Gronk and Graham Resetting the Bar at TE
A deep look at drafting late in round one.
I’ve been a fantasy football guy for over twenty years now. I’ve seen it all, but up until this season, I have never seen a tight end ranked with a round-one grade. And go figure, the first time I see it, it’s ME doing it!
Am I crazy?
Well, that is for you to decide. From Rotobahn’s point of view, we promised you back in 2009 when we opened our doors that we’d be fearless and avoid all the fantasy football groupthink that you see other sites falling into. We rank them as we see them. And, with all that said, how bizarre is it that we have not one, but two tight ends this high?
Ok, enough drama. Why are we doing it? It’s pretty simple, really. They put up more stats from scrimmage than all but a few non-quarterbacks, and we project them to do it again. They both play with not just good, but elite quarterbacks and they are both the top red zone options in elite offenses. Not bad, right?
But still. Tight ends in round one? Isn’t that questionable team-building? It certainly is in a historical sense, but we defy you to find any tight ends in NFL history that can do what these two guys did in 2011. And don't forget, I said round-one grade. That doesn't necessarily mean taking one there. It means that they have that kind of value. Let’s endeavor to find the best way of capitalizing on that value.
Only four running backs outscored Gronk in 2011, and three of those four backs are ahead of the two tight ends. The other is MJD, who is holding out. Only one receiver scored more points that Gronk and his name is Megatron ... and he’s ranked ahead of the tight ends too.
Basically, what we are trying to tell you is this.... In 2012, once you get past the top six players....
- Ray Rice
- LeSean McCoy
- Arian Foster
- Chris Johnson
- Calvin Johnson
- Ryan Matthews
You have a drop-off into a very deep group of players, and that group holds its form for several rounds. The only exceptions to this are the elite quarterbacks and the elite tight ends. It's also important to throw in Aaron Rodgers at the end of the top six as he is almost always taken somewhere with the top seven selections. We now have picks 1-7 pretty much etched in stone.
So, before we jump into the world of wide receivers or the 2nd tier backs, we think it’s sensical to draft either an elite quarterback or an elite tight end. This is a break from our strategies of years past. The primary reasons for this are the quality of the elite tight ends and quarterbacks combined with the depth at receiver and running back.
Now for the one of the obvious questions. Should we draft a quarterback AND a tight end if we select at or near the end of round one? Probably not, unless you really think you can out-draft the rest of the league stone cold. As deep as receiver and running back are, you don’t want your number one at both spots to be second rate. A good strategy in our view, at the end of round one (slots 8-12) is to take an elite QB or TE and combine that with the best running back available.
One reason we lean very slightly toward the tight ends is that we keep seeing Vick and or Cam Newton slipping to the early fourth round in many drafts. We like keeping that option open. Consider a hypothetical draft that starts like this....
12) Gronkowski or Graham
13) Trent Richardson or Demarco Murray
36) Michael Vick
37) Jordy Nelson
Based on FFC’s current ADP numbers, this is very do-able. I’ve pulled this off in most of the mocks I’ve tried it in. And, you don’t have to really sweat it. If Vick is not there, for example, just build the backs and receivers with guys like Doug Martin or Dez Bryant or whomever the best available player is. The most important thing to do in 2012, is to keep taking the impact players for as long as they are there. Don’t start drafting for need until you absolutely have to, and if you play your cards right, that may not even happen. We’ll be releasing Drafting In Reverse in a few weeks to help you all out in that regard. If you’ve never heard of it, feel free to check out the 2010 and 2011 versions.
Our rankings are based on 12-team leagues with a flex player. The flex is key for a few reasons as far as the TEs are concerned. First of all, it allows you to use the tight end in a place where you could use a back or receiver, this makes their stats apples-to-apples with those players. Gronk and Graham score more and thus, they are worth more. Additionally, with the flex spot, you can still take a value tight end later in the draft, which keeps your options open and makes it easier to use value-based drafting. Now, if a stud like Vernon Davis slips into the 6th round, you can take him and move Graham or Gronk to flex.
