Late Round Fantasy Football Tight End Roulette (Part 1): Jason Witten & Zach Miller

by Ray Marzarella ·

Going into the 2015 fantasy football season, the PlayerProfiler Team wrote numerous articles pointing fantasy footballers to a single tight end fantasy football draft tactic: target big-bodied, athletic pass-catching tight ends in the later rounds.  While Matt Kelley was firing off warning flares about draft-capital adjusted bust rates and physical fragility rates at the TE position, I was trying to help point #ZeroEverything enthusiasts toward late-round players who fit the same studly archetype as Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce at a fraction of the cost and risk.  Many who heeded this advice and played Late Round TE Roulette drafted Tyler Eifert, a league-winning selection.

2015 Late Round TE Roulette Review

While Tyler Eifert did sit out games with a strained neck and concussion in 2015, Eifert’s top-5 fantasy production (14.7-fantasy points per game) overshadowed his fragility.  Tight ends miss more games than any other games than any other skill position, a primary driver in the position’s 44-percent draft capital-adjusted bust rate (TEs drafted in rounds 1-12) over the previous two seasons. Here are the 17 tight ends whose ADPs landed in first 12 rounds of MyFantasyLeague drafts in 2015 with their number of games played and fantasy points per game:

TEs with MFL ADPs in Rounds 1-12 (2015)

TEs with MFL ADPs in Rounds 1-12 (2015)

Two top-10 finishers on the above list played in all 16 games.  

Here are last season’s top 17 TEs in order of Fantasy Points Per Game scored:

TE leaders in Fantasy Points Per Game (2015)

No one should be thinking about Chase Coffman, I know this, but the point is that potentially league-winning tight end production can be found after the draft’s first 12 rounds or on the waiver wire.  Which is precisely where a slew of savvy fantasy owners picked up Jordan Reed, Gary Barnidge and Ben Watson in 2015, while laughing their way to 12-plus fantasy points per week at an inherently difficult-to-predict position.  And if you happened to find yourself in a situation where you were playing in Week 17 and had to start Chase Coffman, I’m sure you weren’t complaining about his 12.9-point performance.

Playing Late Round TE Roulette in 2016

This year’s Late Round TE Roulette piece will be split into three parts: Part 1 will feature players with ADPs that would put them in the first 12 rounds of 12-team drafts on MyFantasyLeague, Part 2 will feature players whose ADPs would put them in the 13th round or later, and Part 3 will feature players with no listed ADPs who are best suited as high-ceiling, low risk streaming candidates with upside.  All ADP data is as of July 4th.  Here are the TEs whose MFL ADPs currently see them being drafted in the first 12 rounds:

TEs with MFL ADPs in Rounds 1-12 (2016)

Playing Late Round TE Roulette can be a slippery slope if you plan on using a pick in the first 12 rounds at the position, as this list features some potential traps.  The key to winning this game is being able to distinguish between the players cleverly disguising themselves as value picks (for me, this includes Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen) and the players with clearer paths to fantasy relevance being taken after them.  With the rise of leagues with premium TE scoring and/or leagues that allow them to be played in the flex, 18 (!!!) TEs currently have ADPs that would see them drafted in the first 12 rounds.  Which makes avoiding the traps and finding the potential gems at the bottom of this list, call them the 2016 Tyler Eiferts, even more important if you’re using a pick in the first 12 rounds on the position.

For some owners, the allure of drafting players like Coby Fleener and Ladarius Green will be too difficult to ignore no matter how high their ADPs spike.  And that’s perfectly understandable with those two players specifically finding themselves in situations where they can be league winners if they hit, especially in leagues that place a premium on TE scoring.  Here are some players to target as either high-upside backups or low-risk starters if you pass up/miss out on Fleener, Green or any other early to mid-round TEs.

Zach Miller – The Latest Late Bloomer

In 2015, Martellus Bennett suffered an unusually quiet fall from fantasy and reality football grace for a guy whose 92 receptions led the position the year prior.  Even before suffering a season-ending “rib injury” and being put on injured reserve after Week 13, Bennett looked like he was slowly beginning to lose his job to journeyman Zach Miller.  The fact that his efficiency has been trending downward for the last few seasons supports this argument, while not making him a guarantee to return his current value despite being in a seemingly good fantasy situation in New England.  Per Pro Football Focus, Miller saw 34 fewer targets than Bennett in 2015 but recorded two more touchdowns and the same number of receiving yards while dropping zero passes to Bennett’s four.  This is even more impressive when you consider that Miller didn’t record a single catch from 2012-2014 before last year’s mini-breakout.


