By Kit Vidulich
Tight end premium leagues are becoming more popular. Most superflex leagues started in the past year have also incorporated TE premium scoring. This makes sense as I think one of a superflex leagues’ goals, aside from increasing the value of quarterbacks to more closely reflect the NFL, is to allow for greater roster flexibility. This flexibility gives managers more ways to build championship-caliber teams. TE premium can make starting a TE in the flex spot a more viable consideration and allows the top tight ends to match or better the top receivers and running backs. Therefore, I’m not certain managers have fully adjusted to the surplus value that elite TE production offers or the competitive advantage in this format. With that in mind, I wanted to dive into Travis Kelce’s monster 2020 season to get an idea of how much that positional advantage can help in this format.
Travis Kelce had an all-time great TE season in 2020, finishing with 105/1416/11. He was one of the most valuable fantasy assets, appeared on a strong plurality of championship rosters, and 61% of playoff teams clearly shows the impact he had on team success (source). He was that much more valuable in TE premium, outscoring Davante Adams and nearly matching his quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He’s obviously terrific, but I wanted to explore how he stacked up against other top performers in 2020 and then against some of the recent incredible fantasy seasons we’ve seen. My analysis reflects 0.5ppr/1.0 TE PPR/4pt per passing touchdown scoring.
Kelce vs. 2020 Leaders
I first wanted to look at how Kelce stacked up the other top performers at their position. I did this by looking at top-performing players from each position in 2020, comparing it to the average of players 2-12 at the position. My intent was to gauge the relative value of having the best QB, WR, RB, and TE, to see where teams got the most considerable advantage over their opponents.
Alvin Kamara is probably the fantasy hero for everyone that rostered him given his week 16 championship performance. Still, even that 6 TD game didn’t provide him surplus value at the position greater than Kelce throughout the season. Kelce (22.7) nearly doubled the average of all other tight ends in the top 12 (12.6); rostering Kelce was like a free ten points over your average opponent. Position leaders at quarterback (Josh Allen, 3.7), running back (Alvin Kamara, 7.9), and wide receiver (Davante Adams, 5.1) obviously contributed to many winning rosters. Still, the evidence suggests that Travis Kelce was the single most valuable player last year in a TE Premium league. Combine that with the fact that many tight ends who finished 7-18 were basically 50/50 to drop a dud on any given week. I don’t think the numbers even necessarily do him justice.
Kelce vs. Recent Studs
So Travis Kelce was really good last year and helped his fantasy teams a lot; that’s not surprising. But I also wanted to take it a step further and see how he stacked up against some recent historic seasons. I compare his 2020 performance to 2019 Lamar Jackson and Christian McCaffrey and 2018 Patrick Mahomes, seasons that I naturally thought of as league-winning, record-breaking seasons from the past few years.
In raw points, CMC’s 2019 season (12.52 PPG) edges out 2020 Kelce’s surplus value (10.17) by a little over 2 points per game. But on a proportional basis, Kelce actually had a higher percentage of points at his position than Mccaffrey, as tight ends tend to score far less than running backs in general. 2019 Lamar Jackson (6.57) and 2018 Mahomes (7.14) had exceptional seasons. Still, the floor for the top 12 quarterbacks is high, and it’s tough for a player at that position to be much further among the average than that. As we can see, Kelce’s 2020 season wasn’t just the most valuable that year but the most valuable season a fantasy player has had in the last few years.
What does it mean?
The TE position is so fickle in the NFL. Each year it seems like there are 6-8 breakout candidates destined for success. At this time last year, I remember reading about how the TE position was finally leveling off with a lot of the mid-tier or young guys poised to take a leap. Ultimately, that didn’t happen, and it rarely does. It’s hard to find a perfect storm situation where a TE is good enough as a receiver, not needed too often as a blocker, and has an offensive coach who is committed to and enjoys scheming for tight ends. When a player has proven they can achieve that elite level of production that has the potential to provide the type of value Kelce provided managers in 2020, they are invaluable.
All of this is to say I think the current values of Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller are still too low. Those three all meet the criteria above and have proven success, which is often projected for young high draft capital tight ends, but rarely actually comes to fruition. To that end, while you can definitely get someone with the potential to break out like Noah Fant or TJ Hockenson for much less, projecting them to have a season as good as Waller and Kelce had in 2020 ever in their career is likely a losing wager. Waller’s 2020 season also provided better surplus value in TE premium than Kamara, Adams, and Josh Allen. All three top tight ends offer the ability to give 2 or more in top 5 seasons or better fantasy value, but I don’t think managers value them quite that high, even in premium leagues.
In terms of value, if I had a pretty good shot at contending and didn’t have a strong need at QB, I would give up 1.01 in a Superflex TE Premium league for either Kelce or Kittle. I would give up 1.02 for Darren Waller. Trevor Lawrence is considered a once every 10 years or so quarterback prospect, but even he has the risk that all rookie quarterbacks do; a reasonable chance to bust or only be average. I will exchange that for 3 or more years of dominance at the most challenging position to find that in fantasy football. Ultimately, as the draft approaches, you might not even have to give that much. I could see managers giving up either Kelce or Kittle and something like an early-mid 2nd for the chance to grab Lawrence, which makes exploring that type of trade all the more enticing.
Ride or Dynasty