Tyler Higbee: The Next Star Tight End or Five Week Wonder?
Through the first 58 games of his NFL career, Tyler Higbee had a total of 884 receiving yards. Over the last five games of the 2020 season, he had 522 yards receiving yards. But that doesn’t quite do justice to what he did. For a five week stretch he was the target leader on an offense that averaged 43 passes a game. Forget TEs, that was WR1 usage (the 11 targets/game matched what Michael Thomas saw in 2020). Was this a true breakout or just a random five week stretch aided by some unsustainable factors?
Higbee currently has a ranking of TE8 in the Fantasy Pro ECR rankings and is in the second tier with Waller, Engram, and Henry. His best ranking is #3 and worst is #15.
The arguments against Higbee are fairly clear and logical:
• For the first three and half years of his career, he really didn’t do much. His career highs were 25 receptions and 295 yards in 2017 (with almost the exact numbers in 2018).
• He’s not considered a special athlete by any type of measurements nor did he have high draft capital invested in him (4th round). In fact, he’s not the most athletic TE on his own team (Gerald Everett is the 85th percentile SPARQ-x athlete with the 2nd round pedigree).
• He’s in a crowded offense with two solid WRs that have each commanded large target shares at different points and that prior to the 2019 season didn’t significantly feature their TEs.
Let’s attempt to dig into each argument a little further…
Higbee's Late breakout
There are several possible reasons why Higbee had such a lackluster start to his career. Only Sean McVay likely knows the truth. You can make a case that he was recovering from injury his rookie year and then had a coaching staff change in his second year, with an offense that featured the running game and 3-WR sets. Or it may be due to the fact that Higbee just isn’t that good and those numbers are the true story.
However, there’s one additional detail that's worth mentioning. Going into the 2019 season, despite only 672 career receiving yards, with a younger, (assumed) more athletic option on the roster, and not exactly flush with cap space, the team decided to give Higbee a contract extension that at the time made him one of the top 10 paid TEs. Making that type of deal and then actually seeing the player take a significant leap seems like a real coincidence, right? Maybe the Rams saw something before everyone else.
Let’s begin with the fourth round draft selection in 2016. That doesn’t exactly scream future TE1. But this is a case where context is certainly needed. Higbee was having an All-American type of season at Western Kentucky (563 yards and 8 TDs) when he hurt his knee in the ninth game and missed the rest of the season.
That same injury caused him to also miss the Senior Bowl, Combine, and Pro Day. And on top of that, he was arrested for assault for an incident outside of a bar 18 days before the draft. Either one of those things (injury or arrest) can cause a slide of two or more rounds. In other words, that fourth round draft selection can be seen as a positive reflection on his perceived talent, not a negative.
That injury also sheds light on his lackluster athletic numbers on PlayerProfiler.com. He has a 40 time of 4.80 but the site says that was from a hand-held time from an earlier date and adjusted +.05 to account for hand-held times usually being slower. Without those numbers we don’t have much to work with. His college dominator was decent (21%, 66th percentile) and YPR is promising (14.8, 75th percentile).
So without solid testing numbers and little production through three and half years, what are we left with to judge talent? Those five weeks to end the 2019 season. I encourage you to watch his 2019 highlights above. He’s working all areas of the field, left/right, short/intermediate/long, etc. The game tape doesn’t show a 4.80 forty guy.
According to Playerprofiler.com, here are some of his rankings for the 2019 season:
• Targets = #7
• Deep Targets = #11
• Target Share = #12 (you’ll see below how that spiked in the last five weeks)
• HOG Rate = #9
• Receptions = #6
• Receiving Yards = #7
• Completed Air Yards = #12
• Yards After Catch = #4 (a positive sign of his athleticism)
• Red Zone Receptions = #1 (they look to him in the red zone, not just between the 20s)
• Yards Per Pass Route = #4
• True Catch Rate = #3, no surprise considering he’s a converted WR (made the switch after his freshman year at Western Kentucky)
Remember these are rankings for the entire year. Basically the last five weeks put Higbee in the Top 7 TEs for 2019.
Summary: It’s always going to be a risk to bank on a player without the sustained success or athletic profile. But I believe Higbee showed enough in this five week sample that he has the talent to be a TE1. He appears to have great hands, the ability to pick up YAC, and was used heavily in the red zone.
Before I dug into the numbers, I had assumed that some combination of Cooper Kupp/Brandin Cooks/Gerald Everett was out the last five weeks of the 2019 season. That would certainly be a factor in considering Higbee’s numbers. But only Everett was out for three of those weeks.
In four of those five weeks, Higbee had or was tied for the largest target share (19-36%). The only week he didn’t was 12/1 @ Arizona when Robert Woods went for an insane 42%. Even then Higbee still had a 19% share. Both Kupp and Cooks played all five weeks. Kupp’s target share ranged from 9-22%. Cooks target share ranged from 7-16%. Everett came back for weeks 16 and 17 and had total of 1 target and 0 catches.
Similar to talent, you can argue about how representative these five weeks were compared to the rest of his career. What can’t be argued is that Higbee dominated with the full arsenal of weapons available for the Rams.
In my opinion, Higbee is locked into the TE1 role for the Rams. His contract and performance at the end of 2019 have basically sealed that. Using Gerald Everett as a reason to fade Higbee based on midseason splits is completely discounting what happened at the end of the season.
The bigger debate is where to rank Higbee among the Rams offensive weapons. Neither Woods or Kupp is considered an alpha WR1. Both are primarily seen as fantasy weapons mainly due to McVay’s system as opposed to being dominant athletes. Kupp has 4.62 forty speed with four out five workout categories under the 50th percentile. Woods has a 4.51 forty speed with four out of five categories under the 60th percentile. Is it really a stretch to say that Higbee could be a consistent fantasy producer in this offense?
Summary: There’s a wide range of outcomes here. The floor is he’s TE2 to Everett but I think that’s highly unlikely. More realistic outcomes range from being the third option in the passing game all the way up to being the first option (or 1B with Woods). That would put him in a target range of 10-20% (Higbee averaged a 26% share over the last five weeks).
This is a clear advantage for Higbee. The Rams offense is one of the most consistent situations in the NFL. While they had a significant drop in points scored (from 527, 2nd in the league in 2018 to 394, 11th in the league), they were still 7th in terms of total yards and 4th in passing yards. They also passed more in 2019, going from a 45/55 run/pass split to 39/61 in 2018. Whether that was due to a decline in the OL or Todd Gurley’s health, it doesn’t seem likely the running game will improve in 2020. They released Gurley and added Cam Akers in the second round but didn’t address the OL through free agency or the draft.
Summary: Barring an injury to Goff, it seems safe to assume 600 pass attempts for the Rams in 2019. There may even be room for significantly more. Over the last five weeks of 2019 the Rams averaged 43 passes/game which would put them on a 688 pace for the year. McVay may want to get back to running the ball more but that might not be possible without significant improvements from the OL.
Fun with Numbers
Ceiling: Assuming 600 total pass attempts, 20% target share, 77% catch rate and 12 YPC (what he did over the last five weeks of 2019) = 120 targets, 92 receptions, 1,104 yards, 5 TDs. This would be 232 PPR points which would’ve made him the #2 TE in 2019 (Kelce had 254 points)
Floor: Same as above but with a 10% target share = 60 targets, 46 receptions, 552 yards, 3 TDs. This would be 119 PPR points which would’ve been TE14 in 2019.