Zach Miller Advanced Metrics Profile

Zach Miller’s story is one of the more interesting ones at the tight end position in the NFL.  He transferred to Nebraska Omaha after Bill Callahan was hired by Nebraska, who originally recruited Miller as an option QB, to install a pro-style offense.  His first in-game action at the tight end position took place at the 2009 Cactus Bowl, a Division II all-star game, where he caught five passes for 116 yards and a touchdown.  All this before being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft.  For a guy who’s taken a while to learn a new position at the NFL level, a la fellow former college QB Julian Edelman, there’s something to be said for the fact this seven-year pro has scored at least one touchdown in all four seasons that he’s played in a game.  And the sublime athleticism that he put on display at his Pro Day can be seen with his recording a 62-yard reception during his 2009 rookie season, a 52-yarder in 2010 and an 87-yard TD catch from Jay Cutler in his debut 2015 season with the Bears.  I hope this helps dispel any notions that he’s simply a creation of former Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

Zach Miller was a 2015 league-winner with double digit fantasy point performances in Weeks 14-16.  He placed in the Top 10 of all relevant efficiency metrics except red zone catch rate, though he still caught an impressive four of six targets.  That number of six targets should rise pretty significantly with Martellus Bennett gone and Rob Housler never having been good or efficient enough to be a legitimate threat to Miller’s production (Ben Braunecker, who could be the tight end of the future in Chicago, shouldn’t be expected to make a big impact as an undrafted rookie).  Having re-upped with the Bears on a two-year $6 million contract, he should be one of the more heavily targeted players in the offense behind Alshon Jeffery with Matt Forte gone, Marquess Wilson nursing a broken foot, Eddie Royal being in the midst of a steep decline and Kevin White being unproven.  Yet despite all of these external forces working in his favor, Miller’s current MFL ADP makes him the 18th TE off the board on average.  The opportunity, talent and situation are all there.  And smart fantasy owners will take advantage by snagging the former option QB, and the latest in a line of late-blooming tight ends who take several years to percolate at the NFL level, in the late rounds.  Make sure you’re one of them.

Jason Witten – The Dad Runner

With his My Fantasy League ADP sitting at the 133rd overall pick on average, Jason Witten is the least expensive he’s ever been to acquire in fantasy football.  A lot of the reason why could be buyer’s remorse for owners who tethered their fantasy team’s hopes in 2015 to a Dallas Cowboys team whose offensive efficiency was compromised by early season injuries to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.  Aside from Ezekiel Elliott, the only Dallas player who didn’t let fantasy owners down last year because he wasn’t in the league yet, you can make the argument that all of the Cowboys skill position players are being undervalued compared to where they would be drafted if 2015 went better for the team.  This includes the guy who’s arguably the number two pass catcher on a team that’s set to see a big bounce-back in overall volume and efficiency, provided they can avoid the injury bug that plagued them last year.

Jason Witten Advanced Metrics Profile

Jason Witten is entering his age-34 season, his 13th in the NFL.  For those who think he’s slowing down, look at the box score from Week 1 of his 12th NFL season last year.  He caught eight of nine targets for 60 yards and two TDs, a 26-point fantasy performance for those keeping score at home.  Yes, it came against a New York Giants team that he’s made a career out of exploiting for TDs (side note from a lifelong Giants season ticket holder: any time you can play or stream a TE against the Giants defense, you need to do it), but it also came with Tony Romo in the lineup. Like the rest of his teammates, Witten’s efficiency declined with Tony Romo out.  You can see this in his Production Premium, which is Player Profiler’s situation-agnostic efficiency metric, with a score of negative 3.5 (#32 in the league).  But Witten still managed a positive Target Premium, which measures the percentage of additional fantasy points per target that a wide receiver or tight end generates over and above the other pass receivers on his team, with a score of plus 1.8-percent (#22 in the league).  So not only did Witten play as well as he could have in the face of last season’s adversity, the numbers of both of those efficiency metrics will go up if Romo is the QB for the majority of the season.  And with two of his three touchdowns last year coming in that Week 1 contest, with the third coming in Week 17, you can also bet that Witten’s TD numbers will see a positive bump.

Jason Witten has also not only improved his Catch Rate every year since 2013 (from 65.8-percent in 2013 to 71.1-percent in 2014 to 74-percent last year), but he managed to command 20-percent of his team’s targets a season ago at the ripe old age of 33.  His 77 receptions were fourth in the league last year and represent his biggest total since he hauled in 110 passes in 2012.  He’s only missed one game due to injury in his career, which was during his rookie year in 2003.  Keep in mind that this was a guy who suffered a lacerated spleen in the 2012 preseason.  And despite all of these factors, he’s being drafted after a player coming off of a torn patellar tendon in Jimmy Graham.  These are the kinds of value traps you need to watch out for if you plan on traversing the Late Round TE Roulette landscape in 2016.  And if you’re new to the party, guess what, so is freshly minted double-digit round fantasy draft pick (and original Dad Runner) Jason Witten.  Draft him late as your TE1, proceed to wonder if there’s anything wrong with him that’s keeping fellow drafters from taking him earlier, and enjoy the discounted production at a hard-to-predict tight end position.