How We Can Use Rookie TEs to Find Value in Best Ball
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. We think this could be the year of the Rookie TE.
Dalton Kincaid – 1st Rd, Pick 25 – Buffalo Bills / ADP 124.7 / TE 11
Kincaid was the only 1st round TE this year after the Bills traded up a couple of spots to land him. Though the team still has Dawson Knox entrenched at TE, Kincaid’s role isn’t too concerning as the team envisions him primarily as a big slot receiver, while working in 2 TE sets. This will allow the Bills to be more multiple in their approach and can use the same package of players to both spread the field or tighten the formation depending on need.
This can make it harder for opposing defenses to accurately match up personnel. It can be worrisome because a lot of teams will make this claim, but won’t end up following through with it. The Bills though feel like the exception here, as camp reports have shown Kincaid to be on the field a good bit, and working well with Allen. Kincaid probably has a strong path to 70-80% snap share.
This is what makes Kincaid so appealing is the upside of the Bills’ offense. Buffalo has finished as 2nd, 3rd, and 2nd highest-scoring offense over the last 3 seasons. Josh Allen has at least 35 passing TDs in each of those seasons. This is one of the best passing offenses in the league, so anyone who will get even a moderate amount of targets is going to be a fantasy option.
While there is no question that this offense can score, it is unclear just how valuable Kincaid’s role will be. Stefon Diggs will remain as the top weapon on this team with over 150 targets. Gaberial Davis returns as the number 2 receiver and deep threat, with Knox still likely getting a decent workload at TE. What is intriguing about Kincaid’s potential role is how Cole Beasley was used in 2020 and 2021. Beasley was the primary slot receiver and had 107 targets and 112 targets respectively, with 82 catches in each season. Beasley was a good outlet/chain mover for Allen, but he lacked a vertical threat, and only managed 5 TD in those 164 catches.
Kincaid might not match the target numbers exactly, but he should offer more in terms of big play ability and a Red Zone option. Kincaid can be a vertical threat TE that will attack the seam of the defense, similar to a Mark Andrews. Remember that is a defense that already has to account for Diggs and Gabe Davis, which could lead to some major holes that Kincaid can exploit.
Season Outlook :
It is tough to pin down exactly what Kincaid’s role can be, but the upside is incredible. If you combine Beasley’s target share with his skill set you have a dangerous combination. In that upside case, Kincaid could lead all rookies (both TEs and WRs) in targets, and he’s going way past the receivers. Even if he doesn’t reach that extreme, Kincaid will still be highly involved with one of the top 3 offenses in the league. He can still outplay his ADP and offer you major spike week potential.
Sam LaPorta- 2nd Rd, Pick 34 – Detroit Lions / ADP 151.7 / TE 18
Last season after T.J. Hockenson got traded, the Lions went with a trio of Brock Wright, James Mitchell, and Shane Zylstra at TE, who filled in admirably. They used the extra early-round pick they got from the Draft night trade with the Cardinals to land Sam LaPorta with the 3rd pick of the 2nd round. Pretty much as soon as they drafted him, LaPorta became the Lions’ starting TE, and everything that has come out of Lions camp has only cemented that status. With Zylstra getting hurt in camp, it only makes LaPorta’s role clearer for this season. Wright and Mitchell will help out in 2 and 3 TE sets and will occasionally spell LaPorta, but he should be on the field 80-90% of offensive snaps.
Being on the field in this offense, means you are going to be fantasy revalent. The Lions finished 5th in Total points last year, T-3rd in offensive TDs, 8th in passing TDs, and 8th in passing yards. The Lions TEs combined last season for a 16.5% market share, with 93 targets, 66 catches for 784 yards and 12 TDs. Hockenson contributed his fair share, but 9 of those TDs came after he left via trade. Though the target share is low after Hockenson left, the fact that the TEs remained involved particularly in the red zone, bodes well for LaPorta’s upside.
What is very interesting is that there are a lot of signs that point to more overall offensive production with this offense this year, and in particular the passing game and the role of the TE. OC Ben Johnson and QB Jared Goff made this offense look great last season, but it was actually much better later in the year, at a time when there wasn’t a premier TE on the roster. In the first 8 games last season Goff completed 63% of his passes, averaging 7.4 yards per attempt, with 14 TDs to 7 INTs. In the last 9 games, those went to 67% completion rate, averaging 7.7 ypa, and 15 TDs to 0 INTs.
