Like all things with the NFL, tight ends are more complicated than their label. They essentially play two different positions (offensive tackle and receiver), and they come in many shapes and sizes. Understanding what type of tight end each one is will matter for fantasy, especially for finding potential breakout TE2s in the tight end hell fire.
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In “Which TE Stats Matter”, I confirmed that slot rate (the percentage of snaps lined up in the slot) is positively correlated to fantasy points (+0.30) and that inline rate is negatively correlated (-0.31). There are two primary reasons why this is. One, slot/wide tight ends are going to be more athletic than inline types. And two, inline tight ends are going to block on a higher percentage of their teams’ pass attempts, and pass-block rate (the percentage of passing snaps that a player pass-blocked) is negatively correlated to fantasy points (-0.38).
In other words, Mark Andrews is good for fantasy. Chris Manhertz is bad for fantasy. What a surprise!
Player personnel usage is just as important as inline vs. slot/wide rate, however. “Is he playing in 11-personnel?” and “how many routes is he running in 12-personnel?” are the two primary questions we need to focus on when finding the next breakout tight end.
From 2016–2020 according to our friends at Sports Info Solutions, tight ends ran a route on 86% of passing dropbacks when there were only 1 tight end on the field largely because those are obvious passing downs like 3rd-and-10. That is way too many routes run to forfeit in fantasy, so tracking if a tight end is playing in 11-personnel (and to a way lesser extent 21-personnel) is worth doing.
When there were 2 tight ends on the field (12-personnel), tight ends averaged 1.60 yards per route run and 0.31 fantasy points per route run. Those are more valuable per snap than routes with 1 tight end on the field (1.30 YPRR and 0.25 FPPRR) because these snaps come with less impressive target competition. The 11-personnel tight ends are competing against 3 receivers. The 12-personnel tight ends are competing against only 2 receivers and 1 tight end who has a higher chance of being a lumbering teammate. Of course, when there are 2 tight ends on the field, they only run a route on 76% of their passing dropbacks, so some of that efficiency is lost by a lack of volume.
Ultimately, there is almost no difference in fantasy points per passing snap when there is 1 tight end on the field (0.22) versus when there are 2 tight ends on the field (0.24). The key is being out there for both scenarios, and not being the primary blocker in 12-personnel.
Among the 40 tight ends who finished top-8 in half PPR points per game (min. 10 games) across the last 5 seasons, only 1 tight end ran a route on fewer than half of his team’s 1-TE set dropbacks (and that was Dallas Goedert who snuck in as the TE8 per game last season). 32 of these 40 highly-productive tight ends ran a route on at least 68% of these 1-TE set dropbacks, and top-3 tight end finishers averaged a 75% route rate in this personnel. In other words, it’s an absolute requirement for an upside fantasy option to be a primary route runner in 11-personnel.
In this same 40 tight end sample, all 40 of them ran a route on at least 60% of their team’s 2-TE set passing dropbacks, too. And those with a top-3 fantasy season averaged an 84% route rate in this personnel. Once again, it’s a requirement to be out there running routes in 2-TE sets.
Routes are obviously extremely important to fantasy production, but to break into the top-8 fantasy tight ends in a season, it’s a requirement to run routes in both 11- and 12-personnel. Slot-only or h-back-only tight ends who are too small to hang in there in 11-personnel are missing out on fantasy points, as are the corn-fed blocking-only tight ends who aren’t running routes off of play action in 12-personnel.
In a perfect world, we’d only draft tight ends who are strong enough to play in passing- and rushing-situations but who are also athletic enough to be split out wide or in the slot in some 11-personnel formations to take advantage of mismatches against linebackers and safeties. Of course, there are only a couple of these humans who walk the earth, but if you can spot one of them being drafted in the TE2 range, you have potential gold on your hands.
In this need-to-be-updated 2021 NFL Depth Charts for Fantasy Football column, I’ll attempt to highlight which tight ends are playing in 11- and 12-personnel along with how often their team actually uses each package.