Raymond Summerlin

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The Fabled Sophomore TE Leap

Friday, July 11, 2014

The annals of fantasy football are littered with hundreds of half-cocked theories about how to consistently identify players poised for a breakout season. Almost all of these theories are built on the back of anecdotal anomalies, and every single one has little predictive value at best.

Among the newest of these theories is the idea that tight ends breakout in their sophomore season, and like a lot of other breakout theories this one is based on some interesting anecdotal evidence.

Antonio Gates exploded onto the scene with an 81-964-13 line in his second season, Rob Gronkowski scored 241 standard fantasy points his second run around the league, and Jimmy Graham almost tripled his fantasy output per game from his rookie to sophomore season.

This anecdotal evidence is also anecdotally explained. Tight end is one of the most difficult positions to learn, so players need at least one season to become effective NFL players. Once they have the nuances of the position down, their natural talent allows them to earn more playing time and be more effective on the football field.

These are all nice stories, but the important question is, do the numbers back up the stories? Do sophomore tight ends see a bump in usage and production that is larger than the second-year jump at other positions?

The first step to answering the question is examining the production jump from the top tight ends, which will be defined as tight ends drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. The rationale for using top draft picks is these players are usually expected to contribute early in their careers and should offer good numbers in both their rookie and sophomore seasons.

From 2000-2012, 63 tight ends were drafted in the first three rounds, and 57 of those players recorded statistics in both of their first two seasons. Those 57 combined to average 2.48 targets and 2.4 fantasy points per game their rookie seasons. Only 14 rookies scored more than 50 fantasy points, only four scored more than 75, and only two scored more than 100. Not exciting numbers.

The same group of tight ends showed much better their sophomore year, though, seeing 3.85 targets and 4.19 fantasy points a game on average. Second-year tight ends were also more effective with their targets, improving on average from .97 fantasy points to 1.09 fantasy points per target.

Impressively, only 13 of the 57 saw a decrease in their fantasy points per game totals from their rookie to sophomore years. More impressively, 32 scored more than 50 fantasy points their sophomore year, 21 scored more than 75, seven scored more than 100, and Gronkowski scored 241 his second season.

The numbers are fairly clear. Tight ends are given more opportunities in their second season in the NFL, and they are more efficient with those opportunities.

That in itself is not conclusive, though. It would be surprising if top level picks did not improve from their first to their second seasons, so the real question should be is this change in production more pronounced for tight ends than other positions?

Of all the other positions, wide receiver is the most logical to compare with tight ends. From 2005-2012, 66 wide receivers were drafted in the first three rounds, and 63 of those recorded stats in each of their first two seasons. Those 63 receivers saw an average increase of 1.41 fantasy points per game and .92 targets per game from their rookie to sophomore seasons.

A nice jump, but both changes are smaller than the change for tight ends. This shows tight ends do see a larger increase in effectiveness on average than other fantasy positions.

It is important to place this information in context, though. The average increase in fantasy points a game for second-year tight ends was 1.78 points, which would only translate to 28 extra fantasy points over a full season. That level of points gained is hardly worthy of the term “breakout.”

Moreover, only six of the 57 tight ends saw an increase of more than five fantasy points a game, which works out to roughly 10% of the eligible tight ends. Perhaps one of this year’s second-year tight ends will find that level of success, but it is extremely unlikely.

What the numbers do show is second-year tight ends should be expected to show marginal improvement both in opportunity and effectiveness. So, what could this marginal improvement look like for the tight ends selected in the first three rounds in 2013?


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Raymond Summerlin is a football writer for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter at @RMSummerlin.
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