Dynasty Fantasy Football: Tight End Draft Concepts - SORT
Andrew Cooper breaks down the SORT system and how it can be used for targeting Tight Ends in Dynasty Fantasy Football leagues.
Folks routinely tell me that “tight end is the most frustrating position in fantasy football”. To which I say “I know”. But since the day Howard Bender brought me on board at Fantasy Alarm and invited me into the Tight End Whisperer brotherhood, I’ve been contractually obligated to help tackle this perplexing position. And our research has led us to some strategies that have made life just a bit easier, like the Yin & Yang tight end pairing system we’ve used for a couple years in redraft leagues. But today we’re going to talk about another system - the overarching methodology that I use to great success with dynasty and keeper leagues; and that is the SORT (Starting Opportunities, Roster Talent) system.
Dynasty Fantasy Football Draft Concepts
We’re going to start with the “roster talent” portion first. Why? Because that’s actually the basis of the process but RTSO is not a word. This concept is straightforward at face value and it’s going to remain true no matter what stage you are in the dynasty cycle. Whether you are doing a startup, rebuilding, competing for a championship - whatever - you always want to fill your roster with as many talented players as possible. And hold onto them as long as you can.
Now, “talent” is incredibly subjective. And not everyone is going to be the tight end scout at Iowa that can just eyeball the next Dallas Clark, George Kittle, TJ Hockenson, Noah Fant, or Sam Laporta (seriously though, why do so many good tight ends come out of Iowa?). For us, we need to rely on the information available with a little bit of our own instincts mixed in - what fun is it to just rely on the opinions of others, after all?
Obviously, the two biggest indicators of future success are past production and draft capital. Those are simple to identify so I don’t really need to explain that we liked Kyle Pitts because he scored 12 touchdowns in eight games his junior year and got drafted fourth overall. But not every tight end is going to be some college stat monster drafted in the first couple of rounds. In many circumstances, we need to look beyond those. Some guys might not play in the right scheme or they could be stuck behind another great tight end. Or, they might not even play tight end at all. There is a reason the “tight end basketball player” narrative is a meme. Antonio Gates WAS a basketball player at Kent State. Darren Waller was a wide receiver. Logan Thomas was a quarterback. A LOT of the tight ends that break out at the NFL level weren’t always tight ends. So we need to look at that raw athleticism. It’s not the end of the world but it’s the difference in upside in many cases. Let’s take a quick look at George Kittle as an example. Here’s his profile, per PlayerProfiler.com.
Look at those workout metrics. 96th percentile speed score, 99th percentile agility score. His production in college was minimal though so most teams didn’t recognize it. That’s why he slid to the 5th round (and he was, admittedly, only found by the 49ers because they were scouting his college QB C.J. Beathard who they drafted earlier in that same draft). Despite not putting up big numbers in college, he’s been able to use that athleticism to devastating results in the NFL. Since he’s entered the league, no tight end has more 40+ yard plays than his 13. And only ONE other player has multiple 60+ yard plays over those six years (Mark Andrews with 68 and 74 yard plays). Kittle in 2018 alone had plays of 71, 82, and 85 yards. He’s a problem. You CAN obviously be a solid asset in fantasy football without high-end speed - Zach Ertz was startable virtually every year. But Ertz has also only had one single 1,000-yard season in his career and he needed 156 targets to do it. That’s why that extra bit of speed helps with important metrics like YAC (yards after the catch) and aDot (average depth of target). So, if draft capital and past production aren’t there, we are leaning on athleticism.
Now, you might be sitting there thinking “Okay, draft good players. That’s not really advice. Also, isn’t that the whole process?” And the answer to that is - not quite. Because winning in dynasty isn’t just about rostering talented tight ends. Which is where the “start opportunity” portion comes in.
For most fantasy gamers, this is the hardest part to accept and act on. And I’ve seen countless fantasy teams fall victim to it. Talent is not enough at the tight end position. They need the OPPORTUNITY to shine. I watched Delanie Walker sit behind Vernon Davis for SEVEN years before he finally broke out at age 30 with multiple top five tight end seasons. I’ve seen dynasty teams stacked up with talented, athletic freaks like Dallas Goedert, Mike Gesicki, and Jonnu Smith lose to the guy who added Logan Thomas off waivers and started him. Was Logan Thomas more talented in a vacuum than Dallas Goedert in 2020? No, of course not. But we don’t play fantasy football in a vacuum. So Logan Thomas was TE3 and Dallas Goedert was TE21.
