27 Sep Fantasy Contrarian 2nd Edition of “I CantQuit You Babe” – Tight Ends
Tight Ends are like the White Whale of dynasty football. There are so few TE difference makers that drafting the “next” Gronk is the holy grail of fantasy championships. The problem is that they just do not come along very often and when they do, they are as elusive as Moby Dick. Lets face it, TE is probably the most physically AND mentally demanding position in the NFL and is very scheme dependent. Some NFL teams use TEs as a space creating mismatch. Others want their TEs to play a more traditional blocking role with the ability to make plays down the field when called upon. The trend in the NFL is toward the former for passing catching TEs but the position is complex and it takes time to develop. So we chase and we chase and we chase. In the past few years there have been highly touted TEs to come out of the college ranks: 2015 – Maxx Williams, Clive Walford, Jeff Heuerman and Blake Bell, 2016 Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper, Nick Vannett and Tyler Higbee, 2014 – Eric Ebron, Austin Sefarian Jenkins, Jace Amaro, Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz, Richard Rodgers and Crockett Gilmore 2013 – Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed. 2012 – Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Michael Egnew and Ladarius Green, 2011 – Kyle Rudolph, Lance Kendricks, Rob Housler.
2013 was a bumper crop of stud TEs and the last time dynasty owners were able to find truly productive TEs to join Rob Gronkowski at the top of the TE tiers and stands alone in the last 7 years as a class of TEs that produce valuable fantasy players. Kyle Rudolph was the lone standout from the 2011 class and you have to go back to the 2010 class which produced Jermaine Gresham, Gronk and Jimmy Graham to find a class that rivals 2013 and possibly the 2017 class which remains a work in progress but showed promise last year with David Njoku, O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and George Kittle all flashing in their rookie years. For the purposes of this article, lets get a few things out of the way – players like Maxx Williams are a lost cause – highly touted coming into the league the Ravens haven obviously given up on him drafting not one but TWO high profile TEs this past draft. Lets not waste time analyzing that situation. If he is sitting on your roster you need to consider your choice of hobbies. Also, there is no point in discussing injury prone players like Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert (to a lesser degree). Reed is a stud when healthy. Eifert has one year of being a highly productive end zone target. Obviously if these guys can stay healthy we know they can be valuable fantasy players. Your decision to own them comes down to risk tolerance and what the price of ownership is. Reed’s upside will always be greater than his trade value because of the inherent risk of injury. Eifert as well. Both to me are obvious sells when they string together a few good games if the hype starts to build around them again.
So instead lets take a look at four players who still have varying degrees of upside but were highly touted coming into the league and have been disappointing relative to their initial hype. I am going to go back to the fundamental metrics that indicate the likelihood of success in the NFL for a TE (which are similar to WRs) and combine that with the body of work they have generated so far in the NFL. Productivity in college is still the best indicator of success in the NFL. Gronk was a 2nd round pick due to concerns about his back – his missed his junior year with an injury – but his sophomore year was incredible. Despite missing the first 3 games of the season, Gronk still ended up with 47-672-10TDs. Incredible numbers for a 10 game sample. Meanwhile as a Freshman he led the Pac 10 in yards per reception. Kelce was incredibly productive as well – he finished 45-722-8 TDs. Even Delanie Walker, the poster child for late blooming NFL TE’s was highly productive in college first as a JUCO player and then transferring to Univ. of Central Missouri. In two years there he averaged 43-650-6 TDs. You want an outlier? Jason Witten is the only top 10 TE in recent history who was not overly prolific in college (although he did score 5 TDs his senior year). Even Jack Doyle posted 52-614=0 and 53-566-2 his last two seasons in college which isn’t stellar but more productive than some of the others on this list and indicative of a TE1 on the lower end of the scale which is exactly what Jack Doyle is.
