Austin Seferian-Jenkins: Fantasy Football's Next Elite Tight End?
If you're wondering which tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft profiles as the best fantasy producer, numberFire's Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target metric might be the first and last statistic you need to examine.
As most of you know, NEP measures the amount of real points – based on field position and down and distance – a player adds for his team, stemming from what should happen on the field during that situation. In other words, there’s an expected point value during a particular game situation, and if a player helps his team get to a better expected point value on the next play, he’s increased his NEP.
Reception NEP per target looks at the expected points a receiver gets on receptions only, on a per target basis, painting a clear picture of their true efficiency without volume. Not by coincidence, the three relevant tight ends with the best scores within the metric last season – Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, and Julius Thomas – were also the top three fantasy scorers at the position.
When a player has an elevated Reception NEP per target, it stands to reason they're making the most of their scoring opportunities. This assumption held true for each of the aforementioned top three tight ends last season.
Of all tight ends who saw at least 15 red zone targets, Thomas led the way in touchdown conversion rate, catching 8 of 17 red zone passes for scores (47.1%). Davis was second, catching eight red zone touchdowns on 18 targets (44.4%), and Graham was nipping at his heels with 11 red zone scores on 25 targets (44%). Please note that Rob Gronkowski is omitted from the discussion (for the time being) only because he saw just eight red zone targets last season due to injury. However, Gronk is the quintessential red zone overlord, with 32 scores on 64 career red zone targets (50%).
These numbers are relevant because they demonstrate high-end fantasy production from the tight end position is incontrovertibly linked to reception efficiency - specifically in the red zone. With this premise firmly established, Austin Seferian-Jenkins - who caught 19 of 38 red zone targets (50%) in his three year college career at Washington - becomes the most interesting tight end prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Seferian-Jenkins is quite literally a matchup nightmare of Gronkish proportions for opposing defenses. ASJ is listed at 6'6'', 262 pounds, essentially making him Gronkowski's (6'6'', 265 pounds) body double. Gronk ran a 4.65 40-yard dash prior to the 2010 draft, and while ASJ didn't attend this year's combine due to a foot injury, it was widely expected he would also clock a 40 time between 4.6 and 4.7 seconds (my prayers go out to any linebackers tasked with covering this guy if the unofficial 4.56 he ran in a recent private workout for the Jets was even close to true).
Metrics aside, all it takes is a short look at Seferian-Jenkins in action to know he's about to cause headaches for defensive coordinators. Soft hands, other worldly catch radius, high point ability, body control, pure athleticism (he played 17 games at forward for UW's basketball team as a freshman), the ability to break tackles, just enough speed - ASJ is the total package.
After setting University of Washington tight end records for career receptions, career yardage, career touchdowns, single-season receptions and single-season yardage in just two seasons, it appeared Seferian-Jenkins was a shoo-in for a first round draft grade. Regrettably, his junior year at UW unfolded as a series of unfortunate events.
ASJ's 2013 season began with a March DUI arrest (and subsequent one game suspension), and ended with a dismal stat line across the board. Seferian-Jenkins saw both his reception and receiving yard totals dip a staggering 47% from his sophomore year (though he remained relevant in the red zone, catching a team high eight TDs). While his questionable judgment and statistical downturn raise an eyebrow, they also conspired to turn ASJ into one of the draft's greatest bargains.
Here's a look at Seferian-Jenkins speaking about the DUI to a group of high school students in December of 2013. There's no denying drunk driving shows really bad decision making, but I haven't seen too many people come off as genuinely contrite (and articulate) as ASJ did in that video. He hasn't been involved in any other reported off-field transgressions, so let's stop short of branding him a menace to society.
The statistical downturn is troubling, but it can be explained (at least in part) by a shift in Washington's offensive philosophy. Pass attempts were down 18.5% for Steve Sarkasian's squad last season, as they chose to focus their offense around Bishop Sankey and the run game. The Huskies ran the ball 30% more in 2013 than they did in 2012, often leaving Seferian-Jenkins in to block (incidentally, there are many who point to ASJ's improvement as a blocker contributing to Sankey's big season).
It's also unknown how much the stress fracture in ASJ's foot (the same one that knocked him out of the combine) contributed to his poor performance last season. Due to the tricky nature of diagnosing stress fractures, the injury was only discovered during combine medical exams. Seferian-Jenkins may very well have played most of the 2013 season on one wheel.
No matter the case, I can forgive one sub-par season from a prospect of ASJ's caliber. He figures to enter his rookie year healthy, and with all the tools that made him one of the most complete tight ends in college football firmly intact.
Fit with the Bucs
I'll admit to being a tad disappointed ASJ didn't land in a high-powered passing offense like Green Bay or Atlanta, but Tampa Bay is surely an intriguing fit.
The Buccaneers now boast a jumbo size receiver corps that is going to be an absolute load for defenses to handle. With 6'5'', 225-pound stud first rounder Mike Evans lining up on one side of the field, and 6'5'', 230 lb. Vincent Jackson on the other, Seferian-Jenkins should have all sorts of opportunity to exploit single coverage over the middle. If he was already a match-up nightmare before, ASJ may have graduated to a full on night terror given his new team set-up.
Though a repeat of last season's top six Passing NEP finish for quarterback Josh McCown is unlikely, you can't say the Bucs haven't put him in position to succeed. The drop off from Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett to Jackson, Evans, or Seferian-Jenkins is more or less the difference between Le Tigre and Blue Steel. Given the additions Tampa has made in the draft, it's safe to expect significant improvement from a passing game that finished 2013 as the sixth worst, according to our NEP data.
If I have one worry about ASJ in his new digs, it's that the importance of the tight end in new Bucs' offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's offense is still a bit of a mystery. He didn't develop any noteworthy receiving tight ends in his time at Cal, usually electing to keep them in to block. While Seferian-Jenkins is a capable blocker, I have a hard time believing Tampa would spend the 38th pick in the draft on a tight end only to keep him in-line.
As a member of the Bucs, ASJ makes for a perfect late round fantasy flier this year if you choose to wait on tight end. I'm assuming he'll be available after the first 15 or so tight ends go off the board in your league. If the recent history of Reception NEP per target and red zone efficiency tell us anything, the cost of acquiring Seferian-Jenkins late in your draft will outweigh the risk by a mile.