By: Jesse Patterson Feb 20th 2020

It started as a typical fantasy football discussion over beers with a few guys from my home league. Who would you rather have on your dynasty rosters going forward: Ian Thomas in Carolina or Jonnu Smith in Tennessee? Based on January ADP data at DLF, Thomas is being drafted as the TE19, while Smith comes in two spots higher at TE17. Recent news of Greg Olsen’s release from the Panthers and the uncertain future of Delanie Walker should push those rankings up a few spots in February’s ADP and deeper into the offseason, which made these two a perfect “would you rather?” debate topic. The consensus seemed to be if Tannehill returns to the Titans but the Panthers moved on from Cam Newton, Ian Thomas would have the higher upside. This was based on the fact that Carolina would have a new veteran quarterback, inexperienced Will Grier, or a new rookie quarterback under center, and a new quarterback in a new system often looks at the tight end position as a safety blanket, peppering him with targets as the new signal-caller acclimated to the team’s system and developed rapport with the other receiving options. Alternatively, we have already seen Tannehill with Smith, and the results were not worth chasing. I had long held this belief across all fantasy platforms, daily, redraft and dynasty and often streamed tight ends based on this theory. In a pinch, I could always find a match-up with a spot-starter replacing an injured incumbent, or a young inexperienced quarterback and count on the established tight end in the offense to produce fantasy statistics. The more I thought about it, I wondered where this pre-conceived notion came from. Why did I, and more importantly many of my league mates across various platforms, think this way? Was there any truth to this idea, and has anyone ever researched it? A quick search turned up no definitive answers, so I decided to do some digging myself. 

My first step was deciding what data I wanted to use for this project. What I wanted to determine was whether a rookie or injury-replacement quarterback starting a game would lead to a visible increase in targets towards the tight end position relative to how that team’s offense looked without him. To do this I had to pour over a host of established data on a variety of sites. I reached out to the always helpful twitter community to get my starting points and found what I was looking for almost instantly thanks to a few fellow twitter users’ tips. Using  I was able to determine pass attempt totals by quarterback for each individual team. I then cross-referenced this with to locate targets per position in each individual week of the season. Finally, using game log data from I tracked which weeks a rookie or non-established quarterback started the week, versus another quarterback in the same system. Not being a deep-dive research type of guy, I limited my data to the past three NFL seasons to get my sample size. My hope was that this would be a large enough sample, between rookies and injury-replacements to get a very clear pattern to prove my theory.

Unfortunately, the data just didn’t line up with my preconceived viewpoint as you can see in the sheet below. With no obvious and noticeable spike in targets being fed to the tight end position relative to the team average without the rookie or spot-starter, I decided that since I had the data all up in front of me, I would look into whether the running back position saw an uptick. While there seemed to be a few more increases in passing targets going to running backs, there does not seem to be enough consistency visible to call it a reliable pattern.

YearTeamQBWeeksReg. StarterPass Att.TE targetsTE Tar/gmTeam Avg TE Tar/GMRB Tar/GMTeam Avg RB Tar/GM
2019Atlanta FalconsMatt Schaub8M. Ryan52997.686.9
2019Chicago BearsChase Daniel4,5M. Trubisky60136.54.199.2
2019Houston TexansAJ McCarron17D. Watson3610106.474.8
2019Indianapolis ColtsBrian Hoyer9,10J. Brissett651688.96.55.2
2019Kansas City ChiefsMatt Moore8,9P. Mahomes71199.
2019Miami DolphinsJosh Rosen3,4,6R.Fitspatrick88144.67.810.66.7
2019New Orleans SaintsTeddy Bridgewater2-7D. Brees195406.76.58.710.2
2019New York JetsLuke Falk2,3,5S. Darnold73314.296.2
2019Tennessee TitansRyan Tannehill7-10, 12-17M. Mariota286666.673.35
2019Jacksonville JaguarsGardner Minshew1-9, 13-17N. Folk47070547.611
2019New York GiantsDaniel Jones3-13, 16,17E. Manning4591068.
2019Carolina PanthersKyle Allen3-6, 8-15,17C. Newton489866.689.510.1
2019Pittsburgh SteelersMason Rudolph2-5,8-11,16B.Roethlisberger283556.148.76
2019Pittsburgh SteelersDevlin Hodges6,12-15,17B.Roethlisberger160172.845.56
2019WashingtonDwayne Haskins4,8-16C. Keenum203313.465.27.6
2019Denver BroncosDrew Lock13-17J.Flacco/B. Allen1563576.667.5
2019Detroit LionsDavid Blough13-17M. Stafford174397.
2019Cincinnati BengalsRyan Finley10-12A. Dalton87165.
2018Arizona CardinalsJosh Rosen4-8 10-16S. Bradford393695.
2018Chicago BearsChase Daniel12,13M.Trubisky761265.799.2
2018Jacksonville JaguarsCody Kessler13-16B. Bortles101112.
2018Miami DolphinsBrock Osweiler6-10R.Tannehill173234.
2018New York JetsJosh McCown10,12,13S. Darnold173268.
2018Philadelphia EaglesNick Foles1,2,15-17C. Wentz1956813.612.910.45.6
2018Tampa Bay BuccaneersRyan Fitzpatrick1-4, 9-11J. Winston241507.
2018Tennessee TitansBlaine Gabbert2,17M. Mariota4973.
2018Cleveland BrownsBaker Mayfield3-10 12-17T. Taylor486966.
2018Buffalo BillsJosh Allen1-6, 12-17N. Peterman/D.Anderson320594.97.55.19
2018New York JetsSam Darnold1-9, 14-17J.McCown414775.
2018Baltimore RavensLamar Jackson11-17J.Flacco170446.
2018Cincinnati BengalsJeff Driskel12-17A.Dalton176406.75.876.9
2018Carolina PanthersTaylor Heinicke16C.Newton57556.1167.9
2017Arizona CardinalsBlaine Gabbert11-15C.Palmer171326.46.178.6
2017Buffalo BillsNathan Peterman11,14T. Taylor34136.
2017Chicago BearsMitch Trubisky5-8, 10-17M.Glennon3307266.57.112
2017Cleveland BrownsKevin Hogan5,6D. Kizer56157.57.679.4
2017Denver BroncosBrock Osweiler9-11,16T. Siemien1511645.3106.2
2017Green Bay PackersBrett Hundley7,9-14 16-17A. Rodgers283394.
2017Houston TexansDeshaun Watson2-6,8T. Savage204467.75.655.6
2017Miami DolphinsMatt Moore8,12J. Cutler781265.686
2017New York JetsBryce Petty15-17J. McCown103206.
2017Oakland RaidersE.J. Manuel5D. Carr26666.947.9
2017San Francisco 49ersC.J. Beathard7-10,12J. Garoppolo188316.26.413.68.9
2017Philadelphia EaglesNick Foles15-17C. Wentz473511.710.754.6
2017Tampa Bay BuccaneersRyan Fitzpatrick10-12J.Winston138237.787.255.5
2017Tennessee TitansMatt Cassel5M. Mariota3212129.164

