Fantasy Football: Can Kyle Pitts Buck the Trend of Slow Starts for NFL Tight Ends?
Despite playing just 21 games as a starter, Pitts etched his name in among the greats at a storied college football program. He ranks top-30 in all-time receiving yards for the Florida Gators, just outside that in receptions, is tied for 12th in receiving touchdowns, and sits just outside the top-20 in yards per reception.
He did all of that as a tight end.
The question that dominated fantasy football coverage of Pitts coming into the April NFL Draft, however, was, “But can he break the rookie tight end curse?”
There is a well-documented track record of most tight ends taking time to develop into fantasy-relevant players. That said, Pitts’ sterling profile has everyone dreaming big over his first-year potential.
Can the acclaimed Pitts break the mold, or will we have to wait on him, as well?
In order to figure out the hallmarks of a rookie tight end fantasy success story, I pulled together the rookie-year stats for drafted tight ends who produced at least 1.0 fantasy point per game from 2001 onward.
I decided to compare that production to their college production and their athletic testing (NFL Combine/pro day numbers). I also wanted to quantify the impact of “landing spot,” so I pulled the previous year offensive production for the teams they were drafted by.
I also calculated the average season-long and per-game fantasy points for a TE2 (top-24) over the past five years, which gives us 97.0 PPR points for the season -- or about 6.0 PPR points per game. These are the thresholds we’ll use as a mark of fantasy relevance in this analysis.
To get a rough idea of how impactful these factors are on a tight end’s rookie year fantasy success, I used a measure called R correlation. This correlation coefficient gives us a number that describes how closely one set of datapoints is related to another set of datapoints. If you’ve heard the term “one-to-one relationship,” that is visualized here as a straight line going up or down at a 45-degree angle. In terms of the data, that correlation would be 1.00 or -1.00, respectively. A correlation of 0.00 or near there indicates much less to no statistical significance.
College Production and Athletic Profile
Let’s start, as the athletes themselves do, with the college side.
Using the TE2 thresholds as our break-even points, we’re going to examine the average profiles of a successful rookie fantasy tight end. How well does a rookie fantasy hit have to do in college?
|College Production, Averages||Rec||Rec Yds||Rec TD|
|More Than 6.0 NFL PPR/G as a Rookie||89.3||1196.6||10.8|
|Fewer Than 6.0 NFL PPR/G as a Rookie||73.3||935.4||8.3|
The average productive rookie tight end seems to make about 90 catches for 1,200 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns over their college career.
Depending on whether you look at NFL points per game or total season points, those numbers slightly change. Either way, though, there are significant differences between the average rookie TE1/TE2 and rookies who miss the productive mark.
Remember, this is an average for the production, so there will be players who produce more than our stated benchmark and miss, or less and hit.
That being said, the relationship between college production -- even including games played -- has some of the strongest correlation with rookie year NFL production among data in our sample.
|College Production, Correlations||Games||Rec||Rec Yds||Rec TD|
|NFL Rookie PPR||0.34||0.36||0.34||0.22|
Now, what about athletic testing (NFL Combine and pro day performances)? How relevant are those tools to rookie production?
|Measurements & Testing, Correlations||NFL Rookie PPR|
What I find the most compelling about this table is that BMI has a significantly negative relationship with fantasy scoring (i.e. the thicker a tight end is, the less they score; and the thinner a tight end is, the more they score).
This is most logically explained as the result of larger tight ends more often being used as inline blockers -- think Troy Niklas.
There seems to be a slight positive relationship with height, which makes sense for high-pointing and contested catches, but weight is a clear negative correlation to fantasy potential.
The even clearer relationships come from the testing, as opposed to the measurements, with only the agility drills that don’t really have a clear correlation. Of them, 40-yard-dash time is the most predictive, though there is a slight positive correlation with the broad and vertical jumps, as well.
Below are the average Combine/pro day measurements and testing numbers for a successful rookie fantasy tight end.
|Measurements & Testing, Averages||More Than 6.0 NFL PPR/G
as a Rookie
|Fewer Than 6.0 NFL PPR/G
as a Rookie
|Height (in.)||75 8/9||76 1/4|
|Arms||33 2/5||33 1/2|
|Hands||9 2/3||9 3/4|
We'll cover more on this in just a bit.
NFL Draft Capital and Landing Spot
Finally, let’s examine the NFL side of things. How much do the slot you’re drafted at and the team you’re selected by matter?
When we look just at the successful tight ends, the relationship between draft round and overall slot to fantasy scoring is negative (the higher you’re drafted, the better), but it’s not nearly as strong as looking at the overall sample of tight ends.
|NFL Draft Results, Correlations||Round||Overall|
|NFL Rookie PPR||-0.26||-0.21|
When including all tight ends in this correlation, those correlations leap to -0.49 for both draft round and overall draft slot. It matters a great deal to be drafted highly to be productive in one’s rookie year.
We can assume that part of this is better talent gets drafted earlier, but teams also have more invested in a high draft pick’s success and so they may utilize them more. The average draft slot for a successful fantasy tight end is in the third round, picked around 80 to 85 or higher.
It should come as no surprise that, in terms of landing spot, teams that pass a lot the year prior are more likely to pass a lot once a new tight end arrives, as well.
|NFL Team Year Before, Correlations||NFL Rookie PPR|
|Pass to Run Ratio||0.13|
Interestingly, though, there is basically no correlation between pass-to-run ratio and rookie tight end fantasy success. This suggests to me that fast-paced offenses that run a lot of plays are the best landing spots (no duh), but there is little relationship between the quality of the passing attack and the benefit to a tight end. It’s better to be accurate, it’s better to throw more than one runs, but it’s not necessary.
So, in summary, we want a prolific college tight end who has a slighter build but doesn’t sacrifice height. He should be fast and agile, but jumping ability is less important. The higher drafted, the better, and if the team passed a lot last year, that’s a good sign for him.
Kyle Pitts stacks up as such from college:
|College Profile||Kyle Pitts||Rookie TE2+|
|College Rec Yards||1492||1197|
|College Rec TD||18||11|
|Arms||33 1/2||33 1/2|
|Hands||10 5/8||9 3/4|
And this is his comparison profile for draft and landing spot:
|Draft and NFL Team Profile||Kyle Pitts||Rookie TE2+|
|NFL Team Comp %||65.00%||60.70%|
|NFL Team Pass Yards||4363||3432|
|NFL Team Total Yards||5895||5222|
|NFL Team Pass TD||27||22|
|NFL Team Pass Attempts||628||536|
|NFL Team Offensive Plays||1078||1011|
That's a strong start.
Of course, there’s no guarantee he’ll have a great rookie season, especially while competing for targets with a loaded wide receiver group, but Pitts is a great prospect in a great situation.
Pitts is certainly worthy of a speculative TE1 ranking if you can get him later in your redraft leagues. Right now he’s just the TE15 (drafted in the 11th round of PPR drafts) by FF Calculator's ADP, though he’s rising fast.
In dynasty formats, Pitts is one of the best prospects we’ve ever seen at the position, and he could make an impact much sooner than the average tight end. He’s well worth the middle to early first-round draft pick you’d need to spend on him in rookie drafts.