When to Draft a Tight End in Your Fantasy Football League
Other than kickers and defenses -- which some modern leagues have even begun to do away with -- the tight end position is the red-headed stepchild of the fantasy world. Most drafters don’t spend much time evaluating their options and will usually either reach for one of the top guys or settle for a passable option somewhere throughout the course of their draft. I’m here to arm you with a few different strategies to maximize your points at the tight end position and get the most bang for your buck on draft day.
The Opportunity Cost of Drafting a Tight End Early
When constructing your fantasy football rosters, the players that you choose to pass over should have as much of an impact on your decision as those that you eventually select. This theory is referred to as opportunity cost, and should be taken into consideration when deciding when to grab a tight end, especially in the early rounds of your draft.
In a standard 12-team league, starting rosters consist of 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, one flex (usually comprised of a running back, wide receiver or tight end), and one actual tight end. Because you must start multiple other positional players versus just the one tight end, the demand for these players is much higher. An average league has to roster anywhere from 24-48 players depending on league rules for the flex position. This creates a deficiency in the supply for running backs, and to a lesser extent, wide receivers, that does not meet the league’s demand. This, in turn, results in somewhat of a surplus on tight ends. Since there is at least one starter on every NFL team, tight ends will always be available post draft and into the season.
If you are sitting at the lower end of the draft order, say, picks 10-12, and are debating whether to grab the top tight end off the board, it may help your decision-making process to glance back at some previous drafts to determine whether the production from that tight end was worth his draft spot over a similar positional player. It wasn’t that long ago when tight ends were not even remotely considered draftable until around the third or fourth round.
In 2014 we saw Jimmy Graham, then with the New Orleans Saints, crack the first round with his average draft position (ADP), at 1.08. He finished that season with 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. Players who were available around him included Dez Bryant (1,320 yards, 16 touchdowns), and DeMarco Murray, (1,845 yards, 13 touchdowns). It would have proven more beneficial in that case to have gone with the wideout or running back and waited until later rounds for your tight end, as Rob Gronkowski who had an ADP of 3.06 ended the season with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. You could have gotten even more value by drafting Greg Olsen or Martellus Bennett, who finished the season with more points and were drafted in the eighth and eleventh rounds, respectively.
In 2015, Gronk was a clear first round draft pick across the board and folks who drafted him got 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns. Wide receivers that were selected around him included Odell Beckham Jr., (1,450 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Calvin Johnson (1,214 yards, nine touchdowns. Conversely, two running backs with similar ADPs that year were C.J. Anderson (720 yards, five touchdowns) and Matt Forte (898 yards, four touchdowns). In this instance, you were better off grabbing Gronk or one of the wideouts than going with a running back in the tail end of the draft order in 2015. That season saw much better production from tight ends in later rounds such as Delanie Walker (1,088 yards, six touchdowns) in the ninth round or even Jordan Reed in the 15th (952 yards, 11 touchdowns).
Opportunity cost varies from year to year and you won't always be able to find a top-five gem in the late round (hindsight is 20/20, of course), but you must consider what you're leaving on the table at other positions by drafting a tight end early.
Targeting a Late-Round Tight End with Upside
This approach is for those who feel that the top tier of tight ends was drafted too early, and are looking for guys who could get the same production at a much lower draft position. If your fellow league mates selected their tight end in the first few rounds, they will less likely be looking to draft another in those middle to late rounds, leaving great value on the board.
Upside can be found via several different avenues, the first of which is a tight end that is projected a high volume of red zone targets for his team’s offense. In 2015, Gary Barnidge provided an excellent example as he was widely undrafted and targeted in the red zone 24 times, while his receiver teammates Travis Benjamin and Brian Hartline combined for 28 red zone receiving attempts. That same season, Benjamin Watson had a 16th round ADP and was thrown to 19 times in the red zone with a 63.16 catch rate. New Orleans’ two highest targeted wideouts, Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks, had 19 red zone targets between the two of them while the Saints other tight end, Josh Hill, had the second highest amount of red zone targets with 11. I believe the lesson here is that Drew Brees loves a tight end touchdown (and so do we as fantasy owners).
According to research done by 4for4’s own TJ Hernandez in his historical year-to-year predictability piece, in PPR scoring, fantasy points seems to correlate stronger for the tight end from one year to the next than the other position players. This helps us track upside for lower ranked tight ends based on previous year’s performances and pluck out guys that we think will be a solid value at their ADP.
Antonio Gates is someone who we keep anticipating a downslide from, however, year after year, he continues to produce above expectations. In 2015, Gates was the 13th tight end taken off the board, drafted with a 13th-round ADP. Even with an injury that sidelined him for five games, he ended the season with 149 PPR points, ahead of players taken before him such as Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, and Kyle Rudolph. A year prior in 2014, Gates was drafted in the 14th round and finished the season with 154 points and was the second tight end overall after Gronk.
Another way to determine which late-round picks could potentially offer TE1 value is to target players on teams with the most efficient offenses. If that team historically moves the sticks with high frequency, there’s a greater chance for that tight end to rack up receiving yards and potentially be targeted in the end zone more often. Going back to 2010, the teams that cracked the top five in offensive efficiency the most were Seattle, New Orleans, Green Bay and Pittsburgh.
