Why the 2013 Season Was Different For Tight Ends

Did Rob Gronkowski's absence make the tight end position, as a whole, less effective?

Tight ends in football are being used differently, not necessarily more.

I did some research on the subject back in September, showing that, while total tight end targets in the league are indeed rising year after year, so are the total quarterback drop backs. In fact, total drop backs have been increasing at a just as high of a rate since 2009, meaning tight ends, as a whole, aren’t necessarily seeing larger roles in offenses.

It’s the time of year where we review the season that was – the season is over, and we’re looking back on how the game changed, what worked and what didn’t. In turn, I wanted to revisit that article and see if anything shifted from the norm. I didn’t expect to see what I saw.

2013 Tight Ends

The 2013 season was an interesting one at the tight end position. On the negative side of things, Rob Gronkowski was sidelined for the majority of the season with multiple injuries and Aaron Hernandez was locked up. But conversely, Jimmy Graham continued to take the league by storm, and new faces emerged as solid tight end targets: Charles Clay, Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, Jordan Reed, and to a lesser extent, Coby Fleener, all showed that they have bright futures in the league.

As a result, you’d probably expect the trend of tight end targets increasing year after year to continue, while quarterback drop backs do the same.

Not in 2013.

Below is a chart showing the number of tight end targets, quarterback drop backs, and percentage of targets to tight ends since 2003.

YearTotal TE TargetsTotal QB Drop BacksTE Targets/QB Drop Backs

As you can see, the total number of quarterback drop backs (which includes sacks) from 2012 increased by 504, while the number of tight end targets decreased from the previous year for the first time since, well, ever.

Tight end targets fell by 102, and as a result, the percentage of tight end targets in the league dropped nearly a full percentage point. The ratio hasn’t been this low since 2008.

You may think that this is a result of the absence of the Patriot tight ends, and perhaps that’s part of it. After all, Gronk and Hernandez combined for 162 targets a year ago, and that dipped to 66 in 2013.

But even that slight plunge in tight end looks doesn’t equate to the number of targets seen in 2012, despite quarterbacks dropping back to pass at a higher rate.


Increase in Running Back Usage

I had no intention of these two articles crossing paths, but funny enough, the reason for the lack of tight end targets this season may have to do with the increase in running back volume through the air.

I talked through running back use in aerial attacks in January, mentioning that running back targets as a percentage of quarterback drop backs increased pretty dramatically from 2012 to 2013, a total of 1.24%. Much of that was a result of some elite pass-catching performances from players like Pierre Thomas and Danny Woodhead, but nonetheless, the percentage of running back targets versus quarterback drop backs in 2013 was the highest we’ve seen since 2010.

Naturally, you may question why I wouldn’t think tight end targets are going to a wide receiver – after all, the position is more like a wideout than it is a running back. The reason for that is simple: the percentage of wide receiver targets decreased as well from 2012 to 2013, albeit only from a ratio standpoint. In other words, receivers did see an increase in volume this year, but the total number of quarterback drop backs was greater.

What This Means For Fantasy Football

Wide receiver targets are staying relatively the same with no real pattern in targets as a percentage of total quarterback drop backs, while tight end targets seemed to have shifted towards the running back position this year. Does this impact fantasy football as a result?

Probably not dramatically, but we should tackle a couple of things before abruptly ending the research. First, just like I stated in the pass-catching running back article, it’s imperative to be aware of running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield. If these numbers stay consistent into 2014, then there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to gain a massive advantage with a Danny Woodhead-like player, as a lot of owners will be turned off by a running back who doesn’t really run. A guy like him still, however, holds a ton of value, especially in PPR leagues.

The other thing that’s needed to be mentioned is the result this has on tight end streaming. When you hit the waiver wire for tight ends each week, you’re hoping and expecting the tight end you pick up sees volume. Because if he sees volume, there’s a much better chance that he’ll see production.

Industry colleague (and the co-host of my podcast) Denny Carter has been digging into this very topic over the offseason over at, drawing similar conclusions about targets while focusing more on TE2s – stream-worthy tight ends.

His most recent study looked at how many fantasy points bottom-10 defenses versus the position were surrendering on average each week. The results showed that, despite a decrease in volume, tight ends (in general now, not just TE2s) were seeing the same amount of fantasy points scored against bottom-of-the-barrel defenses. To put this another way, the decrease in volume didn't really matter much to the overall production of tight end streamers.

And after digging into our metrics, this actually makes a whole lot of sense.

When you have less volume, you must play at a higher level – have higher efficiency – in order to sustain production. If a tight end were to continue to play at the same level he had always played at, seeing less volume, that tight end wouldn’t be a better fantasy asset. He’d be worse.

I looked at our Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the number of real points a player adds for his team on catches only. But to make sure I wasn’t favoring volume in any way, I divided this number by the number of targets (Reception NEP/Targets) to see if there was any change in efficiency at the tight end position through the years.

And there was!

Since 2009, when tight end usage started to even out as a percentage of total drop backs, the 2013 season saw the best Reception NEP per target average of any year. In other words, tight ends were more efficient in 2013 than they’ve ever been in recent years.

For comparison, this number at wide receiver has been incredibly consistent through the years – it’s not as though the natural pass-catching positions have simply been more effective on the field.

So what does this mean? Well, similar to the conclusion I made in the tight end article that spawned this one, I think this is another example in fantasy football where we need to be more and more aware of on-the-field effectiveness, not just volume.

The game of football is seeing more and more passes each and every year. But it’s also getting more and more creative, finding new ways to get particular players at various positions the football. It’s no longer a game with just two wide receiver sets. More players are touching the ball, which means there’s potential, outside of the elite players in the league who will naturally see a crazy number of looks each game, for targets to be spread thinner.

This isn’t a bad thing for tight end streamers. This just means that you need to be aware of the efficient tight ends in the league rather than the ones who see a high number of targets.

And remember, this is has only been a one-year thing. It’s not like this is necessarily a new standard in football. But like anything else in fantasy football, you always want to be on top of your game.