As we rapidly close in on the season, I do want to spend just a bit of time on positional archetypes. When we laid out our fantasy tiers earlier in the summer, I went through the process of why it is important to understand how a player accrues his fantasy production to get a better understanding of how that player performs in context of opportunities given, which can fluctuate year-over-year or in a given week. With that foundation, we are taking a further dive into how players are utilized and highlighting some of the pros and cons of that usage. Kicking things off, we are starting with the tight ends.
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The tight end position is a true dual-role position in which not every player is on equal ground in terms of how they are used in the passing game despite potentially having similar snap totals. When we covered which stats impacted tight end scoring on a per-game level, routes run had a higher correlation to that scoring output over snaps played for obvious reasons. We are not just solely looking for players that are on the field a lot, but ones that are running routes (getting passing game opportunities) over blocking.
With that in mind, here are the top-30 tight ends in draft cost (minus rookies and Jace Sternberger, who did not register a target in his 2019 regular season playing time) with their career and 2019 usage rates per snap.
|TE||Career Route/Snap%||2019||Career Tgt/Route%||2019||2019 Snap%|
|Irv Smith Jr.||49.8%||49.8%||15.1%||15.1%||59.6%|
*2019 Snap% is rate in games played
*Routes Run Provided by Pro Football Focus
The table above is sorted by player snap share in the games they appeared in. Starting at the top, you can see why Travis Kelce has been such a dominant fantasy scorer that has paced the position in overall scoring in each of the past four seasons. Kelce was not only tops in snap rate per game at the position, but he ran a pass route on 56.9% of his snaps (13th in 2019). Kelce has led all tight ends in routes run in each of the past three seasons. Not only running a lot of routes, Kelce also ranks fifth in career target rate per route run above.
Here is where you can spot a bit of the differentiator between Kelce and George Kittle. One of the cornerstones of Kittle’s game is his acumen as a blocker and it really showed up a year ago when the 49ers were a team consistently in more positive game script than they were during Kittle’s first two seasons in the league.
Kittle ran a pass route on just 42.1% of his snaps in 2019, which was ahead of only Jonnu Smith and Tyler Higbee among the players above. In overall context, Kittle ran 213 fewer pass routes than Kelce in 2019. The good news is that Kittle remained one of the most used tight ends per passing game opportunity in 2019 and for his career. He ranked second among all tight ends in target per route rate (31.4%) and is second in career target per route rate among the players above.
The player ahead of Kittle in that department is Mark Andrews. Andrews is near the bottom of the table since he only played 43.8% of the Baltimore snaps in his 15 games active in 2019. This was after playing 35% of the snaps as a rookie in 2018. But when Andrews has been on the field, he has been running pass routes and stacking targets. Andrews may have been 24th in snap share above, but was seventh in route/snap rate and first in target rate per route in 2019. Of all the players above, he is fourth in routes run per snaps played for the start of his career. Entering 2020 with a clean slate of health and the Ravens moving on from Hayden Hurst, Andrews should see a spike in overall playing time while already showcasing his ceiling on an efficiency level.
Behind both Andrews and Kittle in target rate per route run was the curious case of Tyler Higbee. We went in-depth on Higbee’s offensive explosion to close 2019 and the chance of sustaining that output into 2020 earlier in the summer. Higbee still only ran a pass route on 40.9% of his snaps in 2019, which was a slight bump from his career usage, but he was targeted on 30.3% of his routes after being targeted on just 14.3% of his routes during his first three seasons in the league.
Even through Weeks 1-10 when Higbee only ran 11.9 pass routes per game, he was still targeted on 27.4% of his routes. When he got hot to close the season and was running 26.7 routes per game, that number spiked to 32.1%, but he was still only running a pass route on 44.1% of his overall snaps played. Higbee will be someone that requires a step of faith in holding his end of season routes run output, but he was targeted heavily per pass route for the entirety of the season a year ago.
That was not the case for someone such as Jonnu Smith. Smith was last in the table above in routes run per snap (35.1%) and 20th in target rate per route run (17.9%). Smith has efficiency ability, but we still need the overall volume for him from this Tennessee offense centered around Derrick Henry. He was second among all tight ends last season in yards per target (9.9 yards), second in yards created after the catch per reception (8.1 yards), and eighth in yards per route run (1.83).
