Fantasy Football: Studying tight end utilization

2W9637Y Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) runs into the end zone for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

• Fantasy tight ends almost need to be every down: Part of Kyle Pitts's struggle last season was due to his role, but that should change this season.

• Alignment in two tight end sets matters: A tight end who lines up off the line of scrimmage tends to score more fantasy points than those lining up on the line.

• Get a head start on fantasy football: Use PFF's fantasy football mock draft simulator to create real live mock draft simulations to get ready for your live draft!

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Over the last week, I dug into how teams utilized their running backs and wide receivers along with the implications for fantasy football. To finish the series, I’ll look at tight ends, how teams are using them, what roles lead to the best fantasy production and what this means for the position in 2024.

Defining the receivers

For this article, I’ve broken a tight end’s role down by their early down role in single tight end sets, late down role in single tight end sets and role in two tight end sets. Breaking it down by 11 and 21 personnel was considered, but a tight end playing in 21 personnel sets specifically didn’t matter. Plenty of teams take their top tight end out of 21 personnel to give them a rest. If a starting tight end plays in 21 personnel, that will typically mean they get taken out on other plays that would matter more. On the flip side, more teams have used a primary tight end on early downs while using a different one on third downs.

Often in two tight end sets, one tight end is on the line of scrimmage and the other is off. Similarly to how I broke down wide receivers into an X, Z and S role, I’ve given the player typically on the line of scrimmage the Y role and the person off the line of scrimmage U. The U receiver has a 20.3% target rate in 12 personnel compared to 16.0% for Y in 2023, leading to 1.47 yards per route run compared to 1.25.

Below is the fantasy production by tight ends for the most common combination of relevant roles since 2014. There are plenty of frequent combinations of tight ends further on the depth chart which don’t have consistent fantasy value.

There was a noteworthy difference between every down tight ends who play the U role in two tight end sets compared to those who play the Y. Most teams have a starter and then a backup who plays in two receiver sets and, unsurprisingly, those backups rarely are fantasy starters. When they are, it’s often because of an unpredictable touchdown.

The other common scenario is to have a more pass-heavy tight end who plays on third downs and the U role in addition to a more run-heavy tight end who plays on early downs and the Y role. There is a significant dropoff between a full-time starter and the receiving tight end in this role. Compared to full-time starters with the U role, those without the lead role on early downs drop three PPR points per game and are nearly half as likely to be in the top six or top 12 in a given week.

Can you pick a tight end without a full-time role?

The short answer is probably not. Since 2014, there have been seven tight ends in the past decade without a lead role who ended up as a fantasy starter at least 35% of weeks, the rate of the average lead tight end. No tight end has accomplished this in the last three seasons.

Most tight ends who worked out fit one of these categories, a second-year tight end in a breakout year (Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert and Mark Andrews) or a Buccaneers tight end during the Dirk Koetter era (Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard) Dwayne Allen also accomplished this in 2014 and Jonnu Smith in 2020.

The good news is that no tight end who is expected to have a part-time role has an ADP in the top 200 outside of Isaiah Likely, who is more of a handcuff for Mark Andrews than someone to draft and expect production out of.

Most of the time, it’s not clear which tight ends won’t have a full-time role until the preseason. One of the most useful parts of the preseason is finding what the tight end rotation for teams will be like. It only took one preseason game last season to get excited about Sam LaPorta and concerned about Greg Dulcich. The following week raised red flags on Kyle Pitts and there were similar red flags on Hayden Hurst during the final week of the preseason last year

Notes for the 2024 season



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