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Raiders among teams that benefited from making TE the top target

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Does how an offense distribute its targets matter that much? For 2019, it mattered a lot when a TE was popular

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

One position I’ve been monitoring closely in free agency is tight end because it seems teams were willing to work a little harder to secure a new one of those than many other players. Why? Well, the draft is certainly one reason because it appears that there won’t be many, if any, starting caliber players coming into the league in 2020.

The Seattle Seahawks snagged Greg Olsen early on. Jimmy Graham somehow didn’t struggle to find a home or get paid well for it. Hunter Henry got the franchise tag from the LA Chargers despite an injury-laden career. Austin Hooper made over $40 million from the Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons gave up a second round pick to replace him with Hayden Hurst, who has only played sparingly with the Baltimore Ravens.

And as you know, the Las Vegas Raiders paid a 38-year-old Jason Witten to pair with Darren Waller. foregoing apparent hope that recent fourth round pick Foster Moreau will return from injury and contribute significantly to the offense next season. Another opportunity to ask “Why?” is coming up and here it is: Why?

Tight end-led offenses dominated 2019 is why.

This morning I looked at how all 32 teams distributed their targets last season. There are many variables I did not account for such as injuries, midseason coaching changes, midseason personnel changes, and so on. There are variables and caveats to consider if you’re asking other questions but I only had a very simple question: How did teams end up distributing their targets in 2019? I looked at the top-10 target-getters for all 32 teams and here’s one interesting nugget I found:

Only five teams were led in targets by a tight end:

The Baltimore Ravens

The Kansas City Chiefs

The Oakland Raiders

The San Francisco 49ers

The Philadelphia Eagles

These five teams finished first, second, seventh, eighth, and 14th in passing offense DVOA per FootballOutsiders. Between these five teams, they won the AFC. Won the NFC. Had the number one seed in the AFC and the number one seed in the NFC. The Eagles won their division without a single receiver of positive note. The only team left out of the postseason was the Raiders, who went 7-9 after Derek Carr threw 117 passes towards Waller, who finished with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns.

Carr also experienced the best statistical season of his career in mainly targeting Waller, who saw 46 more passes go his way than second-place Hunter Renfrow.

We of course have seen the impact being had by Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Mark Andrews, and Zach Ertz. In fact, Philadelphia’s number two in targets was also a tight end, as 87 targets went to Dallas Goedert; prepare yourself to see Goedert make $45 million as a free agent in two years, if the Eagles don’t lock him up before that.

That’s why we saw an early push for Olsen, Witten, and Graham.

Other teams who had a TE who was second in targets did not fare quite as well, but included Hooper with the Falcons (12th in passing efficiency), Jack Doyle with the Indianapolis Colts (Doyle actually tied with Zach Pascal for the most targets on a team that will change exponentially with Philip Rivers as compared to Jacoby Brissett), the Miami Dolphins (who had few talents of note at any position), and the Denver Broncos (likely to increase the workload of Noah Fant beyond that, though Courtland Sutton is probably to retain top billing).

My research also didn’t include total targets to tight ends, but just individual targets, so some teams may have utilized the position more and it’s not showing up on this particular study. However, no team was more active there than the Ravens, who also had tight ends that were fourth and fifth in targets on the offense, and Baltimore finished first in total offense by DVOA, passing offense, and rushing offense.

Only one team was led by a running back in targets: the Carolina Panthers, as you may have suspected. The Panthers ranked 31st in passing DVOA.

And they’ve since lost Olsen.