Fantasy Football

NFL fantasy football: Anatomy of an elite fantasy football tight end

The fantasy tight end position has been a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma stuffed into a mystery. But maybe it doesn't have to be. Let's try to make sense of it together. Click here for Part 1 of this series.

When I sat down to write this week's edition of "Tight Ends: Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Cut 'Em", my music streaming service of choice randomly landed on the William Onyeabor classic, "Fantastic Man". It felt like a fitting choice for an entry that centered on the elites at the position. Or it could just be me trying to fit this into a pleasant narrative that makes for a good opening to a fantasy football column.

(Do things happen for a reason or do we assign meaning to events to create order where there is none? Find out next time on Dragon Ball Z!)

A friend of mine once coined the phrase "If you don't get (Antonio) Gates, then wait." It was the draft credo he lived by and it served him well for a long time. The sentiment has remained, even if the names have changed and the rhyme scheme has been ruined. If you're going to spend an early draft pick on a tight end, you need to make sure that he is truly an elite player.

How much of an advantage is it to have one of the top tight ends in fantasy? A quick look back on the difference between the TE1 and the TE12 over the past five seasons shows a wide moat between the positional royalty and the peasants.

(Based on PPR scoring from Weeks 1-16)

2020: 172.3

2019: 126.3

2018: 157.9

2017: 106.6

2016: 84.8

That's an average of 129.58 points over that span. In that same time, the only position with a greater disparity was running back (189.96). While we will debate the merits of Zero RB until the day Dr. Dre finally drops Detox -- and probably for years thereafter -- it's also well-established that the first handful of players off the board will be running backs. Add to it that in most leagues, you can start anywhere from two to four running backs and, well … how much they matter is moot.

Meanwhile, only the most intrepid among us has considered taking a top tight end in the first round. The reaction to such a move hasn't been outright mockery but there have been some side-eyes involved. Yet we've reached a point where we're now not only openly discussing taking a tight end in the first round but how early.

Which brings us to fantasy football's Fantastic Man, Travis Kelce. The Chiefs star was the gold standard at the position for the fifth consecutive year. For as much of a stud as Kelce's been, 2020 was the year that he cemented his dominance with authority. Through Week 16, the difference between Kelce and T.J. Hockenson (TE3) was 143 points. For context, 143 points would have ranked 10th at the position, just ahead of Eric Ebron. The gap between TE1 and TE3 was only slightly smaller than the gap between TE3 and TE65.

It was partially a case of Kelce having a career season, setting new highs in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. But it was also a case of his peers not being able to keep up with Kelce's stat inflation. Kelce and Darren Waller were the only players to score more than 170 fantasy points (through 16 weeks) -- the fewest since 2017 when just four players hit that plateau.

That number likely would have been three if George Kittle had been able to stay healthy. But if "if" was a fifth, well…

The point remains that set-it-and-forget-it tight ends are only slightly more common than public pay phones and that the investment in draft capital is much more worthwhile than using it on a fringe RB1 the likes of which might still be available a round or two later.

What makes an elite fantasy tight end? What are the things that help separate the guys at the top of the list from everyone else? Let's start with the obvious -- they're on the field. A lot.

Of the top 12 tight ends in 2020, all were on-field for 60 percent or more of their team's snaps. Seven of the 12 participated in 70 percent or more of the offensive snaps. Sometimes it's just as simple as understanding that you need to be on the field to produce.

That threshold gets higher when you move up the food chain. Over the past three seasons, six different players have finished in the top three at the position (Kelce, Waller, Kittle, Zach Ertz, Hockenson, and Mark Andrews). Except for Andrews in 2019, none of those players played fewer than 74 percent of the snaps.

(Side note: In retrospect, Andrews' 2019 season is a marvel. He played just 41 percent of the snaps in Baltimore's run-heavy offense yet somehow led the team in targets, receptions, and yards while hauling in 10 touchdowns. Of course, touchdowns are fickle beasts and, with the rise of Marquise Brown, Andrews' 2020 regression seemed inevitable. If Brown continues to progress and/or the Ravens add more receiver help, it's fair to wonder if Andrews has already hit his high-water mark.)

Being on the field is nice but unless your guy is getting the ball, he's just out there getting his steps in. To that end, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the top-flight tight ends are targeted on a level akin to top-flight wide receivers. Of the six unique players who finished among the top three tight ends dating back to 2018, only Hockenson had a target share of less than 22 percent. Then again, Hock's 169.8 points would have landed him no better than sixth over the previous eight campaigns, which makes him a complete outlier.

Alright, we've found players who are frequently on the field and being targeted. That's cool. But few things are more frustrating for fantasy managers than watching your player catch the ball while the digital line of scrimmage marker is still on the screen. Unless those targets are coming near the end zone, picking up yards a couple at a time is a tough way to live. Since most tight ends don't have the short area elusiveness of your average slot receiver, it's a lot harder to find the positional equivalent of Jarvis Landry or Julian Edelman.

Air yards might not be the most elegant measure of a player's pass-catching production, but it can be a good marker for a player's potential weekly ceiling. After all, it's a lot nicer to pick up yardage in chunks, rather than dinks and dunks. In that case, 7.2 is your magic number. Looking back at our six top tight ends from the past three seasons, all of them have had an air yards per target number of 7.2 or higher. It's there that you can separate your actual passing game threats from your typical emergency outlet.

Through it all, Kelce, Kittle, and Waller continue to be our tight end overlords. And I, for one, welcome them -- especially in the first three rounds of any drafts. But what about that next tier of tight ends? Who among them is worthy of reaching for in drafts and who should be left on the board to be someone else's headache? Find out next time on Dragon Ball…wait, I already did that. Uh, just come back next week. Thanks.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy analyst for NFL.com and a man who has had Fantastic Man on repeat for nearly an hour. Send him any songs currently stuck in your head or fantasy football questions on TwitterorInstagram.

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