So yeah, I've been doing this for about twenty years and I’ve never seen tight ends with a first round grade. Does this mean I am taking a TE in round one? Probably not. Why, you ask? Why, after all that drama are you telling me to not take the player in round one? Here’s why.... Because, unless you value one over the other, which we do not, we are inclined to get the best available RB off the board and THEN get a difference-maker at either TE or QB.
Now, obviously, we have already explained that there are at least seven players that are ahead of the tight ends. So, at the very earliest, we don’t advocate taking one until the eight spot and that is if you don’t include the QBs. We don’t because we see at least six elite fantasy producers at QB, but the people you draft against will. So, with Rodgers, Brees and probably Brady going ahead, you really don’t need to worry about this until we’re down in the 9, 10 and 11 holes. Obviously, if you draft 12th, you go back-to-back, so your round one and round two are virtually the same. No need to worry about what happens between your picks.
So, if the two tight ends are the highest ranked players left on your board, but there are two available, plus a stud QB or two, you will then have some guaranteed good options for round two. You can bank on it. Meanwhile, the healthy running backs that have bell-cow roles can run out by picks 14, 15 or 16, which are the round two picks for slots 9, 10 and 11. Hence, taking a player like Trent Richardson or Demarco Murray in round one makes some sense as you will get a top QB or an elite TE with your next pick.
- Ray Rice
- LeSean McCoy
- Arian Foster
- Chris Johnson
- Calvin Johnson
- Ryan Matthews
- Aaron Rodgers
- Jimmy Graham
- Rob Gronkowski
- Larry Fitzgerald
- Drew Brees
- Tom Brady
- Matt Stafford
- Demarco Murray
- Trent Richardson
So, to us, picks 1-7 are easy. Picks 8-12 get far more interesting. What should your goals be with your first two selections?
- To effectively compete with the teams who selected studs at spots 1-7.
- To build a draft that allows us to keep taking stud players versus reaching for need.
- To start off our draft with a stud RB but still get a high impact player too.
- To avoid risk players as much as possible and leave them on the board for others.
So, what to do? First, we want to avoid the players with big injury potential or players that have questionable health due to major surgery or injury. These players include Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and to a somewhat lesser degree, Darren McFadden. Let's also forego players that are staging potentially damaging holdouts like Jones-Drew and Mike Wallace. We want studs and we want to avoid big risks with our building block selections.
So let's take a look at ADP (in parentheses) just to make sure we are being realistic. Here are the key players to look at.
- Tom Brady (6)
- Drew Brees (9)
- Daren McFadden (10)
- Matt Forte (11)
- Maurice Jones-Drew (12 and falling)
- Larry Fitzgerald (16)
This completes our picture. People are going to take 2-3 QBs in round one. In most drafts, teams will take McFadden and Forte for you, thus pushing the talent we seek to us. With all this in place, we can create a strategic template for round one after the first seven slots. Obviously, our advice on spots 1-7 are pretty concrete--you take the stud RB or you take Calvin Johnson or Aaron Rodgers. Let's look at spots 8-12.
This approach should yield a well balanced team with solid upside as you head into round three. You are in solid position to play the rest of the draft to its strengths.
What if the top seven go in order and then Murray and Richardson get taken? It is the obvious question, but it is very unlikely to happen. If it does, then you have Brady and Brees both on the board plus McFadden and Fitzgerald. While none of these options are ideal, they are all studs with McFadden carrying the most risk.
The most likely scenario is that you will see three quarterbacks, plus McFadden taken before either Murray or Richardson gets taken. They should be there for you. If you take one of them, there will be a stud QB (Stafford or Newton are the worst case options) and or a stud TE when you are up for your second selection.
Here’s our current plan for spots 8-12 in a 12-team draft.
First, check for a player who slipped out of the top seven. If one of the top five backs, Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson is still on the board, we recommend taking that player.
Assuming nobody has slipped, we recommend taking the highest ranked RB on the board. Using our rankings, that will be either Trent Richardson or Demarco Murray. This will set you up to take the highest ranking player remaining at QB or TE when you come back around in round two.
Play it right, and you end up with one of these outcomes....
