News & Analysis

The haves and have-nots among fantasy tight ends

Feb 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) scores a touchdown over Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby (41) during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In the 1920s, Lou Gehrig and (especially) Babe Ruth stood above the rest of Major League Baseball in home runs. For example, in 1927, they finished 1-2 in the league with 60 and 47, respectively, while nobody else hit more than 30. Almost a decade earlier, Ruth famously hit more home runs in some seasons than entire teams managed.

So when looking at the top power hitters of the 1920s, it’s not really fair to say “Well, he didn’t hit nearly as many home runs as Ruth.” No one did, and no one came close. He redefined the skill. Better to set Ruth aside and wonder between, say, Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx and Bob Meusel without even considering that one guy hanging out so far ahead of the field.

Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham entered the NFL in 2010. Since then, they had 1,177 (Gronkowski) and 1,087 (Graham) fantasy points, blowing away the field — the rest of the top 10 in the time frame (all still active) average 702, led by Jason Witten’s 888.

Top fantasy tight ends, 2010-2017
Player 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 Total
1 Rob Gronkowski 114 241 144 83 184 184 72 155 1177
2 Jimmy Graham 65 195 151 218 147 73 126 112 1087
3 Jason Witten 153 123 122 133 100 88 84 85 888
4 Antonio Gates 138 120 96 109 153 93 96 50 855
5 Greg Olsen 69 83 113 118 136 151 125 25 820
6 Vernon Davis 133 112 85 162 37 20 70 81 700
7 Delanie Walker 34 38 51 92 108 148 122 103 696
8 Martellus Bennett 25 14 93 105 128 60 113 23 561
9 Jared Cook 42 92 75 96 83 46 43 80 557
10 Kyle Rudolph 43 103 49 35 80 126 101 537
11 Jermaine Gresham 69 95 102 67 73 28 50 44 528
12 Travis Kelce 112 116 136 153 517
13 Tony Gonzalez 102 130 141 134 507
14 Heath Miller 62 75 130 64 93 66 490
15 Charles Clay 19 33 119 79 70 79 67 466
16 Zach Ertz 71 87 96 106 129 489
17 Brent Celek 75 111 73 85 39 57 15 19 474
18 Benjamin Watson 94 53 67 35 26 116 75 466
19 Julius Thomas 1 151 120 76 52 56 456
20 Coby Fleener 40 84 125 67 85 42 443

The upshot of this is that there was a tight end renaissance in the last decade or so — from 2010 to 2015, the top 12 fantasy tight ends averaged 126 fantasy points a season, which the top 12 have never averaged outside of that window. Only … the difference was almost entirely Graham and Gronkowski. Take them out of the mix, and the top 12 average is 115, roughly right in line with the years leading up to that point.

When tight end production fell off in a big way in 2016, people bemoaned the state of the position. The reality, though, was that an injured Gronkowski and a post-prime Graham accounted for essentially all the difference — take Gronkowski and Graham out of the mix, and the top tight ends averaged roughly the same as 2014, 2012, 2010, and not that far off the peak years.

But then 2017 happened. With Gronkowski and Graham removed from the equation, the top 12 fantasy tight ends averaged 99 fantasy points in 2017, easily the worst since those two joined the league. Here’s where each spot in the rankings sits in the eight-year sample (i.e., the No. 1 first-place finish, No. 5 seventh-place finish, etc.):

Player Points Rank
1 Travis Kelce 153 T3
2 Zach Ertz 129 7
3 Evan Engram 110 8
4 Delanie Walker 103 8
5 Kyle Rudolph 101 8
6 Cameron Brate 94 8
7 Jack Doyle 91 8
8 Jason Witten 85 8
9 Tyler Kroft 82 8
10 Hunter Henry 82 8
11 Vernon Davis 81 8
12 Jared Cook 80 8

Kelce is shaping himself up to be a quasi-Gronkowski as his career progresses, but other than him, and this was the worst year for fantasy-relevant tight ends we’ve seen in as far back as we have PFF data (2007).

What does it mean for 2018? Well, with Gronkowski looking like the retirement murmurs weren’t for real, his reign at or near the top of the tight ends should continue. And while Graham put up a career-worst 54.1 PFF grade and had his lowest yardage total since his rookie year, he’s now paired up with the best quarterback of his generation in Aaron Rodgers, perhaps lengthening his stay as a top-tier tight end.

But, just as Bob Meusel might have been a power hitter but certainly wasn't Babe Ruth, there's a big dropoff. After those two, Kelce, maybe Zach Ertz/Evan Engram, we’re in a sad state of affairs at the tight end position. Delanie Walker’s 103 standard fantasy points in 2017 were a relative triumph for the position, but over the last decade, that’s more like back-end starter material at best. The tight end position, more than any other these days, is being split upon class lines, and if you don’t get in on the top tier, better to wait forever to draft one. That’s been the case for years now, but it’s ever more the case now.

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