Stock Watch: Tight End Sleepers Pt. 1

Stock Watch: Tight End Sleepers Pt. 1

This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.

This two-part article series will be a bit niche in its focus, looking at the tight end situations for four arbitrarily selected teams, but it should have worthwhile considerations for anyone speculating in the later-round tight end market. It'll go through the playing time and usage projections for the tight ends with the Titans, Colts, Jets, and Packers, sweeping up 'sleepers' of various note between Jonnu Smith, Jack Doyle/Trey Burton, Chris Herndon, and Jace Sternberger, respectively.

This article will look at the Jets and Packers, the second will be the Titans and Colts, behind paywall. The ADP data cited is from June 12 onward.

JETS TIGHT ENDS

Chris Herndon, Ryan Griffin, Trevon Wesco, Daniel Brown

Going off the board at 164.98 in BestBall10 drafts and 167.62 in NFFC Best Ball drafts, TE20 and TE22 respectively, Herndon is at once the obvious fantasy option of this group yet still the recipient of a healthy amount of skepticism. This is reasonable in at least one sense, namely that the cursed Adam Gase offense logs among the league's fewest tight end snaps. There is a small pocket of observers who consider Griffin an equal or even superior player, though, and this premise is probably less reasonable.

To zoom back out a bit, the path for any Jets tight end to mainstream starting fantasy utility is doubtlessly narrow, maybe even razor-thin. That's because Gase's offense is uniquely heavy on three-wide sets, logging just 1.48 tight end reps per snap in 2018 and dropping to 1.27 tight end reps per snap in 2019. Herndon's year-long absence probably played some role in this reduction, but it's not as if the Jets were compelled by their wide receiver personnel – the third wideout behind Jamison Crowder and Robby Anderson was usually Vyncint Smith or Demaryius Thomas. As much as it could work out well for Herndon in 2020, we're doubtlessly building up from a dark place, especially if Gase's playcalling remains the same as in 2019.

The Jets logged 956 snaps from scrimmage in 2019 after finishing the 2018 season with 971 – both among the lowest in the league. Gase is a bad coach who is incurious and hostile toward the ways he might better himself, so we should assume the worst about his potential for growth. Looking for optimism with the Jets offense at large is probably a waste of our time. Let's assume a trivial improvement thanks to the growth of Sam Darnold and project 980 snaps from scrimmage in 2020. We might reason that within this sample that the return of Herndon would raise the per-snap tight end rep average from 1.27, but that the arrival of second-round pick Denzel Mims would on the other hand preclude it from reaching the 1.48 figure from 2018. Let's say that the Jets call for 1.4 tight end reps per snap over those 980 snaps, leaving about 1,370 reps to split between Herndon, Griffin, and the remaining tight ends. The Jets logged 1,435 tight end reps between five players in 2018, with Herndon claiming 625. The Jets logged 1,216 tight end snaps in 2019, with Griffin claiming 681 in 13 games.

When it comes to the question of how Herndon and Griffin might split snaps, the answer will be determined by the type of tight end function in the playcall. As much as Herndon and Griffin are both tight ends for the Jets, they may as well play two different sub-positions. Griffin plays a role that features extra blocking and a checkdown specialization for routes, blocking on 28 percent of pass plays last year and drawing an ADOT of just 5.0. Herndon, by contrast, is likely to block on only 8-to-12 percent of his passing snaps, and in his very promising 2018 rookie year he drew an ADOT of 10.0. Herndon, in other words, is the tight end the Jets will use if they want to pose a serious receiving threat. The more blocking there is to do, the more likely Griffin is to get the rep.

Griffin played 52.38 snaps per game last year, good for a 16-game pace of 838. That number was likely boosted by Herndon's injury, and it's guaranteed to fall. Herndon, after all, only played 624 snaps as a rookie, so Griffin isn't hitting those figures by merit. Herndon's merit should overrule Griffin's, more or less wiping out last year's tight end game plan for the Jets. If we cautiously project Herndon for 45 snaps per game, this would project to about 720 snaps, leaving 650 snaps to split between Griffin, Wesco, and Brown. Wesco is purely a blocking specialist, while Brown plays a role pretty much identical to Griffin's. The way I read this is that Griffin, Wesco, and Brown all project to play more snaps the more the Jets have leads. If you have a lead, you're more likely to see a run-heavy game script, because you're not running the ball with blocking tight ends on the field if you're trying to play catch-up. As someone who thinks the Jets are a joke of a team and expects them to be among the league's worst, I'm not especially concerned about the possibility of the Griffin/Wesco/Brown share of the offense surging at Herndon's expense.