We’ll stick with Dallas Goedert for right now because he’s one of the best examples. Goedert had all the talent in the world and was arguably better than (or at least just as good as) Zach Ertz at most aspects of the game in the later years in Philly. The problem with that, of course, is that blocking is one of the aspects he’s great at. Per ProFootballFocus, Dallas Goedert graded out as the second best run blocking TE in the league in 2019 and in 2020 he was third. That CAN be a good thing because it gets our guy on the field. But, if I’m the tight end coach looking around that room and I need to pick one guy to play slot and one guy to play inline, am I going to make Zach Ertz line up with his hand in the dirt so that Dallas Goedert can run routes from the slot? No. So Goedert was stuck inline and needed to wait his turn. Now that Ertz is gone, Goedert gets to line up in the slot and run around all over the place. Hooray.
But it’s not just about the other tight ends on the team either. We’ve done a full write-up on What Makes An Elite Tight End for redraft leagues already so we aren’t going to rehash that whole thing here. But the bottom line is you need either 90+ targets or 10+ touchdowns to finish top five in PPR. That’s been the case since Randy McMichael in 2003. And the vast majority of them get there with the targets (if you take the 90 tight ends that finished top five over that span, 85 of them got 90+ targets). Oftentimes we just look at good QBs and think “I want the tight end playing with Joe Burrow”. But, is competing with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon a good place to find targets? Obviously not. So we are looking for tight ends that aren’t competing with other pass-catching tight ends but ALSO aren’t competing with other high end wide receivers. The vast majority of difference-making tight ends either lead their team in targets or are at least second.
And if THAT wasn’t enough, the scheme can also kill your talented tight end too. In 2018, Adam Gase made a rookie Mike Gesicki block on 17% of his pass plays. That’s almost one of every five pass plays that Mike Gesicki was asked to stay in and block. For fantasy purposes, you might as well not even be on the field if you aren’t running a route. Under those conditions, Gesicki finished TE54 in PPR. The following year, Brian Flores became the head coach and he had Mike Gesicki block on only 2.4% of his pass plays. Gesicki was a top 12 TE in fantasy. The next year, new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey came in and featured Gesicki at slot on top of blocking on only 1.4% of his pass plays. Now he’s TE7 in fantasy. It’s pretty much the same guy that Adam Gase had but utilized differently.
We knew to stash Mike Gesicki because A. he was a former basketball/volleyball player who ran a 4.5 forty yard dash while setting the record for receptions at Penn State and B. we knew that Adam Gase used his tight ends like that going back to his time with Denver. We just had to wait it out. Then, in 2022, Mike McDaniel’s scheme needed a two-way tight end so he used the better blocking Durham Smythe for 52.7% of snaps and Mike Gesicki for only 45.2%. Is Mike Gesicki just bad now? No - he just didn’t fit the new scheme. So now we once again wait for his next window of opportunity. And that’s the second half of the game. You need to START someone with OPPORTUNITY even if you ROSTER a bunch of TALENTed guys.
The Tight End SORT System
And that’s how you handle the tight end position in your dynasty league. If you are blowing up your team and rebuilding, all you need to do is focus on collecting as many athletic and talented individuals as possible. And you’ll want to trade away any tight ends that have the opportunity to produce if you don’t truly believe in the talent long term. We’ve seen a lot of “fake” TE1s that were just in the right spot for a year or two. If the guys you keep are as talented as we believe, their window to produce will open - and stay open for longer. Conversely, if you are competing to win your league now, you need to go out and find yourself a guy who actually has the opportunity RIGHT NOW. You might need to trade some of those young talented guys or draft picks or other players but you need to find a path to those 90+ targets and/or 10+ TDs. Dynasty is an incredibly top-heavy format so the other teams that are competing to win right now are going to be loaded at EVERY position. The tight end position is frustrating for the folks that routinely finish in third place because they don’t know how to handle it. But you know exactly how to SORT tight ends now so that won’t be you.
Follow Andrew Cooper on Twitter @CoopAFiasco for more NFL and fantasy football insights and stay tuned for more content as we near the 2023 NFL Draft!