Ladarius Green: A Rare Tight End Lottery Ticket
Late-season fantasy football lottery tickets don't usually come in all shapes and sizes. When you read articles this time of year about guys to stash in hopes of a stretch-run breakout, chances are the focus will be on running backs.
But wouldn't fantasy owners benefit just as much (if not more) from a tight end who comes out of nowhere to post top-tier numbers the rest of the way? Only five tight ends are averaging double-digit fantasy points per game in standard leagues this year - Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski, and Jordan Cameron. I'll add Jordan Reed and Coby Fleener (he's been a target monster since Reggie Wayne got hurt) to the short list of tight ends that can be relied on for consistent high-end fantasy production on a weekly basis.
That means over 40% of your league is either being tormented by roller coaster seasons (Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Martellus Bennett), streaming based on match-up, or employing mediocrity. Is there a savior on the horizon for these tight end-starved owners that could give them a huge edge at a position with so much uncertainty?
The short answer is "not without the guy in front of him on the depth chart getting injured", but that's basically a prerequisite for any player who truly comes out of nowhere this time of year. Allow me to make the case for San Diego's Ladarius Green as a bench stash (just in case some calamity were to befall Antonio Gates):
Green is essentially a jumbo-sized wide receiver, which makes him something of a tweener in the NFL, but it's also precisely what makes him so appealing for fake football purposes.
At 6'6'', 238 pounds, Green clocked a 4.53 forty at the 2012 combine, which was good for second among tight ends that year (for context, Jimmy Graham also ran a 4.53 coming out college and Gronk posted a 4.65). The successful combine effort carried over to position drills, where Green ran solid, precise routes, showed great body control, reliable jump ball ability, and used his 82-inch wingspan to make catches outside his frame. In short, he flashed the physical tools required to become a match-up problem for opposing defenses when aligned out wide.
The performance elevated Green from small school nobody (he played in the Sun Belt for Louisiana-Lafayette) to fourth-round NFL draft pick. But it wasn't enough to get him on the field in his first season as a pro, as he appeared in only four games for a total of 39 snaps.
He hasn't seen the field all that much this season either (except for special teams), but the numberFire metrics tell us that Green is as advertised, albeit in an extremely small sample.
The Nerdy Stats
Following a preseason in which he led the Chargers in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, Green's Reception Net Expected Points per Target, a stat that paints a clear picture of a pass catcher's true efficiency without volume, currently ranks second in the NFL behind only Kenny Stills. As you could probably guess by Stills' first place ranking, the Rec NEP/Target metric favors big play receivers, and Green has certainly made the most of his limited regular season opportunities.
On the year, Ladarius (a name fit for a fantasy stud, by the way) has been targeted nine times, catching seven of those passes. His 77.8% catch rate is good for fourth among pass catchers who have been targeted at least nine times. Of Green's seven catches, six have been of the 20-plus yard variety, proving he possesses the big play ability to make a huge fantasy impact at tight end.
For further confirmation, Pro Football Focus tells us Green has gained 3.79 yards every time he's gone into a route this season, tops in the league for tight ends with at least nine targets. By comparison, Gronk has gained 3.42 YPPR, Vernon Davis checks in at 2.84, and Jimmy Graham at 2.76.
The only thing holding Green back is opportunity, which can be attributed to two main factors: He isn't the strongest blocker, and there's a potential Hall of Famer in front of him on the depth chart.
To Green's credit, he made it a point to add weight and strength during the offseason, which can only help him stay on the field in blocking situations. He managed to get his weight up near the 250 mark thanks to ex-military trainers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and carrying teammates extended distances.
Since Green's playing time has been so limited, we don't have much to measure the in-season results, but it's at least promising that on the five snaps he's been asked to pass block, he hasn't allowed Philip Rivers to be pressured.
Antonio Gates, on the other hand, is a problem that a carb-heavy diet isn't going to solve. To his credit, Gates is numberFire's eighth-ranked tight end in terms of Reception NEP. He's currently on pace for his third 1,000-plus yard receiving season, and also happens to be one of the most popular players in Chargers history. It would clearly take a significant injury to open the door for Green to emerge as a fantasy threat this season, but there are some signs the Chargers may envision a larger role for him going forward.
Are the Chargers Figuring it Out?
Last week against the Broncos, Green saw a career high 22 snaps on offense, and responded with a 25-yard reception on his only official target. He also had a 23-yard catch wiped out by a holding penalty on King Dunlap.
It may turn out to be nothing, but maybe the Chargers have finally realized that dullards like Vincent Brown (ranked 72nd at wide receiver in Reception NEP) and Eddie Royal (39th - inflated by his hot start) are dragging down their passing game, while perhaps the most dangerous offensive weapon on the team rots away on the pine. And while Gates has turned in a nice bounce back season, how much longer can the Chargers ignore his zero touchdowns and middling 49 yards per game average since the calendar turned to October?
Again, I'm not suggesting Green will become a conquering fantasy hero unless Gates were to suffer a major injury. It just doesn't make much sense that Dennis Johnson is being stashed in 20% of Yahoo leagues, while literally no one has taken a flier on Green. Even if Johnson were to become the Texans starter, chances are he'd return RB3 numbers. If Green were thrust into a starting role, he possesses the physical gifts and efficiency to post top-five numbers at tight end - exactly the type of "out of nowhere" production that can swing your league championship.
If you still have a fifth wideout or second defense loitering on the end of your roster, you could do worse than to pick up Green. Cross your fingers, and hope to cash that lotto ticket in the fantasy playoffs.