Kiss and Make Up
Austin Sefarian Jenkins: Age 25, drafted 2ndround 2014 by Tampa Bay Bucs. ASJ has had a truly enigmatic NFL career thus far – highly productive at U Dub – his sophomore year was a breakout with a Gronk-like line of 69-852-7 – which he followed up with relatively poor junior year of 36-450-8. The drop off in usage was startling but he still scored 8 TDs and played most of the year with a broken pinkie (that he underwent surgery for). It bears noting as wellthat his freshman year was highly productive with a line of 41-538-6. ASJ had also played basketball as a freshman but stopped to focus on his football career. It seems that he has been largely plagued by character issues that have dogged him – he had several DUI’s that derailed his 2016 season and was open about his alcohol problems. He was signed in 2017 by the Jets and, had he been credited for 2 TDs that were mysteriously overruled (neither of which I can understand to this date) he would have finished around TE14 in a very lackluster Jets offense. Why would the Jets have let go of such an obvious feel good redemption story? By all accounts they had offered close to what the Jags offered but refused to match. Perhaps they feel they have as good a talent in Jordan Leggett (who was very productive as well his senior year at Clemson with Deshaun Watson at QB)? Nonetheless he was signed by the Jags who had a need for a quality TE and the opportunity is still there for ASJ to produce low TE1 numbers this season. While the Jags passing offense will never be confused with the Air Coryell Chargers, the lack of a true WR1 and a ground and pound style offense should produce plenty of red zone opportunities for Jenkins and a chance to carve out a niche as a valuable low end TE1. He can be acquired for a fairly reasonable price and is right now valued at TE behind Eric Ebron (more on him later) and Jordan Reed. George Kittle is ranked a bit higher at TE14 while rookie Mike Gesicki is ranked at TE12 (which quite frankly is crazy). True the Jags offense is a low volume passing attack but the Jets and Jags had roughly the same passing attempts last season (382 for the Jags v. 380 for the Jets). The Jets offense did target the TE a bit more (102 for the Jets v. 79 for the Jags) but the Jags best TE was MarcedesLewis last year. The year before (with Julius Thomas as the TE1) they threw 120 times to the TE. Given the lack of a true top receiving option for the Jags, it isn’t unreasonable to assume or believe that some of the target share will shift back to the TE position. At this price I think ASJ is a clear “buy” as he has little competition for red zone targets and should be a lock to flirt with TE10-12 production with some upside to sneak into the top 8. Unfortunatelythe low volume of the Jags offense and plethora of other receiving options will prevent bigger numbers but something like 58-600-8 seems realistic to me which would place him just below Kyle Rudolph (TE7) territory. His price will be higher at this time next year so now is the time to buy. I suspect the Jets may regret the decision to let him go. ASJ has seemingly turned his life around, is only 25 and fits the profile of a TE that has top 5 potential in the right scheme and while he might not achieve that in a low volume passing offense like the Jags certainly offers significant upside from his current valuation.
Lets Try Therapy
Austin Hooper: Age 23, Drafted 2016 3rdround Atlanta Falcons. Hooper was a third round pick out of “TE U” Stanford. He was fairly consistent in both his Sophmore and Junior seasons (he didn’t play as a Freshman) with 40-499-2 in his sophomore season and a similar 34-438-6 in his junior year. As you can see, these numbers are middling compared to the Gronk and Kelce college production. They also pale in comparison to another Stanford TE Zac Ertz who put up 69-898-6 in his SR season for the Cardinals. Hooper did have a very good combine which explains why teams were excited about him but he still was only a 3rdround pick. He plays for a Falcons team that has been starved for receiving talent and yet Hooper hasn’t quite been a breakout performer. In his third season many are expecting Hooper to make the leap into the top 10. I wish I was more optimistic really. His 2017 season his stats look a lot like they did in college – 46-491-3 TDs good enough for TE16. Currently his ADP is TE19 sitting right behind Austin Sefarian Jenkins and Jack Doyle. Looking at the metrics and his 2 years of NFL work, while he is in a fairly productive passing offense it is unrealistic to think his share of targets is about to increase with the addition of Calvin Ridley to the team. In fact there is another TE on the roster – Eric Saubert – who actually was far more productive on the college level (albeit at small school Drake) and has been reportedly having a terrific camp. Last year the Falcons were starved for receivers and Hooper didn’t really step up to the plate. My feeling is that Hooper is priced fairly right now and he kind of is what he is – a competent NFL TE who will play in the league and put up TE2 numbers for years to come. If you are buying that is what you are buying. If you are expecting massive upside I have bad news for you. He is what he is. If you need a fairly inexpensive backup TE2 he could be your guy. Just don’t expect the high ceiling that many are imputing into his value when buying. Also do not be shocked if Sauberteventually passes him on the depth chart and he winds up in a new situation next year. Which might not be a bad thing. Just keep your expectations in check.
