Should Fantasy Football Owners Sell High on Antonio Gates?

The future Hall of Famer is still going strong at age 34, but should fantasy owners sell high or hang on for dear life?

There’s no arguing that Antonio Gates is one of the best tight ends of his generation, and possibly even in NFL history. Following a disappointing 2013 which saw him haul in only four touchdowns, the lowest total since his rookie year, fantasy owners left him for dead and assumed the lifelong Charger was nearing the end of a long, albeit fantastic career.

He’s too old. He’s always injured. This is the year of Ladarius Green!

Not so fast.

The former hoopster-turned-pass-catcher has rebounded in a big way in 2014, and currently sits as the number-three tight end in standard scoring. Can this career renaissance continue, or should you look to sell high on such a recognizable name?

Numbers Never Lie

Through the first seven games of the season, Gates has been a touchdown machine. He already has 7 scores on only 27 receptions (a touchdown roughly every four receptions), which is good for third in the NFL. Yes, that’s more than Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown, and anyone not named Julius Thomas or Randall Cobb.

Granted, three of those scores came in one week in the surprising early-season upset of the Seattle Seahawks, but after two straight weeks out of the end zone, he's now scored in three straight and looks to once again be the go-to end zone target of his trusted quarterback Philip Rivers. How long can this scoring barrage continue?

Gates is seventh in the NFL among tight ends in targets with 42, but it’s what he’s doing with those targets that’s contributing to his early season success. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric quantifies a player’s contribution to his team’s scoring output based on how he performs on each play versus what is expected. Even though Gates ranks only eighth among tight ends with 27 receptions, he leads the position in Reception NEP (the number of expected points a receiver adds on receptions only) with 45.23, and is second only to Julius Thomas in Target NEP (the number of expected points a receiver gets on all targets) with 30.39.

Tight EndReceptionsReception NEPTargetsTarget NEP
Antonio Gates2745.234230.39
Greg Olsen4144.505929.79
Rob Gronkowski3142.385623.96
Julius Thomas2840.753634.69
Jimmy Graham3429.854910.91

This shows that, even though Gates isn't hogging targets - as San Diego operates in an offense where no one player is force fed the ball and Rivers throws to whoever is the most open on any given play - he's still making the most of the plays where he does touch the ball, leading to this highly efficient season.

Charging Ahead

While predicting the future value of an upstart young rookie or a veteran getting a big opportunity with a new team may be more difficult to accomplish, we already have a pretty large sample size given Gates’ longevity.

Excluding his rookie year, he’s only once had fewer than 50 receptions, fewer than 700 yards, or fewer than 7 touchdowns. While a 50-700-7 season might be a career year for some tight ends, that (and usually much more) is what we have come to expect from the Kent State product. His touchdown-per-game pace this year would project him out to a career-high 16 over a full season, with his current best of 13 coming all the way back in 2004.

His Reception NEP Per target, currently sitting at 1.08 and second in the NFL behind (you guessed it) Julius Thomas, would be the second best of his career and his highest since 2010. This tells me that, as good as he's been over the last decade, 2014 might be one of the best seasons of his entire career. And it doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down any time soon.

Looking ahead at San Diego’s upcoming schedule, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to the contrary. Over the rest of the regular season, only the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams rank in the top 10 in fantasy points allowed per game to the tight end position. The rest of his matchups are exploitable, and given that he has been nearly matchup-proof for most of his career, a strong finish to an incredible start seems extremely plausible.

While age and health can be detractors to any player’s fantasy stock, it’s tough to argue with results. Even though a 16-touchdown campaign seems unlikely, with the way the Chargers offense is humming, there’s no telling what he could do if he stays injury free. Even with lower-than-usual reception numbers, the efficiency at which he's using his limited possessions, combined with his career consistency, makes Antonio Gates an asset that I want to have in my fantasy lineup every week. He's not someone I want to sell high on.