Which Rookie Tight End Should I Be Drafting? Noah Fant vs T.J. Hockenson

2019 Rookie Buy or Bye

By: Will Harris @itsharristime

Being able to predict a breakout season for a rookie RB is tough, but doable. Predicting rookie WR fantasy success is extremely difficult, yet, can be done. I broke down who I’d draft between N’Keal Harry and Deebo Samuel in our rookie WR edition of Couch Potato GM’s “Buy or Bye” series. For a rookie tight end? Fugeddaboudit. But here at CPGM, we like to get our hands dirty to help you win fantasy football championships. And, while we get to the bottom of what rookie TE you should be drafting this year, we are going to have FUN doing it!

What better way to have some fun than comparing two teammates who played their college ball in the Hawkeye State. That’s right, we’ll be taking a look at two of the most exciting tight end prospects to come out in the last decade. Iowa Hawkeyes: Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. I’ll be telling you who I’m “buying” in drafts this year, and who I’m waving “bye” to in the later rounds.

It will be important to put the difficulty of projecting rookie TE fantasy production into context. Let’s take a look first at rookie TE production from 2018. The top rookie TEs were Chris Herndon and Baltimore’s Mark Andrews. To help you understand how tough it is to chart TE, Andrews outperformed 3 rookies selected ahead of him in the draft: his teammate Hayden Hurst (1.25), Mike Gesicki (2.10) and Dallas Goedert (2.17). In the case of Herndon, three more TE’s came off the board before he was at selected at 4.7.

The Jets Chris Herndon was considered athletic but “raw” by scouts during his playing days at Miami. What caused him to lead all TE rookies in fantasy in 2018?

In the case of Hurst, Gesicki and Goedert, each had tremendous athletic profiles as did Mark Andrews when drafted. Herndon only completed the bench press at the combine as he was recovering from an MCL tear. The key here: physicality alone did not project for success in their rookie seasons as third year combine stud George Kittle can attest to. It was not until year 2 in 2019 that we saw Kittle’s monster season. So, why is that? The TE position is one of the toughest to adapt to at the NFL level. Tight Ends are not only learning the ins and outs of a receiving position, but also the importance of being a blocker in the run game. For many move tight ends, the concept of blocking might be almost completely foreign. Insert steep learning curve here.

Now, I’ve dug deep on each of the aforementioned players collegiate stats and athletic profiles. I’ve also went back to the 2017 class to see if there was anything that stood out from college production that would indicate success at the NFL level. Conclusion? There is no clear indication.

What I can determine is that potential TE rookie success comes down to usage within a given team’s system. Higher usage and targets generally result in better results, right? Kind of: Herndon and Andrews led their respective rookies in team target share: Herndon 12.10%, Andrews 9.30%. I also looked at the quality of the targets and this didn’t seem to impact the success of these 5 tight ends. Things get murky after target share as total passing routes ran and total pass snaps in larger volume didn’t necessarily increase production.

George Kittle destroyed competition in year 2. What led to his breakout?

Baffled? Don’t worry, it gets better. One clear metric that Herndon and Andrews ascended in, as did George Kittle did from year 1 to year 2 was running their routes in the slot. This makes sense schematically that a powerful, athletically gifted, monster receiver would excel in the slot.

Take a look a each of the these tight ends usage in the slot:

 Player Slot Snaps Slot Rate %
Chris Herndon 119 23.60
Dallas Goedert 68 14.40
Hayden Hurst 33 18.50
Mark Andrews 153 39.90
Mike Gesicki 51 14.60

The top two rookies TEs from 2018 were above their fellow draftees in slot usage, and production followed suit. Not sold?

Target share for George Kittle in his rookie season was in between Herndon and Andrew at 10%. Kittle’s route participation in year 1 was higher than any rookie from the 2018 class and was on the field for 60% of all snaps. What changed in year 2? Slot snaps went up dramatically, and with that, production followed. Look at 2017 when only 10% of Kittle’s routes were in the slot. In his 2018 breakout season, Kittle ran 23% out of the slot. It can be a chicken or the egg thing here, but when factoring in the slot usage in 2017 and how Kittle was involved more than both Andrews and Herndon from game to game, would Kittle have posted a bigger rookie season if used more out of the slot? We’ll never know, but if I was a betting man, I know where I’d put my chips.

Fant vs Hockenson. The two most exciting TE prospects to come out of a college program in the same draft year.

