Thursday, August 28, 2014

Desired Not Required: A Tight End Evolution

Once upon a time every train had a caboose.  It was the last car connected to a train and every train had to have one.

At some point along the line, it was decided that the caboose was no longer viable.  Like railway magic, they disappeared.  You don't see them anymore.

Not so long ago, the position of tight end used to be the caboose of the fantasy football world.  Every team had to have one, even if they didn't do much.

It got to the point that in the late 1990's, many fantasy leagues began shifting to a "tight end optional" roster.  The rationale was simple and understandable: unless you were lucky enough to have Shannon Sharpe grace your roster (or, to a  lesser extent, Ben Coates), there was really no point it selecting a tight end except as a later-round, booze-induced afterthought.

This was a time when tight ends were expendable.  As John Rambo explains in First Blood Part II: "It's like when you're invited to a party, and you don't show up and it doesn't really matter."

That was the tight end of the 1990's.

During that decade (1990-1999), tight ends had 75+ catches in a season just seven times, and this was achieved by just four different players.

Of those seven instances, Sharpe had three.  Coates had two.

To reiterate, only four different tight ends in the entire decade had greater than 75 catches in a season.

But it gets better (or worse, depending on your point of view).

There were four 1,000-yard receiving seasons by tight ends during the 1990's, which was accomplished by just two different tight ends.

You guessed it: Shannon Sharpe did it three times; Ben Coates did it once.

Ben Coates: one of the most underrated tight ends in fantasy football history.

Don't misunderstand me here, there were good tight ends during this time, including Wesley Walls, Brent Jones, Jay Novacek and Frank Wycheck.  But Shannon Sharpe was light years ahead of his peers.

And Ben Coates was a poor man's Shannon Sharpe.  That, in a nutshell, was fantasy football life in the 1990's.

Then in 1999, during his third NFL season, Tony Gonzalez had a breakout year.   Many experts made the lofty proclamation that Gonzalez would be even better than Sharpe.

A new prototype at the tight end position was evolving, and fantasy owners were paying full attention.

In 2000, Gonzalez had 93 receptions, 1,203 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.  These were top ten receiving numbers.

In 2002, a rookie tight end named Jeremy Shockey was targeted a ridiculous (for a tight end) 127 times.

The watershed year was 2004, when Gonzalez led the league in receptions (102).  It was the most receptions ever in a season by a tight end.

In that same season, Gonzalez also had 1,258 receiving yards, which was second-most by a tight end in NFL history (the great Kellen Winslow had set the record 24 seasons earlier).

Also in 2004, second-year man Antonio Gates set the NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a season by a tight end (13).

In a gradual, but definitive movement, the tight end became a more and more coveted commodity.

Rather than a fantasy position required, it became a fantasy position desired.

By 2007, three tight ends had over 1,100 yards receiving (Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, Jr., and Jason Witten). 

That's three different tight ends in a season, versus two in the entire decade of the 1990's!

Since 2004, a 75-catch season has been accomplished 41 times by no fewer than 17 different tight ends.

In those same ten years, a 1,000 yard-receiving season by a tight end has been reach 14 times by seven different players.

Nine different tight ends have had 10+ touchdown receptions 16 times.

Compare that to the 1990's!

Much like the 1990's and early 2000's were the Golden Age of Running Backs, we are clearly in the Golden Age of Tight Ends.

It's possible that we saw this Golden Age hit its zenith in 2011 when Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski both finished with 1,300+ receiving yards and 11 and 17 touchdowns respectively.

And that brings us to today.

According to, in a standard, 12-team league, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas have an ADP of mid-third round, while Vernon Davis and Jordan Cameron are averaging late fifth round.

In the same 12-team standard format, Jimmy Graham's current ADP is 1.09.  Which is to say, he's averaging a first round, ninth overall draft pick.

Some fantasy experts would contend this is far too early to take a tight end.  My unsolicited advice to them would be to crawl out of their dial-up modem cave.

Indeed, in 1994, a tight end going in the first round in any fantasy draft would have been sacrilege at worst...  laughable at the very best.  But it ain't 1994 anymore (just ask Jerry Jones).

Yes, Graham is worth taking in the late first round.  And yes, I put my money where my mouth is.

In one of my two leagues, the Borderless Fantasy Football League (my buddy Redskin Doug over at Passing Perfection is the Commissioner), we are allowed one keeper for which we must forfeit our first round pick.

My keeper?  You guessed it: Jimmy Graham.  And I gladly forfeited my first round pick to do so.

Assuming Gronkowski is healthy (although that's far from a sure thing, by the way) there are at least six tight ends who have the potential to top 1,000 yards receiving this season.  Grabbing one early in your draft can give you a tremendous advantage over your competition and can help pave the road to fantasy glory.

It is safe to assume that the tight end is not going the way of the caboose anytime soon.

All aboard for a great fantasy season!