Is the Tight End Really a Rookie Quarterback's Best Friend?
Fear is a common, understandable human emotion. Some of us have a fear of heights, called agoraphobia. Some of us have a fear of clowns, called coulrophobia. Some of us have a fear of 300-pound mountains of muscle roaring down toward us with the intent of crushing every bone in our body.
That fear is called being an NFL quarterback. As Dolphins’ signal-caller Ryan Tannehill – who has been sacked 93 times in his first two years in the league – can tell us, this is a very legitimate concern in his line of work. Younger quarterbacks especially, like Tannehill, who have not dealt with this constant fear for years at the professional level will find ways to alleviate this concern and get rid of the ball reliably and quickly.
That way is called the tight end.
For years, there has been a perception that a rookie quarterback will rely on his tight ends immensely as they are the biggest targets on the field. Until fast seam-busters like Jimmy Graham came into the league, the tight end usually sat in the middle of the field on short comebacks or crossing routes, making them an easy check-down for a panicked rookie.
But is this perception true? Should we expect rookie quarterbacks and their tight ends to function like Linus and his blanket?
“Not In The Face, Not In The Face!”
There are a few components to this question of rookie passers and their oversized receivers. First, do rookies favor their tight ends over their other receivers? Second, do rookies lean on their tight ends more frequently than veterans? Finally, does this give a value boost to tight ends with rookie quarterbacks?
To explore this issue and answer these questions, we turn to our old friend, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of how many points a player adds or loses for his team, based on what's expected. Tight ends tend to almost exclusively deal with Reception NEP (NEP gained solely on plays resulting in a reception) and Target NEP (NEP gained on plays that a player was targeted on).
Like a younger brother or sister whining about not getting a fancy new bike like their older sibling, one must assume that, if the tight end is getting all of the attention, a team’s receivers must be pretty pouty, too.
I looked at the totals for every team tight end with a rookie quarterback that had more than 300 drop backs – ostensibly making them the primary starter for that season. I also compiled every other team tight end season in this 10-year span as a control group, but more on that later. By taking the tight ends’ targets for that team and dividing them by the quarterbacks’ drop back total, I found what percentage of plays the position was being utilized on. In the 24 samples, I found the average target percentage for a tight end with a rookie passer to be 19.17%. Around one-fifth of a rookie’s targets go to a tight end.
This is actually fairly in line with the NFL average, as teams like the Saints are around 18% tight end targets, the Falcons with Tony Gonzalez hovered around 17%, and the notoriously “spread-the-wealth” Denver Broncos still offer 20% to the tight end position. Interestingly, only nine rookie quarterbacks in the last decade relied on their tight end more than 20% of the time. The most prolific was Matthew Stafford's rookie 2011 with Brandon Pettigrew, Casey Fitzsimmons, and Will Heller, where he targeted his tight ends a whopping 33.00% of his drop backs. Matt Ryan, however, used his tight end a minuscule 5.11% of the time in his rookie season.
Clearly, the average rookie doesn’t overly concentrate the percentage of targets on his big, bad catching machines.
What about pure volume, compared to veterans? This is where our veteran control group comes in as a comparison. For this question, we look to reception totals and target totals for our tight ends. The chart below depicts the average receptions and targets by team tight ends with a rookie quarterback, and without.
It’s clear that in every split, tight ends with veteran passers thrive in terms of volume, sometimes (such as from 2004-08) to the tune of a 33% increase in target opportunity. I split up the data into five year windows to equalize the potential effect of fewer rookie quarterbacks starting earlier on and lesser quality receiving tight ends, but even within a comparable time period, rookie passers do not give as much volume to their tight ends as veterans.
This may be due to offensive coordinators being more content to run the ball in order to take the pressure of carrying the whole offense off of their rookie quarterbacks' shoulders. This certainly was true in 2008, with Ryan and the Falcons relying on Michael Turner to carry the load, and even more recently with Robert Griffin III in 2012. Griffin was a polished, accomplished passer coming out of Baylor University, but offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan led Washington to being the most run-heavy team in the league that year.
While percentage of offense and volume of opportunity aren’t there for tight ends in offenses helmed by first-year quarterbacks, perhaps there’s a chance that these tight ends are able to keep their passers afloat by providing extra value. The table below shows the Reception NEP, Target NEP, and Reception NEP on a per target efficiency basis. This will help us prove once and for all whether or not there is any additional worth given to tight ends with rookie passers.
|Year||QB||Rec. NEP||Target NEP||Rec. NEP per Target|
With a deafening sound, all possible advantage for these players has been crushed. From 2004 to 2008, the Reception NEP production by tight ends receiving from veterans was more than double that of those from rookies. The Target NEP was excruciatingly low for those in the latter group as well, likely indicating that a rookie under fire will be much more scattershot than a veteran in the same situation – much more so. Even efficiency on a per target basis is so much higher for tight ends with veteran quarterbacks. This is especially impressive because, as we noted before, rookie passers send an average of almost one-third fewer targets to divide that Reception NEP value by.
Thus, the myth is busted wholly. Tight ends do not benefit from the decision-making of a scared, young quarterback. We can fathom a guess that because a rookie will handle pressure less calmly than a veteran, the targets provided will be less quality for a receiving option to make use of. In addition, offenses seem to provide less opportunity for rookies to drop back and hurl the ball a bunch, perhaps being content to run the ball to take pressure away from their freshman quarterback. It seems that because of the reins being pulled in for rookie passers and their own discomfort with the speed of the league initially, tight ends receiving from rookies will naturally have less production.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing to fear, is fear itself.” Perhaps if NFL rookie quarterbacks took that to heart, there would be a little more tight end value to go around in the league.