Fant-Tastic: Immediate Value of Noah Fant
Let us get this part out of the way up front, shall we? Cards on the table?
I am a Broncos fan.
I thought I would divulge that bit of information, just in case that depletes my credibility in regards to Denver’s first-round rookie TE. It shouldn’t, but it might.
If it helps, I am able to be realistic in ranking and evaluating Phillip Lindsay (even though he grew up 10 minutes from my childhood home) and Courtland Sutton (my favorite college WR since Odell Beckham Jr.). I have been openly critical of the trade for Joe Flacco. And I cannot tell you how much I hate the selection of Drew Lock in the second round.
I occasionally wear rose-colored glasses, but they certainly are not orange and blue.
But I cannot be reasonable when it comes to Noah Fant. He is going to be Fant-tastic.
For context, I have Fant ranked as the fourth-best rookie in Superflex, second in 1QB. Quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins are too valuable to pass up when all the other QBs are rostered, and Josh Jacobs – the Raiders’ new workhorse back – is likely to begin his career with more fantasy points-scoring success than Fant. In redraft leagues, he is still the fourth-best rookie, as RBs David Montgomery and Miles Sanders jump ahead of him based on year-one opportunity. But the list ends there in all three formats, and none of the rookie wide receivers are in the discussion. Here are the reasons why “FANTasy football” begins with “Fant.”
Man, Joe Flacco loves to target his tight ends! Since 2009, Flacco has attempted 5,137 passes, with 1,125 directed at the TE position. This accounts for 22% of his attempts. He completed 67% of his passes to his TEs, compared to a 55% to his WRs despite very similar yards per attempt (7.53 to WRs, 6.97 to TEs). When one position group is that much more reliable than the other, it stands to reason that the quarterback would lean on that position.
Not only has Flacco leaned on the tight end position, but he has also consistently guided them to success through volume. Flacco produced four TE1 seasons since taking over as the full-time starter in 2009 and four more top-15 TE seasons. In fact, in his 11-year career, Flacco failed to support a TE2 or better just once (2013, throwing to an overcrowded group consisting of Dallas Clark, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, and Billy Bajema). He made up for it in 2011 though, when both Pitta (TE15) and Dickson (TE24) finished as TE2s.
Flaccos tight ends consistently account for his highest passer ratings. The last time Flacco started an entire season (2017), three of his top five most reliable targets were all tight ends: Maxx Williams, Benjamin Watson and Nick Boyle.
All this is to say that Flacco is comfortable throwing to the tight end position when he needs a completion to keep a drive going or in a goal-to-go situation. He has had the luxury of throwing to trustworthy TEs in the past, but he has never had a weapon quite like Fant.
At 6’5”, 250 lbs., Fant ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine, which put him in the 99th percentile among TEs. He also provides a 10.46 catch radius, also 99th percentile, and a SPARQ (Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction, and Quickness) score in the 94th percentile (credit: PlayerProfiler). All of his measurables compare to another University of Iowa alum, George Kittle, but Fant actually grades higher than Kittle in everything but agility. As for a comp with familiarity to Flacco, Dennis Pitta was similar in size, agility, catch radius and overall SPARQ. However, Fant is faster with significantly more burst and was significantly more productive in college. In other words, Flacco is getting a replica of his favorite target, turned up to full blast.
The Supporting Cast
Take a quick scan of the Denver offense. The top wide receiver – Courtland Sutton – is going into his second season, with his second quarterback, his second coaching staff, and his second offensive system. Sutton is the field-stretcher, the deep threat who wins “50/50 balls” but is not known for his route-running abilities. He likely will not get a lot of attention from Flacco early on as he continues to learn the pro game and adjust to life as the top wide receiver.
From there, the roles are undefined: DaeSean Hamilton is also a second-year receiver with all of the growing pains included and is even farther behind the learning curve after missing time during the 2018 season. First, he was a healthy scratch to start the season, then he sprained his MCL mid-season.
Other Wide Receivers
Emmanuel Sanders was re-signed and provides the veteran leadership that the receiving corps would otherwise lack. However, his on-field production will likely be limited as he recovers from a torn Achilles suffered in the middle of the 2018 season. Tim Patrick is a deep sleeper for fantasy purposes, having gone through his first NFL training camp with Flacco in Baltimore before being cut and landing in Denver. Patrick’s skill set fits better as a perimeter receiver, though, running deeper routes like Sutton.
