All the fantasy football world sat, buzzing, in the afterglow of week one of the 2019 NFL season. There was so much new data to try to take in. Which data was good, and which data was bad? What out-of-nowhere star was ready to take a step onto the scene, and who was suddenly bad now? It was in this small sample size chaos that we saw T.J. Hockenson with one data point: six catches, 131 yards, and a touchdown against the hapless Arizona Cardinals. So many people reacted to this data point, thinking that Hockenson would be the rare rookie tight end to have fantasy football value.
USA Today suggested dropping one-fifth of your free agency budget on Hockenson. SportingNews.com suggested 12% to 20% of your FAAB budget. NFL.com called Hockenson a start in his second game (who could blame ‘em?). The Chicago Tribune listed him as their #3 waiver wire priority entering week two. Sports Illustrated moved Hockenson from TE20 in week one to TE9 in week two. We weren’t immune from the fervor: Football Absurdity’s Waleed Ismail said Hockenson “should end the year as a high-end TE1” and that he “most definitely should be on your roster.” The fantasy football world was absolutely giddy at the prospect of a stud rookie tight end.
T.J. Hockenson followed up his 131 yards in week one with eight yards… over the next two weeks, combined. He never topped 56 for the rest of the year and passed 33 yards just twice. It was a nightmare, as T.J. Hockenson ultimately did what nearly every rookie tight end ends up doing: absolutely nothing. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t some substance to the Hockenson hype. People were calling him Matt Patricia’s Gronk, and he was rated as one of the very best tight ends of the last few seasons. Still, he fell flat on his face. It was a mess, but we all thought that T.J. Hockenson would be the one. He would break the curse of the rookie tight end. I’m here to tell you: ignore rookie tight ends for fantasy football, and you will never go broke.
Some people like to quote where a player ends up in the final ranking to try to bolster their week-to-week viability. That skews tight ends mightily, as say, a 131-yard, one-touchdown game might bolster the final season stat-line to the point that a player looks more useful than they might otherwise. Let’s see how many rookie tight ends have significant weekly upside, historically. Last season, TE13 averaged 9.9 PPR points per game, so let’s set this query for rookie tight ends with games over 10 PPR points in a week. That’s what we’ll call our baseline for a TE12 in a week. For the record, Hockenson had just one such game after week one last season.
Since 2000, zero rookie tight ends have turned in more than eight games of 10+ PPR points in a week, and only two have hit the mark in eight games: 2002 Jeremy Shockey and 2017 Evan Engram. In the last 20 seasons, only 78 rookie tight ends have a week of 10+ PPR points, and there are 218 instances of rookie tight ends hitting those numbers over the last two decades. That comes out to just about 4 players sharing 11 usable TE games per season, meaning each player who has a usable game, on average, ends up with between 2-3 usable games in a sixteen-game season their rookie campaign. That data bakes in a lot of flash-in-the-pan TEs who do nothing but randomly catch a touchdown in a game, so let’s narrow down the field a bit.
Over the last decade, 29 rookie tight ends have multiple games of 10+ PPR fantasy football points, totaling 114 such games across 29 players, or about 4 games per season of TE12 (or better) numbers out of the rookie tight ends who flash any multi-week eligibility. There were 245 instances of players turning in at least four weeks of TE12 numbers in the last decade, which means that rookies made up about 12% of these games. Just really terrible odds on leaning on a tight end.
Well, what does this mean for rookie tight ends and fantasy football, in general? The unofficial official slogan of Football Absurdity is “All Tight Ends Are Meh (A-TEAM),” so we should take shots on rookie tight ends, right? Wrong. Never draft a rookie tight end. Over the last two decades, the cream of the crop rookie tight ends had eight usable weeks. Last season, eight tight ends had 8+ weeks of 10 or more PPR points. The very tippy-top of the rookies, two of the 78 rookies to even have a usable week, are turning in enough weeks to be a middling-to-back end TE1 on a weekly basis.
I’m not saying you can’t stream rookie tight ends. You can definitely do that. Kaden Smith had four usable weeks last season, and Noah Fant had three. Hell, Foster Moreau had three. As for T.J. Hockenson, the guy who everyone said to go weapons-free on in free agency? He had two, the same as Hale Hentges. That’s right… Hale Hentges. Can you stream rookie tight ends in fantasy football? Absolutely. Should you stream rookie tight ends? Probably not.
Here’s the long and the short of it: you can’t go broke betting against rookie tight ends for fantasy football purposes. People like to get hot under the collar for them, but the position is extremely difficult to adapt to at the NFL level. Think about it: you’re doing the NFL lineman transition and the NFL wide receiver transition. There’s too much to take in. That’s why basically every extremely talented tight end fell on their face their rookie years. George Kittle had 515 yards and two touchdowns; Travis Kelce only played in one game due to a bone bruise and microfracture surgery. Gronk is an exception to this rule, because of ten touchdowns. But what does that make the formula: all-time tight end with an all-time QB throwing 36 touchdowns?
Rookie fantasy football tight ends. Don’t draft ‘em, don’t stream ‘em, and if you decide to do either, definitely don’t spend any valuable fantasy football capital (draft, FAAB or waiver wire priority) breaking the simple rule:
Just stay away from rookie tight ends.