Searching for Breakout Tight Ends Through the NEP Lens

Was Rob Gronkowski's breakout season incredibly predictable?

Hindsight, especially in fantasy football, is derided as a willful waste of time in backwards-looking hand wringing.

Probably that’s a spot-on description of most exercises in hindsight, in glaring sorrowfully into the past, wondering why. You should’ve avoided that guy, you should’ve drafted this guy -- what, you’ll ask, was I thinking?

How could months of intensive draft day preparation produce such a lackluster squad? Why, you cry, do the deities hate me?

Certain hindsight-centric adventures in fantasy analysis, however, can be instructive. With analytics that drain so much of the wretched guesswork out of our fantasy calculus, I think it’s become critical to back-test those measurements to see if they would’ve predicted breakouts from years past, and if they might point us toward a big-time draft day value this summer.

I’ve spent the better part of five months looking for ways to improve the way we approach the tight end position in fantasy football. I’ve advocated streaming tight ends -- like we do defenses -- using the dearth of useable tight ends who are seeing more pass targets and catching more passes than ever before.

In short, I refuse to believe that an optimal tight end strategy should be centered around starting the same tight end week in and week out, even when he faces a brutal matchup, and even when waiver wire tight ends face off against far friendlier defenses.

Looking back

Today I’m going to look at recent tight end fantasy breakouts, and gauge whether or not their prior year’s Net Expected Points (NEP) would have predicted their sudden superstardom. NEP, in short, tells us how a player contributed to his team's success or point output in terms of real football points. As you may or may not know, this can play a big role in predicting fantasy football success, and like any metric, it’s not a panacea.

It won’t solve the never-ending complexities of assembling and maintaining a successful squad, but it’ll help, and maybe a lot.

Let’s take a peak at the NEPs of tight ends who, a year after posting these numbers, had electric breakout campaigns.

PlayerYearNEPTargetsNEP/TargetCatch Rate
Brent Celek200928.2938.7471.1%
Jimmy Graham201036.4644.8370.5%
Rob Gronkowski201056.7159.9671.2%
Dennis Pitta201139.3656.7071.4%

The nature of finding a sleeper breakout candidate in any position requires us to deal in all the uncertainty of small sample sizes. That’s why, many times, a sleeper is a sleeper: they haven’t been used to any great extent. That’s precisely why we don’t know what they can do.

Gronkowski and Graham would’ve jumped off the NEP page two offseasons ago, when Graham was the sixth tight end off draft boards and Gronkowski was drafted ninth among tight ends, a full round after all-time NFL great Marcedes Lewis.

Spotting these almost off-the-charts NEP numbers and adding the constant reports of big-time usage in training camp and the preseason would’ve made both Gronk and Graham obvious breakout studs waiting to happen.

Pitta and Celek struck me as similar cases: guys who posted NEP per target numbers around .7, a number designating a usual top-10 tight end season in terms of effectiveness, with extraordinarily limited opportunity. To put this number into more context, these players were adding .7 points to their team outputs each time they were targeted through the air. That sort of efficiency should’ve been a clear signal that neither guy would need giant opportunity to far outperform their average draft positions the following seasons.

Looking ahead to 2013

Hindsight stops here.

Below is an NEP breakdown of tight ends pegged as potential breakouts available for cheap – or sometimes for free – in fantasy drafts this summer.

Allen, the Colts’ second year tight end who occasionally proved fantasy viable when Fleener missed time in 2012, is battling a foot injury that could keep him out for some time. Keep that in mind.

PlayerYearNEPTargetsNEP/TargetCatch Rate
Coby Fleener201224.1348.5054.2%
Dwayne Allen201241.4466.6368.2%
Martellus Bennett201254.8190.6161.1%
Lance Kendricks201246.5563.7466.6%
Jared Cook201237.2972.5261.1%

I didn’t include oft-discussed sleeper tight ends Rob Housler and Jordan Cameron because, well, their NEP numbers were hardly worth mentioning. If you’re banking on them as major late-round value plays, you’re basing it entirely on their new roles in their respective offenses and the praise they’ve drawn from coaches throughout the spring and summer.

Fleener’s NEP is hardly encouraging, but again, he was targeted a measly 26 times in 2012. The Colts plan to use Fleener as more of a downfield threat this season, and with offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton saying Fleener is “making plays that big-time NFL players tend to make,” you can probably ignore his 2012 NEP mark and bank on him having a central role in the Colts’ new offense.

Why in the name of lumbering, stone-handed tight ends, you ask, would I include Lance Kendricks in this list? He’s been replaced as the Ram’s pass-catching tight end by the guy listed below him, right? Exactly. And I think it’s well worth noting that Kendricks’ 2012 numbers look a whole lot like Pitta’s 2011 NEP.

Cook’s NEP during his years in Tennessee are, to put it mildly, uninspiring. The numbers Kendricks posted with Sam Bradford, however, might give us a sneak peak into what kind of season Cook might be capable of in 2013 as the guy who Bradford has reportedly peppered with passes throughout training camp. With more targets, Cook could be more effective than Lance Kendricks ever was.

Cook is the eighth tight end off of fantasy draft boards today, going in the beginning of the ninth round. That ADP doesn’t leave room for an enormous amount of fantasy equity, but the untalented Kendricks’ NEP offers hope that Cook could prove a solid 2013 value play.

A Burgeoning Value Play

He wasn’t on fantasy footballers’ radar even two weeks ago. Now, after showing dandy chemistry with Ryan Tannehill in training camp and early in this preseason, Dustin Keller is shaping up as my favorite to far exceed his draft day ADP.

Here’s why: Keller, as of this moment, doesn’t have an ADP in 12-team drafts, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. He’s going undrafted. His NEP numbers during five seasons with the Jets lend support to his potential value as the Dolphins’ lone legit red zone threat.

PlayerYearNEPTargetsNEP/TargetCatch Rate
Dustin Keller200856.0178.7261.5%
Dustin Keller200934.8282.4254.8%
Dustin Keller201056.96101.5654.5%
Dustin Keller201158.95115.5156.5%
Dustin Keller201225.1436.7077.8%

Keller finished the 2010 season as fantasy’s ninth highest scoring tight end, just a few points away from cracking the top-5. He was a top-10 tight end the following year, though he thrived on high-volume targets rather than the efficiency we’d prefer to see.

Using Keller’s career NEP numbers as a guide doesn’t mean we’ve identified a guy who will threaten elite fantasy territory in 2013. He won’t. In fact, most of his season-long NEP per touch averages leaves something to be desired.

What we may have found is a tight end you could draft just before taking a defense and a kicker who could be very useful through much of his first season in Miami. Keller, in short, will qualify as a breakout as it relates to his current ADP, which is nonexistent.

Tannehill, for what it’s worth, hit Keller for a 24-yard completion and a touchdown Friday night in Miami’s second preseason game.