The tight end position, as far as dynasty owners are concerned, may be deeper this off-season than any in recent memory. Most dynasty owners consider Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski the cream of the crop at the position, followed by Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron. After those four, the next ten tight ends rank closely to most dynasty owners and a case could be made for any of them to be taken fifth at the position in startups.
Included in that next tier of tight ends are the Ravens’ Dennis Pitta, who was selected eighth at his position with an ADP of 88.3 in April mock drafts put together by Ryan McDowell, and the Cowboys’ Jason Witten, who had an ADP of 112.5 was taken 14th among tight ends.
To find out which of the two tight ends dynasty owners should be trusting as a TE1, Jeff Beran and I decided to debate the topic.
Dan’s Argument for Dennis Pitta
There are many dynasty owners who are leery of Pitta. It’s true he suffered what was described as a “very serious” dislocated hip in training camp last July which resulted in surgery and him missing 12 games in 2013. It’s also true he’s not considered to be a very good blocker, the Ravens signed another tight end this off-season in Owen Daniels and that he’s caught more than 40 passes in a season only once in his career and has never had a 700-yard receiving season.
Ever since Pitta signed a 5-year, $32-million deal to remain in Baltimore in May, his naysayers have taken every opportunity to mention his flaws. I’ve chosen to completely ignore them.
I’m not a doctor, so I can’t speculate on the injury Pitta suffered or his recovery over the last ten months. What I do know is he looked pretty good when he returned to the Ravens late last year. In fact, over that last four weeks of 2013 after returning from the injury, he averaged five catches per game for 42 yards, numbers that probably aren’t very impressive to most dynasty owners looking for a TE1 going into 2014, but when you consider he only played 163 of the Ravens’ 302 (54%) snaps over those four weeks, those numbers start looking much better.
Like I said, I’m not a doctor and have no idea if Pitta will stay healthy in 2014 or beyond. What he did at the end of 2013 proved to me he’s well on his way to being 100%.
As far as Pitta’s poor blocking and the Daniels signing goes, dynasty owners shouldn’t be the least bit concerned. Over the last two seasons, 68% of Pitta’s routes have been run out of the slot and 71% of his targets have come from those routes. Daniels was brought in to be the in-line, blocking tight end and will have little effect on Pitta’s playing time or effectiveness in the offense.
That brings us to Pitta’s production to this point in his career. Let’s take a look at his numbers (including the post-season) since becoming a big part of the Ravens’ offense in 2011.
The two statistics that stand out here are the consistent targets Pitta has received over the last two years and the 2.82% career drop rate. The relationship Pitta has with Joe Flacco is also worth mentioning and has been well documented. He’s Flacco’s security blanket on third down and should continue to be his go-to target in the red zone. The trust he’s built with his quarterback as well as Pitta’s outstanding hands and ability to make catches in traffic should all but guarantee his targets go up in 2014.
Now let’s look at the production that tight ends under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak had over the last six seasons while he oversaw the Houston offense.
As you can see, Kubiak has featured the tight end in his offense consistently. Over the 93 games he was in charge of Houston’s offense on this graph, Texans tight ends were targeted 7.58 times per game and caught more than five passes per contest. They were also featured regularly around the goal line, catching 41 touchdowns over those games. The numbers are quite similar during his tenure as offensive coordinator in Denver where he featured Shannon Sharpe among many others.
Kubiak has mentioned on multiple occasions since being hired to run the Ravens’ offense how excited he is to have the opportunity to work with Pitta. His reputation of highlighting tight ends along with Pitta’s pass-catching skills should be enough to make dynasty owners salivate when considering Pitta’s upside over the next few seasons. Pitta has the potential to be a top-five dynasty tight end for the next handful of years. He turns 29 in June, but is just scratching the surface of what he can do for fantasy owners. At an ADP of 88, he may be the best value among tight ends in startups.
Jeff’s Argument for Jason Witten
Death, taxes, and TE1 level scoring output from Jason Witten. Ten years ago, I read that phrase printed on a slip of white paper inside of a fortune cookie. I wish I hadn’t crumpled it up and tossed it in the trash with my uneaten fried rice and dirty chopsticks. Had I instead taken heed to the prophecy, I would have enjoyed an entire decade of top end production for my fantasy team at the tight end position. I’m joking, of course, but my point here is Witten is about as reliable of an asset as has ever existed in fantasy football. The table below will illustrate that point precisely, showing how good he has been throughout an 11-year career during which he has only missed a single regular season game (in his rookie year).
As I’ve written before, there is inherent and often underappreciated value in having solid and dependable production on your roster. It allows an owner to take a little bit of extra risk at other positions in their lineup which is especially important when it comes to the volatility of wide receivers and running backs that generally populate a flex role. Dynasty football is difficult enough as it is! Don’t waste energy chasing potential everywhere on your roster when you have a Ronco Rotisserie set-it-and-forget-it option at your fingertips, especially one which is currently available at a discount. As you can see in the table above, Witten’s ADP in the off-season has always been closely correlated with his production in the preceding year. That is, until this off-season where he is currently being taken as the 14th tight end off the draft board.
The previous point about reliability isn’t exclusive to Witten, however, as Pitta could be equally productive on a consistent basis in Gary Kubiak’s offense. The operative phrase there though, in my opinion, is “could be.” In a best case scenario, Pitta (who turns 29 this summer) becomes what Witten (who turns 32 this summer) already is and, given the age differential, does it for a few years longer. Currently, Pitta is signed through the 2018 season while Witten’s deal expires after the 2017 season when he’ll be 35 years old. That might sound old but it’s really not for an NFL tight end who relies much more on precise route running in the short and mid-range passing game rather than speed and explosiveness to work their way down field. In 2013, the recently retired Tony Gonzalez posted numbers good enough to make him the overall TE2 in fantasy football at the age of 37. Thus, I think prematurely giving up on or expecting a major decline in Witten’s production is a mistake.
On the flip side, I have a hard time arguing against Pitta and I can’t directly refute anything Dan mentioned above in his side of the debate. Pitta’s recovery from a fractured and dislocated hip was borderline miraculous in the timeframe it happened and he looked to have regained his chemistry with Joe Flacco from the moment he set foot back on the field. For me, it comes down to a series of unanswered questions which make me skeptical of relying upon Pitta to be the TE1 of my dynasty team. Will his hip hold up in the long run or is he at risk for re-injury? Is he at risk for avascular necrosis a la Bo Jackson? Is Kubiak planning to feature him or will he split snaps and/or targets with the recently signed Owen Daniels? With Torrey Smith and Steve Smith now manning the outside and in Kubiak’s historically run-heavy offense, what is his realistic ceiling for fantasy production? If the answers to all of those questions break Pitta’s way, there is no doubt he is definitely capable of producing at the level Dan suggests. However, in the case of this debate, I prefer to stick with the ancient Chinese proverb and roll with the known commodity in Witten so I can take a little bit more risk elsewhere on my roster.
The crux of this debate seems to come down to risk tolerance. Dennis Pitta may very well end up becoming a top five or six fantasy tight end for the next several years as there’s no doubt he possesses the talent to do so. The risk, of course, is primarily associated with the unknown future of the Ravens offense and, to a lesser extent, his health. On the flip side, Jason Witten has been as steadily productive of a fantasy asset as there has ever been so the only risk there is how much longer he is capable of playing at a high level. Perhaps the solution to this debate comes down to the makeup of the rest of your roster or maybe it just comes down to plain old personal preference.