Under Pressure – TE edition
Last season, the Under Pressure series examined players who would need to prove themselves in the 2020 campaign. 5 Yard Rush covered three positions, but didn’t include the Tight Ends. This year, we are adding in an article about those under-pressure players. And we are starting with them.
So, which Tight Ends could find their squad status under threat?
Eric Ebron – Pittsburgh Steelers
After being picked up by the Steelers, many fantasy drafters were eyeing up Ebron as a viable producer. After a top 5 fantasy finish with the Colts in 2018, the following year had the veteran frustrated in a committee. So the Steelers presented as an ideal chance for the 6th-year veteran to move out on his own once again. Aging vet Vance McDonald was the only real competition to volume at the position.
It looked to be Ebron’s role to take. And indeed it was – the newcomer to the team beat out the incumbent by a considerable margin. McDonald only managed to see 19 targets compared to Ebron’s 85.
But, while the volume was there (fourth in targets on a pass-heavy offense), the efficiency was not.
A CLUMSY SEASON
There were 26 Tight Ends who saw over 50 targets in 2020. But, for Ebron, the measurables in certain efficiency areas do not stack up well.
|Pass Catch %||65.9%||=18th / 26 in sample|
|Yards / Reception||10||18 / 26|
|Yards / Route run||1.18||19 / 26|
|Yards After Catch||191||19 / 26|
|Drop %||11.1%||23 / 26|
This spate of Steelers ball drops didn’t stop at Ebron. Other offensive players on the team also dropped the ball, including James Washington (dropped 13.1% of targets) and Diontae Johnson (13.8%). But, when many leagues only allow you to start one Tight End compared to multiple Wide Receivers, these drops can be more significant. And that isn’t taking those other stats into consideration.
HOLD THE LINE
Another changing factor that could affect Ebron’s future use is the offensive line. The Steelers have seen an overhaul of their protective front, including retirements, injuries, trades and cuts. With many new faces, this may lead to extra assistance being required in both run and pass protection.
And this is something that could count against Ebron, particularly when it comes to active involvement in run blocking. He rates very poorly in this area, with an especially low rating in helping to create gaps for the runner.
The good news for Ebron in this regard is that the rest of the team also ranked poorly in this area. And this led to a very disappointing season for the Pittsburgh run game. The bad news is that, aside from all the new offensive line components, the Steelers have brought in a rookie Tight End. Step forward, Pat Freiermuth.
THROWING PAT IN THE HAT
Taken in the second round of the 2021 draft, Pat Freiermuth piqued plenty of interest heading into the draft. Often mentioned in the same breath as Kyle Pitts, Freiermuth stood out as a physical specimen during his college career. His ability to break tackles and dominate in a blocking role put him highly on boards for many NFL teams and fantasy drafters.
And this could be further bad news for Ebron. Freiermuth enters the NFL with some similar concerns to the current roster (with 8% of balls dropped in his college career). But, more importantly, the rookie likely offers an upgrade to blocking aspects of the offense. Considering Pittsburgh often deploys three Wide Receiver sets, there may only be space for one on-field Tight End. And, in this time of transition for the offensive line, then this could point to increased usage for the rookie over the veteran.
Camp reports are adding further pressure for Ebron – Freiermuth is impressing coaches in pre-season training. As such, he projects to feature for the offense in some capacity. Which, if allowed to continue, could spell a reduced role for a player who was a top-5 Tight End just a few years ago.
So, if there was a year that Ebron needed to iron out those inefficiencies, this is it.
Dawson Knox – Buffalo Bills
Somebody else who needs to get to grips with their footballs is Dawson Knox. The Tight End has been with Buffalo since being drafted in 2019. So far, he has yet to make any significant impression.
Which, on the surface of it, seems quite confusing. Being on a pass-heavy team with an ascending Quarterback would surely put Knox into a position to excel. But this simply hasn’t been the outcome.
KNOX A SAFE PAIR OF HANDS
It’s not as though Knox has been left out of the offense altogether. As the primary pass-catching Tight End on the roster, he saw a fair share of looks from Josh Allen. 45 targets put him sixth on the list, behind the main Wide Receiver group and Devin Singletary.
And he wasn’t lacking for red-zone targets either. 9 of those 45 targets (20%) came within the opponent’s 20-yard line. And Knox caught 5 of these, which led to his three receiving touchdowns for the season. Sure, a 55% completion percentage doesn’t look out of place in the redzone, where the defenders are compacted together.