- Demarco Murray/Matt Stafford
- Demarco Murray/Rob Gronkowski
- Demarco Murray/Jimmy Graham
Insert Trent Richardson if you think he’s the better option or go off our menu and take the back you believe in. We feel that the best bet for a good outcome is with Murray and Richardson, but you may feel otherwise. If you think Darren McFadden is going to finally stay healthy, then he's a good choice too. We're using the two players we feel most comfortable with.
As we look at this year’s board, it is becoming more and more clear that you want a solid RB as soon as you can get one, partly because the strength of the draft in rounds three through six are the wide receivers. But also because the backs get exceedingly risky after the top nine on our board are gone. And, while there is a dearth of typical WR1s, there is a massive stockpile of players with solid WR2 potential. To us, the way to play that is to NOT reach for a WR2 to fill your WR1 spot. Take the players that have grades worthy of their projected use. In round two, those players are the QBs and the top two TEs. This gives you a solid building block RB and it gives you a stud player who should give you an edge at a position to counter the edge that the teams with top four RBs have.
If I have the choice, do I take the tight end or the quarterback?
You can make a good argument either way. From a standpoint of point-differential, it is not clear cut. A stud QB will outscore a 2nd rate QB by 100 or more points. That being said, there are six teams that will have projected stud quarterbacks, so you separate from only about half of your league in that sense. The two tight ends could produce a similar gap between themselves and the next tier. The thing is, only one other team will have what you have at tight end, thus causing separation on more occasions and this holds true if you move them to flex in most cases. One idea would be to take the tight end as you just might land a top six quarterback in round three. Newton is possible and Vick is currently probable. Another reason to consider a tight end would be the ability to hit a home run late at the quarterback position. Right now, we see great depth at tight end, but we see no players that can challenge Gronk and Graham's upside in 2012 save for maybe a healthy 16-game run from Aaron Hernandez.
The big two really do stand alone.
Meanwhile, at quarterback, as Rotobahn says every year, we see a stud or two develop from the deeper parts of the draft. We were out in front of Vick for you back in 2010 and we were all over Newton for you in 2011. There are some passers with great upside in 2012 that you can get much later on, like Griffin, Cutler and Matt Ryan. Usually one or two will make it to round eight. You can get Matt Schaub in round nine. Not too shabby.
Of course, the same argument can be made to a degree at tight end. The talent pool is very deep. You are very unlikely to get shut out at either position. This is why old school conventional wisdom says to avoid tight ends an quarterbacks at the end of round one and the beginning of round two. We tend to think that way ourselves, but the NFL is an ever-changing league and we fantasy GMs need to keep pace.
We can see good reasons to go either way in the given scenario. We are leaning to the tight ends in flex leagues that give the tight ends multi-positionality.
To us, this is the best way to draft against those teams that were fortunate enough to start with a stud tailback. But don't take my word for it. If you are stuck in one of these draft positions, go out and do some mocks from that spot. Try it our way and try it some other ways. Do a few drafts where you fail to draft a RB in rounds one or two. Or do a draft where you take a player coming off an ACL surgery as your RB1. Get a feel for what it's like to build a running game when you start in round three or four. Do you like what you end up with? How frustrating was it to pass up receivers that are rock solid to take a need player with a shaky floor?
In closing, Rotobahn's plan allows you to start with a RB, which, in our view, is crucial in this draft. After participating in over a hundred mocks, we've learned that it is extremely high-risk to cut and paste your ground game in the later rounds.
Taking the stud TE or QB in round two will make-up, statistically, for the points you may have left on the board with your first pick. You are now well set up to draft the position of highest need (WR) when you come back around. This draft is loaded with solid receivers. No way will you get shut out. That said, if a stud RB or QB (assuming you took a TE) like Cam Newton, Doug Martin or Michael Vick slips, you are in a position to still take that player and nail down a very solid WR in round four.
We’ve executed this many times in June and July. We encourage you to go mock it for yourself. Right now, we are finding that FCC is the best place to mock. The draft rooms are almost always filled and registration is free. Come back and tell us what you’ve learned.
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