Should We Be Afraid to Draft Rookie TE’s in Best Ball?

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We’ve all heard the mantra, “Don’t draft rookie TE’s in fantasy football”. It’s been tweeted thousands of times, mentioned on podcasts, and written about in articles ad nauseam. It’s a drumbeat that has taken on its own life, without any consideration of a deeper look or the context around it.

There is no question that if you look at the fantasy results over the past 5-10 years, there aren’t a lot of quality rookie TE seasons. The thing is though, the data shows the same thing when it comes to quarterbacks, and that hasn’t stopped the Anthony Richardson mid-round hype, or the Bryce Young/C.J. Stroud later-round targets. The tight end position has a lot lower bar, yet it receives far more scrutiny. As we are looking for edges in Best Ball, we should be willing to delve deeper into the discussion and really consider if the “Say No to Rookie TE’s” is really what we should be doing.

Part 1 – Context of Rookie TEs Succeeding

Part 2 – Why This Year’s Rookie TE Class is Set Up to Succeed

 

The Three Keys to Fantasy Value – Talent, Opportunity, and Offensive Projection:

It doesn’t matter the position, when you break it down these are the three main factors in determining where we rank players in terms of fantasy. Their importance can be weighted differently, depending on the position, but this is what really makes up our opinions on players.

Talent can be the toughest to quantify, particularly when it comes to rookies. While it’s important, drafting solely by talent will likely find you with a very disappointing roster. Opportunity and the team’s offensive projection will likely be the biggest driving force in a player’s fantasy output. With rookies, it can still be guesswork, but they are still of the utmost importance when determining when to draft players.

Last season Dameon Pierce was the first of five running backs taken in the 4th round, but his ADP was in the 7th-9th range for most of the offseason, while the other four were being taken 4-6 rounds later, if they were being drafted at all. Most analysts would have had at least 2 if not 3 of the backs ahead of Pierce on the talent side, and Pierce was going to the worst offensive situation. So why was he being drafted not too far after 2nd rounders like Kenneth Walker and James Cook? Simply put his opportunity was very easy to see. His only RB competition was Rex Burkhead and Marlon Mack. Pierce of course went on to win the job and finished 3rd among rookies in rushing yards, in only 13 games. Tyler Allgeier went even a round later and was drafted over some of the 3rd and 4th round backs last year, for having the combination of a pretty clear opportunity, and an offensive environment that would be very favorable if he were to get the starting job.

Opportunity and offensive situations can lead us astray as well. Last season Treylon Burks was being taken as the 2nd rookie WR (sometimes 1st) off the board, despite being the 6th drafted in the NFL. The thought was that the Titans lacked competition, and though not the highest volume offense, he was stepping into a role that A.J. Brown thrived in as a fantasy asset. Unfortunately, he wasn’t ready, and he finished up as WR80 on the year, and a massive flop. Skyy Moore was the Chiefs 2nd round pick last year, and the thought was without Tyreek Hill, there was an opportunity for Moore to make an immediate impact. Unfortunately, Moore struggled to get on the field, even with some injuries in front of him, and had less than 300 yards receiving. Not a great return for the mid-round picks everyone was using on him.

 

Why rookie TEs have failed in the past:

There’s no catch-all answer for the disappointing production of rookie TEs, each situation is different, and it’s important to remember that there is a very limited sample among higher-round drafted TEs. In the top 3 rounds of the NFL Draft, we typically see 14-17 WRs, 8-10 RBs, and 4-6 TEs. In the last 10 years, there have been just 9 1st round TEs and 17 2nd round TEs. Running backs over that same time have 12 1st rounders and 27 2nd rounders. Receivers are off the charts with 42 1st rounders, and 51 2nd rounders. So with a smaller sample, it is tough to really get a strong feeling about the impact of early-round TEs as rookies. Now the lack of a sample size doesn’t actually answer why they’ve failed in the past, just explains why it’s tough to have a full picture with a limited sample.

The three biggest reasons why you can point to TEs failing in the past are injuries, splitting work, and really poor offense.

 

Injuries:

Injuries are a factor with every position, but this goes back to the sample size. With a small sample size losing a couple of key guys due to injury, can turn a sample that says a rookie TEs are a bust, to rookie TEs hit at an average rate. A couple of notable examples stand out, with the biggest being Travis Kelce, who missed his entire rookie season due to injury. Since that time he’s not had fewer than 67 catches and 862 yards and 4 TDs. Jordan Reed only played in 9 games as a rookie, but he had 45 catches for 499 yards and 3 TDs. If he plays that way over 16 weeks he’s a top 10 TE. Just last season Greg Dulcich finished 2nd among rookie TEs with 411 yards, but he did that in just 10 games, and playing through injuries. In addition to those three examples, there are plenty of other TEs who missed 3-5 games that could have had a more useful rookie season than what the numbers suggest.

 

Splitting Work:

The next factor that limits a lot of rookie TEs with their upside is that a number of teams will draft a rookie TE early, even if they have a decent established TE. When the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert in the 1st rd in 2013, he produced a solid 39 catches for 445 yards. Those numbers would have likely been better if not for the fact that former 1st rounder Jermaine Gresham was still on the team and went for 46 catches and 458 yards.