But Knox’s completion percentage decreases with counting targets over the whole field – only 53.3% (19 of 36 targets). Two of these completions also led to fumbles on Knox’s behalf. These ended early drives and put Buffalo in difficult defensive positions close to their own line.
3 of those missed completions were also listed as drops by PFF.com – the equivalent of 11.1%, one of the worst percentages in the team. These are a few reasons why the offense didn’t have much faith in Knox outside of that redzone usage.
NOT KNOX? WHO’S THERE?
The Tight End has actively sought to address his on-field situation over the off-season. Reports have circulated that Knox has worked with a vision specialist to help him with hand-eye coordination. And it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Such shortcomings are impossible to ignore. It shows in the stats and on the film.
And this could be why Jacob Hollister has been signed by the team. The former Seattle Seahawk has joined the Tight End group as active competition for the number 1 spot.
Hollister’s stats from 2020 also present an inconsistent season. The Seahawks used him in waves – several games of 5 targets or more, offset by games without targets at all. And then he, much like Knox, had issues with drops. Regular season games saw him drop catches with no pressure several times. He dropped two more in the playoff game against the Rams.
These pivotal moments may have been why the Seahawks were willing to let him go. And so he has gone from a team whose passing focus doesn’t really focus on Tight Ends…to another. While Knox may be breathing a sigh of relief that Zach Ertz hasn’t joined the team (yet?), Hollister still presents a challenge to overcome.
With a passing focus on the Wide Receivers, its very unlikely that the Tight End position will be fantasy relevant this season. However, season development (or an injury to a key receiver) could see Josh Allen resort to using the position as a safety valve.
And, if this is the case, then they better be ready. And camp rumours are reporting a likelihood that Hollister beats Knox for the starting role. So it looks like the pressure is already mounting. If Knox wants to keep his job, then he better show that the practice is working.
Chris Herndon – New York Jets
The situation could be improving at the New York Jets. A new head coach, a new Quarterback, and a new outlook on the team’s fortunes.
However, Chris Herndon is one player that isn’t embracing the change as well as he would like. According to reports, the Tight End is struggling to pick up the playbook in training. Which, when you want to make a good impression for your new coaches, doesn’t bode well.
The veteran isn’t exactly coming off a stellar 2020 season either. While he played in every game last year, Herndon failed to see targets in four of them. He saw less than three targets in 6 of 16 games. Consider the ever-changing state of the Wide Receiver group last season, and Frank Gore at Running Back. When factored in, avoiding the use of a consistently available player is surely not a good sign.
The Jets didn’t avoid using Tight Ends in general. They targeted four players at the position over the year. And so it makes sense that the team keep the position competitive.
Firstly, Tyler Kroft joins after spending two years at Buffalo. The journeyman had only small roles to play at the Bills, but he is no stranger to Tight End volume. The 2017 season had Kroft targeted 59 times by the Bengals, picking up 42 completions for 404 yards and SEVEN touchdowns. Five of these scores came from within the 5-yard line.
This red-zone threat was sorely missed by the Jets in 2020. Only one of the team’s 16 receiving touchdowns came within that 5-yard range. Herndon himself scored three times, but the closest was from 6 yards out. There is a need to vary approaches within that goal-line area, and new staff can offer just that. If Kroft can help address it, then that spells trouble for Herndon.
Secondly, Ryan Griffin has been retained. The veteran has also seen volume seasons in the past, but 2020 was his lowest tally yet. He didn’t score any touchdowns off that limited production, but the year before saw him score 5. And those 2019 touchdowns came from different distances. Which, when you’re looking for a decent attacking outlet, could be very useful.
Thirdly, PFF rated these two Tight Ends rated better in specific blocking areas compared to Herndon. Tyler Kroft ranked far better on pass blocking than Herndon. Griffin ranked better on the run block. Using a rookie Running Back that likes to use outside channels? Picked up a rookie Quarterback who could do with protection to make big throws when chasing a game? It’s important to have those blockers on.
PLAYING SECOND HAMSTRING
Normally, an incumbent player would have the chance to make sure he stays on top. Sadly for Herndon, a hamstring injury has been bothering him. As a result, both Kroft and Griffin have been seeing first-team reps ahead of him. Throw in the pressure around playbook difficulties, and Herndon could end up being a cut candidate as the season draws near!
If you have him on the roster, be prepared to jettison him. Look for somebody else who could make inroads as a TE2, as it’s likely that none of these three players can do that for you at the Jets.
Join me again for other players under pressure.