Switching gears from the tight ends who are blocking a lot more than their peers, but still occupy a high rate of passing game opportunities per actual route run to the tight ends out there just running routes at a high rate, we largely land on our list of tight ends that can be referred to as “big wide receivers”. The tight ends with 60% or more of their career snaps spent running pass routes over blocking are Mike Gesicki (66.9%), Eric Ebron (66.7%), Jimmy Graham (66.0%), Andrews (65.4%), Evan Engram (65.2%), Jared Cook (62.5%), and Gerald Everett (62.1%).
Only Kelce and Zach Ertz ran more pass routes than Gesicki last season. That total was impacted by Gesicki being more receiver than tight end and also the game script Miami was often a part of in 2019. Because Gesicki was constantly running pass routes, he was able to overcome ranking just 23rd in target rate per route (15.3%) a year ago. But Gesicki came on in the back half of the season, leading all tight ends in routes run (38.3 per game) from Weeks 9-17 and running a pass route on 74.2% of his snaps played over that span. But even during those weeks, he was targeted on just 17.1% of his routes run.
Gesicki will once again be tasked with passing game assignments over run blocking, but with Preston Williams returning and Miami fielding actual running backs this season, there is a path where his overall routes could come back a bit (Miami is still going to have a lot of negative game script) while still needing to have an increase in target rate per route run to have a true breakout.
There are a few players with limited career resumes that are in new situations this season. The first being Hayden Hurst. Playing behind Mark Andrews in a low-volume passing game, Hurst played just 23% and 41% of the team snaps over his first two years in the league and ran an actual pass route on just 44.5% of those snaps, which ranks 27th out of the 30 players above. Now being thrust into a completely different offensive climate as a starter in Atlanta, Hurst is being tasked with taking over Austin Hooper’s role. For his career in Atlanta, Hooper ranks 10th above in routes run per snap. Hooper was fourth in the NFL last season in routes run despite missing three games and ranked fourth in routes run per snap (66.0%) a year ago. That passing volume elevated Hooper’s 19.5% target rate per route (14th).
Hooper is going to a Cleveland system under Kevin Stefanski that featured his tight ends more as blockers in 2019. Both Irv Smith (19th) and Kyle Rudolph were in the back half of the league in routes run per snap a year ago while both were in the bottom-five of the list above in target rate per route run. I find it hard to believe that Cleveland pursued Hooper so heavily to use him in the same capacity and limit his passing-game involvement, but this is a primary driver into why Hooper’s current ADP is so far from his 2019 fantasy finish.
We also have Rob Gronkowski back in the league this season and joining Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. Gronk is obviously one of the most decorated tight ends ever and his career usage bears that out. Another good blocker, Gronk has only run a pass route on 48.1% of his career snaps (23rd), but his fourth in career target rate (22.9%) of the players above.
Of course, there is still the narrative in play that Gronk could 1) be on a limited snap count overall for preservation and 2) has to overcome the “tight end in a Bruce Arians offense” angle. O.J. Howard was eighth on the list above in snap share per game last year, but 20th in routes run per snap (48.4%) and ahead of only Kyle Rudolph in target rate per snap in 2019.
A couple of other tight ends with limited snaps from a year ago with new opportunities are Blake Jarwin and Ian Thomas. Jarwin was 11th above in target rate per route run last season (21.4%) on his restricted opportunities. If Jason Witten were here, the 37-year-old would have ranked 11th above in snap share, and 17th in route/snap rate (52.8%).
Thomas was 10th in rate of snaps running passing routes (60.9%), but just 26th in target per route run rate (14.7%) while Greg Olsen was 12th in route/snap rate (57.5%) and just 21st in target rate per route (17.8%). There is an entirely new system in Carolina this season under Matt Rhule and Joe Brady with a potential upgrade in Teddy Bridgewater under center, but those 2019 rates for the Carolina tight ends could carry over given their surrounding playmakers. Thomas should still flirt with a high rate of routes run given his ability and the Carolina offense paired with the potential game script, but the question will remain how many targets can Thomas wrestle away from D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson.
Olsen’s move to Seattle this offseason also impacts Will Dissly. Dissly suffered two brutal injuries through his first two years in the league, but when Dissly has played, he has been utilized on his limited pass-catching opportunities. Playing in Seattle’s run-heavy offense, Dissly has run a pass route on just 45.7% of his career snaps, but only Andrews, Kittle, Ertz, Gronkowski, and Kelce have been targeted at a higher rate of their career routes run than Dissly has on his limited sample.