I just finished writing about why obscure, little-known tight ends could matter far more than we’re all comfortable with this year. David Ausberry forever.
The case for tight end streaming — or at the very least, not holding so firmly and stubbornly to what you think you know about most tight ends — is a strong one that I’ve emphasized repeatedly, and I’ll continue to do so as a constant reminder that there’s no time warp machine for Antonio Gates. If you miss out on the top five tight ends, you’re wise to wait, and then wait some more.
But here’s a perplexing little scenario to kill time with on a Friday afternoon instead of playing minesweeper, or whatever the kids do these days (Pacman? Donkey Kong? Pogs?): what if you’re targeting one of those top five names as a mid-round pick, and two of them are available? Stopping, dropping, and rolling is not a solution.
In our adventures through my personality disorder as I argue with myself, our “who ya got?” series has yet to touch on a tight end kerfuffle. We’ve explored the mystery of nearly identical receivers and quarterbacks, and two recently disappointing running backs. Now the focus turns to two members of the elite tight end group: Jason Witten vs. Tony Gonzalez.
Both are featured in offenses where Matt Ryan and Tony Romo respectively have plenty of hungry hands to satisfy, and with impressive leaping ability, they have similar physical traits. That’s why they occupied the top two spots in tight end receiving yards last year.
Predictably then, they both have similar ADPs in early drafts, with Gonzalez coming off the board first in ESPN leagues at 53.3, but Witten is just behind at 56.7. At Fantasy Football Calculator, it’s Witten first at 60.0, and Gonzo about six spots back.
Generally then, you’re paying a fifth or six-round pick for either, a time when you should have drafted two running backs (maybe even three), and you’ve secured your top wide receiver (maybe your top two).
So who’s it gonna be? (Pro Tip: this isn’t easy)
Let’s start with the positive for Gonzalez, and there’s plenty of it. It’s still absurd that a tight end of Gonzalez’s vintage (he’s 37) has been able to remain this good and this productive for this long.
A short time ago it looked like he had reached the apex of his career arc, and that was fine, because he’s allowed to age like a normal human. After not dropping below 700 receiving yards since 1998 (his second season), Gonzalez posted only 656 yards in 2010. Ruh roh, we thought, but then normalcy resumed, highlighted by his 930 yards on 93 catches with eight touchdowns last year. It feels like Gonzalez could play until he’s, I dunno, 52.
Throughout his entire 16-year career, Gonzalez has been targeted less than 100 times in a season only twice, one of which was his rookie year. That includes his 124 targets this past season (he turned that into 5.8 catches per game), a high volume despite the presence of Roddy White and Julio Jones, Atlanta’s dueling vertical threats. The math on that leads to this: Gonzalez was targeted on 20 percent of Ryan’s throws, while White was targeted on 23 percent, and Jones received 21 percent of the love.
That’s remarkably even, though there’s now a mild concern that Steven Jackson’s arrival could eat into Gonzalez’s looks a bit after he caught 38 balls on 53 targets last year in St. Louis. He’s a capable receiver out of the backfield, as he’s averaged 369.3 receiving yards per season.
The weakness for Gonzalez lies in what he does after the catch. Or rather, what he doesn’t do after the catch.
He didn’t have many dud weeks last year (just nine yards in Week 16 sticks out), but his utter lack of breakaway speed leads to the possibility that more could be forthcoming. Gonzalez averaged only 2.8 yards after the catch last year, meaning generally he gained whatever the route gave him, and little more.
Yes, despite the fact that he led all tight ends in receiving yards last year with 1,039 (the only TE over 1,000), Witten’s YAC number was exactly the same as Gonzalez’s. That’s a little concerning, though something we can perhaps blame on the lack of a running game to draw attention up the middle elsewhere with DeMarco Murray out for much of the season.
More importantly, Witten’s 2012 YAC is an aberration, and something we can toss away far more easily since he’s six years younger. His career YAC is 4.0, and he’s only a year removed from a career high of 4.5. Meanwhile, Gonzalez hasn’t touched 4.0 since 2006, a time span which is equivalent to about three decades in the NFL.
As far as targets are concerned, well, Witten gets a lot of them too. In fact, a lot more, especially once the inevitable Miles Austin injury happens. He finished with 148 targets last year, putting his average yards per target at 7.0, though that’s not a good place to continue our search for separation. It’s a wash in that metric, with Gonzalez averaging 7.5, but with 24 fewer targets.
The eternal scrap between Camp Gonzalez and Camp Witten is tight in the red zone too, where tight ends quite literally make their money. Witten’s touchdowns dipped to three last year after being as high as nine in 2010, but that was mostly a product of dumb (and crappy luck), since he was targeted in the red zone 14 times. It was his third straight season with double-digit red-zone targets, according to Pro Football Focus, so forecasting his scoring to double (which would lead to a precious 18 more fantasy points) isn’t difficult. But Gonzalez was slightly ahead, tying for the league lead with 17 red-zone targets.
Hard decisions are hard.
Winner: The likelihood of Austin playing a full, 16-game season two years in a row is about on par with a unicorn sighting. He’s done that once, and each time he doesn’t do it and is at less than full health, Witten’s targets increase.
Combine that with Witten’s aforementioned ability after the catch and greater speed with some youthful exuberance left in his legs, and Witten wins our search for an edge after dangerous tip-toeing around the narrowest of margins.