 he could be a nice value. 


Standout Fantasy Points Per Snap

Another interesting stat used to identify players with 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 2015 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

Even though I included Seferian-Jenkins above as one to watch this season, the guy behind him on the depth chart might just end up surprising folks in the fantasy world in 2016. Last season, when Seferian-Jenkins was out for nine games due to injury, Brate became the team’s leading receiver at his position and posted a very respectable .20 FP/snap, enough for the seventh highest among NFL tight ends. With Seferian-Jenkins highly-publicized feud with head coach Dirk Koetter during OTA’s, and subsequent twitter rant, Brate could potentially see a significant elevation in snap count if his training camp is a productive one. 

Vance McDonald, 49ers

Involved in 52% of the snaps last year for the struggling 49ers, McDonald’s FP/snap was a decent .17. He also had to share the targets with Vernon Davis for the first half of the season before the veteran tight end was traded to the Denver Broncos. We have entered the Chip Kelly era in San Francisco, and Kelly is a fan of utilizing tight ends due to mismatches they tend to create. McDonald is emerging as the number one tight end for the 49ers and could see a considerable hike in snap count due to his incredible talent and nightmare matchup for opposing linebackers. Although McDonald is getting some attention this summer, he still presents a solid value at his current 15th round ADP .

Jacob Tamme, Falcons

At 31-years-old, Tamme still has plenty left in the tank and could find himself in position for a stout year fantasy-wise. Last season, the tight end saw 72% of the Falcons’ snaps and posted a very respectable .18 FP/snap. Since it seems the pattern for quarterback Matt Ryan is every-other-year fantasy success, 2016 should be a productive one for Atlanta position players. With Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson no longer in the mix, Tamme could see an upswing in his snaps, and in turn his fantasy points. 

Tamme will have some company on the depth chart, as the Falcons drafted Stanford tight end Austin Hooper in the third round of this year’s draft, however rookie tight ends are rarely productive for fantasy purposes in their first season. 


Final Thoughts

When it comes to an edge in fantasy football, players are constantly searching to sort through all the noise and come out 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 hopefully walk into your draft feeling more confident. So go ahead and take that ridiculous bet that the league loser must get an awful tattoo, or have their face on a billboard next to “Fantasy Loser”, because thanks to advanced stats, chances are it won’t be you. 

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