Bruce Arians’ Tight Ends: Should We Care About Them for Fantasy Football?
“My mission is to ensure the survival of John… Carlson.”
A time-traveling robot assassin must have appeared out of thin air for us to be remotely considering the fantasy relevance of former Seahawks tight end John Carlson again. Just checking: it is 2014, right?
Still, this is a fair question now that Carlson has been named the preseason starter at tight end for his Arizona Cardinals. He wins this job over athletic bust Rob Housler and physical-but-unproven rookie Troy Niklas, so it seems that competition will be minimal and opportunity will be great.
Yet head coach Bruce Arians has a reputation of diminishing the tight end in his offensive schemes, even going so far this offseason as to say this offseason that “Tight ends for me block first, catch second.” Obviously, we don’t earn fantasy points in most leagues for blocking, so this philosophy seems foreboding for any fantasy production from the desert in fantasy.
Can Carlson – or any Cardinals tight end – be a fantasy blast from the past in this potentially potent Arizona offense, or will their coach smelt them down to scrap metal?
Rise of the Machines
Before examining specific players, I always like to examine the system they will be playing in. Much like preparing for nuclear war against Skynet, you want to know what environment you’ll be in before you decide which gear is the best for it. For our purposes, this means pulling apart the machine that is Bruce Arians offense and looking for its historical tendencies.
We’ll do this through examining our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of just how much a player adds to or detracts from his team’s chances of scoring on any given play, and this is measured in expected points on that drive. You can read more about NEP in our glossary. For tight ends, we are solely concerned with Reception NEP and Target NEP – the sums of NEP gained solely on plays resulting in a reception, and plays on which a specific player is targeted, respectively.
First, we have to understand that Arians’ basic offensive scheme is a two-tight end, one-back system (also known as “12 personnel”). I detailed the effects of a 12 base offense in two articles last month, both on tight ends in specific and an offense as a whole. The conclusion of those articles is that the two-tight end set offers more total value to the tight end position than a standard set, as well as greater efficiency for the primary “12” tight end, but diminishes total volume for that player.
The table below shows the total production of Arians’ tight ends since 2007 via our NEP metrics.
|Year||Team||Rec||Rec. NEP||Target||Target NEP||Rec. NEP per Target|
In total, the tight ends in Arians’ offenses have produced fairly admirably. An average of 66 receptions on 95 targets is a fine range for prospective value in fantasy, especially when there are only a few very good options at the tight end position. However, this only amounts to an average of 18.12% of his offenses’ targets annually. This is a fairly small opportunity percentage, especially when we remember that there are at least two tight ends sharing these total looks.
In addition, his tight ends have been fairly inefficient aside from an early season in Pittsburgh. A score of 0.60 in the Reception NEP per target category ranks in the bottom half in efficiency at the tight end position.
What is the split of this production, then, for his primary and secondary tight ends?
This split between roles means that, while Arians has two tight ends on the field most of the time, his primary receiving tight end has only tended to catch 50 passes in a season (on 70 targets). His secondary tight end produces just under a third of this value, with around 14 average receptions on 22 average targets; this is due to being used mainly as a blocker.
The top tight end role in the Arians offense isn’t a very high upside one. However, we’ve seen Heath Miller put up three top-15 fantasy tight end seasons under Arians’ guidance, due to the increased efficiency of the primary “12 personnel” tight end role. Does anyone in Arizona have this sort of capability?
OurLads lists John Carlson as the starting tight end on the Cardinals, along with Troy Niklas in the second tight end role (again, the primary inline blocker), with Rob Housler as the second-string primary tight end. These are our three most likely candidates for fantasy production in 2014, though converted professional basketball player Darren Fells could be a very quiet dark horse.
The last time we saw Carlson take meaningful first team snaps prior to last year was in 2010, and even then he had a very diminished role in new Seattle head coach Pete Carroll’s offense. In 2011, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and by the end of the season had been released, then signed as the backup in Minnesota. In 2013, however, Carlson looked like he stole Kyle Rudolph's clothes and motorcycle, and rode back to fantasy relevance for a few games late in the season. Could Carlson be a Heath Miller clone?
In short, yes. The brief table below contains Carlson’s production by NEP for his career, excepting his 2011 injured season and 2012 pure backup year.
|Year||Team||Rec||Rec. NEP||Target||Target NEP||Rec. NEP per Target|
Carlson’s early-career opportunities and production are scarily similar to the averages we established for the Arians system. The even more interesting thing is that his Reception NEP per target (receiving efficiency; value per opportunity) was higher than or equal to the Arians' average early in his career. Clearly, Carlson is older and perhaps has lost some of his effectiveness due to the torn labrum that sidelined him for the entirety of 2011, but there is value to be had here. Miller only produced per target efficiencies between 0.50 and 0.69 from 2008-2011; even a slightly diminished Carlson could well be a fairly useful weapon.
Niklas, again, figures to function more as the inline blocker in this scheme. The 6’6”, 270-pound Niklas is almost a picture-perfect clone of 6’7”, 260-pound Matt Spaeth, who was Miller’s blocking cohort during Arians’ time in Pittsburgh. Don’t expect fantasy contribution out of Niklas this year, but he could be developed into an interesting red zone threat with time. He’s still a quality dynasty player for the end of your bench.
Housler has seen his time come and go in Arizona. He was drafted as an athletic, catch-first “move” tight end, but that role has very little use in this scheme. Coby Fleener's 2012 with this offense is the most even comparison to Housler: both are unreliable receivers that need volume to thrive. With Arians, there isn’t much volume even for the primary tight end, meaning that solid-catching, reliable targets are the best fits. Housler will ride the pine this season, or be traded; only if the latter happens will he have any legitimate fantasy value.
The Bruce Arians offense, truly, has not historically been friendly to the tight end, but there is still a role to be had for a reliable pass-catcher. Efficiency and reliability are the keys to a tight end in this offense. For our purposes, John Carlson should be the clear heir to this throne, and every other option is clearly behind him. I’m not expecting wonders, but we could potentially see a low-end fantasy starter emerge in the desert for the first time since Todd Heap.
We know now why Rob Housler cries, but it is something we can never do. We've got fantasy teams to build.