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Gary Kubiak: Tight End Whisperer

Gary Kubiak’s arrival in Baltimore can only mean good things for Dennis Pitta’s fantasy football value in 2014.

Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta.
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta.

Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta. Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy footballers’ ears should perk up in unison when Gary Kubiak talks about tight ends.

Baltimore Ravens’ tight end Dennis Pitta is only two seasons removed from posting top-7 fantasy numbers with limited opportunity. He now has Kubiak, the molder of elite fantasy tight end production, as his offensive coordinator.

The Cars wrote a song for this coach-tight end union.

It was in 2012 that Pitta, a top-4 fantasy tight end over the season’s second half, posted brutally efficient numbers while essentially sharing a role with Anquan Boldin. Pitta and Boldin often occupied the same spot on the field: over the middle, finding soft spots in coverage.

The tight end and receiver alternated big games during the 2012 campaign, never posting respectable stat lines in the same contest. It was altogether infuriating and expected.

Kubiak may very well be to tight ends what Marc Trestman is to pass-catching running backs: a genius, a savant, a fantasy god among men. A god with perpetually gelled hair.

Pitta, who missed 13 games last season after suffering a horrific training camp hip injury — one that John Harbaugh said was common in the worst kind of car accidents — gets an undeniable fantasy boost from Kubiak’s presence at the head of Baltimore’s offense.

Pitta, in fact, was one of the first players Kubiak talked about Jan. 27 after getting the Ravens’ offensive coordinator gig.

Kubiak, for the record, served as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator from 1995-2005 before taking over as the Texans’ head coach from 2006-2013.

“I remember studying Dennis, and I’m very impressed with him as a player,” Kubiak said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. “I know he went through a tough year this year with getting injured, but that position has always been a big part of our offense. I’m sure it won’t be any different.”

The good news doesn’t stop there: Kubiak is reportedly bringing Wade Harman, Shannon Sharpe’s tight end coach in Denver, with him to Charm City. I should mention that Pitta is a free agent, though it seems clear the Ravens are willing to pay for his services, or slap him with the franchise tag.

Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this Pitta-Kubiak marriage in fantasy football heaven is the emotionless coordinator’s history of tight end usage in the red zone. Texans’ tight ends accounted for an astounding 40.8 percent of all touchdowns inside the 10-yard line during Kubiak’s time in Houston, per XN Sports fantasy writer Rich Hribar.

That’s hardly an anomaly. Tight ends scored 40 percent of touchdowns inside the 10-yard line while Kubiak headed the Denver offense too. This, as Hribar pointed out, has the distinct smell of a trend. Take a whiff.

Some of the biggest fantasy outputs from Kubiak tight ends came during seasons in which the role was shared thanks to injury or other mitigating factors. I thought it’d be helpful to examine seasons that saw Kubiak highlight a single tight end, as he’s likely to do with Pitta.

Year Player Receptions Yards Touchdowns
1995 Shannon Sharpe 63 756 4
1996 Sharpe 80 1,063 10
1997 Sharpe 72 1,107 3
1998 Sharpe 64 768 10
2003 Sharpe 62 770 8
2007 Owen Daniels 63 768 3
2008 Daniels 70 862 2
2010 Daniels 74 989 6

Kubiak has spoken glowingly of big, athletic tight ends’ versatility and their ability to create consistent mismatches for linebackers too slow to keep up and safeties and cornerbacks too small to go one on one. Pitta, at 6-foot-4, 248 pounds, and a 4.68 40-time, fits that mold.

You’ll notice gaps in the above chart of Kubiak tight ends. About half of his seasons in Denver and Houston saw the tight end role split in two — sometimes three — as starters succumbed to injury and timeshares took hold among backup tight ends.

Here’s a look at tight end productions during those slightly messier seasons.

Year Players Receptions Yards Touchdowns
2000 Dwayne Carswell/Desmond Clark 76 834 6
2001 Clark/Carswell 85 865 10
2002 Sharpe/Carswell 82 875 4
2009 Daniels/Joel Dreessen/David Andersen 84 1,209 6
2010 Daniels/Dreessen 74 989 6
2011 Daniels/Dreessen 82 1,030 9
2012 Daniels/Garrett Graham 90 979 9
2013 Daniels/Graham 73 797 8

Almost nothing in Kubiak’s tight end track record suggests Pitta will absorb every ounce of fantasy production in the Ravens’ new offense. Another tight end, whether it’s the unimpressive Ed Dickson or someone else, will take some of Pitta’s opportunities if Kubiak sticks to his 18-year script.

We’d do well to remember that Pitta was a top tight end option in 2012 despite an almost alarming lack of pass routes. Fifteen tight ends ran more routes than Pitta that season. Ben Watson ran just 20 fewer than Pitta.

Pitta’s fantasy points per route run (FPPRR) was a hefty .28 that season — well above the mark that indicates efficiency among tight ends. Only three tight ends — Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Heath Miller — had higher FPPRR in 2012.

That efficiency took a nose dive in Pitta’s four 2013 contests as the Ravens eased him in to the offense in all but his first game back from a career-threatening injury, inexplicably.

We’re going to see fantasy owners react in one of two ways to Pitta’s fantasy prospects in 2014: They’re going to ease away from the tight end, or they’re going to flee as fast as their feet will take them.

I’m convinced Pitta will be a value in all but the most obsessive fantasy circles next season. He has Kubiak, the tight end whisperer, calling the shots now. Listen to the whisper.

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