Positional distinctions are disappearing. Rushing yards are losing meaning. And offensive and defensive schemes are shifting from game to game — if not drive to drive. The most popular sport in America is changing faster than it ever has before — yet the way we talk about the game has largely stayed the same. It’s time for the conversation to catch up to the shifting concepts redefining front offices and gameplay nationwide. So welcome to The Ringer’s You Don’t Know Football Week, where we’ll explore and attempt to better understand the evolutions already occurring on the gridiron — and the reboots we’d like to see make their way to the game next.
It’s no secret that the NFL is airing it out more than ever. Dating back to the NFL’s founding in 1920, teams, as a whole, never averaged more than 230 passing yards per game until 2012. Three seasons later, they’d cracked 240. Quarterbacks who throw for 4,000 yards are now the norm, and a deep receiving corps is more valuable than ever before.
That effect has spilled over into fantasy football. Remember when it was common for teams to draft two running backs before even taking a look at the available receivers? Now, the top of the draft is split between backs and wideouts. Just look at the average draft positions to see how fantasy has changed over the past decade: In 2007, the first wide receiver off the board wasn’t taken until the 15th spot. This year, don’t expect to get Antonio Brown unless you have the third pick.
Yet that change has been uneven, and fantasy football hasn’t adjusted itself to address a growing imbalance in the game: As receiver value has skyrocketed in recent years, the other prominent pass catchers in fantasy—tight ends—have fallen behind. Tight ends have seen their production remain basically the same over the past 10 years, meaning that, relative to wideouts, tight ends produce less toward your fantasy wins than ever. There are a few transcendent players (get healthy for once, Gronk!), but most of the players at the position are a bunch of duds who do little more than take up space on fantasy football rosters. It’s time to rethink that—and time to eliminate the tight end position from fantasy football.
Most fantasy leagues run with a roster that looks something like ESPN’s default option: one QB, two RBs, two WRs, one TE, one K, one DST, and a flex option (RB/WR/TE). Sure, plenty of leagues bump up the number of wide receiver slots to three. Plenty more are adopting dual-quarterback setups. Some weirdos draft individual defensive players. But just about everyone has a single slot for a tight end. Increasingly, that means someone will get stuck starting a mediocre pass catcher like Coby Fleener (the 12th-best TE in fantasy last year), who hauled in only 631 yards and three touchdowns. There's a way out of this pointless headache, and it involves folding tight ends into the wide receiver category, creating a new flex option that we can just call “pass catchers.” It would look something like this:
Fantasy football, like the NFL, is resistant to change, so it might be tough to give up the comfortable roster setup that many players have used for years now. But fantasy is supposed to reflect the sport that’s played on Sundays, and that means adjusting for the growth in wide receiver production. There isn’t the depth available at the tight end position to justify every player in a 12- or even 10-team league starting a TE every single week. Think of it this way: Let’s say you ended up with Fleener as your starting tight end last year. He was the sixth-highest-drafted player at his position, so while ending up the 12th-best tight end was an underperformance, he was still good enough to have been starting almost every week in a standard 12-team league last season. That shouldn’t be that bad—the 12th-best tight end is, by definition, a pretty great player in an NFL with 32 teams! But compare Fleener with wideouts, and his lack of production becomes clear. Among all pass catchers last year, Fleener ranked 72nd (!), with 60 wide receivers above him. With three starting wide receivers per team, a 12-team league can play only 36 of those 60 wideouts each week, meaning that 40 percent of them go unused! Bye weeks introduce some noise into the numbers, but the end result is the same: Productive receivers sit on the bench while some players trot out one underperforming tight end or another in the dedicated spot.
This isn’t just a one-year aberration, either. Here’s where the 12th-ranked tight end ranked among all pass catchers for the past eight seasons:
This appears to be a clear downward trend, an indication that this pass-catching imbalance is only getting worse. Some of the wide receivers that ranked above Fleener last season include Tavon Austin, Mohamed Sanu, Chris Hogan, Dontrelle Inman, Taylor Gabriel, and J.J. Nelson. None of these guys will carry you to a fantasy championship, and if you were stuck starting one it probably meant you were in trouble. But you still would have been better off with one of them than with Fleener.
I don’t mean to pick on Fleener here. This isn’t a Fleener problem, it’s a tight end problem. The position is shallow, and going through a period when even the top guys aren’t reliable. With Rob Gronkowski missing eight games last year, Travis Kelce became the highest-producing tight end in fantasy. And yet among all pass catchers, he ranked just 18th, scoring fewer fantasy points on the year than rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who started just one game. The next-best tight end? Greg Olsen, at 30th. That made last season particularly bad—if you didn’t have one of those two guys, there were few good options to plug into the tight end spot.
Most years, it isn’t quite this dramatic. Gronkowski was ninth among all pass catchers in 2015, and Gary Barnidge, Jordan Reed, Delanie Walker, and Olsen were all in the top 22. Tyler Eifert was 32nd. But that almost makes the problem worse. If you didn’t have one of those guys, you were stuck sifting through the players who ranked in the 40s and below, likely leaving more-talented wide receivers on the bench to do so. Meanwhile, five or so fantasy players would have had a leg up on the competition just by fielding competent tight ends, shifting the balance of power in the league toward teams that aren’t wasting a starting roster spot on a less productive player. Maybe they deserved that leg up, as many of those fantasy owners correctly factored in the inefficiencies of the tight end position and adjusted their plan accordingly. But does anyone want their fantasy season hinging on such an unheralded and erratic position group? A better solution is to let players decide for themselves whether they want a wide receiver or a tight end as their fourth pass catcher.
With four pass catcher positions, a 12-team league would see 48 pass catchers starting each week. With bye weeks included, that rounds up to around 55 guys with major playing time from week to week. Here’s how many tight ends ranked in the top 55 of pass catchers in fantasy points in the previous eight NFL seasons:
That number, too, is shrinking. But with flexible rosters, it isn’t a problem. So what if only about seven teams will start tight ends in a given week? Instead of having to conform to a rigid roster requirement, a number of owners will have the option to buck tight ends entirely and start four wide receivers. That flexibility adds another strategic wrinkle to the game: Should I start my best tight end or my fourth-best wide receiver? Or, better: Should I even draft a tight end? Should I draft two tight ends? (The answer to that last one is no.)
Sure, maybe I’m just writing this piece because I was stuck with Coby Fleener last year, but this proposal has little downside. It corrects a roster imbalance while creating room for a different form of strategic maneuvering. And if tight end performance does keep diminishing, then it makes sense to shift the fantasy game away from the position. I want to spend my fantasy time finding the best players at any position, not searching for the dividing line between a useless tight end and one who is merely serviceable. After all, fantasy football is supposed to augment our Sundays. Roster inequality (and the resulting frustration) may be inherent to fantasy football, but in a world without tight end designations, you'll at least be screaming about a player you willfully drafted instead of one your league pressures you into.