When do Tight Ends tend to Breakout?
Continuing my series on break out players I’m turning my attention to the Tight End position. I’ve written a lot about this position in the past. Specifically looking at the average makeup of a top-12 and top-5 tight end in a season. But I have never broken down the position in terms of when the majority of tight ends breakout in their careers. I already know they tend are, on average, 26 years old when they are in the top 5. I know rookie and young tight ends are less likely to score a top-12 fantasy season.
But when in their career do they break out? I don’t know.
So, thinking about all the hopes and dreams we have for that ever so delicious 2017 Tight End class from last year – not to mention the new hopes and dreams for this…other more recent tight end class- Let’s take a look at who and when players have traditional become fantasy relevant.
When do Tight Ends Break out in their Career?
I’ve chosen the overall fantasy rank to define a breakout. This is because whether a player finishes in the top 12 or 5 is a big difference at this position. Generally, we can stream a top 6/7 player in any given redraft season. In Dynasty that’s a little more difficult. Either way, the fantasy points are in some ways not as relevant as the overall rank. A tight end that scores like a Wide Receiver is rare, but a tight end who just outscores every other tight end by a significant margin is a potential edge anyway.
Only 6 players have broken out into the top 12 for the first time in their Rookie Season. Outside of Jeremy Shockey in 2020 and Evan Engram last year, no other tight end has finished in the top 5 at the position in their rookie season. This means you are probably too low on Evan Engram in Dynasty, and that we are all probably way too high on any rookie tight.
However, breaking it down into groups, we also see that a tight end typical has the same 3-year window to break out in the NFL that wide receivers and running backs do. Over 76% of all first top 12 seasons happen by the time players reach their fourth year. And only 13 players have entered the top 12 for the first time after their third season since 2000.
But, to be clear, there are some very good names in that less common group. Delanie Walker and Martellus Bennet both broke out after their fourth year, for example.
How old are Tight Ends when they Breakout?
Age plays a larger role in dynasty leagues then season long. But it also has something to tell us about what’s more or less likely in any given season as well. For instance, we know that a top 12 and a top 5 tight end is, on average, over the age of 25.
It’s also true that age has very little correlation to PPR rank by itself. So you can’t rank players just by how old they are. Though I advise thinking of age as a good thing for a tight end, and sometimes wide receiver as well in general. Productive players tend to keep producing, and breaking into the top 5 s a good sign of that.
But when do tight ends first breakout in age?
Top 5 Tight Ends, the most elite group and the one we want to target, happen in two ways. Either they break out really young, like Evan Engram, or they break out after the age of 24. When you group these ages together we can see a little more clearly. It’s just as common for a tight end to break into the top 5 for the first time AFTER the age of 27, as it is to break out before the age of 24.
Over 40% of all breakout’s into the top 5 happen between the ages of 24 and 26, while players are in their second and third seasons.
When looking at a lower threshold, the trend becomes more obvious. Outside of very big, impressive breakouts into the top 5 early, tight ends wait even longer to enter the top 12 for the first time. Further, MORE top 12 breakouts happen after the age of 27 then before the age of 24 by a significant degree (10% difference.)
Fewer tight ends have broken into the top 12 before the age of 24 then have broken out into the top 5. Either it’s very special or (more often…a LOT more often…) they are over the age of 25.
What does this mean for 2018?
Well, for a start, just stop hoping Mike Gesicki is going to help you out this year. Or Mark Andrews, or Ian Thomas, or whoever you think the best tight ends are this year. Could it? Sure. Will it? It’s very unlikely. 90% of all tight end breakouts happening AFTER a players first season, I’ll take my chances on being wrong here.
None of them are worth drafting in a season-long league.
No, not even that one…
Yes, he’s very fast…
Stop naming players…look, you have to wait till you see it to think it’s going to happen. Its fine to draft a tight end as a rookie and wait, but you shouldn’t line him up as a starter.
