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Fantasy Football: Jimmy Graham, Production Gaps, And Opportunity Cost

It’s no longer a question whether Jimmy Graham is a first-round pick, but is the big tight end worth drafting in the top six picks?

Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Graham as a first round pick is no longer a question in fantasy football circles. The question has become: Should the all-world tight end go in the first half of the first round?

That means, of course, that someone determined to invest in Graham in the first half dozen picks will pass on one of fantasy’s top-3 wide receivers or running backs — any of whom could finish the season as the high scorer at their position.

Drafting a tight end with one of the first six or seven picks of a fantasy draft brings into question the concept of opportunity cost, perhaps the most overlooked piece of the drafting pie. Opportunity cost, as defined by Webster’s, is “the added cost of using resources that is the difference between the actual value resulting from such use and that of an alternative.”

The quick and dirty translation, for fake football purposes: By spending one of the first handful of picks on Graham, you’re losing out on investing in a top-of-the-line running back or wide receiver.

You can still grab a wideout or back in the second round who could catapult himself into the upper echelon of fantasy scorers, but Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, AJ Green, and Demaryius Thomas will all likely be off the board.

The argument for Graham being drafted with the above crowd is that he plainly and simply dominates his position. Only nine receivers caught more than Graham’s 86 receptions in 2013, and only one receiver — Thomas — came within shouting distance of Graham’s 16 touchdowns.

Three hundred and three fantasy points, just a few years ago, was somewhere between laughable and unthinkable for a tight end.

Last year’s unholy production also raises the prospect of regression, and the RotoViz similarity app indicates as much. The app’s median projection for Graham would give him 248 PPR points in 2014, which would still make him TE1, but would fall more than 50 points short of his 2013 numbers. Graham’s best-case scenario, according to the app, would give him 308 fantasy points.

Translation: Every last bit of Graham’s upside has been priced into his valuation, and anything close to that median projection would be a blow to anyone who drafts him in the first round.

I wanted to see just how dominant Graham has been compared to other startable fantasy tight ends (guys who finish the season among the top-12 scorers at that position). It’s hardly a perfect measurement — for various reasons — but I matched Graham’s production against running backs, receivers, and quarterbacks who have finished No. 1 at their respective positions since 2011.

The percentages indicate how much the top scorer at that position outscored the last startable option. For instance, Thomas, fantasy’s top PPR receiver in 2013, outscored Torrey Smith — the No. 24 receiver — by 36.8 percent.

 

Difference between QB1 and QB12 Difference between RB1 and RB24 Difference between WR1 and WR24 Difference between TE1 and TE12
2011 38.8% 52.1% 45.9% 50.6%
2012 24.8% 55.2% 48.1% 37.2%
2013 38.4% 53.9% 36.8% 43.8%

 

The 50.6 percent mark in 2011 was thanks to Rob Gronkowski going bananas and notching 331 PPR points in a campaign that proved magically prolific. Graham was fantasy’s No. 2 tight end that season, falling 38 points short of Gronk’s total.

It’s hard to argue against Graham as a safe Round One investment after seeing that 43.8 percent mark in 2013. That’s a giant gap rivaled only by Megatron’s production gap in his miraculous 2011 and 2012 campaigns, Peterson’s 2012 season, and Charles’ wildly productive 2013.

Even other elite tight ends could even sniff Graham’s 2013 numbers. Jordan Cameron, who outscored all but four tight ends last season, averaged 5.7 fantasy points per game less than Graham. There simply was no single way to replace Graham’s production.

Thankfully, that’s not where the story ends.

Closing the production gap

I suppose you could try to stream any position, but defense, quarterback, and tight end are the only spots that lend themselves to the strategy in 12-team leagues with standard-sized benches.

Streaming tight ends — playing matchups rather than committing to a single guy — has become a more viable option over the past five years as the role of the tight end has changed in most NFL offenses.

Tight ends are running more pass routes and seeing more opportunity than ever. More tight ends had at least one top-12 finish in 2013 than ever before. It all adds up to more opportunity for us to exploit a market inefficiency.

But back to Graham. You could be the world’s foremost tight end streamer and still not approach his 303 fantasy points. You can, however, draft a couple late-round tight ends, work the waiver wire and close the gap. This is anecdotal, so take it for whatever it’s worth, but in one league last season I totaled 205 fantasy points with a conglomeration of Antonio Gates, Delanie Walker, Garrett Graham, Coby Fleener, and Tim Wright.

That streaming total (with guys I got almost for free) fell one point short of fantasy’s No. 6 tight end, Jason Witten, and marked a 32.1 percent decrease in Graham’s high-water mark.

And if you spent a late-round pick on Julius Thomas last August, your tight end production fell just 28.7 percent short of Graham. Thomas, who played 14 games in 2013, was on pace to finish 18.8 percent behind Graham.

Orange Julius won’t come around every season — or every 10 seasons, really — but it’s worth considering the replacability of starting fantasy tight ends before you spend your first pick on Graham.

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