George Kittle came into the 2018 NFL season and racked up more yards than any tight end ever has. In fact, Kittle hauled in 149 of his record-setting 1,377 receiving yards in Week 17 to break Travis Kelce’s record of 1,336 yards, which stood for about an hour. But ever since the Niners tight end broke out on the scene last year, fantasy football owners have been wondering which tight end will step up and be this year’s George Kittle!
If you remember way back to the 2018 fantasy football draft season (I know it feels like decades ago!), Kittle was a young tight end with hype until he separated his shoulder in early August. Because his status at the start of the season was up in the air, Kittle started to fall to the back end of the starting tight ends. That is what I have sought out to find: which tight end going in the back-half of tight ends can end up breaking out and finishing as a Top-5 tight end or higher. That means as much as I may love O.J. Howard and Hunter Henry (and you can add Evan Engram in as well), they do not qualify to be this years Kittle, as they are being drafted too high. If you want to read more about those guys though, I wrote months ago about how high I am on them and nothing has changed!
To find this year’s Kittle, we need to identify a tight end that has the opportunity at a large portion of a team’s target share. In 2018, George Kittle had a 26.4 percent target share with the Niners, the second-highest of all tight ends, according to Player Profiler. We also know the tight end needs to be a great athlete, as they will need to gain yards after the catch in order to approach 1,000 yards, let alone eclipse it. In 2018 there were only five tight ends that surpassed 700 receiving yards. There were also only five that saw over 100 targets, while only 10 saw more than 80 targets. Pickings may seem slim at the tight end position, but if you miss out on any of the top options, there is certainly still a name to target.
Finding This Year’s George Kittle
There was one name that I kept coming back to when searching for this year’s George Kittle and that was Pittsburgh Steelers Tight End Vance McDonald.
McDonald has the opportunity to see a ton of targets this season. First, he already saw 72 last year, which put him tied with Gronk for the 12th most among tight ends. That was with Antonio Brown and Jesse James on the roster. Brown had a whopping 168 targets and James had 39, respectively. That alone leaves 207 targets up for grabs and while Donte Moncrief and James Washington will see a good amount of those, if even an additional 30 go McDonald’s way, that will put him in the elite company with tight ends.
In 2018, the Top 5 tight ends in PPR were the five that saw 100+ targets. Additionally, of the Top 10 PPR tight ends, only two had fewer than 80 targets: Trey Burton (76) and McDonald, who finished as the TE10. Over the past three seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 7.2 passes per game to his tight ends. If they all went McDonald’s way he would see 115.2 targets in 2019. While there is no Jesse James taking targets away, and McDonald should dominate the targets, he will not exclusively see all the tight end targets. But he doesn’t have too!
The Steelers threw the ball 687 times last season, but have averaged 623 pass attempts per season over the last three years. If they were to throw that many times this year, McDonald would need to see a 16 percent target share this season. Not sold that they will even throw that much this season? If they were to throw 580 times this season, he would need to see a 17.2 percent target share. McDonald saw an 11.5 percent target share in 2018. However, the room for growth is very much so there.
Brown had a 26.7 percent target share in 2018. JuJu Smith-Schuster already had a 24.5 percent target share in 2018 and while that should be expected to grow, but even if say it gets to 30 percent of the targets, that is leaving 70 percent to be split between mostly McDonald, Washington, Moncrief and the RBs, with some others sprinkled in. It seems like a pretty safe bet that McDonald will see a five percent growth in target share this season. Even if you are not fully sold, know that if he averages six targets per game that would equate to 96 targets, which is just under the targeted threshold. The opportunity for McDonald to get the necessary volume to be this year’s Kittle is very much so there.
Volume is just one requirement for being a breakout tight end. The other was being a great athlete who can create yards with the ball in their hands. That bodes very well for McDonald. He may not be the same elite level of athlete as Kittle, but he is great after the catch. Of all tight ends in 2018, Kittle led them by averaging 9.9 yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R). That was the most of all tight ends. What does that mean? It means no tight end picked up more YAC on average than Kittle.
It also means he is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hand. In fact, only three tight ends averaged over 7.0 YAC/R in 2018. Second was Evan Engram at 8.6, followed by McDonald, who averaged 7.7 YAC/R. Additionally, Kittle finished with nine missed tackles, the second-most among tight ends, and two ahead of Travis Kelce. But both of the elites trailed McDonald, who had 10 broken tackles, on significantly fewer touches. McDonald checks off both boxes in a major way.
The Path To Being This Year’s George Kittle
McDonald actually outperformed Kittle in some aspects in 2018. He finished with a 69.44 percent catch rate, which beat Kittle’s rate of 64.71 percent. Let’s say he finishes with 100 targets flat this season. If his catch rate remains around the same that will lead to 65 receptions in 2018, which would have been the seventh-most by a tight end in 2018. If he sticks to around his career average of 13 yards per reception that puts him at 845 receiving yards. Knowing how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands, you could even see him outperform those results.
Additionally, those results are more realistic than they are the ceiling. Kittle did not have an average season in 2018, he hit his ceiling, or at least close to it! If McDonald was to see 120 targets in 2019 that would look something like this: 78 receptions, 975 receiving yards. He has the opportunity to perhaps see even more targets, as he could be the one to step up as the secondary option behind JuJu.
Additionally, I have not even spoken about the end zone targets that are up for grabs. Last season, McDonald was third on the Steelers with seven end zone targets. That tailed JuJu (14) and Brown (22). With those 22 end zone targets up for grabs, you have to think Smith-Schuster sees around 20-22 this season. But that could lead to McDonald seeing 10-plus, as the belief has to be Brown’s massive amount of end zone targets gets spread around the team, rather than getting dominated by one other receiver. McDonald finished with four touchdowns last year on just 72 targets. If he is given an extra 30, with a few of those being in the end zone, he has the ability to up his touchdown total anywhere between 6-8, realistically.
If you miss out on any of the top six tight ends, you should instantly start to target Vance McDonald. He comes with a safe floor and he has the upside to break out at the position, much like Kittle did a year ago.
Who is your pick to be this year’s George Kittle? Hit me up on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio.
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Michael Florio is the winner of the 2018 FSWA Baseball Article of the Year and was a finalist for the 2017 Fantasy Football Writer of the Year. He has hosted video/radio shows, written for a number of print and web publications including the AP, NY Daily News and much more!
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