Strategy topic of the week: are tight ends on teams with weak passing attacks better options than tight ends on teams with strong passing attacks?
Like any fan who followed the NFL before they started playing fantasy football, I have certain "beliefs" about the game that I've never actually tested with empirical data. One of my long-held beliefs about fantasy football is that tight ends on teams with lousy passing attacks (or a bad match-up against an opposing team with a strong pass defense) offer more potential fantasy value than the typical tight end.
Why? I believed that teams with below-average quarterbacks (e.g. - the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars) or a bad match-up against an opposing pass defense (e.g. - the 2011 Baltimore Ravens) would rely more on the short passing game to avoid sacks and minimize mistakes due to a quarterback's lack of accuracy or substandard decision-making skills. Thus, when I needed to pick a tight end in the later rounds of a draft or scoop one up from the waiver wire due to an injury or bye week, I would often look for a tight end I liked whose team fit at least one of the two criteria above.
I recently decided to put my beliefs about tight ends to the test. First, I divided the 32 NFL teams into 3 groups: (1) teams averaging less than 230 passing yards per game, (2) teams averaging between 230 and 265 passing yards per game, and (3) teams averaging over 265 passing yards per game. Going into Week 13 of the 2011 NFL season there were 9 teams in the first group, 13 in the second, and 10 in the third.
For each team I looked at the number of passing attempts, number of completions, passing yards, number of targets and receptions for tight ends, and number of receiving yards for tight ends. I used these figures to calculate the percentage of targets, receptions, and passing yards that tight ends accumulated. My prior assumption was that these percentages would all be highest for teams in the first group and lowest for teams in the third group.
My assumption proved to be incorrect. Overall, tight ends were targeted on 22.0 percent of passing attempts, made 22.7 percent of all receptions, and accounted for 21.8 percent of all passing yards. Tight ends in the first group were targeted on 20.7 percent of passing attempts, made 21.4 percent of all receptions, and racked up 20.9 percent of all passing yards. The analogous percentages for the second group were 19.3 percent, 20.4 percent, and 19.7 percent; and the figures for the third group were 26.1 percent, 26.1 percent, and 24.6 percent. Of course, the numbers for the high passing yardage teams were distorted by the totals for Dallas and New England, both of whom have wide receivers masquerading in tight ends' bodies, but even if these two teams had been excluded, the qualitative results would have remained the same.
Using the same three groups as above I decided to do another quick check to see whether the results would be different on a per-game basis than they were on a season-to-date basis. I looked at a sample of NFL games from Weeks 11-13 of the 2011 season (excluding the Monday night game from Week 13). For team-game combinations that fell into each group I counted the number of times that tight ends led their team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards. Since there were only eight observations in the 230-265 yard range, I excluded it and focused just on the comparison for the < 230 yards group and > 265 yards group.
Again, my findings failed to validate my original hypothesis. Of the 48 games that fell in the < 230 yards group, tight ends led their team in targets 12 times (25 percent), receptions 11 times (23 percent), and receiving yards 9 times (18 percent). Of the 48 games that fell in the > 265 yards group, tight ends led their team in targets 6 times (18 percent), receptions 6 times (18 percent), and receiving yards just 4 times (12 percent).
The drop-off in the percentage of the games in which tight ends led their team in receiving yards is not surprising; when a team has more than 265 passing yards in a single game, chances are good that a wide receiver leads the team in receiving yards. The drop-off in the percentages for most targets and most receptions is not significant, especially given the relatively small sample size.
One final test I could have performed was to look at the average number of tight end targets, receptions, and receiving yards in each group. I chose not to do this because I'd already convinced myself that my hypothesis was incorrect. Having your beliefs invalidated is never fun, whether you're referring to fantasy football or the bigger issues in life. However, I'm a firm believer that I'd rather know when I'm wrong so that I can take "corrective action" in the future.
In upcoming weeks I'll put several more of my existing "beliefs" about fantasy football to the test, hopefully with "better" results.
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