One More Try, For the Kids
Eric Ebron: Age 25, Drafted 2014 1.10 Detroit Lions. Ebron possibly had the best resume of all the players on this list entering the NFL. Taken 10th in the draft by the Lions Ebron was supposed to be the next “big thing” at TE in the NFL and was infamously drafted before Odell Beckham Jr. He certainly had the numbers to back it up with a stat line boasting 62-973-3 in his final college season at North Carolina. And it isn’t as if he had no competition for receptions either with Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer on the field as well. Despite popular sentiment, he hasn’t exactly been a bust in the NFL – Ebronwas TE11 last year making him a low endfantasy TE1. 52-564-4 isnt an exciting line but good enough to be a low end fantasy starter. The year before he was 55-650-1 good enough for TE10. The problem with Ebron is that his profile, at least on the surface, fits a player with top 5 TE capabilities. Whereas guys like Jason Witten and Greg Olsen grossly exceeded their expectations (based on college production) Ebron’s has by all measures been underwhelming. Where has Ebron come up short in the pros? The one stat that does stand out here is that despite a prolific college line he has never been a big red zone producer. He has never scored more than 4 TDs in a season which seems odd for a player of his skills particularly in a pass happy Tar Heel offense. The top TEs in the league get about 20-25% of his team’s red zone looks. Kyle Rudolph is on the high end with 28%. Rudolph also converted 50% of his red zone looks to TDs, Gronk about 40%. Ebron only got 13% of his team’s red zone looks and only converts about 25% of his chances – well below the approximate 25/50 ratios of the top TEs. These are not fluky numbers. Finishing as TE10 and TE11 the past few years you get the sense that perhaps Ebron’sbest opportunity to become a top 5 TE has passed him by and the numbers tell you he just isn’t a big TD producer which will always limit the value of a TE. He was signed by the Colts who, with a healthy Andrew Luck, would be another high volume passing offense. But the perception is that he is behind Jack Doyle in the pecking order. You would think that the Colts didn’t add Ebron to sit on the bench and he likely will have an opportunity to produce as a move TE. I can see the Colts employing a 2 TE setup (or as the slot receiver in “31” sets) depending on the situation and we know that Luck, when healthy, will utilize his TEs. The reality here is the Ebron is still likely going to flirt with low TE1 numbers as he has consistently done – although now he has more competition for snaps and targets at the position something that didn’t exist with Detroit. At his current ADP his floor is probably safe – for at least a year, but his upside really isn’t going to be higher than the TE10-12 range that he has exhibited so far. His value is lower than any time in his career and he could be a decent one or two year buy if you are lacking at the TE position and need a TE2 to round out your roster. Just do not expect a great deal of red zone work (which will likely belong mostly to Jack Doyle) so he will be somewhat volume dependent in this offense.
Grounds for Divorce
Vance McDonald: Age 28, Drafted 2013 2ndRound SF 49ers. Oh Vance. I will admit, Vance is my own personal Moby Dick. Ive tracked him since being a somewhat surprising 2ndround selection in the NFL draft. But waiting for Vance Mac to arrive as a stud NFL TE is like Waiting for Godot. At a certain point you just have to realize it isn’t going to happen in any kind of meaningful way. Coming out of Rice U, Vance had a great combine with a 4.69 40 which is blazing for a TE. Still, his body of work in the NFL has been more tantalizing (and frustrating) than a model of consistency. His best season at Rice was his junior year where he put up a respectable but relatively pedestrian 43-542-5 which decreased to 36-458-2 in his senior year. As a pro Vance has occasionally flashed big play ability but has never demonstrated great hands and has never stayed healthy for any great length of time. A breakout game in the playoffs gave rise to the narrative that the Steelers have big plans for Vance – and perhaps they do. At age 28 though there is just no basis to think he is ever going to be more than he is – an occasionally productive player who never stays healthy for any length of time and is unable to be trusted as a regular fantasy performer. The Steelers also drafted a player in Jaylen Samuels who is a hybrid TE/FB but who could easily fill that pass catching H back role if Vance falters (or just bypasses him altogether with Jesse James playing the traditional inline blocking TE role). Personally, I own Vance in many leagues but am skeptical that he will finally be able to put it all together. The talent is there – but his lack of consistency and durability tells me there is a far greater chance he leaves us wanting again and his early pre-season foot injury is a reminder of his chronic fragility. Sell on the hype if you can or hopefully after a big game or two. This year is likely his last chance before the Steelers move on to plan B. I view Vance more of a late round Best Ball flier than a dynasty asset I want to rely on. Sell him while the hype is still palpable.