C.D. Carter

Draft Analysis

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The Viability of TE Streaming

Monday, July 29, 2013

For a little perspective on this shift in fantasy points allowed, consider this: the Eagles and Chargers, two of the stingiest defenses against tight ends in 2012, allowed 5.5 points per game. That would’ve made those teams among the tight end-friendliest just nine seasons ago.

The glut of exploitable defenses makes streaming tight ends viable. Identifying favorable match-ups – sometimes weeks in advance – is how we work the defensive streaming system. Why not do the same with tight ends, assuming we don’t have the luxury of rolling out an elite option week in and week out?

Even top-10 fantasy tight ends were best used as streamers in 2012. Dennis Pitta, fantasy’s seventh best tight end, posted three points or less in six contests. Kyle Rudolph, the ninth highest scoring tight end, had seven abysmal games of two points or less. Antonio Gates, the fourth tight end off 2012 draft boards, had six games of two fantasy points or less.

Sticking with these guys made little to no sense as waiver wire options faced exploitable defenses. Perhaps owners find comfort in plugging and playing the guys they drafted, no matter their changing prospects and tough matchups.

That may be comfortable, but it’s far from optimal.

Changing Prototypes, Rules

Even the casual football watcher or fantasy owner can eyeball the difference between today’s beastly tight ends and those of yesteryear.

Gil Brandt, NFL analyst and former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, boiled down the change in tight ends to a few pertinent and somewhat startling facts. Brandt said in February that the heaviest tight end in the 1983 NFL draft weighed 237 pounds. The average weight of a tight end at the 2013 NFL combine weighed in at 252 pounds.

Tony Hunter, the league’s biggest tight end in 1983, stood 6-foot-4 – a giant among men at the time. Brandt pointed out that 12 of 19 tight ends at the 2013 combine were 6-foot-4 or taller.

The Hulk-like growth of NFL tight ends has coincided with rule changes that have emboldened pass catchers of every ilk – especially the gargantuan variety – to run routes over the middle of the field and pick up chunks of yardage, and, simultaneously, fantasy production.

Rules that limit contact near the line of scrimmage and penalizing head-hunting hits so common in over-the-middle pass routes don’t just benefit Graham and Gronkowski, but Greg Olsen (ADP 10.06) Martellus Bennett (ADP 12.09), Jordan Cameron (ADP 13.09), and Rob Housler (ADP 14.04).

"No longer is the intimidation factor relevant in the middle of the field," Trent Dilfer said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "I've seen routes being called with tight ends and slot receivers that you never even thought about running 10 years ago because you'd get your guys killed. So now you get all this chunk yardage in the middle of the football field with players that don't have to necessarily have top-end speed."

It’s all part of a formula that makes streaming tight ends a reliable strategy in all but the deepest fantasy leagues.

These rule changes and the athleticism of today’s tight ends, along with the marked jump in tight end targets and receptions and the increase in reliably generous defenses have created myriad weekly opportunities to optimize fantasy lineups for every owner, not just those who own the top tight ends.

If you’re keen on investing early- and mid-round picks on running backs and wide receivers, spend a couple late rounders on tight ends and – just as you do with defenses – exploit their match-ups.

Does It Work?

The expansion of useable tight end options is new enough for streaming advocates and doubters to put forth perfectly legitimate arguments for and against the strategy. I take none of it to heart. I’m encouraged by the pervasive skepticism.

The entire system is predicated on sober and often difficult decision making: finding the best tight end match-ups sometimes two or three weeks in advance, trusting in the numbers, and forsaking your allegiance to a single tight end acquired for the low price of late-round pick.

But do the numbers have good news for us? Pro Football Focus writer Pat Thorman explored that part of tight end streaming in impressive depth this offseason, and after crunching numbers showing precisely what tight ends did against certain defenses, Thorman delivered good news to fantasy football’s burgeoning community of streamers.

Fantasy tight ends who finished the season in the 11-20 range averaged just 4.7 fantasy points per game against defenses that were in the top half of the NFL in defending tight ends. Those same players scored 7.4 points against bottom-half defenses.

The results were similar, though not nearly as startling, for tight ends who finished 21-25 in fantasy leagues. Those players averaged 4.1 fantasy points per contest against the top-half defenses, and 5.4 points per game against the 16 tight end friendliest defensive units.

These tight ends – those who finish the season anywhere from a low-end TE1 to a top-end TE3, are your streamers. They are available on your local waiver wire, they’re begging to be used in favorable matchups against defenses that have been gouged by tight ends, and they often present far superior options than the tight end you drafted in August.

The tight end position has seen a dramatic and irreversible shift. NFL coaches have taken note. It’s time for fantasy footballers to do the same.

C.D. Carter, author of the "How To Think Like A Fantasy Football Winner" series, writes for XN Sports, 4for4.com and RotoGrinders, has been featured in The New York Times, and co-hosts the "Living The Stream" podcast. He can be found on Twitter @cdcarter13.
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