Two Reasons to Draft a Top 3 Tight End

Anyone who’s been around fantasy football for a few years has heard the phrase, “Don’t draft a tight end in the early rounds.” The logic pretty much goes like this: tight ends score less points than running backs or wide receivers, so why waste such a high pick on one?

I’ll tell you why — the value at the tight end position:

  1. is easier for the masses to predict than other positions, and
  2. falls off faster than any other position.
Dave and Dave discuss position scarcity and drafting an early-round tight end in Fantasy Outliers Podcast Ep. 4:

Don’t just chase points, find value

There are different schools of thought out there, but we think the best way to evaluate a player’s importance to your team is to measure their value versus their position (or versus their tier within their position, but let’s not get too complicated). Your QB versus other starting QBs, your RBs versus the other starting RBs, and yes, your TE versus other starting TEs. Because players are always scoring relative to your opponents’ players, it’s not always about total points scored — it can also be about scoring more points than their competition. This is the fantasy football version of relativity. Even if tight ends score less points on average, the difference between the top 3 TEs and the rest of them is often so large that a good tight end could be winning as many or maybe even MORE points for your team than a good RB or WR.

Let’s illustrate this with an example: Say you’re in a 10-Team PPR league, if one of your running backs scores 15 points per week on average, is that worth more or less to your team than your tight end who scores 13 points per week? In 10-Team PPR leagues, RB’s as a whole average 12.1 points per week, whereas TE’s average 9.5 points, so your RB is winning your team +2.9 points per week on average versus other RB’s, and your TE is netting your team +3.5 points per week on average. (The actual way we calculate value is way more detailed than this, but the general concept remains the same.)

This is an important point: don’t chase points in your draft; instead, find value. Last year, using our beta models, our teams got into the playoffs in 8 out of 9 leagues. And we did it by finding value where many weren’t looking. While the single game highs of RB’s and WR’s stick in our memory more, winning +5 points per week when your tight end is scoring 10–15 points on average is just as helpful to your team — albeit far less sexy.

Year-over-year variance in ROI

So value is important, and tight ends shouldn’t be overlooked — in my humble opinion, that is. The other factor to keep in mind when drafting is predictability or risk. Historically, there has been more variance in ROI of the top projected running backs than there has been for tight ends. Sure, last year David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott ate it up, but what about Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson? That’s a 50–50 shot in the first 4 picks. In contrast, the first five tight ends — Rob Gronkowski (NE), Jordan Reed (Wsh), Greg Olsen (Car), Travis Kelce (KC), Delanie Walker (Ten) — all produced positive Total Season Values* last year. That’s 5 for the first 5.

Okay, so that’s one year, but what about historically? Since 2011, on average, the Total Season Value drop-off from the first 3 picks taken by position to the first 6 picks taken by position was the highest for tight ends. This means that value is more scarce at tight end than the other positions, and ADP is better at predicting tight end production than the other positions, especially running back. Of course, you only have 1 TE spot and 2 RB & WR spots, so this does impact the results.

Figure 1. Total Season Value of the first few picks at each position in 10-Team PPR leagues (historical returns since 2011). See here to dig in.

You might be thinking: Is this the Gronk effect? Yes and no. Gronk is an outlier (we can all agree on that). But there are outliers at every position each year. Also, you had Jimmy Graham and, before that, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez were the studs. And it’s not just one player per year bringing the average up. If you look at the average returns per pick order by position, you see that on average, only the first three picks at Tight End returned meaningful positive value (and that the value drop-off at Tight End happens faster than at other positions).

Figure 2. Total Season Value means of each draft pick by position since 2011 / ROI by Position graph in 10-Team PPR leagues.

So on average since 2011, you can get good value at RB and WR through the first 10 players at those positions in 10-Team PPR leagues. That’s just not true at TE where the top 3 have consistently been the only picks that generate positive Total Season Value. These overall findings hold up across all league formats — if you want to dig in further, visit our Draft Trends for your respective scoring format (start here).

Where to target a top 3 TE

If you’ve followed me so far, you’re probably thinking: where in the draft can I target a top 3 tight end? According to our Number of picks taken by position throughout the draft analysis, on average, the third Tight End is chosen at pick 47 in 10-Team PPR leagues. That’s the 5th round. So should you draft a TE in Round 1? Probably not—on average only ⅓ of leagues draft a Tight End in the first round anyway, so it’s kind of a moot point. Should you draft 2 RB’s, 2 WR’s, 1 QB, and 1 TE in the first 6 rounds? Unless you have a late round TE sleeper up your sleeve (hello, Tyler Eifert 2015), in my opinion, it’s worth considering.

Dave and Dave discuss position scarcity and drafting an early-round tight end in Fantasy Outliers Podcast Ep. 4:
To get a unique draft kit that will give you an advantage in your league this year, go to our 2017 fantasy projections here. (desktop friendly)

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* Total Season Value is the average number of points the player won or lost for your team across the course of a 13-game fantasy regular season averaged across many leagues