Tight end usage has increased over the past few years, with the increase of focus linked to the Patriots utilization of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The tight end position had generally been treated as a secondary offensive option, unless the team had a star like Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, or Antonio Gates. As a result, tight ends were exactly treated with a premium.
Patriots general manager and head coach Bill Belichick is a known trend setter and took advantage of a similar market inefficiency when he popularized the slot receiver in 2007 (and the 3-4 defense at the turn of the century). He was fortunate enough to select both Gronkowski and Hernandez in the same 2010 draft and went about establishing an offense that could create mismatches. Both were capable blockers, both were capable receivers, and both were general headaches for opposing defenses.
The rest of the league caught on quickly and when Hernandez was incarcerated in 2013, the market value of a tight end had already greatly increased. Just like how the rest of the league caught on to the 3-4 defense in the middle of the decade, there was no more arbitrage to be found- all the optimal players were on teams.
Belichick has decided to ignore the tight end position this off-season, but it’s clear that the impact of the tight end is still affecting the league.
For fantasy reasons, there are some proponents of selecting tight ends like Saints receiver Jimmy Graham early on because the differential between Graham and the next best tight end is greater than any other position in the league. Others believe that you shouldn’t even draft a tight end and should instead “stream” the position by taking the top free agent match-up every week.
Both options have merits and they’re not mutually exclusive. I’ve had leagues where a GM will take the top two tight ends in the top three rounds (Graham and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis) to not just prevent other teams from playing a viable tight end, but also picking up a consistent flex option.
Tight ends have some power in both fantasy and on the field, but the teams that utilize the role are fairly divided. You will have the stars, like Gronk, Graham, Davis, and Witten, that will always be consistent producers. You’ll also have some teams that just don’t.
I went through the past two and three seasons of data to see how teams operate with their tight ends. I looked at the most basically viable tight ends for every team (minimum 16 receptions during the season, or one per game) and summed the totals for every team.
I then compared the yards gained by tight ends over the past two and three year spans of time.
We see a skewed distribution with a right tail, which makes basic sense; the tail will have the elite tight ends and their production. The rest of the league will have the more standard plug-and-play tight end variety. And when you look at the tail, you have the Patriots (Gronkowski, Hernandez), Saints (Graham), and Texans (Owen Daniels) all gaining over 3300 yards.
In the next tier, you’ll see teams that have gained 2500-3000 yards like the Cowboys, Lions, Chargers, 49ers, Jets, Falcons, Panthers, Eagles, and Ravens. With coach Gary Kubiak making his way from the Texans to the Ravens, you can be certain that Baltimore will start involing their tight ends more frequently.
You’ll note that we’ve listed 12 teams- enough for a tight end on every team in a standard 12 team league. If you don’t catch an elite tier tight end, there’s not likely to be much of a difference in output in the remaining top 12 options.
More interesting? You’ll see the void in the 2250-2500 category, with just one team (Cleveland). That’s a notable chasm when it comes to offensive philosophy. It’s a similar parallel to teams operating out of the 3-4 or the 4-3 defensive fronts; there are a fixed number of players that can fit the necessary role and it’s possible we’re already approaching equilibrium.
We see another gap in the 1400-1600 group, with just 3 teams averaging between 700 and 800 yards at tight end over the past two seasons, while 8 teams rank from 1200-1400, and 7 teams rank from 1600-1800.
In fact, if you look close at the data, no team falls in the 1450 to 1600 range.
The two outliers are the Saints and Texans, while the Cowboys, Jets, Broncos, Patriots, Lions, and Eagles fill the second tier.
Still, the divide is curious. It could be a philosophical opposition to the tight end position, or it could be situational- the Packers are towards the bottom due to the continuous injuries to Jermichael Finley.
Whatever the reason, there are clearly coaches and teams that better utilize their tight ends. It’s possible that the arbitrage period of undervalued tight ends is over and it’s possible that the teams on the left side of the chart will ignore the trend.
As teams move forward, it becomes a matter of finding what will be the next hot position.
Note: Is it coincidence that the Broncos (+11) and Seahawks (+9) have the greatest rank improvements in tight end utilization when comparing three years of data versus two years of data?