Griffin is a backup-grade tight end, so a 300-to-400 snap workload would suit him just fine. Such a minimized workload would be a disgusting waste of Herndon's abilities, on the other hand. Herndon isn't just a decent tight end prospect – we have extensive reason to believe he's uncommonly effective as a receiver. For a team with as many passing game struggles as the Jets, leaving a player of Herndon's caliber on the sideline would basically require a self-destructiveness.

In Herndon's rookie year he drew 56 targets on 625 snaps, catching 39 receptions for 502 yards and four touchdowns. That's a catch rate of 69.6 percent at 9.0 YPT in an offense that completed 57.1 percent of its passes at 6.5 YPA. If Herndon had outplayed the 2019 Jets passing baseline by the same proportion then it would come out to about a 75.6 percent catch rate at 9.1 yards per target. This above-baseline production is consistent with his college career, where at Miami (FL) he finished his age-21 senior season with 40 receptions on 56 targets for 477 yards and four touchdowns. That's a 71.4 percent catch rate at 8.5 yards per target in an offense that completed only 54.5 percent of its passes at 7.7 YPA.

Herndon has produced to the point that he's not just vaguely good as a pass catcher, he's a realistic candidate to be one of the most talented pass catchers among NFL tight ends, and potentially even the most effective pass catcher on the Jets roster. With a recent NFFC and BestBall10 ADP of 167.62 and 164.98, respectively, Herndon strikes me as a clear standout value among the later-round tight ends. There's a good chance he plays upwards of 800 snaps, and even if he doesn't his pass-catching talent could dictate an uncommonly high level of per-snap usage among tight ends. Reliably throughout his history, Herndon has taken whatever usage he's given and outplayed his peers.

 
GREEN BAY TIGHT ENDS

Jace Sternberger, Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Robert Tonyan, James Looney

Sternberger (181.79 BB10, 200.4 NFFC) is the only one of these guys who gets drafted at the moment in BestBall10 or NFFC drafts, so he's the clear draw here. Green Bay selected him in the third round of the 2019 draft, 75th overall. That was immediately after David Montgomery (73) and Devin Singletary (74), while Terry McLaurin (76) and Chase Winovich (77) were the next two off the board. This was an especially valuable third-round pick, so Green Bay should certainly feel some pressure to justify their Sternberger selection. With Jimmy Graham gone, there's a clear route for new playing time with a realistic pass-catching role – Graham played only 642 snaps but drew 0.92 air yards per snap, 78th percentile among tight ends.

Sternberger's rookie year was inconclusive, its absence of production (three catches for 15 yards and one touchdown on four targets and 103 snaps) made less meaningful by a preseason concussion and high ankle sprain, the latter landing him on injured reserve. Still, it's not the greatest sign that he was placed on IR instead of kept on the active roster for a Week 5 return, and it's also not a great sign that Sternberger was a healthy scratch twice after returning from IR in Week 9. While there may be some excuse or explanation, those details basically imply that Sternberger wasn't catching on in practice. Or at least, he wasn't catching on in practice as well as Robert Tonyan, then a third-year former UDFA out of Indiana State.

Preseason injuries or not, that's a somewhat concerning starting point. The headline '23-year-old third-round pick outplayed by Tonyan' probably makes it reasonable to increase scrutiny slightly. Sternberger's prospect profile mostly just offers ambiguous indicators beyond that, though. At 6-foot-4 (39th percentile according to Mockdraftable) and 251 pounds (39th percentile) Sternberger ran a 4.75-second 40 (57th percentile) to go with a 31.5-inch vertical (32nd percentile) and 113-inch broad jump (40th percentile) – likely an average size-adjusted athletic profile. Luckily for Sternberger, his production was compelling in his one active season, when he started for Texas A&M in 2018 after transferring from Kansas. He caught 48 receptions for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns on 83 targets that year, impressively leading the Aggies in all receiving categories, yet even this point is lessened a bit by the age adjustment – at 22 he had about a year on the average fourth-year player. 

