The tight end position has always been tough to evaluate in fantasy football. Plagued by inconsistency and, with low reception volume, a touchdown can be the difference between an underwhelming week and a successful one. That doesn’t mean that you can’t find value, though, and in this week’s undervalued and overvalued dynasty players, we look at Jonnu Smith and O.J. Howard.
Undervalued: Jonnu Smith is ready to take over
Jonnu Smith has always looked the part of a quality tight end. He’s athletic, he can get open, and he can catch the ball. Sounds perfect, right? Well, unfortunately, he entered the league with Delanie Walker ahead of him. Walker’s age-defying performances have consistently seen him rank among the most productive tight ends in the NFL, and he was showing little sign of slowing.
That looks as if it may no longer be the case, however. Walker is 35 years old and finished the last two seasons on injured reserve, allowing Smith to become the starter at the position. He’s been quick to dismiss talk of retirement, but the days of him spearheading the Titans receiving game look as if they’re in the past.
Dynasty owners aren’t queuing up to acquire pieces of the Titans passing offense. Still, in a previous article, I made clear how things changed once Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Few players were as impressive as Derrick Henry, and he was the clear focal point of the offense. Still, Tannehill showed far more aggression than his predecessor and certainly doesn’t look like a player who will prevent his receivers from scoring fantasy points.
When looking for players whose stock is on the rise, there are specific stats that are crucial. Smith’s targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns have all either improved or remained the same in each of his three seasons in the league.
In standard scoring, Smith was the TE46 as a rookie, TE30 in his second year, and jumped to TE17 last season. That may not have been enough to start for your fantasy team, but the arrow is certainly moving in the right direction.
Smith’s PFN Offensive Share Metric (OSM) grade was the highest of all qualifiers at the position. His grade of 44.32 was 2.71 points higher than second-place Kyle Rudolph, a hugely impressive number given the talent at the position. The per-game sample size was small, with only four of his games reaching the necessary five targets to qualify, but three of those four saw him finish the week with top-six finishes.
Despite his impressive performances, Smith can still be acquired at a discount. I’d rather him than Trey Burton or Chris Herndon, both of whom are regularly being drafted before him. His potential is higher than veterans such as Jack Doyle and Greg Olsen, too. Both have shown consistency, but their days of starting for your team should be in the rearview, so why not look to the future?
Overvalued: O.J. Howard’s situation does him no favors
O.J. Howard is a very talented football player who happens to be in a situation that isn’t conducive to fantasy football success. Unfortunately, the latter is more important than the former.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has never valued the tight end position. The last tight end to reach 500 receiving yards in his offense was Dwayne Allen in 2012. No matter who is the quarterback in 2020, the game plan will be for the offense to run through deep shots to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
But what if one of them misses time? Well, we saw Breshad Perriman become the focus. Even when BOTH Evans and Godwin were out, we didn’t see the increase in productivity with Howard registering just 46 receiving yards in both weeks 15 and 16 before ending the season with a zero target game in week 17.
After the Bucs drafted Howard out of Alabama in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, it was natural to assume that he’d become a big part of the offense and fantasy players naturally flocked to him, given his rare skillset.
Instead, Howard regularly split time with Cameron Brate. Brate is a solid enough player and has undoubtedly developed chemistry with Jameis Winston, but Howard was drafted to be the guy. Perhaps more concerning is the plays where Howard has been taken off the field.
Most young tight ends nowadays would be expected to struggle with the increased blocking responsibilities. They’re asked to do it less in college, and when they do, it’s against much lesser competition than they face in the NFL. But Howard’s a decent blocker. He’s always been a decent blocker, and one of the reasons he was drafted so highly was because he was viewed as a complete tight end. But even the most hardcore fantasy leagues don’t give points for blocking.
He was taken off the field on passing plays because Arians didn’t feel that his route running was good enough. He wasn’t targeted because he wasn’t getting open. That’s a big concern and is backed up by Howard’s OSM grade. While his season grade of 32.49 ranks as very good, it was 28th out of 32 qualifying players. Other players were better at getting open and gaining separation than Howard was.
We’ve seen offenses before with two productive tight ends. The most prominent example was the New England Patriots with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both among the top scorers at the position. In a promising rookie season, Howard finished as the TE17 in standard scoring while Brate was TE8. 2018 was a breakout season for Howard, who finishes as the TE10 while Brate was TE18. It looked as if things would be even better before an injury ended Howard’s season prematurely after just ten games, although he still finished the season as the TE5 in points per game.
All eyes were on Howard to play a big part in the Bucs’ high-powered offense, and the expectation was that he’d be the best option at tight end in their passing game. Unfortunately, he never got going, despite playing 14 games this season. Howard finished the year as the TE31, with fewer points than not only Brate (TE24) but also players such as Jordan Akins and Blake Jarwin.
It’s certainly not impossible that Howard has a useful fantasy season in 2020. The one touchdown that he scored in 2019 was the lowest of his career so far, having scored six as a rookie and five in 2018. That should increase again and will be good news for dynasty owners.
His yards per reception and yards per target look less like anomalies, though. After having had 16.6 yards per catch in both of his first two seasons, that number dropped to 13.5 last season. After two seasons of having over 11 yards per target, that number also plummeted, finishing the year on 8.7. He wasn’t relied on to produce big plays like he was in previous seasons.
Howard’s value has dropped in the last year, but if you’re buying him, then you’re probably doing so with the assumption that he becomes a top tight end for the foreseeable future. That’s a big gamble for a player in an offense that doesn’t seem to value him. Maybe he gets traded. Teams are sure to be interested. But if not, then dynasty owners need to be prepared for a disappointing couple of years in Tampa Bay.
Come back soon for the sixth installment of the overvalued and undervalued dynasty players in 2020 by Andy Gallagher.