Should We Be Worried About Golden Tate in Fantasy Football?

The Detroit Lions' wide receiver had a slow start to the 2016 campaign before picking it up in the second half. Should that worry us in 2017?

Last season, Golden Tate had an ugly start.

He struggled mightily while some of his Detroit Lions teammates -- read: Marvin Jones -- flourished. But things turned around for Tate, and he finished the year strongly.

What exactly caused his surge, and will it happen again in 2017?

A Tale of Two Seasons

The 29-year-old's early 2016 woes prompted many to ask the question, "Should we drop Golden Tate?" While Jones was topping fantasy leaderboards with repeated double-digit point performances from Week 1 through Week 5, Tate was barely able to break 10 total points in standard formats during that time.

The terrifying part was that Tate was struggling against an easy schedule for wide receivers -- in their first five weeks, the Lions played the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles.

Then, like a light switch, things flipped in Week 6. Tate caught fire while Marvin Jones saw his target share drop significantly.

Targets Per Game Golden Tate Marvin Jones
Week 1 Through Week 5 6.2 8.2
Week 6 Through Week 17 9.45 6.2

In the remaining 11 games, Tate had just four outings with fewer than 10 targets, while Jones had just one game over 10 targets. Tate would go on to finish as the WR17 in PPR leagues, while Jones finished outside the top 36.

There was another reason for the upswing in Tate’s targets that was a little less obvious: It turned out that Tate averaged far fewer targets in each game in which Theo Riddick, the Lions’ pass-catching running back, was healthy.

Golden Tate Splits With Riddick Without Riddick
Targets Per Game 7.3 10.33

When Riddick was on the field, Tate averaged 7.3 targets per game. In the six games Riddick did not play, that went up to 10.33. So when Riddick and Anquan Boldin were in the Lions’ lineup, Tate’s on-field role and fantasy impact were marginalized.

Judging by our Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target metric, which estimates how many points a receiver added to the expected value of their team’s drive each time they received a target, you might assume the Lions were correct to target Tate less.

Player Catches Reception NEP Targets Reception NEP Per Target
Marvin Jones 55 79.95 103 0.78
Golden Tate 91 79.54 135 0.59
Anquan Boldin 67 66.33 95 0.70
Eric Ebron 61 61.30 85 0.72
Theo Riddick 53 19.19 67 0.29

Tate’s Reception NEP per Target of 0.59 was the lowest of any player on the Lions with greater than 50 targets, other than Theo Riddick, whose role as a dump-off option for quarterback Matthew Stafford helps explain his lower Reception NEP per target value. In other words, each target to Golden Tate was worth fewer expected points than targets to most other receivers on his team. However, this metric is swayed by touchdowns and big plays, and Tate is not a prolific touchdown-scorer.

Per, Tate is currently being drafted in the sixth round of fantasy drafts, around other volume-driven receivers such as Jarvis Landry, Julian Edelman, Larry Fitzgerald, Willie Snead and Jamison Crowder. If we are drafting Tate as a consistent floor-play -- as outlined in Episode 29 of The Late-Round Podcast -- then we have to make sure the floor is still there, right?

Can We Expect Things to Change?

With all of that info at your disposal, you would be justified worrying about Tate’s value. If his target share plummets when Riddick is healthy, won’t that trend continue in 2017, since Riddick is still on the roster?

Fear not -- Tate should be fine.

For one, Tate's Reception NEP per target of 0.59 was actually greater than the Reception NEP per target numbers of other receivers with similar roles -- like Fitzgerald (0.53) and Edelman (0.56). So while Tate had the second-lowest Reception NEP per target of qualifying pass-catchers on his own team, his Reception NEP per target value was comparable to other receivers in the NFL who played similar roles.

In addition, we may not have to specifically worry about Riddick eating into Tate's targets because Anquan Boldin is no longer on the Lions.

Boldin drew 95 targets in 2016, and he yielded a higher Reception NEP per target than Tate, mainly on the back of his high concentration of targets within the 20-yard line, which led to 8 touchdowns. There are now more targets to go around for both Tate and Riddick.

Of Boldin’s 95 targets, 23 were inside the 20-yard line. Per, Boldin played 54.5 percent of his snaps in the slot last season and managed a 26.7 percent target share inside the red zone. By comparison, Tate managed 17 red zone targets, while Marvin Jones finished with 15.

Player Targets Inside The 20 Targets Inside The 10 Red Zone Touchdowns
Golden Tate 17 5 1
Anquan Boldin 23 9 6
Marvin Jones 15 7 2
Theo Riddick 14 6 5
Eric Ebron 6 3 1

If Tate can absorb some of Boldin's 95 targets, we should feel confident that his season-long target totals can remain fairly consistent. The Lions did not add any big-time threats to Tate’s target share outside of rookie Kenny Golladay. While Golladay (aka "Baby-Tron") may make a splash in the red zone, as a first-year player, he is unlikely to garner a huge target share in the Lions' offense.

While Tate will likely see good volume, he is unlikely to increase his touchdown numbers too much, even with the 23 red zone targets vacated.

In his seven campaigns, Tate has never scored more than seven touchdowns in a single season, and never more than six in his three seasons with the Lions. Take a look at Tate’s red-zone usage while with the Lions as well as his touchdown conversion rate.

Season Targets Inside The 20 Targets Inside The 10 Red Zone Touchdowns
2016 17 5 1
2015 17 11 6
2014 11 4 2

The Lions did not have Boldin as the red zone target hog in 2015, and yet Tate had the same total number of targets from within the 20-yard line in 2015 as he did last season. In 2014, he had just 11 targets in the red zone, so expecting Tate to suddenly take a lion’s share of the red zone looks would be out of line with his past usage and production.

In Conclusion

Per, the Lions have finished in the top half of the league in passing yards per game and passing attempts per game in each of the three seasons since Tate joined the team. The Lions passed for 33 touchdowns in 2015 (8th in the league), then in 2016 they passed for 24 (which was 16th in the league), so Stafford and the Lions are capable of producing enough passing touchdowns to go around.

It’s also possible that we see less of Riddick. While he had the seventh-most receptions of all running backs in 2016, Riddick did that while Detroit was missing their primary first- and second-down running back, Ameer Abdullah, for all but two games. With Abdullah healthy and Riddick himself coming off of not one but two offseason wrist surgeries, Riddick might see a reduced snap share compared to his 2016 role. This would open up targets for all of the Lions' pass catchers.

Tate is a pretty safe pick as a consistent floor-play wideout. Our models project him as the WR21 in standard formats, so he's a nice value at his current ADP of WR27, and Tate should produce at a good level again this season.