So what about last year’s class? Well, one thing we know is that yards and opportunity are more predictive and stable, year over year, than anything else by and large. I mean…coaches are going to lie to you, someone is going to do well on one play in the preseason and be overrated and Frank Gore will play football and put up 800 total yards, but other than that…
My favorite way of viewing this is through WOPR. This is now available, thanks to Airyards.com and Mr. Josh Hermsmeyer, in the FFstatistics database.
Now, like everyone else, this makes me interested in Njoku, and George Kittle in 2018. But, since we have access to a database and endless stats….we can go a bit further.
How do these players compare to those that broke out in year 2 before now?
With only 18 players to compare, I think it’s important to bear in mind we can’t create a perfect profile. However, I think we can say that 16% WOPR in year 1 and at least 250 yards look like a good threshold. Honestly, that makes everyone from Gerald Everett up a potential breakout, so….we can say that if David Njoku breaks out in 2018, it’s more likely to be high fantasy relevant year, with long-term dynasty implications. Because he’s only 22 years old. But what else?
OJ Howard, 23 years old, and George Kittle, 24 years old, are much more likely to break out in 2018. That seems reasonable.
Ricky Seals-Jones and Austin Traylor are both more interesting then I would have thought.
This seems weak…let’s see if we can go full throttle on this, and really give it the “I love grinding numbers” treatment.
Regression model time!
I worked out the R squared (how much it “predicted” the next year) of several important variables for TE breakouts. RACR seemed most significant (remember we only have air yards data for about half the sample of 56 breakouts though, since it only goes back to 2009.)
Then I made a linear regression model. This means I made the computer make a graph using all those variables) and plot a trend line based on them. Then I asked it to figure out what they predicted for the next season based on their 2017 stats.
The model is less than great, because of the low value of these variables by the way. Predicting breakouts is hard. We’re trying to predict something that isn’t obvious, and sometimes not even noticeable in the indicators before it happens. BUT it gives us another way to think about how the usage and performance of these players in 2017, compares to that of previous breakouts. I find that helpful at least.
So here’s what it came up with for all players in the 2017 class with greater than 10 targets last year.
I think we can make some other reasonable assumptions here, like Adam Shaheen’s 14 targets do not tell us nearly as much about him as Njoku’s 60 targets. But it does make me think Shaheen is a player I’ll keep targeting in dynasty for the long haul – and it’s no longer not just because Trey Burton has pushed his value down.
Okay, now let’s look at all players’ from 2017 who have yet to break out, with more than 20 targets in 2017.
Anyone who knows me, or my ideas on Tight Ends, knows I like seeing Austin Hooper’s name pop up here. I also like that he’s heading into his third year. Since we now know that’s the most common breakout year into the top-12 for the position.
And yes, believe it or not, this does give me some outside interest in Nick “Who the hell is that, woah he’s a big fella” Boyle.
Baltimore drafted two decent tight end prospects this year We also know they are less likely to break out in 2018. Meanwhile, Boyle had 23 (#meh) targets in 2017 but also did very well with them (that RACR is good even for less than 30 targets.)
Meanwhile, after a quick shower cry over Hunter Henry, I also have some interest in Ryan Griffin. Also, I will also start to listen to the idea that Luke Wilson could be a thing. I didn’t like the idea before because it was based on the “Jimmy Graham’s gone now” approach. A firm belief I have (and think I’ve shown) is that production follows the player, not the team, coach, or role on that team.
Ricky Seals-Jones RACR has him fall in this model.
Ultimately I’m not trying to say a regression model like this “is the order you should like them!” Instead, I think it should highlight players you maybe haven’t thought of for further investigation. Or bolster the opinion on players you have already researched.
Also, I did all this just using the FFstatistics database. You can do it anytime with an excel program or google sheets, and some time. (If you have a way to disappear from your family for hours at a time….I didn’t say it was a good idea, just that it could be done.)
So I’m off to find out who exactly Nick Boyle is and what I’m getting myself into. If you have any questions or comments please post below, hit me up on twitter, or check out youtube where I’ve actually done some videos about how to do regression models, when you’re not actually a “math guy.” This is just a hobby for me too, so I have some experience with that.
Thanks for checking this article out, and I’ll see you again next time when I break down the Quarterback position.