The final installment of the regression series focuses on tight ends, and this is a difficult exercise. That's because touchdowns are by far the most likely place to find regression but it's also the thing that separates most non-elite tight ends.
For example, Trey Burton caught 54 passes for 569 yards. Jimmy Graham caught 55 passes for 636 yards. Burton finished as the No. 6 tight end in non-PPR because he scored six touchdowns. Graham scored twice and finished as the No. 14 tight end.
Of course, if we're talking about touchdown regression we should probably start with the poster boy.
We all know Eric Ebron isn't going to score 14 touchdowns again, right? Let's start with how bad it should be. Then we'll get in to how bad it could be.
In four years in Detroit, Ebron caught a touchdown once every 26 targets. His best rate was in 2015 when he scored once every 14 targets. Last year he scored once every 8.5 targets. If you split the difference between his average in Detroit and his best in Detroit you would expect 5.5 touchdowns at last year's target rate. If he'd scored six touchdowns last year he still would have been the No. 6 tight end in PPR, between Jared Cook and Austin Hooper.
The problem with that math is that Ebron's target pace when Jack Doyle was healthy was much worse. Ebron was on pace for fewer than 75 targets and 500 receiving yards. Plus, the Colts added Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell in the offseason.
The absolute highest you should draft Ebron is as the No. 8 tight end and even that feels like a bad idea.
One difficulty with this position is that a majority of the regression candidates will still be good. One of them should still be great, George Kittle. In fact, Kittle is my favorite type of regression candidate because he could have regression pulling him in opposite directions.
Kittle set the record last year for tight end receiving yards thanks to some massive plays and a receiving average of 15.6 yards per catch. He had two plays of more than 80 yards and 378 of his yards came on six plays. I expect all of those numbers to shrink and project Kittle for 1,146 yards in 2019. How much that matters will depend on his touchdowns.
Even with all those big plays Kittle scored just five touchdowns on 136 targets. That seems...abnormal. Now, his touchdown rate was not good his rookie year either, and San Francisco could be run-heavy in the red zone, but I'd still expect his touchdown regression will help cover some of his lost yardage.
One thing we see with wildly efficient players is that their efficiency usually decreases when they get more volume. It will be interesting to see how true that is for O.J. Howard. Through two seasons he's been the most efficient tight end of all-time, averaging 11.5 yards per target and scoring once every eight targets. The only reason he's not already a star is that he's received less than four targets per game.
We expect that to change in 2019.
If Howard received 100 targets this year and matched his career efficiency, I'd expect him to outperform Kittle and Zach Ertz in non-PPR. But that's not really a fair expectation. Howard's yards per reception will likely fall below 15 (but still be elite) and his touchdown rate could be halved.
As I mentioned with Kittle, there's plenty of room for regression that helps scoring at tight end. Evan Engram took a step forward last year in terms of catch rate (70.3%) and yards per target (9.0) but that was masked because an injury cost him five games and he only scored once every 21 targets. With Odell Beckham gone, we all expect an increase in targets for Engram, and he's the safest bet to finish in the top five outside of the big three. If Engram's touchdown rate improves as well? He could be a star.
Others to consider: Zach Ertz set career highs with 156 targets and 116 receptions. With the addition of DeSean Jackson and the development of Dallas Goedert, I would expect slight regression in both those numbers. I already mentioned Graham, but he might be a sneaky sleeper if he matches last year's involvement and scores at a normal rate. Jordan Reed is one of my favorite sleepers and looks to be fully healthy entering camp. His yards per target (6.6) and touchdown rate (2.4%) were both well below his career marks. Expect those to regress and Reed to be a top-10 tight end when he's healthy.