Using touchdown trends to mine tight end value in fantasy football

by Denny Carter ·

Touchdown scoring is as volatile as my relationship with the neighbor who cuts his grass at dawn every other day in the summer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leverage advanced stats and metrics-based player profiles to look at fantasy-relevant players who outpaced or underperformed their career touchdown rates last season. 

The Right Direction

George Kittle

I’m not sold on George Kittle’s touchdown production exploding in 2019 after racking up a million yards, particularly after the catch, and a measly five touchdowns in 2018. He caught two touchdowns in 2017 on 43 receptions — a 4.6-percent touchdown rate. It’s not as if he didn’t have red zone opportunity last year: he saw 21 targets inside the 20-yard line, the fourth-highest total among tight ends. From inside the 10-yard line, he saw eight targets.

2018 vs. Career Touchdown Rates

Kittle had the fifth-most red zone looks for a tight end in 2017 despite seeing just 63 targets. The Niners tight end is certainly going to be peppered with targets this season and should fall into some touchdown scoring. I’m still more than a little reticent to peg him for a touchdown bonanza in 2019.

Jordan Reed

Jordan Reed’s potential touchdown bounce back is another reason to consider him in the later rounds if you’ve completely faded the tight end position. Reed, who saw 22-percent of Washington’s targets in his 13 games last year, saw a massive dip in touchdown rate. That could be due to not having much involvement in the red zone. In addition to a mere eight red zone targets in 2018, only five came inside the 10.

Back in 2016, when Reed finished as fantasy’s eighth-highest scoring tight end, he had 15 red zone targets, with eight looks inside the 10. Over his injury-plagued career, he has averaged nearly seven targets a game for a seasonal pace of 112 targets, and an average of .38 touchdown catches per game. That works out to about six touchdowns per season. Best of all: he costs nothing in redraft.

Jimmy Graham

Maybe Jimmy Graham is simply and plainly washed. Maybe all the injuries and subsequent surgeries have taken their toll and he’s never again going to be the machine sent from the future to score touchdowns. But it’s hard to ignore the discrepancy between his 2018 touchdown rate and his career numbers, bolstered by otherworldly touchdown production in New Orleans. I’m also not going to dismiss the 89 targets he had in 2018, even if he only ended up with a couple of touchdowns.

Check out Jimmy Graham on PlayerProfiler’s “World Famous” Draft Kit:

Aaron Rodgers targeted Graham five times inside the 10-yard line, so it’s not as if the aged tight end was completely ignored near the paint. While we’re not going to see a return to Graham’s glory days — in 2013 he had a mind-bending 17 targets inside the 10-yard line — I’m more than willing to pay a 14th-round redraft price to see if Graham’s 2019 touchdown rate inches closer to his career rate.

The Wrong Direction

Eric Ebron

Between Eric Ebron outpacing his career touchdown rate by around 10-percent in 2019 and Jack Doyle returning to the Colts’ lineup, I see Ebron as borderline undraftable at his sixth-round average draft position. Only two tight ends had more red zone targets in 2018. Doyle not only out-targeted Ebron when both were on the field — he ran more pass routes too.

Ebron won’t be useless for fantasy purposes, and his coming touchdown regression is central to why he’s a fade for me unless and until his ADP drops into at least eighth or ninth round.

O.J. Howard

Some tight ends are just touchdown scorers. That’s what we might have with O.J. Howard, who will certainly be a key piece of a pass-heavy Tampa offense in 2019. Howard had eight red zone targets in 2018, along with four inside the 10-yard line, despite seeing just 48 targets in 10 games. As a rookie in 2017, six of his 39 targets came in the red zone.

Clearly, the team sees him as a speedy, big-bodied weapon in scoring range. His high 2018 touchdown rate — lower than his career rate — doesn’t scare me. I think he’s fairly priced as a fifth-round redraft pick.

Delanie Walker & Jonnu Smith

Delanie Walker’s status for opening day remains unclear after the veteran suffered a gruesome injury last September. I’ve included his backup, Jonnu Smith, in the chart above in case he starts the year as Marcus Mariota’s tight end. There’s not much to draw from the 60 total targets Smith has seen over the past couple seasons, though five of Smith’s 30 targets last season came in the red zone. Smith was barely part of the woeful Tennessee offense in 2018, seeing more than three targets in a game just once in 12 starts. He profiles as a classic boom-or-bust tight end who will prove entirely useless for fantasy reasons if he doesn’t find his way into the end zone.