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End Game: Historical Trends for Tight Ends

What do historical trends tell us about the tight end position?

tight end Graham grid lines

As many know, a general rule of thumb is to stay away from running backs once they hit age 30. The evidence is stacked against the aging RB as few have had success at the position late in their careers. The question this article will attempt to answer is, “Well, what about the tight end position?”

The tight end position is tricky in fantasy football. Few seem to have success early in their careers. Most highly touted tight ends have a rookie year like Eric Ebron (25 catches, 248 yards, 1 TD).  Then, of course, you have a Jeremy Shockey rookie season (74 catches, 894 yards, 2 TDs ) to challenge the way you think about rookies. Generally, however, tight ends don’t become fantasy useful in their rookie seasons. So at what age do tight ends tend to fall off?

For this study, I took every tight end since the year 2002 that has had at least two finishes inside the top-12 PPR tight ends (minimum four games played in a single year to qualify). I charted their fantasy points per game, as well as games played year-over-year to see if there was a correlation in production change for the top tier of tight ends.

You know how many tight ends meet that criteria? 33. This number tells us that there is very little variance in the top tight ends. In fact, 75% have had at least three top-12 seasons, and 47% have had at least five top-12 finishes.

This is ideal because I wanted the sample to reflect the best tight ends. Most of the preeminent tight ends stay in that top tier for a considerable portion of their career, and that is a favorable sample to study when trying to determine what age a player starts to decline. The bad tight ends get replaced pretty quickly because well, average tight ends are a dime a dozen and everyone is always looking for the next Antonio Gates.


Average Tight End Fantasy Points per Game (FP/G) by age

What I found for average FP/G by age is that the decline is gradual. 21-year-olds score the least, then there is a jump at ages 22 and 25. Then the decline from age 25 is gradual, and FP/G even increases on average between ages 28 and 30. After that, there is a decline from 30 to 33. After 33, the only players in the sample are future or current Hall of Famers like Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten. Here is that chart:

Fantasy Points per Game by ageIf we had a greater sample size, I think the increase from 21-25 would be more obvious. Then I would predict that between 25 and 30 would be a very gradual decrease. Once tight ends hit age 30, the decline in production seems to speed up a bit. If a tight end plays past 33, there is a good chance they are still viable as the only ones in our study who did so seemed to perform very well. From age 26 onward there was a decreasing amount of tight ends in the sample, and no jump was bigger than from the 12 tight ends at age 33 to the seven at age 34.

If a tight end is going to retire in the age 30-34 range (or before), then that chart is a little more telling. I removed those who played beyond their age 34 seasons (Gonzalez, Gates, Sharpe, Pollard, Watson, Witten and Clark) from the chart below and the decline is more pronounced.

Early retireesThis makes sense, since the group I removed were players who had outstanding careers. This leaves some very good players, but maybe a group that is a little more susceptible to age than a tight end like Gonzalez who scored more points per game in his age-37 season than several tight ends did over any season for their entire career.

Average Tight End Fantasy Points per Game (FP/G) by NFL years played

After all of my results on NFL age, I wanted to know if there were better or worse correlations based on years from the start of a tight ends NFL career. I found that curves on this chart were a bit more smooth, indicating that age may skew some data points. For example, Jason Witten had a better season at Age 22 than Alge Crumpler would have until Age 27, but Witten started his career at 21 years old and Crumpler at 24. Here is that chart:

Fantasy Points per game by NFL year

This chart is not dissimilar to the first chart in this article. However, I believe this chart better illustrates the gradual decline of the tight end over time than by age. Again you see the spike after 11 years in the NFL (around age 33/34) where the few who are still producing at a high level keep doing so instead of going into a state of rapid decline due to injuries or ageing.

So what does this all mean?

It’s hard to draw conclusive evidence from a sample size that really isn’t that large, however indicative it may be of the high-end NFL tight end. This sample had a fair few outliers who don’t reflect the sample at all. Aaron Hernandez and Jermichael Finley stopped playing at a young age while still producing at a high level due to career ending injuries and legal issues. Many of the generations’ best tight ends are still playing and plenty of them are still in the prime of their careers. Despite this, I was able to draw some loose conclusions based on my findings:

  • If a tight end is still putting up TE1 numbers past age 32 or so, they are almost definitely going to continue to put up at least fringe TE1/2 stats until they decide to hang up the cleats or suffer a career ending injury. For some reason, age doesn’t affect a small group that can seemingly keep playing forever. Witten and Gates may not be sexy, but there is no reason to think they can’t produce a handful of TE1 weeks until they decide to retire.
  • Since there is no evidence to show a distinct, steep drop off age/year for tight ends, it indicates that tight ends have more varying career paths than, for example, running backs. Greg Olsen is just as likely to have a top-five finish at age 32 as Kyle Rudolph at 27. Does this make it harder to predict? Sure does. However, this knowledge allows you to take advantage of owners who discount tight ends due to them being “old.”
  • At an average of 5.27 PPR points per game, rookie tight ends rarely are reliable options for your fantasy team. Even the best of the best sampled in this study had just two tight ends average as a rookie.
  • Despite there being no definite age/year that tight end production drastically drops off definitively, the data does show that there is a shallow decline after age-25 at the tight end position. Is it much to buy into? No. The more important fact is that data mostly shows that career paths are often quite unique. The decreasing returns after age-25 just lend me to believe that the statistical average declines despite tight ends having a wide spectrum of career fluctuation paths as depicted in the bottom chart.

 The first chart is interesting because it shows career paths of tight ends. They truly are all over the place, but most do follow the simple trend rules we established. Click on the icons underneath the graph to add/remove lines from the chart to compare timelines of different sets of tight ends. Tight ends either retire around age-33 or maintain production until they do. The ones that retired beforehand experienced a drop-off in production before they decided to retire. Rookies generally don’t produce in their first year.

Based on these findings, who is undervalued/overvalued?

Undervalued: Jason Witten

Jason Witten

At 35 years old, many fantasy owners think Witten is done. The fact remains that Witten is still the starter in an offense with a young quarterback that loves to throw short to intermediate routes to Witten and Cole Beasley. We saw in our sample that those who play past around age 33 largely maintain steady production until they retire. Those fearing a drop-off in production need not be worried. The elder statesman received 19.83% of the Cowboys targets, only barely trailing Beasley (20.46%) and Dez Bryant (20.04%). Cowboy tight end peers Geoff Swaim and Rico Gathers are hot names to watch. But the fact remains that Dallas re-upped Witten’s contact this offseason for another two years. Finishing 11th in total FP/G in 2016, Witten is going largely undrafted in shallow leagues. At worst he’s a dependable backup.

Overvalued: OJ Howard

Tight end, OJ Howard

I’ll be the first in line to say that I love OJ Howard. I think he is an incredible talent, and I even went as far as to say he compares favorably to Rob Gronkowski. With that being said, the average FP/G for rookie tight ends in my sample was 5.27. In fact, only two of the 32 sampled (Jordan Reed and Jeremy Shockey) averaged double digit fantasy points in their respective rookie seasons. Howard has to compete with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, fellow tight end Cameron Brate, a hoard of running backs and rookie Chris Godwin for targets.

The odds aren’t great for rookies. Howard is being drafted ahead of tight ends like Zach Ertz, who just came off a season in which he averaged over 13 points per game.  In redraft formats, I am not taking Howard as anything more than a backup flier in the late rounds.

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