Other Tight Ends
The tight ends (beyond Fant) are talented, but health issues created the need for Fant in the first place. Jake Butt is coming off his second torn ACL in just over two years, and Jeff Heuerman has yet to play a full season after three years as a pro. Troy Fumagalli was a promising prospect when the Broncos drafted him in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but he spent his entire rookie campaign on Injured Reserve.
Abandoned Target Share
Besides the lack of credible threats in the passing game, the Broncos have 201 abandoned targets to distribute. More than a third of the 550 pass attempts by Case Keenum in 2018 went to Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Matt LaCosse. Thomas and LaCosse are in New England, and while Sanders is still on the Broncos’ roster, he will likely begin the 2019 season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Flacco is unlikely to duplicate Keenum’s 550 attempts, but the fact remains that Denver will have a 37% target share available.
If Flacco does manage to match Keenum’s 356 completions, the TE position stands to see an uptick in production. In 2018, Keenum targeted his collection of TEs 108 times (19.6% of his attempts) and completed 68 passes to them (a 63% completion rate to the position). If Flacco’s overall attempts and completions were identical, but with his career averages of 22% target share to the TE position with a 67% success rate, the TE position stands to receive 121 targets and 81 receptions in 2019. Consolidated into one player – Fant, in this case – the 81 receptions would have been fourth most among TEs in 2018. The average yards per reception among top 12 TEs in 2018 was 11.9 YPR, which would have gone for 963 yards, fourth-most in the league in 2018.
*Assuming 550 passing attempts and 356 completions, same as Keenum in 2018
There is a need for a primary option in this Denver passing attack, an alpha. Fant could be that alpha. His only real competition (until Sanders is back healthy) will be Sutton, and even with a full season’s head start, Sutton is not as pro-ready as Fant going into the 2019 season. Fant is already poised to consolidate the workload of the TE group and likely takes on an even greater workload as the top short-to-intermediate route runner on the team.
Here is the strongest, most convincing piece of the entire argument. Besides a quarterback who locks in on tight ends and an offense without many options, the Broncos will turn over control of their offense to new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, a disciple of the Kyle Shanahan offense.
Scangarello and Shanahan first teamed up in Atlanta in 2015, when the Falcons’ sixth-ranked passing offense funneled 81 targets and 59 receptions to TE Jacob Tamme. He finished as the TE14 for the season despite only scoring one touchdown. The coaches reconnected in San Francisco in 2017 and promptly drafted George Kittle. Kittle finished as TE19 as a rookie, and followed it up with a record-breaking 2018 season, catching 88 of 135 passes for five touchdowns to go along with a tight end record 1,377 yards. He finished as the TE3, behind Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz.
The fact that both Fant and Kittle went to the University of Iowa, and have eerily similar athletic profiles is mere coincidence. What is not a coincidence, however, is a pass-catching specialist TE ends up in an offense that features the TE position. The Broncos front office gave Scangarello his Kittle clone, the centerpiece of the Scangarello-Shanahan offense.
As good as Kittle was in 2018, he is not the athlete that Fant is. He also had three different quarterbacks, none of whom were as committed to getting the ball to the tight end as Joe Flacco has historically been. Kittle also had more receiving threats with whom to contend. And yet, Kittle enters the 2019 season in a clear-cut top tier – along with Kelce and Ertz – as the three elite tight ends.
Fant has yet to set foot on an NFL field, which is why we temper expectations. But that is currently the only reason. He steps into a situation where he can immediately contribute, unlike any of the other rookie pass catchers. He brings the perfect skillset to the perfect situation, unlike second-tier TEs like Evan Engram, OJ Howard, David Njoku, and Hunter Henry, all of whom are in heavy competition for targets and/or offenses without a strong commitment to the TE position.
I rank Fant as the fourth-best rookie for fantasy purposes going into the 2019 season, and the TE7 overall in dynasty. Not because I am a Broncos fan, but because I dare to dream of the perfect scenario playing out perfectly. Dare to dream with me. Dare to Fant-asize.
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