If on draft day you find yourself panicking because you missed out on the higher rated tight ends and feel that you’re doomed for TE2 production, just think about these trends and feel confident grabbing a late-round player who’s oozing with upside.
Drafting with the Aim of Using a Tight End By Committee
Running a specific position by committee is a recent trend in the NFL, but really shouldn’t be used in terms of fantasy football unless you are competing in a very deep league. For a standard 12-team league with 16 rounds, most people only draft one tight end with the intention of grabbing a guy off the waiver wire for their player’s bye week or for insurance purposes. Since only 12 or so tight ends get drafted, there will certainly be players available down the road who offer plenty of upside so it behooves you to select an extra wide receiver or running back on draft day instead of a second tight end.
In leagues with deeper benches, a committee is risky but could work if you aim for two tight ends with enough upside to potentially reach TE1 status. If you do decide to go the committee route, I would suggest utilizing our Team Hot Spots tool to evaluate the best players to roll the dice with. It will show you -- via a color-coded system -- the weeks throughout the season where defenses allow the most points to the tight end position so that you can plan your committee accordingly.
Streaming Tight Ends as a Last Resort
Some people feel that if they decide not to draft an elite tight end towards the top of the draft, then they should just grab anyone along the way and play the waiver wire each week, otherwise known as streaming. Whether you believe in drafting tight ends early, late, or in the middle, our end goal is to always get the most value out of each player at every position.
I wouldn’t suggest going into a draft with the strategy of streaming, but if your tight end selection doesn’t pan out due to injury or some other unforeseen variable, you should be armed with the knowledge of the best way to go about it.
An excellent resource to start with is our Schedule-Adjusted Fantasy Points Allowed metric, or aFPA. Sortable by position, this tool allows you to go in and see the amount of fantasy points allowed to tight ends by each NFL team, making the choice between two players for streaming purposes easier from week to week. The results are adjusted for strength of schedule so that each team is compared on an even playing field. When going over the aFPA along with the NFL schedule, players I would go after in the draft for early streaming purposes are Clive Walford, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Delanie Walker also has a very favorable start to the season, however, he is projected to be off the board in the fifth or sixth round, so he isn’t really in consideration for streaming.
The Raiders open the 2016 season against the Saints followed by the Falcons and Titans in Week 3. The Saints rank dead last in the league for schedule adjusted fantasy points allowed aFPA, while the Falcons are sitting at 25th, and the Titans at 30th, which bodes well for Walford. Fleener also gets soft matchups, going against the Raiders (28th) in Week 1 and the Giants (31st) in Week 2. Allen faces the Lions (29th) and Broncos (16th) the first two weeks of the season.
Utilizing a Tiered System to Rank and Draft Tight Ends
A tiered system might not go over well in some social and economic situations, however in fantasy football, especially at the tight end position, approaching the draft knowing which players fall into what tier is extremely valuable. As has been true in the recent past, the tight end rankings include one player in the top or elite tier, followed by a few more whose ADP should fall within rounds four through six, and then the remainder of the pack.
The decision to roster this season’s one elite tight end, Rob Gronkowski, really depends on your specific draft slot and your approach to roster construction. If your draft location sits within the first three quarters of the pack in a 12-team league, it doesn’t really make sense to draft Gronk, as you will get more value from a top wide receiver or even an elite running back. For example, according to John Paulsen’s rankings, there are 18 wide receivers and five running backs projected to score more fantasy points this season than Gronk. As we all know, these are just prognostications and it will be up to you to decide if you want to roster a tight end as your first pick, foregoing a top wideout or running back. If for some reason Gronk does slip to the middle of the second round and there will be similar value at running back and wide receiver when your turn comes up again in the third, Gronk becomes a better value.
When it comes to the second tier of tight ends, there are three to four players who are worth drafting from the fourth round through the sixth or seventh. This tier is comprised of Jordan Reed, Delanie Walker, Greg Olsen and Travis Kelce. Whether you jump in and grab one of these or wait until later in the draft really depends on what strategy of the ones I have gone over so far appeals to you this season.
After the second tier, the rest of the top 12 tight ends are interchangeable in 2016, meaning none of them are worth going after until later in the draft. I have no problem waiting until rounds nine or 10 and drafting Ladarius Green, Antonio Gates or even Dwayne Allen. Some guys who should see a bump from last season who will be available in double-digit rounds are Charles Clay and Eric Ebron. Clay should be more involved in the Bills offense in 2016 and with Sammy Watkins always an injury risk, he could swoop in and rack up the fantasy points. In Ebron’s case, with Calvin Johnson hanging up his cleats after 2015, there should be more targets in Detroit to go around. Plus, Ebron has one more year of chemistry with quarterback Matthew Stafford under his belt.
The Bottom Line
However you decide to approach the tight end position this season, be sure to be as prepared as you can be, because fantasy football is all about total points. The championship trophy doesn’t care which position those points actually come from. And remember, tight ends need love, too.