Wrapping our look at all of the fantasy positions in search of a signal when incorporating early declare prospects versus non-early declares, we’re closing things up with the tight ends. 

This week we’ve been exploring the future fantasy impact of early and non-early declare NFL prospects. The NFL has shifted to more players being granted early eligibility and entering the draft earlier than ever. With that in mind, we’re hoping to take that signal and see if there’s anything to take from it since it’s a way to fold draft age, breakout age, and draft capital into one.

So far, we’ve covered the wide receiver, running back and quarterback positions. We inherently know the league values prospects who declare early highly because they’ve flat-out told them so. 

Unsurprisingly, results so far have skewed heavily in favor of those early declare players performing at a higher level than their counterparts, but the gaps in that edge have varied position to position, which allows us to pinpoint what positions are safer or more probable to hit when making rookie selections.

You can circle back to that original wide receiver post to going deeper into the methodology, but we’re once again only accounting for players selected in the NFL draft over the past 10 years and how they performed on a per-game basis for fantasy output.

I’d never say to write off any subset of players because there’s a Hall of Famer involved here, but undrafted tight ends have had a dismal track record. Over the past 10 years, there have been just 20 seasons (8.3%) in which an undrafted tight end has produced a TE2 (TE24) or better season in points per game in PPR formats and just eight (6.7%) in which they reached TE1 status. Antonio Gates has accounted for seven of the TE2 or better seasons and five of those TE1 campaigns, with Cameron Brate (x2) and Jack Doyle providing the other three TE1 level seasons per game.

TE Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years

Early Declare4436.36%20.45%15.91%
Non Early Declare10224.51%12.75%6.86%

I saved tight ends for last because I was fearing the hit rates would naturally be so low at the position that it would be a slog. To my surprise, drafted tight ends have a higher hit rate than wide receivers at the TE2 and TE1 levels compared to WR2 and WR1 levels in bulk. When accounting for the need to start more than one wide receiver in a fantasy lineup — which impacts supply and demand — and the fact that wide receivers score more fantasy points than tight ends, it still makes chasing wideouts inherently more valuable, but I am happy to be wrong on the potential of a complete dumpster fire in terms of hit rates at the tight end position given the reputation the position has.

As has been the theme so far, at the foundation level, non-early declares make up the crux of the player sample (69.9% here). Early declares make up 30.1% of the player pool, which is ahead of only quarterbacks (25.6%) for all the positions we’ve covered. That inherently makes sense given the position has a steeper learning curve outside of running backs and wide receivers and comes with lowered raw production than those positions. After looking at each fantasy position, running backs had the largest early declare rate (38.6%) of their respective player pool, which also inherently makes sense. 

Non-early declare options once again lag behind their early declare counterparts in every area of arbitrary hit rate at the position, but as has been the case so far, we’re letting everyone in the door here that has been drafted.

Over the past 10 NFL seasons, 60% of the TE2 scorers per game have been drafted in the first three rounds while 65.8% of the TE1 scoring seasons per game have come from players taken in that range. Once again, draft capital is paramount and players without it in their pocket face a tougher climb to opportunities and fantasy relevancy. 

Rounds 1-3 TE Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years

Early Declare2552.00%32.00%24.00%
Non-Early Declare2653.85%26.92%19.23%

Reducing our sample to those first three rounds of the draft, we’re left with 34.9% of our total tight end population. Comparing that to the other positions, quarterbacks led the way with 45.3% of their drafted players being selected in the first three rounds, wide receivers at 39.3% and running backs at the bottom of the four main fantasy skill spots at 29.6%. 

56.8% of our early declare player pool is left with rounds 1-3 capital, which once again registers below quarterbacks (86.7%) and wide receivers (62.1%), but ahead of running backs (52.2%). Of all the positions with players declaring early, the NFL is truest to their evaluation matching investment at quarterback by a wide margin over the other positions while running backs are still discounted on both the rate of overall amount of players selected and early declares selected. 

By carving down to the first three rounds, we get a near 50/50 split within the sample of early versus non-early declares. This is the first position that actually has more non-early declares selected in totality than early declares, even if it is just one more player. 

The non-early declares hold their ground in matching the TE2 baseline per game, but once again fall behind the early declare group in TE1 and top-six levels per game. But the margin between those top spots is much closer than the wide receiver position at this stage of draft capital while being comparable to the running back position. There’s an edge for early declare tight ends, but the largest impact we’ve seen so far has been at the wide receiver position. 

Round 1 TE Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years

Early Declare650.00%33.33%16.67%
Non-Early Declare3100.00%100.00%100.00%

Decreasing our sample to just first-round players, we’re left with a measly nine players, by far the lowest first-round sample of any position. Those nine players account for 6.2% of all tight ends drafted, which is also the lowest rate of any position, trailing quarterbacks (25.6%), wide receivers (10.9%), and running backs (6.9%). I don’t believe that is a surprise to anyone, but gives us next to nothing to work with.

Even with the small sample, you could argue there’s some signal that 13.2% of the early declare tight ends are left compared to just 2.9% of the non-early declares, but even that leaves a lot to be desired. All three of the non-early declares (Evan Engram, O.J. Howard, and Tyler Eifert) have all hit at each respective scoring level per game in their careers at least once. 

Our six early declare tight ends have been Jermaine Gresham, Eric Ebron, David Njoku, Hayden Hurst, Noah Fant, and T.J. Hockenson. The latter three are still fresh into their careers and our favorites to flirt with TE1 production this season, but so far only Ebron and Gresham have delivered TE1 scoring seasons while only Ebron has a top-six season on his resume. 

Looking at the 2020 Class

As is the case with running backs, there’s a slight edge to early declare tight ends with opening draft capital selected in the first three rounds, but it’s tighter while the early declare portion of the position at that stage doesn’t have an overall edge in amount of players selected versus other positions, meaning the early declare status of those players holds less weight in the result of capital spent.

When looking at the 2020 class of tight ends, the first question we have to ask is how many tight ends even get selected in the first three rounds? When I broke down the prospects for pre-draft rankings, it was not a class littered with stars. 

Of the 20 tight ends invited to the combine, six of them were early declare options. The standouts here that could flirt with being among the top players selected at their position are Hunter Bryant, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Cole Kmet. The other two early declares are Dalton Keene and Thaddeus Moss.  Senior options near the top are Harrison Bryant and Adam Trautman, who went to small programs and unlikely had a strong opportunity to go pro early while Brycen Hopkins is the top senior option from a Power-5 program.