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Paradigm Shift: Rise of the Tight Ends, Collapse of the Wide Receivers

The 2011 season has been dubbed by many as “The Year of the Tight End” due to several teams leaning heavily on young, large tight ends. However, the tight end position as been undergoing a gradual transformation for many years now. What seems to have gone unnoticed, however, is that the transformation of the tight end position has radically transformed the wide receiver position as well. The transformation of the tight end and wide receiver positions holds clear implications for how fantasy football is played and, quite frankly, may require a complete paradigm shift in the dynasty fantasy football community.

I believe the “Year of the Tight End” will not be isolated to a single year, the numbers we are seeing from tight ends will continue. The possibility exists that we might see a continued increase on the high-end, pushing already stratospheric numbers posted by the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham even higher. What is almost certain to occur is that the numbers posted on the high end of the tight end position will begin to be the new norm for tight ends, making the position one that will require an increase in fantasy research and will also require those participating in startup fantasy football drafts to consider drafting tight ends even earlier as their value continues to increase.

To illustrate just how far the tight end position has come, if you averaged the statistics of top ten tight ends from 2002 and the top ten tight ends from 2011, a couple of very startling things stand out immediately.

First, if a tight end managed to have a season in which he achieved the average you get from the statistics of the top ten tight ends of 2002 (which is 53 receptions for 624 yards), then that player would not have even been in the top ten tight ends from 2011.

Second, if you reversed the scenario and a hypothetical tight end from 2002 managed to score the statistics you get when you average the top ten tight ends from 2011 (which comes out to 74 receptions for 936 yards), then that player would have been the number one tight end in 2002.

Just as starling as the increase in the tight end’s statistics is the decline in the statistics of the top ten wide receivers. Wide receivers have seen declines in receiving touchdowns, targets, receiving yards, receptions and percentage of team targets from 2002 to 2011. One of the few increases during that time period comes in the yards per target, something we’ll examine later in this article.

On their own, those statistics could be viewed as 2002 being a bad year for tight ends and great for wide receivers, while 2011 could be viewed as an amazing year for tight ends and a bad year for wide receivers. However, the data from all of the years in between 2002 and 2011 indicate otherwise, in a big way.

The case I’m making here will be hard for many to swallow; we all look at the deep touchdowns regularly hauled in by the likes of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald and find it hard to believe that wide receivers as a whole appear to be supplanted as the primary weapon on a football team for the next five years. It’s even harder to believe that the position that appears to be the one to knock wide receivers out of that prime position is, what for many circumstance appear to be, glorified offensive linemen. The lifeblood of any receiver is targets and receptions. The plain truth of the matter is that wide receivers have seen a decrease in both, while tight ends on the other hand, have seen increases in both as indicated by the charts below:

 

Should the current trends continue, we will see tight ends eclipse wide receivers in targets, receptions and number of touchdowns within the next five years as the percentage of team targets increases for tight ends.

Why is this occurring?

The answer appears to be a perfect storm of circumstances that show no sign of reversing. First, tight ends make much larger targets for quarterbacks in the short to mid-range and can move the ball further after the catch than wide receivers can. Second, the specialization of the pass game is becoming more and more pronounced. Wide receivers are becoming increasingly specialized for their individual positions, whether it is playing the X (Split End), Y (Slot) or Z (Flanker). Gone are the days of a wide receiver moving around the field playing simply “wide receiver.” Third, the targets that wide receivers are seeing as a position are moving further and further from the line of scrimmage.

The most important of these changes revolves around the depth of targets. Much of the offensive production on a team does not come from the “deep ball,” but rather “short” to “mid-ball.” Every team will try to “go deep” a couple times a game, but more often than not, teams play it conservative and work short-to-medium range passes at a much greater rate than the “home run ball” to borrow a term from another sport.

