Will Austin Hooper Break Out in Fantasy Football in 2019?
Navigating the tight end position in fantasy football is a game of opportunity cost.
Do you spend a top pick on one of the elite options? Or, do you use those top picks on running backs and receivers while aiming to snag a tight end in the later rounds of your draft?
Last season, Austin Hooper finished at the TE6 in PPR formats, but he is currently being drafted as the TE11, costing a 10th-round pick in 12-team PPR leagues (per FantasyFootballCalculator). That makes him seem like a nice value, but is that actually the case?
To decide, we need to look at the tight end landscape as a whole as well as investigating Hooper's potential volume for next season.
The Tight End Landscape
Defining tiers is always somewhat arbitrary. However, setting thresholds can allow us to classify players and extract valuable information. Personally, I like to make my tight end tiers based on the percentage of weeks a tight end finishes in the top five and top 12 in their position.
For me, I define top-tier tight ends as players who finish inside the top five in at least 50% of weeks and finish inside the top 12 in at least 75% of their games. Last season, only Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz fell inside this top tier. These two players were consistently posting top-five tight end numbers each week.
The second tier is comprised of tight ends who finish as a top-five tight end between 35% and 50% of the time and come in as a top-12 tight end at least 40% of weeks. Eric Ebron, George Kittle, and O.J. Howard finished in this tier in 2018. While consistently posting top-12 tight end numbers, these guys were still a large step below Ertz and Kelce.
The third tier of tight ends are players who finish as a top-five tight end between between 15% and 35% of the time and rank in the top 12 in at least one-third of their games. Hooper, despite finishing as the TE6 last season, actually finished in the third tier of tight ends. This tier was just good enough to stay in starting lineups despite being hard to trust on a weekly basis. Hooper's season-long rank masked a lack of weekly upside.
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Here at numberFire, we calculate a FireFactor value for each player to help compare value within and across positions based on customized league settings. In a half-PPR league, Kelce has a FireFactor score of 148.5, which is higher than Odell Beckham's and Antonio Brown's. Hooper's 20.2 FireFactor puts his value around receivers like Curtis Samuel and Courtland Sutton. This goes to show the massive gap between the top tight ends and everyone else.
We should be drafting tight ends based on the weekly consistency and upside we expect for them in 2019. However, we also need to consider the opportunity cost of using an early pick on a tight end.
When you draft a tight end early, you are passing on the chance at a top-level running back or wide receiver.
In a recent Late-Round Podcast episode, JJ Zachariason, our Editor-In-Chief, gave a great look into the importance of opportunity cost when drafting a tight end. A key takeaway from this episode was that tight end performance has the weaker correlation with average draft position than any other position in fantasy football. In other words, we have been really bad at predicting who the best tight ends will be each season.
If you drafted Kittle in the 12th round last year, not only did you gain a significant edge at the tight end position, but you also got to use your early picks on receivers and running backs. Aiming for tight ends who have the potential to jump into the top tier late in drafts is a low-risk, high-reward strategy, and if you swing and miss, it's not a huge deal since you can try to stream the position if needed.
Does Hooper profile as a player with the potential to jump into the elite tier of tight ends in 2019?
Hooper's 2019 Volume and Upside
Hooper averaged 5.5 targets per game last year, good for the eighth-most targets at the tight end position. Dan Quinn, the head coach of the Falcons, is on the record saying Hooper should be even more involved in the offense this season. With that said, our projections have Hooper once again getting right around five targets per game in 2019.
Hooper's true upside becomes more clear when we take a look at the type of targets he is getting. He had a massive role in the red zone for the Falcons last season. Hooper's 13 red zone targets were the second-most on the team, trailing only Julio Jones. He also led the Falcons in targets inside the 10, trailing only Jared Cook (11) and Zach Ertz (12) at the tight end position. Hooper had more than double the amount of targets inside the 10 than every other player on the Falcons outside of Jones. In short, the Falcons made it clear in 2018 that they want Hooper to play a big role in the red zone.
A closer look into Hooper's efficiency paints a concerning picture, however. Among the 28 tight ends with at least 40 targets last year, Hooper sat 25th in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per reception last year. He also ranked 27th in Reception Success Rate, which measures the percentage of catches that increase a team's NEP. (You can read more about NEP and Success Rate in our glossary.) Even with great red zone usage, Hooper has been one of the least efficient tight ends in the league.
Hooper's redzone role gives him weekly touchdown upside. This is enough to give him a floor as a low-to-mid TE1. This is in line with our projections, which have Hooper as the TE9 in PPR leagues and the TE11 in standard leagues.
With Hooper in a nearly identical situation to last season, we should expect more of the same from him in 2019. Given the massive gap between the top tight ends and everyone else, if we're passing on the elite guys at the position, we should be targeting players who have top-tier upside in their range of outcomes.
Barring an injury to Julio Jones, that's not Hooper. Do not expect Hooper's volume or efficiency to jump high enough for him to join the elite tier of tight ends anytime soon, so instead of taking him in the 10th, you might as well keep stockpiling receivers and running backs and wait even longer to address the tight end position. There isn't much difference, per our projections, between Hooper and guys like Trey Burton and Delanie Walker, who are going up to two full rounds later.