Tight End strategies in fantasy football come down to a variety of things, including the scoring system and necessity of playing them. Some prefer the safety of the big star name, but if you like to wait, you can frequently be rewarded with decent production.
I’m going to go down the recent history of breakouts to see what we might learn about trying to take chances at the position and where it’s relatively worth the risk.
I took the best thirty tight ends by individual season performance (PPR scoring) in the last thirty years (several names of course appear several times, so this comprises roughly the top 90 seasons). I then looked at the first year that each player on that list had a top 10 finish at the tight end position in fantasy.
Here is a breakdown of the archetypes for our tight end breakouts:
THE SECOND YEAR TIGHT END
Eleven of the 30 breakouts were guys entering their second year in the league. This includes many of the biggest names at the position, such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham, and Travis Kelce. This group also includes Dallas Clark, Chris Cooley, Greg Olsen, Kyle Rudolph, Todd Heap, and Aaron Hernandez. With the exception of Kelce (who played only one game as a rookie) the rest of these guys were solid fantasy options, if not as spectacular, the year before. The median finish for this group, in their first season, was TE21. Kyle Rudolph (35th) and Todd Heap (32nd) were the only others besides Kelce to finish outside the Top 30 as rookies.
THE THIRD YEAR PLAYER WHO WAS A NEAR BREAKOUT IN YEAR 2
Four more guys fit this mold, and could almost be classified as near-breakouts a year earlier, finishing between 11th and 16th in the TE rankings as sophomores before making a bigger leap in year three. This category includes Shannon Sharpe, Jeremy Shockey, Zach Ertz, and Ben Watson.
BREAKOUT IN YEAR 4, AFTER INJURIES KEPT THEM OFF THE FIELD EARLIER
Three tight ends had their breakouts delayed until year 3 because of injury: Kellen Winslow (missed all of year 2 and several games in year 1), Tyler Eifert, and Jordan Reed, who was an earlier breakout on per-game production but couldn’t play a full season. Vernon Davis meanwhile had his breakout in year 4, after missing six games in the first two years (and finishing as a near breakout in year 2), and then having a disappointing third season before exploding in 2009.
Rob Gronkowski, Keith Jackson, and Heath Miller all broke out as rookies. (Evan Engram did as well last year, but he didn’t crack the top 30 individuals yet).
GUYS, BURIED BEHIND GOOD TIGHT ENDS ON DEPTH CHART, THAT CHANGED TEAMS
Three tight ends had their breakouts after year 4, when they changed teams. Martellus Bennett was behind Jason Witten in Dallas and moved to the Giants. Delanie Walker was behind Vernon Davis and found success when he signed with Tennessee. Wesley Walls was a little-used backup in San Francisco who found success in Carolina.
GARY BARNIDGE ONCE HAD A BIG YEAR
Something is in the water in Cleveland (and don’t drink that something). Peyton Hillis is maybe the biggest one-hit wonder at running back and Gary Barnidge had a monster year at age 30 while never before finishing in the top 40 at TE. Good luck trying to duplicate that formula.
Twenty-five of the 30 best tight end seasons saw that tight end have their first breakout Top 10 finish by year 3. The most common was in year 2, though guys that nearly fit that prototype, and guys that were injured, would also provide year 3 value.
Top Candidates for Breakout:
O.J. Howard (Current ADP: TE15): Howard was a first round pick, is an elite athlete, and finished at TE17 as a rookie. He saw his target share impacted by Cameron Brate, but if that reverses in year 2 he’ll be a huge value. I expect it will.
George Kittle (Current ADP: TE11): Kittle was somewhat of a surprise as a 5th round rookie a year ago, finishing as TE20 after a strong closing run with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB (11 catches for 194 yards and a TD in the last three games). He did suffer a shoulder injury in the first preseason game and his status for week 1 is up in the air, but if that ADP starts to drop, he could be great value.
David Njoku (Current ADP: TE13): Njoku was inconsistent but showed flashes as a rookie, finishing at TE22. Another first rounder with elite physical skills, he already had two touchdowns in the preseason opener.
Trey Burton (Current ADP: TE10): Trey Burton fits the mold of the Delanie Walker/Martellus Bennett breakouts, as he’s posted an average of 30 catches the last two years playing behind pro bowler Zach Ertz in Philadelphia. He moves on to Chicago and should be the starter at age 27.
Mike Gesicki (Current ADP: TE19): Gesicki, the 42nd overall pick of the Dolphins, is the rookie in the best position to join other rookie breakouts. Jarvis Landry and his 100+ receptions per year are gone. Devante Parker has been inconsistent, Kenny Stills is a deep threat but not a high volume receiver, and Danny Amendola–ostensibly the replacement in the slot–is about to turn 33 and never had more than 65 catches in a season with the Patriots. Gesicki looks like the favorite to be the red zone producer.