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Should You Draft a Tight End Before a Wide Receiver in Your Fantasy Draft?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how fantasy football scores of quarterbacks have been rising the last six years. This led to the conclusion that you should draft an elite QB early in your draft. But, much like how you need to carefully consider all aspects of a process during a Six Sigma project, we now have to consider everything else that the quarterbacks can affect. Specifically, wide receivers and tight ends. After all, if QBs are throwing for more yards and touchdowns, somebody has to be catching those passes and getting more fantasy points.

Let’s use data and statistical software to see what conclusions we can draw about wide receivers and tight ends.

Wide Receivers

I took the 25 top-scoring wide receivers from 2011 and compared their total number of fantasy points to players from the previous 5 seasons with the same rank. For example, Calvin Johnson led all WRs with 226 fantasy points last year. The WRs that led the league in fantasy points the previous 5 years (Bowe, Johnson, Fitzgerald, Moss, and Harrison) scored an average of 204.8 points. So Johnson scored 21.2 more points than the average #1 ranked wide receiver.

NOTE: All data comes from KFFL.com and does not include any games in week 17 or the NFL playoffs. Get the data here.

Rank

2011 Player

2011 Points

Difference from Previous 5 Years

1

Johnson, Calvin

226

21.2

2

Welker, Wes

201

10.8

3

Cruz, Victor

178

-5.2

4

Nelson, Jordy

176

-2.4

5

Fitzgerald, Larry

167

-2.6

6

White, Roddy

166

-0.6

7

Smith, Steve

165

1.4

8

Wallace, Mike

163

3.2

9

Jackson, Vincent

150

-4.6

10

Marshall, Brandon

146

-5.2

11

Harvin, Percy

145

-5.4

12

Jennings, Greg

143

-4.8

13

Green, A.J.

142

-4.2

14

Nicks, Hakeem

138

-3.0

15

Bryant, Dez

134

-3.4

16

Colston, Marques

130

-5.4

17

Washington, Nate

130

-1.4

18

Bowe, Dwayne

128

-1.4

19

Robinson, Laurent

127

0.2

20

Johnson, Steve

124

-1.0

21

Garcon, Pierre

124

1.6

22

Jones, Julio

122

0.8

23

Smith, Torrey

120

0.2

24

Gaffney, Jabar

117

2.0

25

Moore, Lance

111

-1.2

The difference is green if it is positive and red if it is negative. That’s a lot of red up there. In fact, the top 25 receivers performed worse as a group than the average from the previous 5 seasons. So despite quarterbacks having the best year in the history of the NFL, the elite wide receivers did not get any better. We can visualize this very easily with a time series plot:

There is obviously no trend to see here. Those extra yards and touchdowns aren’t going to the elite wide receivers. Quarterbacks are getting their extra points by spreading the ball around. So are they spreading it around to tight ends? Let’s find out!

Tight Ends

Rank

2011 Player

2011 Points

Difference from Previous 5 Years

1

Gronkowski, Rob

211

67.4

2

Graham, Jimmy

174

44.2

3

Gonzalez, Tony

123

0.8

4

Witten, Jason

111

-4.6

5

Hernandez, Aaron

108

3.6

6

Finley, Jermichael

106

5.6

7

Gates, Antonio

99

6.8

8

Keller, Dustin

96

8.0

9

Davis, Vernon

96

11.0

10

Celek, Brent

91

11.6

11

Pettigrew, Brandon

88

11.2

12

Davis, Fred

86

12.0

13

Gresham, Jermaine

82

9.2

14

Olsen, Greg

81

11.4

15

Cook, Jared

81

16.4

16

Daniels, Owen

80

17.4

17

Winslow, Kellen

79

18.0

18

Ballard, Jake

78

20.6

19

Dickson, Ed

73

18.2

20

Chandler, Scott

68

15.2

21

Miller, Heath

67

14.8

22

Dreessen, Joel

64

15.6

23

Shockey, Jeremy

64

17.8

24

Fasano, Anthony

62

18.0

25

Shiancoe, Visanthe

53

10.4

I think it’s safe to say that tight ends are on the rise. They appear to be the biggest beneficiaries of the improved quarterback play. If you run a regression analysis on the average scores of the top 25 quarterbacks and tight ends from the previous 6 seasons (the points on the time series plots), you get an r-squared value of 84.6%. And that’s from just six data points! The same regression analysis yields an r-squared value of 1.8% for quarterbacks and wide receivers. (Here's the data I used.)

So Who Should I Draft?

In all of the fantasy football articles I’ve written, one message continues to come through again and again: Don’t draft a wide receiver early.

We’ve seen before that you’re not gaining that many points by taking a top receiver as opposed to taking an average one later in the draft. And this data analysis further shows that the improved quarterback play isn’t benefiting the top wide receivers at all. Quarterbacks are spreading the ball around more to their second and third receivers and the tight ends. And as these positions continue to get more fantasy points, the value of an elite receiver is lessened even more. I would definitely take a tight end before a WR (excpet for Johnson) in the draft this year.

Speaking of tight ends, let’s talk about the impact Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have had on the NFL. Both players scored more points than any other tight end in the past 6 years (and probably ever). NFL coaches everywhere saw the success New Orleans and New England had using their tight ends. And the NFL is a copycat league. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see more coaches integrate the tight end into their game plans more. So not only would I try to grab a top tight end early (I have Graham in all of my leagues), it might not be bad to grab another in a double digit round (I’ve been taking Jared Cook). If tight ends keep getting emphasized more, it could pay off greatly. For example, last year I drafted Finley in the 4th round, and Gronkowski in the 13th. By week 8, I had traded Finley for a RB I badly needed, and started Gronkowski each week. With tight ends on the rise, it’s worth the chance of taking a flier on a late round tight end. You never know when you might end up with the “Next Gronk”.

Photograph by WBUR.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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