As we begin to shift our attention to the 2021 season, we are still taking a look back at what just transpired this past season to get a current lay of the land. After looking at the spike in quarterback performance both through the air and on the ground, we are digging into how the tight end position fared in 2020.
Leaguewide Tight End Usage Since 2010
|YEAR||TGT||LG. TGT%||REC||LG. REC%||REYD||LG. REYD%||RETD||LG. RETD%||PPR PTS|
From a counting stats perspective, the tight end position had an increase across the board in targets, receptions, yardage, and touchdowns compared to the 2019 season.
From a league usage rate stance, target volume saw a slight uptick with the rising tide of passing production as a whole, but the share of receptions and yardage actually dipped a touch compared to how the position produced in those areas over the previous season.
One area where tight ends saw a large improvement over not only 2019, but several seasons, was in the scoring department. The position collectively caught its most touchdown passes since the 2013 season, while their 26.8% leaguewide touchdown share through the air was a high since 2013. After just three different tight ends caught seven or more touchdown passes over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, eight different tight ends caught at least seven touchdown passes in 2020, the most in a season to hit that arbitrary threshold over the past decade. Just two of them made it to double-digit touchdown receptions, but that is where the position benefitted the most in 2020 compared to previous seasons. That scoring production aided the position producing the most fantasy points scored as a group since the 2015 campaign.
With that increase in overall counting stats and a significant touchdown spike that was the highest in several years, the tight end position must have been a success in terms of quality for fantasy producers, right?
TE1 Positional Output Share Since 2010
Despite the collective improvement for the tight end position in fantasy points scored, we still were hurting for reliable starting options at the position as we had a ton of contributing players to that overall production, but few quality stars to rely on.
Despite the increase in leaguewide passing output in 2020, top-12 scoring tight ends produced their fewest amount of receptions (800) and yardage (9,090 yards) as a group since the 2017 season. Those reception and yardage marks were the third-lowest since 2010 for the TE1 group at the position from a top-down stance.
In context of the position itself, TE1 scorers produced their lowest share of receptions (32.5%) and PPR fantasy points (33.5%) at the position over the sample above. Their share of the position’s targets (32.2%) was the lowest since the 2010 season while the share of receiving yardage (34.3%) trailed only the 2017 season above.
This all includes the stellar campaign from Travis Kelce, who scored a career-high 312.8 fantasy points in 2020, which was the second-highest individual scoring season for a tight end in league history, trailing only Rob Gronkowski’s 2011 season when he scored 330.9 PPR points. Kelce’s 1,416 receiving yards set a new record for the position in a season while his anticipated touchdown progression cashed in for a career-high 11 touchdown grabs.
Kelce has now led all tight ends in PPR scoring in five consecutive seasons. Take Kelce’s historic season in context of the TE1 group as a whole having their lowest actual impact at the position itself in production and you have a cocktail for Kelce providing a nearly unprecedented edge in positional leverage.
Top-Scoring TE Performances Since 2010
If it were not for a stellar final five weeks to close the season for Darren Waller, Kelce would have blown away the entire field from a season-long perspective. But even accounting for Waller also being a productive tight end this past season, the remainder of the position turned in some of the lowest production we have ever seen from the “top” scorers when the fantasy dust settled on an individual season.
The TE3 and TE4 this season were Logan Thomas (for real) and Robert Tonyan (same), who had nearly identical points just edged out by Thomas adding 28 passing yards. Those two tight ends should say all we need to know about the state of the players behind Kelce and Waller. That duo managed to produce just 56.5% of the fantasy output that the overall TE1 produced, the lowest rate over the past 30 seasons. Thomas had the lowest scoring season by a TE3 since 2002.
From comparison sakes across the other positions, the QB3 produced 95.9% of the QB1 output this past season, while the WR3 was at 91.7% of the WR1, and the RB3 replicated 88.2% of the RB1 production. To get to the 56.5% mark at those other positions, they would be the RB11, QB20, and WR27. With injuries to George Kittle, injuries and regression from other top selections in Mark Andrews and Zach Ertz, another year of the mid-round tight end trap zone, and no true tangible breakouts occurring at the position, Kelce (and to a lesser extent, Waller) ruled the position.
We talked a lot on this website about how teams approached defending Kansas City in 2020 elevated an already great player in Kelce as he destroyed teams playing 2-High safeties all season long. Even if teams do something similar in 2021, I would anticipate that the field catches up to both top tight ends in 2021 as this past season was a large outlier in the table above. That does not make Kelce (who as mentioned, has paced the position in each of the past five seasons) a poor draft selection and he will surely be my TE1 heading into drafts easily, but it is a sound bet that Kelce will not provide the dominance in positional leverage that he did this past season, even if he makes it six consecutive seasons as the best fantasy tight end.