In an effort to increase the production of the passing game, teams have found that having receivers run deeper routes opens up a lot of opportunities in the short-to-medium range. If one or more wide receivers are on the field, it is becoming more and more usual for at least one of them to run a deep route as tight ends run the short-to-middle range routes. Even if a wide receiver is targeted only a handful of times on a deep route, it is now forcing defenses to play those routes and receivers honest, thus increasing the chances for completions underneath. No chart illustrates this better than the one below:

 

As you can see above, the depth of tight ends and wide receivers appear locked in tandem with one another. The deeper wide receivers are targeted, the deeper tight ends are targeted. As we saw earlier, the deeper the targets for wide receivers, the less they are targeted, the more targets in the middle range for tight ends, the more they are targeted by opportunist quarterbacks.

It’s no coincidence that quarterbacks are having record years in the same time frame as tight ends have seen their biggest transformation. As quarterbacks now have more targets available to them, tight ends are seeing a lion’s share of those new targets in the role they have begun to carve out for themselves.

What does this transformation mean for dynasty football?

The implications remain to be seen in full as the dynasty fantasy football community begins to digest this new paradigm. Do we draft tight ends higher as more and more of them increase their statistics? Even now we are seeing Gronkowski and Graham sneak into the first round of some startup drafts. Perhaps we target wide receivers much higher and much more often in the early rounds as the position becomes a diminishing resource. We might be seeing the beginnings of this as Calvin Johnson is a staple in the first round. Perhaps the wide receiver becomes much more a position of opportunity. Even now you can find startable wide receivers well into the deeper rounds of a startup draft.

The truth is we won’t know what successful draft strategies will come out of this change for several years. Just look at how the value of running backs has transformed in recent years. No longer is it sacrilege to draft a position other than running back in the first two rounds. It’s not totally inconceivable to believe that we are in the midst of a similar transformation at the receiving positions. It’s very likely we will see leagues which favor tight end scoring change their scoring in the coming years. Additionally, the number of new leagues favoring tight end scoring will likely decline as the production increases at the position. We may even see bonuses begin to appear in some leagues for wide receiver production that would have seemed much more common several years ago.

What we do know, however, is that the tight end position is changing dramatically and as a result it is dramatically altering the wide receiver position as well. The transformation that is occurring hasn’t been seen in modern football. The successful dynasty fantasy football owners will read the tea leaves right and dominate their leagues for a very long time. Those unable, or unwilling, to change with the times, or those who guess wrong for what this change means, could be in for many brutal dynasty fantasy football seasons ahead. As always, we here at DLF will try our hardest to help those looking to navigate this rough, interesting and exciting time.

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RedBaron
9 years ago

If we extend these stats to top 20 WR/TE, we’ll find out, that the TD-production of WRs remained pretty much constant over the last 11 years (since 2002). TE’s increased the TDs exponentially. This tells us, that the depth at WRs increased over the years and the TE production increased as well.

robert huber
9 years ago

great article! very useful.

Bowser
9 years ago

This can be taken further. the depth of target is telling. Eventually will we see the “H-Back” becoming used again? Doirn Dickerson, Charles Clay, James Casey, and Marcel Reece may become the new target option for those short to intermediate routes. The only other thought to this is that the running game will see another rise in league-wide use(furthering the RBBC trend). It’s a first down league more than anything.

bbwayne
9 years ago

This is one of the most innovative articles I have read in a long time. I have suspected this trend but did not go into this level of detail. I think this is especially valuable in non-ppr leagues. In one league I have been loading up on TEs to much redicule. However, when most leagues can play two TEs one must consider roster space for TE stashes in addition to WRs. Not only for the over the middle opportunities but the red zone targets which is especially important in non-ppr leagues.

Man I love this site.

Admin
Reply to  bbwayne
9 years ago

Thanks for the props! The Ghost really went all out on this one and we figured our premium members would really enjoy it.

Ben Carter
9 years ago

This is one of the best articles I have read this off season. Great work Ghost. I don’t post much in the comment section but I liked this article so much that I had to say something. With most of the leagues having an option to start 2TE’s it’s good to know how the game is changing on the receiving end.

sean l
9 years ago

great stuff here

Sensei John Kreese
9 years ago

Here’s a bold prediction, that probably has no chance of coming true….

