The Tight End Surge: It’s Not Just About Volume

Jimmy Graham is on pace for 309 standard fantasy points this season.

Something out of a rugby game happened in last Thurday night’s contest between the Rams and 49ers. At the end of the first half, St. Louis punted the ball to San Francisco, and a fair catch was made in 49ers territory. Simple, right? Well, it was a usual play until Phil Dawson ran onto the field soon after to attempt a “fair catch kick” from the spot of the catch.

Come again?

An attempt of this sort hadn’t happened since 2008, and like Donovan McNabb and overtime, NFL fans couldn’t remember these rules. Dawson was able to try the kick – it was like a field goal – with no pressure from the opposition, so he wound up from about a mile away, sprinting furiously towards the ball. It sailed wide left, but it was one of the more bizarre things we, as football fans, will witness this season.

To me, the kick showed us that there are so many aspects of the game that we’re not even consciously aware of. And it became clear that in a constantly evolving pastime, there are rules that remain timeless.

Reality slapped us in the face during the second half though, as we watched pass attempt after pass attempt, pistol formations and a quarterback faster than anyone could’ve imagined in 1965. It was today’s game, a game where quarterbacks throw 50-plus times per game, running backs have little value, and most importantly, tight ends are much more involved in the offensive game plan than they were in the days of Ben Coates and Christian Fauria.

We’ve seen it already in 2013: Jimmy Graham is dominating defenses, and players like Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas are emerging as top options in their respective offenses. In 2002 – just 11 full seasons ago – Jeremy Shockey led all tight ends in receiving yards with 894. Jimmy Graham is on pace to more than double that total in 2013.

It appears as though tight ends are being used more, and in turn, have become more valuable both to real and fantasy football. That, at least, is what it looks like. The reality of the situation is that this tight end surge has little to do with volume, and more about sheer effectiveness on the field.

Tight End Usage is Comparable

As we know, quantity doesn’t equal quality. It’s exactly why Dexter should’ve stopped after Season 4 – the longer it went (quantity), the worse it got (quality). You have to know when to go out on top.

NFL circles seem to think that tight ends are like Dexter – the real reason they’re so relevant in today’s game is because they’re being used – targeted – more in offenses. While this is true, we have to remember that the league is a much different beast than it was in 2003. Tight ends are seeing more volume, but so are quarterbacks.

YearTotal TE TargetsTotal QB Drop BacksTE Targets/QB Drop Backs

As you can see, total tight end targets have increased each year since 2003. What’s interesting about these numbers, however, is that the percentage of tight end targets (on drop backs) has remained fairly constant since 2009. We saw 19.3 percent that season, 19.3 percent the following year, then 19.8 and 19.7. This season, we’re actually on pace for a drop in percentage of tight end targets, falling down to 18.3 percent. Those are 2008-like levels.

So while volume is increasing each season – we saw over 300 more tight end targets in 2012 than in 2009 – the percentage of targets hasn’t increased nearly as much.

This is all cumulative tight end use though. We don’t always care about that, especially in fantasy football. What about the top-notch guys? What about the top-10 target getters? Let’s take a look at the percentage of tight end targets among this group:

YearTop-10 TE Targets/Drop BacksTop-10 TE Targets/Tight End Targets

Top-10 tight ends – we’ll call them the elite ones – have seen a consistent percentage of total NFL targets since 2003. Again, the raw numbers are higher in the most recent years, and an extrapolated 2013 season sees the highest (6.56) percentage of top-10 tight end looks. But this shows us that things aren’t changing nearly as much as many think from a volume standpoint, and we can credit that to a new, pass-first NFL.

Another thing to note is the top-10 tight end target percentage among all tight ends. It looks as though the early- and mid-2000s saw a higher percentage of elite targets within the tight end position compared to the most recent seasons. In other words, top tight ends were seeing a more significant amount of targets compared to their peers during the Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates heyday.

Is Talent the New Divider?

Tight ends throughout the NFL have become more involved since 2009, as the elite players at the position used to see a larger percentage of total tight end targets back in the day. And by no surprise, 2009 was the year in fantasy football where we saw less disparity between theses elite tight ends – Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates – to the rest of the players at the position.

