If you play fantasy football, you’ve likely noticed that the tight end position is awful this season. It’s really bad. There’s a reason everyone ran out and grabbed Taysom Hill last week for his fleeting Tight End eligibility in ESPN leagues, and he was a huge difference-maker for everyone. The glory days of Gronk/Graham/Gonzalez/Gates are long since over, and with George Kittle out, the only truly great tight end playing right now is Travis Kelce.
Kelce leads Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric by 114 yards, while putting up an impressive 32.8% DVOA, good for 6th. That kind of efficiency with Kelce’s volume is very impressive, and the margin of his lead proves just how dominant he is. The tight end ranking 2nd in DYAR, 114 yards behind Kelce, is Robert Tonyan. Tonyan is also first in DVOA.
The first round of Pro Bowl votes were released this week and the tight end position immediately stuck out to me as the leading vote-getter in the NFC is Detroit’s TJ Hockenson. I don’t expect voters to vote based on DVOA, where he ranks 18th, or DYAR, where he ranks 14th, but he’s not exactly dominating the normal stats either. Among tight ends with at least 30 receptions (and by the way, the position is so bad that there are only 16 of them), Hockenson is 5th in yards per target (Tonyan is first), 8th in yards per reception, 5th in touchdowns, and 6th in catch percentage.
In fairness to Hockenson, the NFC is especially bad this season, and in many of these categories he does rank 2nd in the NFC, but always behind Tonyan. Where Hock gets over on Tonyan is counting stats. He has more catches (40 - 32) and as a result, more yards (441-391). In fact, his catch and yard numbers lead the NFC by a hair over Dalton Schultz of the Cowboys (39 catches, 408 yards), but deciding who the best tight end is based on these metrics is especially ridiculous this year. The top contenders, including Tonyan, are close enough for it not to matter, and in any case Tonyan leads the NFC with 6 touchdowns, compared to just 5 for Hock. The NFC is bad, but on a play-to-play basis, no one has been even close to Tonyan.
But how good is Tonyan’s season so far historically? His rate stats may be impressive, but is that just a result of the general poorness of tight ends? His rate stats are outstanding for any season, but his counting stats will continue to bring some skepticism unless he has one or two additional big yardage games. If we prorate his stats for 16 games (always a dangerous activity that I do not recommend) he is on pace for 51 catches, 626 yards, and 10 TDs. That’s not bad, and given how few great tight ends the Packers have had, it may turn out to be a pretty special season overall.
Big Bob Rules
Target numbers only go back to 1992, but Tonyan’s yards per target mark is currently the best in franchise history by a ton (10.57 to Jermichael Finley’s 9.39), and no Packer tight end with at least 30 catches has come anywhere near his 86.5% catch percentage. Second is Donald Lee, who accomplished his 78% rate by only picking up just 7.7 yards per reception. When we look at counting stats it gets even more interesting. If Tonyan stays on pace, his 626 yards would rank 11th in Packer history. His 51 catches would rank 12th. And his 10 touchdowns would be tied for second with Keith Jackson, just behind Paul Coffman’s 11.
Outside of touchdowns he isn’t going to blow anyone away, but he’s also close enough that a big game or two could send him rocketing up the Packer single season charts. Coffman and Jermichael Finley dominate the single season franchise yardage totals, and between them, they have all three seasons exceeding 700 yards. The thing is, Tonyan shouldn’t be that far from cracking 700 yards when it’s all said and done. He probably won’t catch Coffman’s franchise-leading 814, not by a long shot, but it’s entirely conceivable that he could get close to Mark Chmura’s 679, 5th in franchise history. Finley also holds the record for receptions by a tight end in a season with 61, just 10 ahead of Tonyan’s projected total. Even adding 5 receptions above his projected total would put him at 3rd all time, tied with Coffman.
Tonyan’s season may not stick out like a vintage Gronkowski year, when we knew we were looking at greatness, and it’s possible that his rate stats regress down a bit versus his counting stats ticking up. But I don’t think anyone has benefited more from Matt LaFleur’s system than Tonyan, and it’s worth remembering that he was dealing with ankle injury for several weeks. As he gets healthier, he may threaten some of these team records. If he gets himself in the ballpark on counting stats and maintains his truly elite rate stats, this could be a secretly great year for him. Don’t be surprised if you look up at the end of the season to find that Tonyan was the NFC’s best tight end (as he is right now) and maybe even an all-time Packer great.