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Fantasy Football: Finding Predictibility in Tight End Route Running

Dennis Pitta
Dennis Pitta

Jan 6, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta (88) runs after a catch for a third quarter touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Wild Card playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium. Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Judging a tight end’s fantasy football production based on how he produces on a per-snap basis unfairly punishes guys whose run and pass blocking acumen has them sealing off defensive ends instead of busting one up the seam.

That’s a central reason for why I think the fantasy points per route run (FPPRR) metric gives us a much clearer understanding of which tight ends are overvalued and undervalued headed into the 2013 season. It’s especially useful for projecting tight ends slated for a spike in usage or playing time on a new team or offensive system.

Guys like Jared Cook and Jordan Cameron, for instance.

Hindsight has pretty decent vision, as you might have heard, but I wanted to take a quick look back at recent seasons to see if the FPPRR Machine could’ve given us clues about which tight ends were set to have superb campaigns, and were therefore undervalued headed into that season.

I’ll also examine highly-drafted tight ends whose FPPRR would’ve set off all sorts of fantasy alarms in recent seasons. Think of this as a test run to see how effective FPPRR might have been in summers past.

FPPRR is made possible by Pro Football Focus’s statistical compilation, including the tracking of route running since 2008.

An analysis of all tight end data from 2008-2012 by the machine known as Rich Hribar showed that the average FPPRR for tight ends was .21 (meaning they scored about one-fifth of a fantasy point every time they ran a pass route). Anything beyond that .21 mark is worth noting as we delve further into this metric.

Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens 2012

Pitta, despite posting three big, fat zeros on your fantasy scoreboard in 2012, finished as the game’s seventh highest scoring tight end, posting a startlingly high .27 FPPRR.

Pitta’s FPPRR of .21 wouldn’t have jumped off the page in the weeks before our 2012 fantasy drafts, but for a guy who had an official average draft position of undrafted — yes, undrafted — FPPRR would’ve given plenty of credence to Pitta as a 13th or 14th round flier.

Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints 2011

It’s so very easy to forget that Graham was the sixth tight end off the draft board in 2011, going in the middle of the sixth round. And that was only after the formidable fantasy Hype Train carried Graham two round up draft boards in the waning weeks of the 2011 preseason. Graham went on to score the second most fantasy points ever by a tight end.

Would the FPPRR metric have tipped us off to the monstrous 2011 campaign Graham was about to post? Indeed, it certainly would have, as Graham posted a ridiculous .41 FPPRR on 160 routes during the 2010 season. Beyond the eye test that showed Graham was a special player who was simply too fast for linebackers and too big for cornerbacks and most safeties, the FPPRR would have identified Graham as an unbeatable value in the summer of 2011.

Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers 2012

You were the happy recipient of considerable fantasy equity last year if you drafted Olsen around his late-ninth round ADP and saw him finish 2012 behind only five tight ends.

Was Olsen’s breakout 2012 campaign predictable via the FPPRR metric? Let’s take a quick look.

Greg Olsen Fantasy Points Per Route Run
2008 .2
2009 .22
2010 .18
2011 .18

Not exactly what I’d think of as a stellar FPPRR resume. This is where, like any metric we use to spot undervalued players, it’s important to incorporate increased usage. Panthers coaches talked up Olsen as a focal point of their offense headed into last season. His previous career-high FPPRR of .22 came during a season in which he saw more targets and receptions than anytime as a pro. Long FPPRR story short: Olsen posted respectable — not stellar — per-route production in the only season he had been a real part of an NFL offense.

Knowing he was going to be the Panthers No. 2 target behind Steve Smith in 2012 and studying his previous FPPRR should’ve been enough to take Olsen as the ninth tight end off the board. Taking Olsen at the tail end of the ninth round would’ve been a classic example of how joining statistics with assumptions based on team and press reports can serve us well.

Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers 2012

It was so very easy to dance to the tune of beat writers talking up Gates’ rejuvenated speed, his recovery from chronic foot pain, and the Chargers’ grand plans for their aging superstar tight end.

Gates was the fourth tight end off of fantasy draft boards last summer, going at the end of the fourth round. He ended the year as the twelfth highest scoring tight end after a late-season push into TE1 territory.

The FPPRR metric may have offered a warning about taking the elder statesmen so early in drafts.

Antonio Gates Fantasy Points Per Route Run
2009 .35
2010 .41
2011 .25
2012 .18

Gates’ 2009 and 2010 per-route production was off-the-charts incredible. The combination of Gates’ nagging injuries and the massive dropout in FPPRR from 2010 to 2011, however, would’ve  given me serious pause before expending a fourth rounder on him last summer.

Gates played 10 games in 2010 and 13 the following year — a factor that should never be ignored. Still, after sifting through the reams of FPPRR data from the past five years, I couldn’t find a single tight end with such a dramatic drop in FPPRR. Whether the cause was related to injuries, age, or double teams on Philip Rivers’ favorite target, FPPRR numbers that drop off a cliff in a single season should make us wary the following year.

Jacob Tamme, Denver Broncos 2012

Tamme, who had a late surge up draft boards and was taken as the 11th tight end in 2012, is a special case in FPPRR analysis.

Jacob Tamme Fantasy Points Per Route Run
2010 .25
2011 .13
2012 .23

Drafting Tamme based on how he fared with Peyton Manning at the helm in Indianapolis during the 2010 season would’ve been a more than reasonable decision. That .25 FPPRR is well above the average, likely indicating a top-10 season with sufficient usage.

Therein lies the rub: Tamme’s usage was spotty throughout the 2012 campaign, running just 294 routes. Twenty tight ends ran more pass routes last year. Fellow Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen ran 288 routes, meaning Tamme was trapped in a tight end timeshare of sorts. That was enough to cut out the pass route volume needed to capitalize on the nice FPPRR he posted in 2012.

Twenty-three tight ends scored more fantasy points than Tamme in 2012, making him one of the position’s biggest ADP disasters. The lesson here: If a team has two (or more) viable tight ends who will eat into each other’s production, FPPRR probably doesn’t mean much in projecting their seasonal prospects.

If Tamme had, in fact, been used as a primary tight end and run the 440 routes that Jermichael Finley ran in 2012 (the 10th most routes among tight ends), Tamme would have racked up 101.2 fantasy points, or TE12 numbers. In other words, he would’ve (almost) justified his ADP.

I’ll be back next week to highlight a few tight ends whose career FPPRR shows that they’re being overvalued or undervalued by fantasy footballers.

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