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.