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Who Are The 2020 League-Winning Tight Ends?

We’ll wrap up the “league-winning” series by looking at the tight end position. I followed the same process as with the other positions. By looking at some data from the ESPN “Most Common Players on Championship Teams” and comparing preseason ADPs vs. final rankings, I put together profiles of what these different players look like.

I reviewed the following sources from a three-year period (2017-2019):

• ESPN’s “Most Common Players on Fantasy Championship Rosters”

• FantasyPros Final Season Rankings PPR points/game

• Fantasy Football Calculator 12 team, PPR ADPs

Basic Profile

• Must finish in the top six - The first thing that jumps out is that we’re working with a much tighter group of final rankings. Whereas with wide receivers there were league-winning values found in the WR2 groups, or with quarterbacks that finished anywhere as a QB1, the league-winning tight ends finished within the top six in points/game.

• The top options are worth it – In 2017, the first two tight ends in ADP were identified as league-winners (Gronkowski and Kelce). In 2018, it was the second and third in ADP (Kelce and Ertz; the first in ADP was Gronkowsk who finished ninth in points/game. In 2019, it was the first two again (Kelce and Kittle).

• Players that are drafted outside the top 12 are most likely to give the biggest boost – From 2017-2019, there were eight players drafted outside the top 12 but finished in the top six. Four showed up on the league-winner list.

• Of the eight players above, three were in their second season (Kittle, Howard, Andrews), two were on new teams (Cook and Ebron in 2018), one was a rookie (Engram in 2017), one was a mix of all of these (Waller) and the other was Jack Doyle in a fairly weak year in 2017.

2020 Outlook

The last couple of years has seen an infusion of young talent into the tight end position. Kittle, Andrews and Waller have joined Kelce and Ertz in what appears to be a very solid top five. If so, that only leaves one available spot in the top six. And this doesn’t include Evan Engram and Hunter Henry who might already safely be in the top six if they can stay healthy. Engram has finishes of #4, #7 and #7 in his three seasons and Henry has been #8 in his two seasons.

The point threshold to finish in the top six has also changed. In 2017, the TE6 was 10.9 points/game. In 2018, it was 12.1. And in 2019 it increased to 13.9. So, for this year we’re going to assume it’s going to take at least 14 point/game to finish in the top six.

Option #1 – Draft Travis Kelce (current ADP: TE1, 2.08) or George Kittle (current ADP: TE2, 2.12)

I know this is the most boring conclusion I could come to in one of these articles, but the numbers don’t lie. Travis Kelce is the only player, at any position to finish in ESPN’s list each year. He’s finished #2, #1, and #1 in points/game over the last three years. Kittle has been on the list the last two years and has finished #3 and #2 the last two years. Drafting Kelce and Kittle is the equivalent of buying Amazon stock – it’s expensive, it’s not flashy, but there’s probably no safer way to invest your money.

Option #2 – Draft one of the sophomore studs

As noted above, three of the eight tight ends from the last three years to be drafted outside the top twelve but finished in the top six were second-year tight ends.

Each of the three basically saw their targets double from their rookie season while maintaining an impressive yard per catch (YPC).

2018 George Kittle: Went from 63 targets/12.0 YPC to 136 targets/15.6 YPC

2018 O.J. Howard: Went from 39 targets/16.6 YPC to 77 targets/16.6 YPC (16 game pace)

2019 Mark Andrews: Went from 50 targets/16.2 YPC to 98 targets/13.3 YPC

Noah Fant (TE12, ADP 10.12)

2019 stats: 65 targets/40 receptions/562 yards/14.1 YPC

Fant had an impressive rookie season when you consider he was in a bottom ten passing offense (#25 in attempts/game) that started a second-round rookie the last five games of the season. Fant had two 100+ receiving games (week 9 vs. Houston and week 13 vs. Houston) but otherwise just had two games where he topped 50 yards. Injuries suffered in weeks 14 and 15, along with the switch to Lock, led to Fant ending the season on a down note. However, it’s worth noting that Lock’s best game (week 14 vs. Houston) was directly tied to Fant’s last big game.

2020 Outlook: It’s hard to think the pass volume is going to increase under Pat Shurmur. In 2017 with Case Keenum at QB, the Vikings averaged about 34 attempts/game. Last year with Daniel Jones at QB, the Giants averaged 38 attempts/game. So, the 34 attempts/game for the Broncos last year looks fair. So Fant will have to increase his target share to have a chance at breaking out. Is that possible? The Broncos are suddenly loaded at wide receiver now after taking Jerry Jeudy in the first round and K.J. Hamler in the second (to go along with their alpha WR1 Courtland Sutton). But this is one of those situations where you might just have to bet on talent. Fant may be the most athletically gifted tight end in the league (his player profiler page is like analytics porn) and his rookie year production (#2 in YPC) proved that his athletic gifts translate to the field.