The Eagles are one of the worst offenders of this as, when Zach Ertz was drafted he went for 36 catches and 469 yards, but they already had Brent Celek on the team who had over 500 yards that year. History repeated itself in 2018, when Dallas Goedert had 33 catches for 330 yards as a rookie, while being behind Ertz and his 116 catches and 1,163 yards.

Sometimes it’s not even an established player, but another guy drafted the same year, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews are three recent examples of a pair of drafted TEs sharing the opportunities and targets.

 

Poor Offense:

Perhaps the thing we can tie most to some of the notable names that failed/struggled, is the quality of offense they were in, particularly from a passing TD standpoint. People want to point to David Njoku as a rookie TE failure, but his QB was Deshone Kizer that year, and the Browns offense was atrocious finishing dead last in points scored, and 28th in passing TD. Njoku’s 4 TDs, actually were the highest on the team, and he was 3rd on the team in receiving yards. Noah Fant was another 1st round bust, but the Broncos were 28th in total points and 32nd in passing TDs, as a combination of Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, and Brandon Allen quarterbacked the team that year. Fant still had 40 catches for 560 yards and led the team with 3 TDs.

For some, it’s a combination of multiple factors. For instance O.J. Howard was a 1st round pick, and he had a solid 432 yards and 6 TDs, in 14 games. In addition to missing 2 games, he was behind Cameron Brate at TE who had nearly 600 yards and 6 TD himself, and he had Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB, and despite throwing a lot they were just 18th in total scoring.

T.J. Hockenson failed to break 400 yards as a rookie, but he did miss 4 games and played another 4 games without Matt Stafford at QB, at which point the Lions’ offense was cratering. He still probably would have had a disappointing rookie year, but it might have been at least close to average.

Last year’s top TE Trey McBride had just under 300 yards, but he missed week 1, and then played very little behind Zach Ertz for the next 9 games, until the veteran got hurt. When McBride finally did start receiving a lot of playing time/targets, he only had a single game with Kyler Murray as his QB.

There are no doubt plenty of examples of just guys being in over their heads or complete busts as well, but the point is that in a limited sample there are a lot of cases where you should look at the bigger picture before declaring all failures and busts as the same. We make these considerations at other positions, why not at TE?

 

Is Recent History a potential new signal?

In 2021 Kyle Pitts and Pat Friermuth were the top 2 TEs drafted, and both earned a starting spot as rookies. Despite neither playing a top-tier offense, they finished with Pitts as TE7 and Friermuth as TE13 in .5 ppr. Both were strong solid options throughout the season, with Pitts lacking in TDs and Friermuth needing more total targets and a deeper ADOT to really breakout. Had they been in better situations, they very well could have put up bigger numbers.

Last year no tight end broke out for the course of the season, as the highest-ranked TE was Chigoziem Okonkwo ranked 24th, followed closely by Isaiah Likely 26th, Cade Otton 27th, Greg Dulcich 30th, and Jelani Woods 32nd. Though there was no breakout success, what we did see is a lot of positive weeks from these rookies, and as a part of some of the worst offenses in the league.

Dulcich finished 17th in ppg scoring at 7ppg in .5 ppr, despite the Broncos offense finishing last in the league in points and being a colossal disappointment. He only played in 10 games, but managed 4 games of 10+ fantasy points. That is exactly what we are looking for from TEs in best ball. Not only did the injuries have him lose 7 games, but he also missed a lot of camp/practice time, to get on the same page with Wilson and learning the offense.

Okonkwo not only led all rookies in receiving yards, but he was 2nd on the Titans as well. That is while splitting work with Austin Hooper, and dealt with a Titans offense that was 28th in scoring and passing TDs, and was missing Ryan Tannehill for 5 games. Now he was never a full-time player, so it’s a bit skewed, but his production per target/route was very impressive.

Isaiah Likely was a 4th round pick for the Ravens, but he was well behind Mark Andrews on the depth chart. Even with playing a limited role and dealing with a Lamar Jackson injury, Likely flashed when he got opportunities. In the 3 games where he cracked 50% of the team’s snaps, he averaged 13.3 fantasy points (16.7, 8.9, and 14.3).

Jelani Woods was another 3rd round TE who showed some flashes last season when he got opportunities. Despite being tied to the Colts’ woeful offense, Woods had over 300 yards and 3 TDs (tied for 2nd on the team). He did that despite being a part of a three-man rotation of tight ends.

So though last year’s TE crop would have generally made poor picks in best ball (outside of Dulcich), the narrative that rookie TEs can’t produce quality numbers or usable fantasy weeks goes out the window a bit. Dulcich, Okonkwo, Likely, and Woods were a part of four of the worst offenses, particularly passing offenses in the league, yet found ways to be productive when given chances.

Now from a best ball perspective, they were all pretty risky prospects last season, as Dulcich was injured and it was unclear what his rotation would be when he was healthy, and Likely, Okonkwo, and Woods were all clearly in time-shares. It does raise the question that teams might be more willing to incorporate good pass-catching TEs earlier in their offense. If that is the case, then how should we feel about tight ends with far more defined roles, and playing in better team environments?

That is what we will explore in Part II where I look at the top rookies this year, and how valuable TEs are in best ball.

 

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