How Does the Two-Tight End Set Affect Tight End Value?

Gronk and Hernandez were arguably the most lethal receiving duo in the league from 2010-2012. Is this an effect of their scheme?

Like Starsky and Hutch, Will and Grace, Abbott and Costello, some of the best things in life come in pairs. What would you do with only one of your socks in the morning? What is peanut butter without jelly, or Penn without Teller? There are just some things that go together, and it’s almost blasphemy to separate them.

We can look at some of the very talented recent tight end pairings that the NFL has given to us for evidence of this. 2011 was probably the high water mark for “two tight end sets” in recent memory, featuring duos like Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen with the Houston Texans, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson with the Baltimore Ravens, and, of course, the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

The two-tight end set – also sometimes referred to as “12 personnel” – has been a staple of certain offenses for some time (New England). Yet it seems to be more in vogue recently as offenses with the personnel to utilize this formation have begun to experiment with it more (Cincinnati, Indianapolis). What does this formation do for offenses, though? It’s thought that the two tight end set allows more than one tight end to be relevant in terms of offensive production, but does it really? We will dig into just how much value – if any – the two tight end formation adds to any given player in that scheme.

Lining Up The Study

The important thing we want to establish right away is which teams are frequently running two-tight end sets, and then how those offenses perform compared to their one-end counterparts. I looked at data from the last five years to see how tight ends have been utilized in recent times.

The first thing to note is that even since 2009, our starting point for this study, usage of the tight end has gone up a decent amount: the average starting tight end in 2009 received 69.43 targets per season, while his 2013 counterpart garnered 73.72 targets. However, we are looking to find out what the average two tight end set achieves, so historical trends for the position shouldn’t affect the outcome here.

To establish the baseline of a “starting” tight end, I gathered all tight ends who played on 50% or more of their team’s offensive snaps in any given season between 2009 and 2013. I then separated those who had a teammate also in on 50% or more of their team’s offensive snaps and used this group of pairs as our “12 personnel” pool; the other group was our control group, with only one “starting” tight end per team. All in all, of the 160 team seasons played between 2009 and 2013 (32 teams multiplied by five years), there were only 25 instances of a team heavily utilizing two tight ends in any given season. Some teams consistently used this scheme, like the Patriots and Texans, while others were more intermittent in its usage, such as the Panthers and Rams.

Between these two groups, 12 personnel ends and standard set ends, I averaged and examined snap counts and - most importantly - our own numberFire Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics. NEP is a score achieved by a player by advancing his team’s chances at scoring on any drive that he makes a contribution on. So, when a player hauls in a catch that advances his team’s expected points on that drive from 2.5 to 5.5, that three-point difference is credited to our beloved tight end, or that player. For more on NEP, you can check out our glossary.

For tight ends, this contribution almost always comes through the passing game, so I specifically looked at Reception NEP and Target NEP (NEP accumulated specifically on all plays resulting in a reception, or any play on which the player is targeted, respectively).

Two Heads Are Better Than One?

We look straight at the tight end position itself: did the presence of another regular player at the same position positively or adversely affect our tight end duos, in contrast to our lone wolf ends?

The table below shows us the comparison between the average primary and secondary tight ends in the two-tight end set, the average starting tight end in standard personnel schemes, and the potential “advantage” the two-tight end set offers (the difference in value between starting tight ends in each scheme). These roles are compared based on Receptions, Reception NEP, Targets, Target NEP, and Reception NEP per Target (a measure of value efficiency for a receiving player, this metric shows how much value a player added on a per opportunity basis).

TE RoleRecRec NEPTargetTarget NEPRec NEP/Tar
12 Primary4446.376624.430.67
12 Secondary2826.084310.750.59
12 vs. Standard Advantage-7-3.30-145.200.05

First, we can see from the table that standard set tight ends tend to have slightly more receptions and targets than primary 12 personnel tight ends, meaning a greater production opportunity. This is to be expected, as standard sets don’t require a division of labor; one player gets almost all the passing attention. The standard set’s tight end also has a slightly higher Reception NEP (6.55% higher), likely due to the increased workload they experience.

However, when we look at the effectiveness and efficiency metrics, Target NEP and Rec NEP per target, we see that the primary 12 personnel tight end pulls in front by a fairly sizable margin (27.02% and 7.29% increases in the categories, respectively). It may be that the attention of defenses having to guard an extra large receiving option in the form of the secondary 12 personnel end allows the primary end to exploit defenses more than the standard set end. If true, the presence of another massive receiving threat allows the two tight end set to simply make the most out of each opportunity more than standard sets.

Wrapping Up The Catch

Another interesting filter to look through is the total value of the 12 personnel tight ends when compared to the standard set’s starting tight end. The table below shows us these marks.

TE RoleRecRec NEPTargetTarget NEPRec NEP/Tar
12 Total7272.4410935.180.66

Far and away, the combined ends in the two tight end set blow the standard set tight end out of the water, showing that the presence of two of these quality receiving threats does allow for extra value to be sent to the tight end position overall. This seems fairly simplistic and obvious, but it helps to illustrate the point that when considering the value between schemes one must not simply consider the value the lead tight end creates. One must also remember the value of the presence of two physical mismatches on the field at the same time, versus a standard set, and what that value is.

While none of this definitively concludes the debate on whether or not the two tight end set is massively more valuable to offenses, to the players’ stat lines themselves, or even for fantasy owners, it does add some clarity to the situation. We can see that, in comparison to standard set tight ends, efficiency goes up for singular 12 personnel tight ends but volume tends to diminish. For the tight end unit as a whole, there is a massive value advantage for the two tight end set. Is one personnel scheme necessarily better than the other? It’s hard to say, and we may not have a definitive answer even by the end of this study, yet the indicators seem to show that the two tight end set can be a major boon to inefficient and reliability starved passing offenses. And like Cagney and Lacey, efficiency and reliability is a duo you just don’t mess with either.