Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Tight Ends

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When Should You Select A Tight End?

With each passing day, we advance one step further toward the arrival of NFL training camps. Meanwhile, fantasy owners have are been progressing through their own summer preparations, by partaking in mock drafts. Strategies for selecting RBs very early have been recommended and adhered to. As many rosters are being constructed by securing a back in Round 1, and often by drafting a pair of RBs with the initial two selections. This is sensible, given the limited depth at the position. Along with the fact that if you don’t subscribe to this approach, your competitors will already have obtained your most appealing options, and your team will encounter an arduous task simply competing throughout the season.

Conversely, the QB position easily contains the most depth, which has enabled owners to exercise patience before drafting their signal callers. That in turn allows you the luxury of focusing not only upon building your stable of RBs, but also on assembling your starting WRs. But what type of draft strategy should you employ regarding TEs? Specifically… at what point should you switch gears from the collection of RBs, WRs, and your QB in order to ensure that you have made efficient use of your draft picks in selecting your TE?

Graham And Gronk Have Altered The Landscape

Of course, determining your strategic approach should begin with the decision of whether or not to pursue Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski. Because it will require a massive commitment in order to obtain either elite option for your rosters. The tandem has certainly reshaped how we view the TE position, as some owners have been prompted to select them very early in the draft process. Graham’s ADP was an incredible 13 in 2012, which has been nearly equaled by his current number of 17. All of which is a result of the 184 receptions, 2,292 yards and 20 TDs that he has collected in the past two seasons. Gronkowski was only chosen two slots later last season as a result of his 2011 statistical explosion. He not only led all TEs with 17 TDs that year, but also outscored all WRs. Plus, his 1,327 yards also paced TEs, with that total being exceeded by only five WRs. In 2012 he missed five games due to a broken forearm, which caused his numbers to decline. Yet, his current ADP of 28 is a testament to the appeal that he still possesses, even with the extreme uncertainty that exists concerning his health.

Since Graham and Gronkowski are each capable of providing WR1 numbers, owners must consider that upside, and contrast it with the deficiencies that could exist at other roster positions as a result of utilizing such a lofty pick on a TE. For some perspective on just how far this duo has led the fantasy world into uncharted territory, Antonio Gates was the first TE in selected in 2011, but his ADP of 38 did not approach the level of interest that Graham and Gronkowski have garnered. That also applies to 2010, when Dallas Clark was first to depart the boards at 39 in 2010. And in 2009, when Jason Witten was first among TEs at 40th overall.

Three Specific Approaches

Now that Graham and Gronkowski have modified the blueprint for where you can legitimately draft a TE, a gargantuan gap has been created when you peruse ADPs at the position. In my recent analysis of draft trends, I discussed three distinct approaches that have become evident in mock drafts. (1) The immediate commitment by some owners to seize either Graham or Gronkowski, which has now been examined. (2) Securing a second tier TE in the Rounds 5-9 rather than relying upon a riskier option. (3) Waiting until the rounds have progressed into double digits, and choosing from among a collection of eight additional TEs who can still be considered as potential starters.

Which Approach Is Best?

So... should you jump on the opportunity to seize Graham or Gronkowski early? Or wait until much later in the process to secure your TE? It is easy to construct a logical argument for either strategy. First, let me remind you that as always, you must remain flexible as your draft progresses, rather than miss an outstanding opportunity. Avoid becoming overly preoccupied with a plan, because you might become too constricted in your thinking. That said, I believe very strongly that your first four draft selections should be employed toward fortifying your roster at RB and WR. Therefore, I am not a proponent of utilizing an early pick on Graham or Gronkowski. For the sake of your entire roster, it still appears far more practical to focus upon other positions. Then either make sure that you secure Witten, Vernon Davis, Dennis Pitta or Tony Gonzalez in Rounds 5-9. Or, wait until the draft has advanced into double digits rounds, and select one of your remaining options at that point.

The mid-round options are particularly enticing, because every member of this group provides owners with excellent alternatives to Graham and Gronkowski. They all have the potential to outscore all remaining TE options by a comfortable margin, yet do not require the heavy commitment that owners have undertaken when utilizing a pick at TE near the beginning of the draft. It was Witten who led all TEs in targets (150), receptions (110) and yardage (1,039) in 2012. Not Graham. And not Gronkowski. In fact, only four WRs surpassed Witten’s target total, and just seven garnered more catches. Meanwhile, Gonzalez also delivered respectable results, catching 93 passes for 930 yards and an impressive eight TDs. Even though it may be difficult for the ageless Falcon to replicate that scoring total, he should still discover the end zone with sufficient frequency to warrant the mid round selection.