So, what would his 2020 season have to look like to be a top-six tight end?

Let’s make the following assumptions: 1) Denver will average 34 attempts/game, 2) He’ll increase his target share to match what Evan Engram (another athletic TE) did last year in NY, 3) He’ll lose a yard off his 2020 YPC (but would still be near the league-high):

544 team attempts with 22% target share = 120 targets

65% catch rate = 78 receptions

13.1 YPC = 1,022 yards

That would give him 180 points in a PPR league. With 6 TDs, that would put him at 216 points (13.5 points/game).

T.J. Hockenson (TE14, ADP 13.01)

2019 stats: 59 targets/32 receptions/367 yards/11.5 YPC

Hockenson started the 2019 season off with a bang vs. Arizona (6 receptions, 131 yards and TD). Unfortunately, that was the high point of the season as he only had two other games with 3+ targets. Along the way he dealt with injuries, including a concussion in week 4 and an ankle injury in week 13 that ended his season (and according to Hockenson, he’s still not 100% from).

2020 Outlook: Even if the ankle is 100%, Hockenson has still received strong reviews from training camp, ranging from “very good” to “dominating”. The Lions have the potential to be one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league with a healthy Matt Stafford. But Hockenson will have to deal with being the third option in the passing game behind WRs Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. One thing that could offset the lower volume could be red-zone usage, where, according to training camp reports, he’s been a favorite target of Stafford.

So, what would his 2020 season have to look like to be a top-six tight end?

Let’s make the following assumptions: 1) Detroit will average 38 attempts/game, 2) Hockenson will increase his target share from 14% to 18%, 3) Hockenson will maintain his 2020 YPC.

608 team attempts with 18% target share = 109 targets

65% catch rate = 71 receptions

11.5 YPC = 817 yards

That would give him 153 points in a PPR league. If we assume he’s a major factor in the red zone and give him 10 TDs, that would put him at 213 points (exactly 13.3 points/game). So, a little short of the 14 points/game target, but still in contention for that 6th spot.

And the “redshirt” sophomore tight end:

Chris Herndon (TE17; ADP 13.09)

2019 stats: 56 targets/39 receptions/502 yards/12.9 YPC

2020 Outlook: Herndon was a popular target last year after a promising rookie season. But a suspension to start the season and then an injury wiped everything out. Now he enters 2020 with a decimated Jets offense and is competing with Jamison Crowder to be the #1 option in the passing game.

So, what would his 2020 season have to look like to be a top-six tight end?

Let’s make the following assumptions: 20% target share, 70% catch rate, 11.9 YPC (one yard below his rookie season)

That would give him 115 targets/81 receptions/964 yards/6 TDs = 213.4 PPR points (13.34 pts/gm). Like the Hockenson projections, it’s a little short of the 14-point goal but puts him play for the top six.

Honorable mentions

Irv Smith (current ADP: undrafted)

2019 stats: 47 targets/36 receptions/311 yards/8.6 YPC

2020 Outlook: Smith had a promising rookie season in terms of targets. The departure of Diggs means that Smith has a shot at being the #2 option in the passing game. Unfortunately, the Vikings had one of the lowest passing-volume offenses in the league. Another issue is the YPC that even Jack Doyle would laugh at. But Smith has the athleticism (4.63 forty) and college production (16.1 YPC) to show that number can improve.

2020 Projections: 99 targets/69 receptions/621 yards/4 TDs = 155 PPR points (9.70 pts/gm) * This would still put him in contention to be a TE1

Dawson Knox (current ADP: undrafted)

2019 stats: 50 targets/28 receptions/388 yards/13.9 YPC

2020 Outlook: Like Smith, Knox had a promising rookie season in terms of targets and his YPC was very encouraging. Unfortunately, he had the highest drop rate at the position and an overall catch rate of only 56% (and according to Player Profile his “catchable target rate” was 90% so you can’t blame Josh Allen). The Bills have also added Stefon Diggs which only cuts into his potential target share.

2020 Projections: 83 targets/50 receptions/695 yards/4 TDs = 143.5 PPR points (9.0 pts/gm)

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