What does become apparent is that more often than not, the new quarterback simply comes in and plays a similar system and has a similar pass distribution to the previous starter. In the case of a veteran spot-starter, I would equate this to teams focusing on finding backups capable of running the same offensive system as the starter ( Robert Griffin III backing up Lamar Jackson for example). If the starter goes down due to injury or ineffectiveness, the backup is able to step in, start, and distribute targets in a similar manner. In the case of rookies when comparing them to an established backup filling in for them in the same season, there is generally no increase in targets fed to a particular position, possibly because they are drilled from day one in the intricacies and specifics of the coaching staff’s system. A team that relies heavily on passing to the running back or tight end such as the Eagles will look the same under a rookie stepping in like Carson Wentz as it will under a veteran stepping in due to injury like Nick Foles. I then decided to take a look at whether a rookie starting early in the season would have a significant uptick in targets to tight ends compared to the average number of targets to tight ends in the previous season. I then decided to look at whether teams just simply didn’t have as many pass attempts when a rookie was under center, as they did the previous season by comparing average pass attempts per game. My theory being that a rookie was ‘protected’ by just taking fewer chances and passing fewer times, thus the tight ends would end up seeing fewer targets by default as the whole passing game would have fewer targets to go around. 

YearPlayerTeamTE Targets/GameTeam TE Targets/Game Prev. SeasonTeam Pass Attempts/GameTeam Pass Attempts/Game Prev. Season
2017D. WatsonTexans7.711.232.836.4
2017D. KizerBrowns76.335.935.4
2017M. TrubiskyBears66.329.634.9
2017N. PetermanBills6.56.429.829.6
2017C. Beathard49ers6.26.837.930.7
2018B. MayfieldBrowns6.97.635.935.9
2018J. AllenBills4.
2018S. DarnoldJets5.96.332.831.9
2018L. JacksonRavens6.38.434.835.4
2018J. RosenCardinals5.36.230.937.4
2018P. MahomesChiefs10.110.736.433.9
2019K. MurrayCardinals3.55.434.630.9
2019G. MinshewJaguars55.636.833.5
2019D. HaskinsWashington3.48.129.931.8
2019D. LockBroncos76.831.536.8

Again, there is no clear indication of a pattern being established when a rookie steps into a starting role. When compared to how the teams ran their offensive systems the year previous, it does not appear that the rookie is favoring the tight end position as a safety blanket. If anything, the real indicator of whether or not a tight end or running back will be heavily targeted is the established system a team uses regardless of who starts at quarterback. I also noted that when a rookie starts a significant number of games, the pass attempts per game actually seem to increase more often than my theory that they would play it ‘safe’ and decrease versus the previous year. As someone trying to prove a point, this is not the ideal conclusion I was hoping to draw from this exercise, though hopefully it can prove helpful to people in the future when trying to steam the tight end position, or who are having a hard time trying to decide between two similarly ranked tight ends. 

While my goal entering this exercise was to attempt to clarify one of the more notoriously difficult positions to grasp in fantasy football, I ended up changing my thinking towards how I treated the position in general. In theory, I could apply this across the tight end landscape as a general rule: If a team relies heavily on the position the previous year and retains the same coaching staff then the position should remain productive in the coming season regardless of the quarterback. Whoever ends up as the starting tight end in Atlanta, or Tennessee or Carolina should be involved in the offense. If a team like Green Bay, Tampa Bay, or Arizona makes a splash in free agency and signs someone like Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry, it does not instantly mean he will be a stud, as the team tends not to funnel a lot of passes to the position regardless of who is under center. I’m certainly not saying these players can’t succeed in these systems, more so it is less than a sure thing that they will come flying out of the gate seeing an impressive stat line thus causing their value to dip. As usual, fantasy success will hinge on a team owner’s ability to react on the fly as the season progresses by being active, attentive and diligent.