Is the Elite Tight End Gap Closing in Fantasy Football?
Over the summer, everyone seemed to have strong opinions about the tight end position in fantasy football entering the season. Heading the list were the usual suspects of Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, and beyond that, most folks had Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas solidly third on the projected rankings for 2014 tight ends.
With all the hype and the rhetoric around tight ends and some big weekly performances thus far this season, after five weeks of the NFL season, who is performing best according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics? Is the elite tight end gap closing?
Flashback to 2009?
Looking at the 41 tight ends with 10 or more targets, the top ten tight ends, according to Reception Net Expected Points are as follows:
|Player||Reception NEP||Target NEP||Rec. NEP per Target||Success Rate|
|Gates||35.87 (1st)||28.37 (2nd)||1.24 (2nd)||90.5% (14th)|
|Thomas||32.64 (2nd)||28.92 (1st)||1.36 (1st)||90.0% (15th)|
|Olsen||32.54 (3rd)||22.62 (4th)||0.81 (7th)||92.6% (12th)|
|Kelce||31.03 (4th)||28.13 (3rd)||1.15 (4th)||100.0% (1st)|
|Bennett||30.18 (5th)||10.51 (12th)||0.72 (16th)||84.4% (22nd)|
|J. Graham||29.85 (6th)||12.43 (9th)||0.64 (19th)||97.1% (8th)|
|Gronkowski||29.20 (7th)||15.16 (7th)||0.79 (9th)||94.7% (9th)|
|Walker||28.06 (8th)||11.16 (11th)||0.78 (11th)||80.8% (25th)|
|Allen||24.39 (9th)||19.06 (5th)||1.22 (3rd)||93.3% (11th)|
|Donnell||22.20 (10th)||10.21 (13th)||0.69 (17th)||88.0% (18th)|
From the table, we see that the ageless Antonio Gates leads all tight ends in Reception NEP. Gates also performs well with the second-ranked Target NEP of 28.37 and a Reception NEP per target of 1.24, meaning he's been incredibly effective not only due to volume.
As impressive as Gates has been, Thomas has been even more impressive, achieving the second-highest Reception NEP of 32.64 in one fewer game due to the Broncos Week 4 bye. As was the case in 2013, where Thomas had 12 touchdowns, his nose for the end zone results in very high production in spite of being ranked 14th in overall targets.
In total, while these top tight ends have separated themselves from lower-tiered ones, it's pretty clear that no tight end has truly separated himself from the rest of the pack.
Red Zone Statistics: An Indicator of Future Success?
Due to the sheer size of tight ends and the potential matchup problems they create with opposing defenses, the position is known for being heavily targeted in the red zone. As a result, using data from pro-football-reference.com, we can assess red zone success thus far in the 2014 season.
|Player||Red Zone Targets||Red Zone Receptions||Yards||Touchdowns|
|Gates||5 (9th)||4 (4th)||36 (5th)||4 (2nd)|
|Thomas||9 (2nd)||8 (1st)||56 (1st)||6 (1st)|
|Olsen||5 (9th)||5 (4th)||43 (3rd)||3 (6th)|
|Kelce||6 (5th)||4 (5th)||29 (8th)||3 (6th)|
|Bennett||9 (2nd)||6 (3rd)||50 (2nd)||4 (2nd)|
|J. Graham||8 (4th)||4 (5th)||30 (7th)||3 (6th)|
|Gronkowski||6 (5th)||4 (5th)||41 (4th)||4 (2nd)|
|Walker||6 (5th)||2 (10th)||12 (10th)||2 (10th)|
|Allen||6 (5th)||5 (4th)||27 (9th)||3 (6th)|
|Donnell||10 (1st)||7 (2nd)||32 (6th)||4 (2nd)|
If red zone success is an indicator of rest of season outlook, Thomas' touchdowns, yardage, receptions and number of targets are exactly what you as a fantasy owner want in a tight end. Bennett, Graham, and Gronkowski all perform very strongly in the red zone as well, all with four touchdowns apiece. From a consistency standpoint, both Gates and Larry Donnell each had a game with three touchdowns and all but one of those were in the red zone, with Gates scoring a 21 yarder as well in Week 2 vs. the Seahawks.
The story here, however, is that plenty of tight ends are seeing red zone opportunities in 2014, providing more parity at the top of the position.
Rest of Season Projections
In terms of the remainder of 2014, it isn't surprising that the top-three tight ends in the preseason are expected to produce at the highest clip in terms of our projections. This makes sense given Graham's ability to dominate, Thomas' red zone success, and Gronk getting his health and swagger back. Rounding out the top five are Olsen and Gates, whose revival we expect to continue behind the early season MVP campaign of Philip Rivers.
In single-tight end fantasy leagues - the majority of them - it's clear that many teams are finding tight end success early on in 2014. And because of that, the elite tight end gap is starting to close.