Davis appears primed for the most prolific season of his career, thanks to the perfect convergence of supreme talent and opportunity, in the aftermath of Michael Crabtree’s injury. He is the most likely option among all receivers on the 49ers roster to experience a massive surge in production as a result of Crabtree’s absence from the lineup. Making it is almost a certainty that he will be extensively involved in the offensive approach throughout the upcoming year. He practiced with the wideouts during mini-camp, and both Jim Harbaugh and his OC Greg Roman could create matchup nightmares by lining Davis up on the outside in various formations. Regardless of where they place him, he will be highly productive. Pitta’s numbers improved considerably in 2012, as he experienced career highs in receptions (61), yardage (669), and TDs (seven). Plus, he collected three additional scores during the postseason. At a minimum, he should be Joe Flacco’s most effective target behind Torrey Smith, in the aftermath of Anquan Boldin’s departure. He could also lead the Ravens in receptions, and should easily pace the team in TDs, since he provides Flacco with a dependable red zone target. All of which makes him a genuine candidate to finish in the top five among TEs in fantasy points. It should be noted that Witten and Gonzalez were just 15 and 17 points behind Gronkowski respectively last season. While Gonzalez might not attain the same level of production, Witten easily could.  And I expect both Davis and Pitta to close the scoring gap by a considerable amount.

Once you move beyond the top four TEs in fantasy scoring during 2012, you find another 11 who are only 30 points apart. Which bodes well for those of you who decide to delay your TE selection until the later rounds. If you are committed to this approach, I suggest that you focus upon Greg Olsen, Martellus Bennett, or Jared Cook.

Olsen attained career bests in receptions (69), yardage (843) and YPC (12.2). While you would prefer to see more scoring, he has accrued five TDs in each of the past three seasons. Plus, the Panthers will be without a legitimate threat at WR beyond Steve Smith once again, and Olsen should be Cam Newton’s second option. Bennett joins Marc Trestman’s new offense in Chicago with a freshly signed four-year contract, after registering his best season as a pro in 2012. He should at least match his 55 catches and 626 yards from last season, and could double his career high of five TDs.

However, the most intriguing option from within this group is Cook. He is now part of an offensive system that should take full advantage of his extreme athleticism, after being woefully underutilized during his tenure in Tennessee. He can effectively line up as a 6’5?, 250 pound wideout, which will enable the Rams to exploit the serious matchup problems that he will present to opponents throughout the season. As a result, he should accumulate very favorable numbers, and is a steal at his current ADP of 115.

In your attempts to ascertain your degree of interest in committing to Graham or Gronkowski, and examine the  advantages of waiting until later to draft your TE, simply do your best to digest the pros and cons of each strategic approach. Then make sure that you still enjoy the process.



  1. Michael Pak says

    Hey knuckledhead, as an economist/statistician who plays fantasy football, your article on TEs misses the mark, because it’s based mostly on conjecture, speculation, and fallacious reasoning.

    Instead of trying to predict how specific TEs will perform in the future(which is a pointless exercise), you’re better off applying mathematics and statistical analysis to determine a player’s true value. For example, you are partially correct in asserting that there is depth at the QB position, although in reality the WR is strongest in terms of depth, or put in another way the WR position has the least variance from top to bottom.

    My point is that the TE position is the weakest in terms of depth, meaning that within the position pool there is a great deal of variance between the best TEs (Graham, Gronk) and the rest of the field, especially after Gonzalez, Witten, and Davis. You know what that means? It means the Graham and Gronk’s true value is higher than you think, because having them on your team gives you an instant statistical advantage over other teams. Think of it in terms of +/- over the mean(average). Graham and Gronk are significantly higher than their peers at the their position that from a statistical viewpoint, their standard deviation scores put them in the overall top 10.

    And in case you’re curious, the #1 player in terms of standard deviation is Calvin Johnson. Obviously he is the best point producer at his position, but in addition he has separated himself so far from the rest of the field that he is what we refer to in the statistics community as an outlier.