How to Find Breakout Tight Ends in Fantasy Football

What should you be looking for when trying to find tight end values in the middle and late rounds of your fantasy football draft?

It seems like we see later-round fantasy football tight ends come through with big seasons every year.

In 2019, it was Mark Andrews and Darren Waller. The year before that, we watched Eric Ebron score touchdowns at a ridiculous rate, while George Kittle showed everyone how elite his skillset is. In 2017, Evan Engram was a beast after being a late-round option.

It feels like these examples happen every single season. And they more or less do.

But were those players actually easy to spot during a fantasy draft? Is there anything we can take away from those seasons to help us better predict what's to come in 2020 and beyond?

Defining Breakout Players

If you've been around over the last couple of weeks, then you may have seen an article just like this one on breakout wide receivers and breakout running backs. So some of the process-related stuff you're about to read may sound familiar.

But I'll ask the same question that was asked in those pieces: how do we actually define what breakout means? If the goal here is to look at historical breakouts to help us predict the future, what parameters should be set to define the term breakout?

That's where math comes in.

The x-axis in the scatterplot above shows the overall average draft position (ADP) for every tight end selected in fantasy drafts since 2011. (The ADP data is from The y-axis represents the number of fantasy points (in PPR leagues) that a tight end scored at a certain ADP. The trendline, then, tells us expectation -- it's the number of points we'd expect a tight end to score at a particular draft slot.

So, as an example, a tight end selected 150th overall would be expected to score about 100 fantasy points. One taken 100th has historically scored closer to 125.

Using this trendline, we can find which tight ends have overperformed most over the last nine years.

PlayerYearTeamAvg. PickPointsExp PointsDifference
Rob Gronkowski2011NE105.34330.90123.29207.61
Jimmy Graham2011NO76.44294.00142.23151.77
George Kittle2018SF138.46258.70107.14151.56
Jordan Reed2015WAS164.34244.2097.02147.18
Eric Ebron2018IND164.86222.2096.83125.37
Delanie Walker2015TEN110.89244.40120.25124.15
Darren Waller2019OAK162.37221.1097.73123.37
Julius Thomas2013DEN167.29215.8095.97119.83
Antonio Gates2014LAC142.97223.10105.25117.85
Kyle Rudolph2016MIN174.5209.0093.48115.52

In terms of value, the top tight end season that we've seen since 2011 came from Rob Gronkowski during his Sophomore campaign. He ended up scoring 17 times on 90 catches after being drafted near the double-digit rounds in 12-team leagues, outscoring expectation by more than 200 points.

The rest of the players on the list were later-round options, but working with a 10-player sample isn't really going to cut it. We're not going to find ways to spot these players by analyzing just 10 seasons.

If we expand things to looking at all tight end seasons where the tight end exceeded expectation by 70 or more points, then we're talking. That gives us 38 tight end seasons to work with. And since we're analyzing breakout players, early-round options really shouldn't be part of that sample. Those players aren't really breaking out if they're being selected early in drafts. Opportunity cost is significantly smaller after Round 5, so we'll cut out the three tight ends in our sample of 38 that were drafted before then.

That gives us 35 breakout tight end seasons.

What types of things do those 35 seasons have in common?

Trend 1: Breakout Tight Ends Usually Don't Come From Nowhere

The term breakout means "suddenly and extremely popular or successful." The tight ends that we're looking at today suddenly became significant in fantasy football. They were later-round picks who became super usable for your fantasy lineup.

A lot of them showed promise prior to their breakout campaign, though.

Similar to a finding with wide receiver breakouts, tight end breakouts were usually seeing a decent chunk of volume prior to their breakout season. In fact, 23 of the 35 tight end seasons in our sample (65.7%) had a previous-season target share that was at least 10%. For some perspective, only 28 tight ends had that high of a target share last season, and an average of 25.4 tight ends per season have hit that share since 2011. It's not the easiest benchmark to clear.

Our sample of breakout tight ends includes only one rookie, another sign that these players aren't coming from nowhere.

Related to this is the type of prospect these players were coming out of college. Only two breakout seasons since 2011 came from undrafted tight ends (one of them being Antonio Gates, who's a historic outlier), while 24 of the 35 tight ends (68.6%) were Day 1 or Day 2 draft picks. Now, some of the breakout tight ends in our sample are duplicates -- the same tight end was able to far exceeded expectation on more than one occasion. When you look at the 30 individual players in the sample (not the seasons), that number is still 66.6%.

Trend 2: Breakout Tight Ends Are Often Year 2 or Year 3 Players

It's smarter to err on the side of drafting younger tight ends when looking for a breakout.

Our 35 tight end sample has 7 breakouts where the tight end was in his 10th year or later. We've had some geriatrics exceeding expectation by 70 or more points.

But Year 2 and 3 seems to be the sweet spot. A solid 14 of the 35 tight end seasons in the breakout subset were from tight ends who were playing in their second or third seasons. That's 40% of the breakout tight end campaigns. For a comparison, 23% of the breakout wide receivers were in their second and third seasons.

Trend 3: Breakout Tight Ends Usually Play With Good Quarterbacks

The wide receiver study showed us that quarterback play -- defined by quarterback average draft position -- didn't really matter for a potential breakout wide receiver.

That seems to be different at tight end.

The average ADP for the quarterbacks who were throwing the ball to our breakout tight end sample was QB13, six spots higher than what we witnessed at wide receiver. And for the seasons where a tight end really outperformed expectation, the quarterback ADP was stronger: tight ends exceeding ADP by 100 or more points had a quarterback with an average cost of QB10, while tight ends who exceeded ADP by 70 to 99 points saw their quarterback fall of draft boards, on average, at QB16.

Trend 4: Tight Ends Are Typically Athletic

There was an article done by Rotoworld's Hayden Winks about a year and a half ago on different measurements and how they correlate to tight end success in fantasy football. One of the athletic measurements that correlated best to fantasy points per game in the NFL was Speed Score, or height-adjusted 40-yard dash times.

Speed Score seems to matter for breakout tight ends, too.

As I mentioned before, we have 30 individual players in our tight end breakout sample. There were 35 seasons, but 30 different players represented those seasons.

With the help of, we've got Speed Scores for 28 of those players. The average Speed Score for those 28 tight ends? Over 108. Per Player Profiler, that's an 86th percentile Speed Score.

Only 6 of the 28 tight ends (21.4%) had a below-average Speed Score.

These guys are freaks.

Looking Ahead

Of course, a tight end can come from nowhere and not perfectly align with the trends listed above. That's likely to happen pretty frequently.

We're just playing the odds here. We're finding ways to increase our chances of hitting on some of those middle- and later-round guys.

If you're curious as to who my value tight ends are this year given this criteria, make sure you're subscribed to The Late-Round Podcast. I'll be going over my picks on Monday's show.