Kyle Rudolph will be a top 5 tight end THIS YEAR.

Reply to  Sensei John Kreese
9 years ago

Breakout season ahead! Not THAT crazy of a prediction.

Great work, Ghost.

Reply to  Sensei John Kreese
9 years ago

I think Rudolph is ready, but I don’t think his QB is ready quite yet. Rudolph’s limiting factor is Ponder. If Ponder comes out and does 170 yards per game and just over 1 TD per game, Rudolph can’t be a top 5 TE.

Sensei John Kreese
Reply to  TheFFGhost
9 years ago

The phrase “Gronk Numbers” is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard in fantasy. To assert that a TE could put up numbers which would equal or surpass the greatest season a TE has EVER had, is just stupid.

Alan Bauerle
9 years ago

Great article Ghost!! Love this stuff. Don’t you think though that TE production has to be directly related to qb, offensive scheme, and the OC. Two examples are the Giants and Steelers. Neither team has great TEs but still throw for greater than 3,500 yrds and 20 tds. Obviously Belicheck saw something in Gronk n Hernandez to draft them, and he dreamed of mismatches all day long. Would they put the same numbers up on different teams, no way unless their qb was elite. And Jimmy Grahm literally came out of nowhere. I think it all has to do w having a great-Elite qb, and a head coach/ oc that bases their offence off the production of their TE’s. I can see the rise in production of the te position. I just think that there aren’t enough elite qbs there to make these Beastly TE’s as valuable as they can be.

Alan Bauerle
Reply to  TheFFGhost
9 years ago

I do agree that these guys can be a nightmare for opposing defences. I just don’t see Gronk or Grahm putting up those numbers on other teams. Look at Vernon Davis. Guys got serious game but I feel like Alex Smith is holding him back. I mean Peyton Manning made Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme hot commoditees in fantasy football. Put Gronk on the Jaguars or Cardinals and he would struggle to put up half the numbers he put up last year. It’s a good thing guys like Gronk, Hernandez, Grahm landed where they did so they can keep wowing us w their performances and ADP. Thanks Ghost keep wrighting these great articles!!

Lap Chu
9 years ago

Great article! Great analysis! As a new “premium” member, I really think this is the kind of article that separates the men from the boys. Keep it up.

Robert Smiley
9 years ago

Great information and well written. We don’t require TEs in my Dynasty Salary Cap league, but I have Gronk, Graham and Witten (and I have them very cheap) and I think I’m going to be okay using them as WRs this year. I’m hoping I’m ahead of the curve with this trend as I am in the midst of a serious rebuild. I’d enjoy seeing more WR rankings that include TEs. I also wonder how prevalent non-TE leagues are. Of my 4 leagues, it is 2 and 2, but most articles, podcasts, magazines, etc. seem to project that having a TE position is the norm/standard. Thanks again.

ryan quinn
Reply to  TheFFGhost
9 years ago

It WAS more realistic, not so much anymore… tight ends are receivers now, kinda the whole point of the article isnt it??

Robert Austin
9 years ago

Great article! I love this in depth and a little outside the box stuff. To me this is what dynasty is all about. Anyone can take ray rice in the 1st round but digging up jimmy graham in 2010 is what dynasty football as a whole is all about. I’ve been building my teams on strong wr2’s for several years and that has given me great overall flexibility, I don’t feel locked into the “i gotta start my studs” mentality. I mean how long do we have to play the I have to start megatron vs revis no matter what, just start manningham or whoever it’ll be fine they will get theirs. I love that TE has gotten so deep, a couple years ago my TE’s were so average middle of the pack that i started taking fliers on guys. Is Jared Cook killing you with 30 yards if Vernon Davis only got 55. Just throwing out names not real situations. But those guys are 10 rounds apart. I’d rather take a RB flyer in round 5-6 and a TE in round 14-15 whatever than vice versa. Anyways dynasty is all about finding the next gem and this fantastic article is saying look at the TE’s to do so.