Last year the Lions also had 23 rushing TDs led by Jamaal Williams league-leading 17 rushing TDs, and D’Andre Swift‘s added 5 TDs. Both Williams and Swift are gone this season, replaced with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. Montgomery and Gibbs may end up being a better 1-2 punch for the Lions’ offense, but it’s tough to imagine they combine for 22 rushing TDs. That could lead to more passing TDs, which should benefit LaPorta considerably.
At wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown will be the alpha on the team and will dominate the team in targets with probably 150+, after that though there isn’t a lot of clarity. Second-year Jameson Williams is suspended for the first 6 weeks of the season, and it’s still unclear if he’s fully back to the prospect he was before his knee injury. That leaves a combination of Josh Reynolds, Marvin Jones, Kalif Raymond, and Denzel Mims to fight out for the remaining targets and filling in when Williams is suspended. This could definitely lead to an increased usage of the TEs, particularly in the first 6 weeks.
There are just so many ways that LaPorta can succeed this season, that it’s shocking that he hasn’t risen up boards even more. If you just give LaPorta 80% of the Lions’ TE production from a year ago, he would have finished as TE 5 in total points and TE 8 in .5 ppr ppg. Yet he’s going as TE18, and has so many ways to blow last season’s production out of the water.
It would not be surprising for LaPorta to end up 2nd on this team in targets and potentially 1st in receiving TDs. If this Lions offense is anywhere close to where it was a year ago, he can not only be a top 10 TE easily but push for top 5. Despite what others say that is not hyperbole. The potential of this offense and his role are supreme, and if any even semi-talented veteran TE was in this role he would be drafted in the first 80 picks, yet you are getting LaPorta at 151.
One other thing to refute, is that some will knock LaPorta’s tournament Best Ball value down since his overall numbers could be inflated from the first 6 weeks with the Williams suspension. That shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. He will still have spike week value late in the season, but if he’s dominating early on, that could really help your advance rate in making the playoffs. Yes, all the money is in the final week, but you won’t be there if you don’t make the playoffs. If LaPorta is matching the production of the Kelce and Andrews teams in the first 6 weeks, that is a major win for your team.
Michael Mayer- 2nd Rd., Pick 35 – Las Vegas Raiders / ADP- 208.3 / TE31
Both Darren Waller and Foster Moreau left in the offseason, with only Austin Hooper signed in free agency to a 1 year $2.7M deal. This led to the Raiders trading up in the 2nd round to land Mayer. Mayer was thought of as probably the most well-rounded TE in the class, and a guy who can immediately start. Hooper has been a solid TE in his career, but he’s at this point likely best as a number 2 TE, and his contract reflects that. If Mayer outplays Hooper in camp he should be the clear starter.
Though the coaching staff remains the same, there are a lot of unknowns on this offense. Jimmy Garoppolo is in at QB replacing Derek Carr, Jakobi Meyers is in at WR replacing Mack Hollins, and potentially squeezing out Hunter Renfrow. Josh Jacobs will hopefully be back at some point at RB, and of course the TE swap of Waller and Moreau for Mayer and Hooper. The one clear constant on offense is that Davante Adams will dominate targets, yards, and TDs on this team. Adams remained one of the top WRs in the league even with all of the Raiders’ struggles last season.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a TE to be successful in this offense. Last year Moreau and Waller combined for a 17.4% of the market share of targets, with a combined 61 catches for 808 yards and 5 TDs. Those numbers aren’t super impressive when split over two people, but keep in mind that Moreau missed a pair of games, and Waller missed 8, and was limited in another. There is the potential for a starting TE to emerge as a fantasy asset in this offense. In particular, the Raiders need another red zone threat to emerge to complement Davante Adams. The other receivers on the team are shorter and not major RZ weapons.
The other thing working in Mayer’s favor of seeing the TE more involved this season is the background of both HC Josh McDaniels and Garoppolo. McDaniels has seen the value of TEs in creating mismatches and being a focal point of the offense, due to his stints in New England. It’s not just the Rob Gronkowski days, in 2021 with rookie Mac Jones at the helm, Hunter Henry finished 2nd on the Patriots in targets with 75, and led the team with 9 TDs. Garoppolo is at his best in the intermediate routes, throwing the ball with timing and precision. He utilized George Kittle in a big way, and found a lot of success with him.