  Noah Fant T.J Hockenson
2019 Drafted by the Denver Broncos, 1.20 Drafted by the Detroit Lions, 1.08
2018 60 Targets, 39 Receptions, 519 Yds, 266 YAC, 7 TDS 64 Targets, 49 Receptions, 760 Yds, 357 YAC, 6 TDS
2017 55 Targets, 30 Receptions, 494 Yds, 179 YAC, 11TD 32 Targets, 24 Receptions, 320 Yds, 129 YAC, 3 TDS
2016 16 Targets, 9 Receptions, 70 Yds, 31 YAC, 1 TD Red shirt year
Total: 131 Targets, 59.5 Catch %, 6.1 YAC, 19 TDs, 13 Drops 96 Targets, 76 Catch %, 6.7 YAC, 9 TDS, 2 Drops
Combine: Height: 6’4 Weight: 249 40 Time: 4.5 Vertical Jump: 39.5 3-Cone Drill: 6.81 Height: 6’4 Weight: 251 40 Time:: 4.7 Vertical Jump: 37.5 3-Cone Drill: 7.02

Imagine being a Big Ten defensive coordinator and having to game plan against not just one big, athletic skilled tight end but two. The Hawkeyes were able to reek such havoc with the ability to put Hockenson and Fant on the field at the same time. Each was able to have a meaningful role which is a testament to their skill-sets. Hockenson red shirted his true freshman season, and declared early for the draft having only played 23 college games vs 30 for Fant. The sample size for Hockenson might be smaller, but Detroit felt confident enough to select him 8th overall. It’s easy to fall in love with Hockenson: big, strong, and a sound blocker with a combination of burst and size that will help him beat linebackers at the NFL level. His hands were one of the surest of all TE prospects of the 2018 class.

If we call Hockenson’s hands a “sure” thing with only 2 drops recorded during his time at Iowa, the biggest knock on Noah Fant was his 13 recorded drops at the collegiate level. It’s hard to remember these drops when looking at Fant’s video game like workout metrics. Fant’s athleticism is off the charts, running the 40 at WR speeds (4.50s) and a SPARQ-x score of 138.8 that puts him in the 94th percentile. Fant used these skills to accelerate down the seam and create space, which resulted in some big plays for the Hawkeyes.

It’s important to note that even though Fant was known for his “big play” ability, Hockenson outpaced him both in YPR and YAC. Hockenson was able to do more in tight spaces, and with such a low % of drops. Fant was strong before and after the catch to create space and separation. The “no blocking” criticism of Fant is a bit overblown as he is a capable blocker, but in 2018 they used Hockenson more in this regard because of how strong he was at it, not how bad Fant was. This allowed for an incredible 1-2 punch against opposing defenses. Fant projects to be an average blocker in the NFL.

Each of these prospects possess the tools to excel at the NFL level. It will be a matter of looking at how they will be used by their respective NFL teams that will help us understand how quickly Hockenson and Fant will ascend.

Former Hawkeye’s teammates will get a chance to play each other in week 16 when Detroit travels to Denver. A head to head rookie showdown to show who’s adjusted to the NFL the best? I like it.

Division

AFC West

Fant and the Broncos play in perhaps the highest octane division in the AFC. Last year, Broncos vs AFC West divisional games averaged over 43 total points, including two meaningless losses in weeks 16-17 vs the Raiders and Chargers. The Chiefs will continue to lean on their offense with 2018 QB MVP Patrick Mahomes with a healthy supporting cast. The Chargers if healthy on defense can be a thorn in the Broncos chances, and could pose a big problem for the developing Fant. Oakland poses the biggest question mark in this division and could surprise on offense which would bode well for Fant’s opportunities in the pass game.

NFC North

NFC North? My back aches when I hear that word. This might be one of the toughest divisions in football. The Bears are the best defense in the NFL led by Khalil Mack, the Packers have beefed up across their D adding LB’s Preston and Zadarius Smith + Adrian Amos at strong safety, and the Vikings possess elite talent with their safeties and have 5 potential starting corner backs. Hockenson will be in for some tough games and will be used in most situations. Ouch. Get the ice tub ready as the Lions try to claw away at the 2018 divisional leaders Chicago who went 5-1 against the NFC North.

Supporting Cast- Double Down On D-Denver

GM and NFL legend John Elway pivoted this off-season as most coaching vacancies were filled with offensive minds. Elway went after long time defensive coordinator Vic Fangio who helped coach Chicago’s #1 defense last year. Defense will be what wins games in Denver. Is Flacco an upgrade on Case Keenum? Debatable. If it’s Flacco circa 2012, this team makes a big step forward. Flacco post Super Bowl MVP? No thanks. Denver continues to insist they will be a run first offense with two capable sophomore backs in Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. The Broncos are hoping for improved line play with the addition of 2nd round offensive lineman Dalton Risner, and free agent addition Ju’Wuan James.

Supporting Cast- New England North- Detroit

Matt Patricia is trying to instill the Patriot Way with the Lions by building strength through his lines and promising a run first approach. The Lions hope that their o-line takes a step forward, particularly 2018 1st rounder Frank Ragnow at center. The Lions have sent mixed signals on star RB Kerryon Johnson’s usage for this upcoming season by signing free agent bowling ball C.J. Anderson, but cutting pass catching back Theo Riddick. With two multi-tooled WRs in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr, this could be the most talented group QB Matthew Stafford has had to work with.

