Fantasy Football: Tight End Landmines that will Torpedo your Middle Rounds

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The NFL is evolving rapidly, and on the forefront has been the tight end position.  This is no longer a kicker-esque position, a humdrum slot for fantasy owners to reluctantly fill late in drafts; studs like Vernon Davis are now viable (and often necessary) targets early in your drafts.  In fact, very strong cases have been made - including this great take from Justin Winn - that one (or more) of the elite guys should be targeted in the first 2-3 rounds.  But a glance at FantasyFootballCalculator’s ADP data for the position uncovers some ugly mid-round trends: guys likely to be outscored by lower-drafted talents, and more importantly, guys unlikely to return on your investment.  Here are three names in particular to avoid chasing into the sun.

Vernon Davis, 49ers (ADP: 6.04) – Yes, he’s coming off a 2013 campaign that produced roughly two million touchdown catches.  But there simply isn’t a lot to love about Davis’ 2014 outlook, and this ADP is inexcusable.  Davis is a truly gifted athlete, a proven playmaker, and a renowned team leader; from an NFL standpoint, he’s well worth the affordable extension he just inked.  But when we crunch the numbers for this little game of ours, we see a secondary target who just isn’t a huge part of Colin Kaepernick’s plans.  Kaep is a downfield-oriented passer, and is clearly smitten with Michael Crabtree, having peppered him with a whopping 24.6% of his throws since taking Alex Smith’s starting job in mid-2012.

How has Davis fared in the pecking order since then?  Examine his splits with and without Crabtree in the lineup (including playoffs):

Games Target % Targets Receptions Yards TDs
With Crabtree 18 13.5% 4.2 2.4 37.7 0.4
Without Crabtree 10 24.6% 6.1 3.8 62.3 0.9

These are relatively solid sample sizes – after all, they encompass the entirety of the Kaepernick Era – so they should probably carry some weight.  And by the hammer of Thor, look at those splits!  With Crabtree on board, Davis sees his target rate cut nearly in half!  Extrapolate those splits into full 16-game seasons, and this is the Tale of Two Statlines you’re looking at:

Targets Receptions Yards TDs
With Crabtree 67 38 603 6
Without Crabtree 98 61 997 14

Now, for a TE, Davis is indeed a fine downfield threat and touchdown scorer.  To say that he’s valueless to a fantasy team would be absurd; even a 40-catch season would likely net him a solid year with a handful of TE1 weeks.  But to land Davis in drafts, you’ll have to pay for the latter extrapolation while his situation is mired in the former: Crabtree is healthy, Kaep is under center, and three new receivers have been added to the 49er mix.  Unless you’re in a best-ball league, you’ll want to pass and pass hard – and please, regardless of your league’s configuration, avoid this guy in the sixth round.

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings (ADP: 7.11) – All offseason, we’ve heard the widespread assumption that Norv Turner’s Minnesota arrival was the starting bell for Rudolph’s ascension to TE greatness.  Folks have roundly pointed to Turner’s recent history with TEs – the marvelous career of Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron’s 2013 breakout – as evidence of Turner as a Tight End Whisperer who can/will turn his TE into an upper-tier producer, if only with sheer volume.  This is poor reasoning for making Rudolph the 8th TE off the board (ahead of Greg Olsen?!), primarily because it’s factually incorrect.  Turner has no discernible history of “forcefeeding” the ball to whomever happens to start for his offenses. Prior to his San Diego and Cleveland stints, Turner ran Oakland and San Francisco offenses that produced no noteworthy TEs (Doug Jolley ring a bell? Eric Johnson of Yale?).  It seems clear that the monster numbers seen from Gates and Cameron were mainly products of their otherworldly athleticism.

Is Rudolph the kind of talent to continue Norval’s run of fantasy gold? It looks unlikely.  Compared to Gates and Cameron, Rudolph is a plodding in-line type, called upon to block far more often than the ultra-athletic slot guys and sent down the seams of the secondary far less often.  At his 2011 Pro Day, Rudolph posted average measurables: a 40 in the 4.78-4.8 range and an unspectacular 34.5 vertical.  In three NFL seasons, he’s produced a pedestrian 15 receptions of 20+ yards; a big-play phenom he is not.

So, since we have no reason to assume Turner’s play-calling will force the ball into Rudolph’s hands, and we’re confident he won’t be making dazzling things happen once it’s there, how should we view Rudolph as a fantasy prospect?  I place him solidly in the middle tier, but without the upside of a mid-to-late-round gem like Zach Ertz or Charles Clay.  With those guys, you’re likely getting similar statistical production, but with much higher ceilings and much lower price tags.  Don’t buy into the silly Norval hype and chase those Gates/Cameron dreams into the seventh round.

Martellus Bennett, Bears (ADP: 10.10) – Bennett posted a fairly sexy low-end TE1 line in his first season under Marc Trestman.  But fantasy TEs are generally pretty touchdown-dependent, a prerequisite that doesn’t bode well for Bennett.  Considering he’s being drafted right in line with potential fantasy monsters like Zach Ertz and Ladarius Green, Bennett has strong potential to set you behind the eight-ball at the position.

A close examination of Bennett’s 2013 paints two vastly different pictures of Bennett as a scorer.  Through the first six weeks, Jay Cutler utilized Bennett heavily in the red zone, resulting in a very strong fantasy start.  Cutler went down to injury in Week Seven, and upon his return, Bennett became an extreme afterthought near the goal line.  Check out his red zone splits in Cutler’s 11 full games:

RZ Targets Tgts <10 Tgts <5 TD Rec TD Rate
Weeks 1-6 10 4 3 3 9.7%
Weeks 9, 14-17 3 1 1 0 0.0%

Ugh.  Afterthought doesn’t even really cover the Rod Kimble-esque tumble that Bennett took down the red zone pecking order over the second half of the season.  And it’s hard to envision this half-season trend reversing in 2014.  Big-bodied ultra-stud (and collegiate red zone dominator) Alshon Jeffery enters his third NFL season, and even a modest jump in his production should push Bennett even further down the food chain.  Brandon Marshall, of course, remains a Cutler favorite all over the field, and Matt Forte is one of the league’s most-targeted backs in the red zone.  Bennett is a big, athletic guy, but I just can’t find big touchdown numbers in this offense for him.

All told, Bennett does not have the look of a reliable TE1.  Now, touchdowns are not the end-all-be-all; I love Travis Kelce despite the unlikelihood that he sees consistent red zone targets at any point behind Anthony Fasano.  But Kelce is currently the 18th TE off the board, while Bennett is the 12th; spending a pick on Bennett likely means cashing in one of your tickets to the Rookie Running Back Parade in Rounds 8-11.  He looks to me like a classic desperation pick: a ho-hum talent in a ho-hum situation that we talk ourselves into during a TE run.  Take a breath, let your league-mates panic-draft, and remind yourself of the depth and upside at TE this year.  And don’t snap an ankle chasing down Bennett.

Lead photo: “Vernon Davis” by Mike Morbeck is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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