I think all indications point to Mayer being the starting TE. Hooper will likely take some work from him, but probably not enough to prevent Mayer from being a fantasy option. While Adams and Meyers will likely be 1-2 in targets, Mayer could fill the red zone role and be 3rd on the team in targets. I could see him potentially having a Pat Friermuth rookie season upside. Friermuth finished as TE 13 due to strong red zone usage that led to 7 TDs. Mayer might not be near the top of TEs in catches or yards, but he could have a solid TD role. The weeks he does find the end zone he can be a solid spike week player. The Raiders record didn’t reflect it, but they finished 12th in scoring last season, so a strong RZ role, could lead to some big fantasy weeks for Mayer. Unless Hooper outplays him and takes his job, Mayer can easily outperform his ADP and should push for a TE 15-20 ranking.
Luke Musgrave- 2nd Rd., Pick 42 – Green Bay Packers / ADP- 205.3 / TE29
The Packers are only returning 4-year players Josiah Deguara and Tyler Davis, to what was one of the weakest TE rooms in the league last season. Combined they have 58 career receptions and are seen more for their special teams or blocking ability than pass-catching ability. That is why the Packers spent 2nd and 3rd round picks on Musgrave and Tucker Kraft. While Kraft had a solid prospect profile of his own, Musgrave was clearly the better prospect with more upside. Had Musgrave not gotten injured last year in college, he might have pushed to be a 1st round TE. All indications out of Packers camp are that Musgrave is the clear-cut starter, and that Deguara is likely playing more of an H-back role.
With Green Bay transitioning from Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love, there are a lot of questions about just how effective this offense can be, and what direction the team will go. Will the team be more run-focused? Will they throw downfield more or less? How involved will the TE’s be?
In addition to those questions surrounding Love, the wide receiver room is also extremely young and inexperienced. Unlike the other 3 rookie TEs on this list, there isn’t a clear-cut Alpha receiver who will have over 150 targets. For the Packers, the sum total of their NFL experience comes from three 2nd year receivers Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, and Samori Toure, who combined for 143 targets, 88 catches for 1,118 yards, and 11 TDs. They will be joined by three rookies led by Jayden Reed, a 2nd rd pick this year. The expectation is that Watson and Reed will hopefully become the leading receivers on this team, but honestly, it’s complete guesswork at this time. Even if they do end up leading in targets, it might not be the same as some other teams and the target share their top receivers get.
Last year Packers’ tight ends only got a 17.8% of the target market share, but that number is probably not representative of the potential here. Last year the Packers TEs averaged just 8.9 yards per catch, and didn’t really showcase themselves as offensive weapons. Packers TEs managed just a combined 676 yards and 4 TDs last year.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Musgrave himself got 15-18% market share and 4-6TDs. That seems lofty given what the Packers TEs did as a whole last season, but Musgrave is a far bigger threat, and he should have a strong role in this offense. As long as the Packers don’t decrease their passing by too much, that level of market share should put him as a top 20 TE. If Watson doesn’t breakout as an alpha receiver, or perhaps Jordan Love connects better with Musgrave, there are legitimate outcomes where Musgrave cracks the top 10. Either way, you are getting good value here, as his skill set and role are better and more defined than a number of TEs taken ahead of him. He’s attached to the most unknown offense of the rookies, but he also has the least amount of target competition.
We have four rookie TEs in very strong situations to have not only the starting role, but be highly involved in their team’s offenses. Despite that, all four are being drafted well beyond where they would go if they were a veteran in the same role with the same skill set. This is a great way that we can find value and upside at a discount in our best ball drafts. If they remain healthy, all four can easily outplay their ranking and ADP.
The best overall value is probably Sam LaPorta as he has a pretty well-defined role with little competition. At the same time, he’s a part of a top 10 if not top 5 offense, that could see him have both a large target share and TD equity. Despite all that he’s still available in the 12th or 13th round.
People continue to ignore these rookie TEs and it could very well cost them, the upside for these four is much higher than people are willing to admit, and past history of rookie TEs is being used to jusfity passing up on it. Take advantage of others’ mistakes and make sure you are willing to target these TEs as part of 2, 3, and even 4 TE builds.
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