Home > Research > Tight Ends: Breakout Age and Sustainability

By Seth Woodman

Part I: Age and the Tight End

I offered to do some question answering based on a data set I decided I’d go collect on top ten tight ends over the last fifteen years. Now, the breadth of this research is shallow in comparison to what could be done with this topic, but why don’t we explore the statistical findings I’ve discovered over the last few week? Please, keep in mind that this is not a holistic study in that I didn’t go look up Bubba Franks’ combine scores and how often he was blocking vs. routes run. This is a look at 150 data points and the story they tell from the outside looking in. I will take some time and discuss the current situations and valuations of players I think meet some of the criteria we will discuss, but I will discuss that in the future weeks. Here’s a brief layout of the data I used.

• 150 data points were taken from fftoday.com’s PPR scoring rankings [top ten TEs over the last 15 years].
• For each player I took targets [ten years], games played, receptions, yards, touchdowns, experience, and age.
• I then edited it all in excel to the best of my ability [I’m not promising that this is flawless research].
• I came up with my own questions, plus crowd-sourced from the community and got some great responses about what y’all wanted to know. So, here’s my best shot at some of those…

Age vs. Success

Below you will see a line graph that takes the players’ age on the X axis and the number of times players that age have been top ten performers. Below are things I think you can observe with this graph:
A. The frequency of an age groups’ top ten finishes
B. The range of that age group’s outcomes
C. Where we tend to see the breakout and the decline

Graph 1
Some of the data is left off of this graph [the chances of us having another Tony Gonzalez are slim to none], but for the most part, I think this graph provides an interesting amount of information for fantasy purposes. Based on this chart, the four seasons from ages 24-27 are the peak years for performance, with a noticeable decline at 30. Obviously, the player’s talent level and the talent that surrounds him will make a difference in this category. Tony Gonzalez played until he was 38, producing 14 top ten seasons in the last 15 years, many in his later years were with Matt Ryan at QB and Roddy White and [or] Julio at WR. Antonio Gates has been besties with Phillip Rivers well into his 30s, as has Jason Witten with Romo. These players are the drastic minority over the last fifteen years.

TL;DR: Peak ages from 24-27, with a decline [depending on talent] into the late 20s and flatlined by 31.

Experience vs. Success

The youngest top ten tight end was Aaron Hernandez at 21 in 2011 before he got all murdery. The interesting part about this is that he wasn’t a rookie. The most successful rookie tight end in the last fifteen or so years was Jeremy Shockey. He was actually older than Hernandez by an entire year when he broke out. Even though these discrepancies exist, I figured I’d still graph it and make some observations…

Graph 2

Tight ends’ second, third, and fourth year we see the highest frequencies of top ten finishes. Now, we obviously see a decrease in the frequency of top ten finishers as we go up in number of years played. But, at this point in time you’re probably saying, “Seth, it’s great we know what years they finish top ten and shit, but what about when the breakout?” I’ll push the question even a step further, when do they break out AND what does this say about their STAYING POWER. This is a super important question to understand in that it speaks to the player’s value over a significant amount of time. Why don’t we take a closer look at that?

TL;DR: Check the tl;dr above. Basically the same thing.

Staying Power

There were 150 different opportunities for a player to finish in the top ten over the last fifteen years.

Out of those 150 different opportunities, only 59 different names come up. Of those 59 names, 30 of those players have only appeared in the top ten once [ten of those players are still active, with Travis Kelce, Jordan Cameron, Delanie Walker, and Charles Clay providing the best opportunities of making the list again].

So, that leaves us with 29 players that were able to repeat! Below is a chart with the number for each breakout year that were able to repeat…

The following list of players could have broken out before the first year of data that I have for them…

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