This isn’t to say that Gonzo, Witten and Gates aren’t talented pass-catchers. From a fantasy football perspective, however, their dominance from 2003 through 2008 may have been due to comparative volume rather than true on-the-field effectiveness.

Now, in 2013, we’ve reached a point where volume means less in the tight end world. The biggest differentiator from one tight end to the next looks like it could be effectiveness and talent.

Here at numberFire, we use a metric called net expected points (NEP). Every situation on a football field has some sort of expected point value – how many points would an average team be expected to score in that particular situation? When a player helps contribute positively towards that NEP value, moving the ball downfield on key third downs or scoring a huge 80-yard touchdown, said player gets a positive NEP score.

You can dissect NEP a number of ways. What’s a receiver’s NEP on receptions only? What about when analyzing total targets? How about the pass-catchers expected point total on a per target basis?

Net expected points is a mathematical way to show how many real points a player helped contribute for his team. In other words, it’s a number that measure a player’s effectiveness on the field, and it’s one that doesn’t just look at the most basic, mundane football metrics. It looks at real game situations and what historically happens in those situations.

We can use NEP and divide it by the number of targets a receiver sees in order to see how efficient he was with each targeted catch. Like any metric, it becomes more difficult for a player to keep a high efficiency rate when targeted a lot, as he’s not able to skew the average with a few big plays. It’s like running back yard per carry averages – it’s rare to see the 6.0 yards per tote we saw with C.J. Spiller and Adrian Peterson last season, as they saw such a high volume of touches. This wouldn’t be as surprising from change-of-pace back, however.

Take a look at the top-5, -10 and -20 targeted tight ends in terms of NEP per target through the years:

YearTop 5 NEP/TargetTop 10 NEP/TargetTop 20 NEP/Target

As you can see, the NEP per target averages have remained fairly constant with an increase in total tight end targets (as shown before). In other words, these top tight ends are getting targeted more and they’re still doing just as much with the ball when they catch it.

I've inserted our current season - the 2013 one - because we're currently on pace to have the best elite tight end season in recent history. The top-5 tight ends are adding .79 points on a per target basis, which is significantly better than any other year analyzed. And remember, this is on a per target basis - volume is not the reason for this. Talent is.

The recent tight end surge in fantasy isn't just as simple as “they see more targets”, folks. Tight ends are playing better, and that’s the reason they’ve been so successful early on in 2013.

What This Means for Fantasy Football

This all may seem obvious, but this type of exercise is always good to do before we debate for the wrong side among football circles. The tight end usage, relative to total volume, has remained constant since 2009, but top tight ends are arguably getting better. Why? Effectiveness.

So what does this mean for fantasy football? Well, I think we need to move past simple target metrics when evaluating fantasy tight ends, especially if we’re looking to stream them. Though targets create opportunity, and in turn, fantasy points, they may be less valuable as they used to be because every relevant fantasy tight end sees a significant number of targets nowadays. Clearly Jordan Cameron and Jimmy Graham have separated themselves from the pack in fantasy because of volume, but they're also leading the league in net expected points efficiency. Combining these two factors has allowed them to be fantasy football unicorns this season.

Just take a look at some of the tight ends in 2013 and you’ll see exactly why people may be wrong by buying into the volume-to-production fallacy when it comes to tight ends. Brandon Myers, Jared Cook and Dallas Clark each have top-10 tight end targets, but have done a whole lot of nothing since Week 1. Conversely, Julius Thomas ranks 12th in tight end looks, and after tonight, Charles Clay could still be in the 15 range in terms of targets. Both of them are TE1s so far this season.

This could easily be the case for wide receivers as well, and perhaps this will lead to an even larger discussion. After all, quarterbacks are playing at a higher level than they ever have, and because volume is somewhat capped by time in an NFL game (maybe not for the Eagles), maybe the future of fantasy football analysis will eliminate target metrics completely.

But regardless, this could be an opportunity to recognize the fallacy early and capitalize in your fantasy football leagues.