Depth Chart/Expected Usage – Denver

Fant won’t be the only Bronco experiencing their first season in Denver. He will be joined by rookie head coach Vic Fangio and first time offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Fangio brings impeccable defensive credentials to this new coaching staff, but Scangarello is an outlier. Having spent two years under Kyle Shanahan as San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach, the hope is he will breathe some life into a stale offense that ranked 24th in points per game in 2018. Fant is atop of this tight end depth chart, and projects to be one of Joe Flacco’s best options. How will Fant be used? This remains to be seen, but we do know that Scangarello was in SF to watch the ascension of another former Hawkeyes TE with off the chart workout metrics.

“He can obviously run,” Flacco said in regards to Noah Fant. “The tight end in this offense, I think can be a big-time player if he can run and get a feel for how we run a couple of routes we have in.” 

https://www.denverpost.com/2019/05/19/joe-flacco-broncos-success-tight-ends/

Depth Chart/Expected Usage –Detroit

Before drafting Hockenson, the Lions went out and signed former Steeler Jesse James. The draft capital invested in Hockenson at 8th overall, Detroit’s checkered past with 1st round TE’s, and the murmurs of a “Gronk-lite” in New England North will ensure Hockenson is heavily utilized in his first season. Hockenson’s ability to play all downs with capable blocking and incredible hands will make him invaluable to the type of system Patricia wants to run in Detroit. Even with a run heavy approach, Hockenson will see opportunity by being involved with every play. When a play breaks down and Stafford needs an option, a 6’5 250 pound one with almost zero college drops seems like a damn good one. His potential red zone usage is exciting, and could be what buoys him to fantasy relevance in season 1.

Question Marks- Identity In Mile High City

It will be interesting to see how things unfold this season in Denver. First timers in HC Fangio and OC Scangarello are relative unknowns on the offensive side of the ball. Surely Scangarello can lift this O from their middling output of 2018? Flacco’s health and ability is also another question mark. Can the former Super Bowl MVP help elevate Fant to relevant status in fantasy by targeting him often as Flacco has been known to do with tight ends? Time will tell- if these questions aren’t answered, Elway’s job may vanish ” Into Thin Air”.

Question Marks- Will the Real Detroit Lions Please Stand Up?

Matt Patricia has had his fair share of doubters since taking over the HC job in Detroit. Patricia drove out productive OC Jim Bob Cooter, and has transformed a once prolific pass offense into, well, whatever you want to call the Lions last season. Patricia has made it clear that the Lions are to follow the footprint of the New England Patriots. Beefing up the D-line in the off-season is just another indicator that Patricia is not joking. Will the Lions O-line take a step forward this year? Will the offense run through the legs of potential breakout star RB Kerryon Johnson? Can a healed Matthew Stafford play efficiently with the throwing opportunities given to him? Lots of question marks here, and, for all of us football fans, it would be good to see the Lions have an identity in 2019.

T.J. Hockenson Average Draft Position

ADP from Fantasy Football Calculator

Having laid out both Fant and Hockenson’s situations, I want you all to take note of this: the tight end position outside of the big three: Kelce, Kittle and Ertz is a crap shoot. Though I strongly believe there are breakout stars in the wings of the TE Tier 2 (O.J Howard, Hunter Henry, Evan Engram), they aren’t worth their current ADP unless you feel really strongly about them. With these players off the board, the rest of the TE field is wide open. In 2018, after TE7, there was virtually little fluctuation in the average FFPG between TE7 and TE16. Why throw away precious draft capital in round 6-11 when that same production can be secured in later rounds?

In knowing the volatility of the TE position, I’ve been taking Hockenson late in Best Ball drafts as I like his every down upside. This love doesn’t translate over to redraft.

Looking at current ADP in redraft, I can’t stomach taking Hockenson in the 11th round of a standard 15 round PPR redraft league. He’s been slowly dropping in ADP after reports from Lions camp saying that he’s likely to start the season behind Jesse James. Even with this drop from the 10th round into the 11th, I’m not buying. Look at who else you can get around Hockenson’s current ADP: week winning deep threat John Brown, potential breakout RB Justice Hill in run heavy Baltimore, and, if you’ve waited on QB, you’ve got the options of Steady Eddy-Kirk Cousins and exhilarating yet frustrating Mitchell Trubisky. Keep in mind that second year Mark Andrews is available AFTER Hockenson in the 13th round.

Fant probably isn’t being drafted in 12 team PPR leagues. If you want the excitement of a potential breakout TE in year 1, put your chips on Fant who I’m buying in the 15th round. Let someone else get frustrated with Hockenson’s early season usage and get him off waivers later on in the season if he is trending up. I’ll say good-bye to T.J Hockenson and those silky smooth hands until the Detroit Lions figure out who they are. I’m buying Fant and waving good-bye to Hockenson in redraft.

Here’s hoping that in 2019 the Real Detroit Lions will Stand Up.

About the Author- @itsharristime is relatively new to the fantasy football scene having spent most of his life watching and playing hockey like a good Canadian. He’s making up for lost time by playing big on Draft, FanDuel, and is involved in season long and dynasty leagues on FFPC, Yahoo, ESPN and MyFantasyLeague. Steeler football, family, rock n’ roll and keeping things simple.

Seek value and have no player bias=winning formula.

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Author: Will Harris