Fantasy Football: 3 Defenses Tight Ends Should Thrive Against in 2020
I’ve spent the intros to each article of this series exploring an idiom synonymous with “easy”, and the one I have left for this piece is “like taking candy from a baby” – but I have questions. First, who is giving their infant child candy? That’s not building healthy eating habits. Second, does that mean the taker of said candy is doing a kindness, or bullying them? These are the hard-hitting questions you come to my articles and numberFire.com to answer, but today we’re also going to examine three defenses that tight ends themselves should bully in 2020.
For example, fantasy football players have found the Arizona Cardinals’ defense extremely permissive for tight end scoring for years. They were the toddler in a bonnet with a giant lollipop, ready for their candy to be snatched. Then they went and upgraded their defense, putting an electric fence around their stroller, making our job much harder.
Fortunately for you, we’re helping with some of the research ahead of time. When targeting a defense with our fantasy tight ends, we want: linebackers lacking in previous coverage success, a good secondary (especially cornerbacks, so the pass gets funneled to the middle of the field), and a defensive roster that didn’t address its needs in free agency or the NFL Draft.
Ready? Grab a sweet treat, and settle in.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs appear to actually be strong candidates to take up the Cardinals’ discarded mantle as “tight end smash spot number-one”. Their defense is constructed similarly to the Cards of recent times: a strong defensive line and downhill, tackling-focused linebackers force teams to pass, and high-end deep safety coverage encourages the short and middle passing game – where tight ends flourish.
Linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson were mediocre in coverage last season, giving up the 19th and 8th-most fantasy points per target, respectively, among 64 linebackers to play at least 200 snaps in coverage. Only four other teams had a pair of linebackers who both ended up in the top-third of qualifying players in fantasy points allowed per target.
The safeties were much better, with Tyrann Mathieu allowing the 13th-fewest fantasy points per target among 80 safeties. Despite Juan Thornhill's bottom-third ranking, he plays a deep safety role; by default, his targets will be longer and more fantasy valuable passes. Thornhill still allowed just a 56 percent completion rate when targeted (the 13th lowest mark) and wide receivers playing the Chiefs earned the second-fewest fantasy points per game last season.
This means opposition play-calling will almost certainly feature tight ends against KC, and the Chiefs proved vulnerable to this position. They afforded opposing tight ends the fifth-most fantasy points per game (14.2), the second-most targets per game (9.0), and all of this was on the fifth-fewest touchdowns per game. In fact, KC’s yards per touchdowns allowed rate was 36 percent lower than the league average last year, meaning there could be some positive regression naturally coming in this category in 2020 to boot.
There is little doubt the Chicago Bears’ defense will get better in 2020, with inside linebacker Roquan Smith's full return to health. That said, Chicago is still poised to allow quite a bit of tight end fantasy scoring. Last season, they were the 10th-most permissive team in fantasy points per game for tight ends (13.3), also giving up the fourth-most TE targets per game (8.2), and the 10th-most TE receiving yards per game (55.4).
In addition, Chicago was fourth-lowest in wide receiver fantasy points allowed per game; this strong cornerback play will likely continue to funnel targets into the middle of the field, towards the tight end. Chicago also got much better on the outside for 2020, drafting second-round pick (but first-round talent) and Utah alum Jaylon Johnson to pair as a true shutdown option opposite Kyle Fuller – who ranked about average in fantasy points allowed per target (55th out of 96 qualifying CB in 2019)
This, of course, happened while the Bears re-signed linebacker Danny Trevathan, who allowed the 22nd-most fantasy points per target among 64 qualifying LB. The aforementioned Smith did rank ninth-lowest in fantasy points allowed per target, but it’s possible that he’ll either be banged up or see a slight decrease in efficiency once he plays all 16 games.
With little depth behind these two, athletic tight ends should be able to carve up the field (and fantasy box scores) in the Windy City.
There is a lot of good the Seattle Seahawks could have done to address their defense in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, but drafting linebacker Jordyn Brooks did not seem to be the answer most were looking for. Brooks, while an adept tackler and rangy run defender, lacks in the coverage skills department, according to The Draft Network’s Joe Marino: “Completely unproven in coverage, rarely ever taking steps backwards. Gets panicky in zone coverage.”
With middle linebacker Bobby Wagner beginning to slip in that department (he allowed the 15th-most fantasy points when targeted among 64 qualifying linebackers), Seattle looks to have two major weak points in the pass defense phase in their second level.
They already were a pretty vulnerable team against the tight end in 2019; the Seahawks allowed the second-most fantasy points per game to the position (15.4), the second-most TE receiving yards per game (68.7), eighth-most TE touchdowns per game (0.4), and third-most TE targets per game (8.6). Add in the fact that Seattle’s TE yard-per-touchdown allowed was 24 percent lower than the league average, and there could be some positive regression on the way in that area as well.
Strong cornerback play, good pass-rushers, and mediocre coverage linebackers? Sounds like the top team to stream tight ends against might remain in the NFC West after all…