Reply to  TheFFGhost
9 years ago

I had a similiar situation and had to chose between Graham, Wallace, Dez, and Andre Johnson.. I chose Graham and people thought i was nuts.. ill be laughing all the way to the championship 🙂

Reply to  Bryan Murphy
9 years ago

And GREAT article by the way

Casual Backhand Sauce
9 years ago

Great Article… I have been noticing this that TEs are producing more and more. This past summer I have gone out and got Fleener and Rudolph to go along with my top TE in all my leagues.

Per Thomsen
9 years ago

This is a great article – the best I have read this offseason.

What do you guys think of the following:
Because Gronk and Hernandez (and Graham) has destroyed opponents defenses all year long, every team is now trying to build a defense to take away that advantage. I don’t have much insight in different defensive schemes, but if every team, who meets the Patriots have come up with a defensive scheme to prevent Gronk and Hernandez from getting those major roles on offense, the producion suddenly goes back to the WRs/RBs.

I have no clue to whether that would be the case, but I don’t think every defensive coordinator in the NFL just sits back and and wait for Gronk and Hernandez to destroy their defense again…:-)

Looking forward to hear your thoughts on this.
(apologize for any grammar mistakes – I’m not a US native)

Casual Backhand Sauce
Reply to  Per Thomsen
9 years ago

Personally I think teams in General are trying to figure out the Air It Out mentallity in football and not just the TEs. I see the TEs being harder to figure out compared to 3-4 wr sets. Athletic TEs are impossible to cover no matter what you throw at them. Athletic DBs are to small, and athletic LBs are to slow to cover. Coaches/GMs realize this and you should see the increase in two TE sets this year and the following year.

Jeff Coffey
9 years ago

In our 10-team PPR league, 3 teams had their TE1 outscore both their WR1 and RB1 last season in average points per game. 2 other teams in the league had their TE1 outscore either their WR1 or RB1. It’s really brought a fun change in the strategies used to build a successful dynasty team! As an owner who drafted Graham in his rookie year and has him locked up for 4 more years, I love this evolution!

Thanks for the great article, Ghost!

Ryan Macnamara
9 years ago

Wow; incredibly insightful article. That is all I am going to say.

ggeorge
9 years ago

I would say that wide receiver touchdowns seem to be a year to year thing. Based on the data you present, there doesn’t seem to exist a significant correlation or trend. The plots are all over the place.

Matt Quinn
Reply to  TheFFGhost
9 years ago

I agree with this- remove the outliers and your plots become an even clearer picture.

Cary Duke
9 years ago

New premium member. Great article! Also confirms my strategy in a startup draft I am currently finishing up. TE scoring is 1.5 ppt, start 1-2. I have Graham AND Hernandez along with C2KJ and AJGreen. No one else went strong on 2 TE’s. 😎

alden bietz
9 years ago

Great artical, worth using in going deeper with my TE drafts. I have always loved looking for TEs, it used to take more work to find a good one 10 years ago. Most of my fellow owners didnt put much stock into digging deep for a TE. Some owners even were trying to drop starting TEs in the rules, thats just lazy. This confirms my stratigy, but I need to work harder on uncovering the next gem, mostly sleeper. Reading articlas like this are what fantasy football is all about, research will payoff.

JBlake
9 years ago

Great article! I’m just catching up on the Archives after being away a few weeks…with the shift toward TEs, our league added a second TE to the lineup requirements for this year. We did a TE-only one round draft after the rookie draft and bumped up the total rosters from 25 to 26. I like the change, it forces you to go deeper to find that next gem and rewards you for roster depth. Anyone else made this change, and how do you think a 2TE league would affect overall player rankings?

Matt Quinn
Reply to  JBlake
9 years ago

I actually started a new dynasty this year QB/RB/RB/WR/WR/FLEX/FLEX/K/DEF- yes, no required TE, or you can play 2. I’m curious to see how it works out initially. Another dynasty I’m in also has no required TE so they were all largely FA’s, last year an owner drafted Graham, Gronk, finley and Witten and played 2 of them each week… Bet you can’t guess who won last year…

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