Beyond all this, the problem with Sternberger's projection is that even if he's decent, and even if he earns playing time, there's reason to fear that coach Matt LaFleur just doesn't have a team-leading use for a pass-catching tight end. The Packers logged 1,020 snaps from scrimmage in the regular season last year, playing 1,411 tight end snaps in the process (1.38 per snap). If we include fullback/h-back Dan Vitale in the sample, his 172 snaps raise the total to 1,583 and 1.55 per snap. The tight end snaps within this sample were rather heavy on the blocking – Lewis (500 snaps) blocked on 61 percent of his passing snaps, Tonyan (200 snaps) blocked on 69 percent, Sternberger (64 snaps) blocked on 62 percent. Rather than any of those reps, Sternberger's lane for fantasy utility entirely rests in the role played last year by Jimmy Graham, who ran routes on 94 percent of his passing snaps, 642 snaps total. Luckily, Sternberger has a realistic path to the vast majority of those reps. Let's try to project how that might work.

Let's say the Packers log 1,030 snaps from scrimmage. If the Packers run 1.55 tight end reps per snap again under this presumption, we'd have 1,597 to hand out. Let's assume third-round 2020 pick Josiah Deguara takes all of the snaps that previously went to Vitale – about 175. We should probably assume Deguara takes some handful of proper tight end snaps, too, maybe another 145. Marcedes Lewis played 500 snaps last year as a blocking specialist, and we should probably assume another 500 this year. With those two accounted for, we're down to about 780 snaps to split between Sternberger, Tonyan, and Looney.

Looney probably won't make the team, but the former seventh-round pick has a lot of athleticism to work with. His problem is that after a productive career as a defensive lineman at California, he flopped at the position in the NFL and was just moved to tight end on the scout team some time last year. As much as it would be weird for an NFL team to keep five tight ends, there is a slight chance that Green Bay might do it, partially justifying it by conceptualizing Deguara as a fullback.

Even if Looney claims zero snaps, though, the Sternberger versus Tonyan question might be cause for some anxiety, if only because it looks like they're fighting over a small piece of pie. Tonyan (200) and Graham (642) split 842 snaps last year, and Deguara's addition threatens to make that share smaller in 2020. Smaller share or not, it's difficult to see how Sternberger would earn a higher share of those snaps than Graham did, especially since Sternberger isn't guaranteed to be the more effective player of the two. It's not even clear that Sternberger will prove much better than Tonyan. Whereas Sternberger ran a 4.75 40 at 6-foot-4, 251 pounds, Tonyan was credited with a 4.58-second 40 at 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, with solid jumps too (35-inch vertical, 125-inch broad jump). If Deguara takes a greater snap share than Vitale, lessening the combined share for Sternberger and Tonyan, then Sternberger basically needs to go from healthy scratch to better than Graham in the span of about nine months.

If Graham and Tonyan split 842 snaps last year, with Tonyan playing 200, then let's offer Sternberger the charitable projection that Tonyan claims an identical 23.75 percent of the projected 780 snaps that Tonyan and Sternberger split. That's 185, leaving Sternberger with 595 snaps, which likely isn't enough to be useful. For Sternberger to come through for his fantasy investors and outproduce Graham's 447 yards and three touchdowns, then Sternberger needs to play so well that he basically kicks Tonyan off the roster. That might be easy for some to imagine, but not me.

Going back to June 12th, Sternberger's ADP is at 181.79 in BestBall10s and 200.4 in NFFC drafts – registering at TE26. Even if you're not a Sternberger truther, that price is easy enough to justify. There is a low floor with Sternberger, however, and I don't think he can match the upside of nearby alternative tight ends like Irv Smith, O.J. Howard, and Dawson Knox. Rather than a true target in fantasy drafts, Sternberger is just a lottery ticket who would ideally be rostered no higher than TE3 on your depth chart.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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