Ascent of the Tight End

The Tight End position appears to be increasing in prominence in the passing game. Since 2001, TEs have been accumulating an increasing number of receiving yards, both in terms of total yards and in terms of the share of the overall receiving yards by all position types.

When I was going over the Koko fantasy projections for TEs, I noticed the trend illustrated in the graph below. TEs have been getting more receiving yards each year since 2001. Not a single year saw a decline, and the increase has been over 40% since the beginning of the nine-year period.

The increase from 2001-2002 can be partially explained by the expansion of the league by the addition of the Texans. However, the increase in that year exceeds the 1/31st increase we'd expect, and the increasing trend continues to be steady.

The increase is not simply due to an increase in overall passing yards as a whole. Receiving yards by wide receivers have held very steady and receiving yards by running backs have slightly declined during that span. The graph below shows the relative change in receiving yards by position compared to the 2001 baseline.

The decline in RB receiving yards is small and does not account for the increase in TE yards. In other words TEs are not robbing passes that used to go to RBs. The increase in TE yards are "new" yards. TEs eclipsed RBs in receiving yards for the first time in 2004, and have continued to hold a an edge ever since.

This isn't too surprising given the abundance of pass catching TEs around the league. Anyone following the game for the past 20 years has witnessed the evolution of the TE position. (And I suspect I may be retreading ground others have plowed.) Forty percent over nine years, however, is a stark increase. Could you imagine an equivalent change in baseball, say a 40% increase in hits by second basemen over nine years? It would be stunning.

The increase is far too large to be explained by a handful of outliers like Gonzalez, Heap, Clark, or Gates. It's due to a change in the league as a whole. I'm not sure when the trend began as my data only goes back to 2001. The PFR guys have data back to the dawn of time, and might be able to shed some light.

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9 Responses to “Ascent of the Tight End”

  1. Jason says:

    It seems to me that offensive philosophies these days, while they include more passing (an inherently risky proposition) have shifted more toward the QB not making mistakes ("managing the game") as opposed to shooting for the big play ("gunslinging"). Passing overall is up (as evidenced by the WRs and RBs staying about the same, while TEs get more yards), but I'd imagine the TE a few yards downfield is more of a "safe" target than a WR way down the field.

    As to why those passes go to TEs and not RBs, I couldn't say.

  2. DPR says:

    Two points. I don't know why you say that the increase is is far too large to be explained by the outliers. Did you run the analysis without outliers and still see a large increase? The second point, and I admit I'm nitpicking here, is that it is in no way reasonable to suggest that this increase would be equivalent to a 40% increase in second baseman hits. There is some increase in 2B p(hit) that would be equivalent, but it is surely much less than 40%.

  3. Vince says:

    I just took a look at the Football Outsiders TE data for 2008 and 1994 (the earliest year available), which includes every TE who was thrown at least 10 passes. Correcting for the increase in teams, there was a 31% increase in yards (from 530 per team to 694 per team) and a 24% increase in passes thrown to TEs (from 79 per team to 99 per team). Yards per catch stayed the same at 10.9 ypc, but completion percentage increased from 61.1% to 64.4%. The yardage increase was not concentrated at the top (Ben Coates 1994 actually outgained Tony Gonzalez 2008). The number of TEs with at least 300 yards increased from 19 in 1994 to 29 in 2008, the number with at least 500 yards increased from 7 to 15, the number with at least 700 yards increased from 4 to 7, and the number with at least 900 yards stayed the same at 2.

  4. Brian Burke says:

    The outliers like Gonzalez or Gates each only gain a couple hundred yards more than the guys in the "pack." The overall increase in TE yards since 2001 is almost 9,000 yards, far too much for any single player or even group of players to account for. It's an overall position-wide increase.

  5. TomG says:

    The simplest reason: Teams would much rather have an extra reciever than an extra pass blocker

  6. Bigmouth says:

    I wonder if this accounts, in part, for the declining effectiveness of Mike Martz's offense. In an effort to maximize yards per pass attempt, he holds in TEs to block. The Niners' Vernon Davis has already been making strides this preseason under Jimmy Raye, who had Gonzales in KC.

  7. Anonymous says:

    TomG said... "The simplest reason: Teams would much rather have an extra receiver than an extra pass blocker"
    Personally, I'd rather have both. Luckily, the TE position is both an extra receiver AND a pass blocker--sometimes both in the same play!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Expounding on your idea, teams would much rather not let the defense know what they are doing before a play. Lining up a TE the defense can't be certain whether he is going to block or run a route, causing match-up problems.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Watching the Cowboys-Bucs game yesterday you could see an excellent case study in Martellus Bennett. Seeing two TEs in the huddle (Witten and Bennett) the defensive coordinator didn't know what package to put in because many plays Bennett lined up outside like a wide receiver. Considering that both Witten and Bennett can act like receiversor blockers very effectively, the offense could even decide what play to run based upon whether the defense puts on more DBs or LBs.

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