Fantasy tight ends will make a resurgence in 2017

Ah, tight end. Perhaps the most frustrating week-to-week position in fantasy football. It seems like just yesterday we were arguing over whether or not Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were worth drafting as a first round fantasy picks.

Back in 2011, Gronkowski led all tight ends with 240.9 fantasy points, Kelce led the position with 100 fewer points this season. Forget about 2011, man. It was a Golden Age of tight end scoring which we may never see the likes of again. In fact, over the last 10 seasons, the top tight end in fantasy eclipsed the 200-point mark just twice: 2011 (Gronk), and 2013 (Jimmy Graham). That inflation of points at the position had fantasy owners clamoring for these top two options as high as the first round in redraft leagues, only to be let down.

But for no apparent reason other than the Fantasy Gods deciding to rain wrath upon us all, 2016 was a below-average season for tight ends in more than one way. Travis Kelce was the highest scoring tight end in fantasy football in 2016 with 138 points. He had a mere four touchdowns during the regular season but his 1,125 receiving yards (including six 100-yard games) paced the position. And according to NFL research master Careen Falcone, for the first time since Shannon Sharpe in 1998, no tight end eclipsed the 140 fantasy-point mark.

So what gives? We know the tight end position is a dumpster fire on a week-to-week basis, but how does a guy with fewer than five touchdowns end up leading the pack? Let's dive into some positional trends.

TD scoring goes hand-in-hand with FPPG

Since 2007, the average total fantasy points for the TE1 in standard scoring is 176.56. Kelce's 138 put him 38.56 below that 10-year average mainly due to his lack of touchdown scoring. Greg Olsen, Kyle Rudolph, Jimmy Graham and Delanie Walker rounded out the top 5, each scoring at least 123 points.

In terms of fantasy points per game, Rob Gronkowski led with nine, but he only played in eight games. In fact, three of the top five tight ends in FPPG missed significant time with injury. Gronk, Tyler Eifert and Jordan Reed were all top four in this category but missed a combined 20 games. So basically, when they were healthy, they were great. But missed time for these top tight ends is nothing new, and there's inherent risk in using an early draft pick on them.

Since 2007, the TE1 and TE2 have averaged 11.25 and 10.5 fantasy points per game. Kelce (TE1) and Olsen (TE2) averaged 8.6 and 8.0. For context of just how low-scoring the tight end position was in 2016: Gronkowski averaged 15.1 FPPG in 2011 or nearly double what Kelce averaged on a per-game basis last season.

The last time a No. 1 fantasy tight end didn't average double-digit fantasy points per game was in 2007 (Jason Witten averaged 9.7 FPPG that year as the TE1). The position has clearly changed to be more productive in terms of touchdown scoring since then, so the 8.6 mark of Kelce's this year is a definite outlier that we should see corrected next year.

Touchdowns and tight end fantasy scoring go hand-in-hand. In fact, only 11 tight ends scored at least five touchdowns in 2016. Meanwhile, Kelce and Olsen each scored fewer than five touchdowns marking the first time in 10 seasons that two Top-5 fantasy tight ends each collected fewer than five scores. Kelce's four receiving touchdowns was a -6.8 differential off the TE1 average of 10.8 since 2007. Receiving touchdowns among the Top 20 fantasy tight ends were collectively above average from 2011-2015 but fell back below the average in 2016.

Not surprisingly, over the last 10 seasons receiving touchdowns for tight ends directly correlate with average fantasy points per game:

This suggests that tight end fantasy scoring is mainly reliant on touchdowns, another red flag for 2016 as an outlier season. It also shows how guys like Cameron Brate (TE6) and Hunter Henry (TE11) who led the positon with eight touchdowns each, can come as bargains on draft day. Because at the end of the day, touchdowns are largely unpredictable.

Receiving yards remained steady

For four straight seasons now, the average receiving yards among top 20 tight ends has been above the 700-yard mark. Eight of the top 20 tight ends in 2016 had above average yardage. Henry's 478 receiving yards was the lowest among top-20 tight ends, but he paced the positon with eight touchdowns (T- Brate).

Top-scoring tight ends (TE1s) have averaged 1,111.9 receiving yards per season since 2007. There have been only two seasons (2009, 2012) in the last 10 years where the TE1 had fewer than 1,000 receiving yards. There's also a significant drop off of nearly 300 yards from average TE1 yardage compared to averaged TE5 yardage over the last 10 seasons. Still, if you owned Delanie Walker (TE5) this year, you weren't complaining. He had 800 yards and seven touchdowns, just about 15 fantasy points shy of Kelce's total; a reminder again just how important touchdowns are at the tight end position.

Targets are a better indicator of potential success than receptions

Save for the anomaly that was 2011, tight end targets have remained steadily in the low 90s-range since 2009. If you're able to identify a tight end who can get you anywhere from 95-110 targets in a season, chances are you've got a potential top-10 fantasy option on your hands. Unless you land a guy like Dennis Pitta. The TE16, Pitta absorbed 121 targets, the most among top 20 tight ends who finished outside the top 15 overall since 2009. Six tight ends saw 100-plus targets in 2016 and of those six, only Pitta scored fewer than 100 total fantasy points. Kyle Rudolph led all tight ends with 132 targets in 2016 and every TE1 dating back to 2009 saw at least 117 targets.

In terms of receptions, seven of the top 10 fantasy tight ends were also top 10 in receptions at the position. However, only three of the top 10 logged over 65 receptions. The average receptions among top 20 tight ends have actually held steady in the low 60s-range for the last three seasons. The average is up about seven yards from 2007. And once again, except for Kelce and Olsen who had, 1,000-plus receiving yards, it all comes down to touchdown scoring.

Looking to 2017

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the tight end outlook in fantasy for next season.

First off, we have a talented crop of young players at the position who have already made an impact. Rookies Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper delivered viable weeks for those who prefer streaming the position. Their respective roles should only grow as the develop in the NFL.

Guys like Cameron Brate and Kyle Rudolph (who finally managed to stay healthy for a full season) emerged as valuable adds and should remain in the top-10 conversation heading into next year. We'll have to keep an eye on Gronkowski, Reed and Eifert as they all dealt with injuries that kept their production limited this season.

And we have an incoming rookie class that includes Alabama star O.J. Howard who has already drawn comparisons to Jimmy Graham. Depending on his landing spot, Howard could make an immediate fantasy impact in 2017.

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