For Value at TE, Look No Further Than Ian Thomas

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Malcolm McMillan (@McLateralFF)
The Lateral Writer

Let us be honest, TE is a tricky position in Fantasy Football. Maybe the most tricky to get right in a draft. Well, except for Kicker and DST, which can be summed up with, "Did you get a top one? No? Enjoy streaming."

RB and WR have a large pool to choose from, with potentially multiple players from the same team. Aside from Philadelphia, no team provides you with two TEs that you could reasonably draft in 2020. At RB, maybe you did not get Nick Chubb, but Kareem Hunt is still pretty good! Or perhaps some Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay? Maybe not both starters, but Lindsay should manage to stay relevant as a FLEX. That is without even getting into how deep WR is, where many teams have two relevant starters, and the Dallas Cowboys may even have three WRs that could be started as a WR/FLEX this year.

QB has a similar shallow pool of talent, but QBs always touch the ball. Unless it is a gimmicky play, the play starts when that ball hits the QBs hands. This provides opportunity for every play to result in points. TEs have to rely on the QB getting them the ball. The numbers back this up as well; QB24 (Derek Carr) in PPG last year was still getting you almost 16 points, and he was on your bench in case of emergency. TE12 last year in PPG (Dallas Goedert) was not even hitting double digits.

So finding that sleeper TE can be huge for a fantasy manager. Sure Travis Kelce is going to be amazing, and by no means does drafting him means you've suddenly lost your league. But what about Hayden Hurst?

Hurst's current ADP is TE8, and if you take him, you could be giving up on Jordan Howard (going just ahead of Hurst on average), who provides great bench depth and FLEX potential with RB2 upside, or you give up on Tyler Boyd, who finished WR18 last season (going four spots behind Hurst on average). Sure, Hurst could pick up where Hooper left off and finish TE6 in 2020, or he could be the rookie that struggled to break through in Baltimore (for the record, I expect the former). For comparison, in 2019 TE8 for ADP was Vance MacDonald, and if you took him, you were maybe passing on Allen Robinson II or Kenyan Drake. Yikes!

The point is, once you get outside the sure things, TE gets murky, and value is important. Case-and-point, Darren Waller last year was being drafted as TE18, costing you the chance of drafting... Ty Montomgery. That is so much better than missing out on Allen Robinson II. While Waller came with some issues, namely a journeyman career that had him coming to Oakland from the Raven's practice squad, he also had a QB that cannot throw the ball far, a team with a questionable WR corps at least, and zero competition at the position. Was there risk? Absolutely. But taking that risk gave fantasy players a huge advantage, by maximizing their value at each draft pick.

Ian Thomas is a Great Value TE to Target in 2020 for Top-12 Upside

Argument 1: Zero Competition

Temarrick Hemingway, Chris Manhertz, Giovanni Ricci, Colin Thompson.

Do any of those names sound familiar? No? Perhaps because they have 2 combined receptions in the NFL? Well that is good news for Ian Thomas, because that is his competition at the TE position this year.

Seriously, of all the arguments, this is the easiest one to make. Ian Thomas will not have any competition for targets in 2020. Will one of those TEs maybe get the odd target? Sure. Even Arizona, a pretty awful team when it comes to TE usage, managed to get a reception for Darrell Daniels in 2019.

Additionally, there is a floor to the TE position. It would be amazing if Ian Thomas could simply inherit the 5.86 targets per game (TPG) from Greg Olsen, and even more amazing if that was added to Thomas' own 1.88 TPG from 2019. That would put him slightly ahead of George Kittle for TPG. Unfortunately, given the coaching reboot in Carolina, there is just no way to reasonably assume that will be the case. The good news, is that a starting TE is looking at ~4 TPG no matter who they are. Even the awful Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Brown TEs were getting 2.5+ TPG, and those teams basically forgot the position existed.

Is that a great floor? No. But it is a distinct floor that is not far off of a usable floor. Take Dan Arnold from Arizona as an example, once he finally started in Week 17, he got 6 targets, well above his 2.5 TPG. That same week, fellow TE Maxx Williams got an additional 2 targets. The week before? The Arizona TEs combined for 6 targets. Even for a poor TE corps struggling to find a starter and with low usage, they still were forced to throw to the TE.

While this alone is not enough to recommend Thomas, it does highlight the opportunity of being the lone TE on even a low TE-usage offense.

Argument 2: Teddy Bridgewater

Luckily for Ian Thomas, there is evidence to suggest he will not be in a low TE-usage offense. To be fair, there is also evidence to the contrary, but that will be covered in "The Counterarguments."

Teddy Bridgewater is going to be the starting QB in Carolina this year, and ultimately he will make the decision on who gets the ball. While Matt Rhule or Joe Brady may call the play, Bridgewater will have the ultimate decision making to audible, check-down, etc.

Which is good news for Ian Thomas! While there is not a ton of data on Bridgewater due to some horrific injuries, we have a solid sample size from 2014 and 2015 in Minnesota as a starter, and 2019 when he was the backup to Drew Brees and started 5 of 16 games.

2014 was a bit rough, and Kyle Rudolph had the worst season of his entire career with Bridgewater under center. Luckily, things got much better in 2015, and Kyle Rudolph finished TE15 in PPR, basically 2.2 points off of TE13. Keep in mind, the argument here is that Ian Thomas will have Top-12 upside, not that he will be Travis Kelce, so TE15 is not far from that Top-12 goal. Just as important though, was that Rudolph led all receivers from the 2015 Minnesota in TDs, and was only behind Stefon Diggs for targets, receptions, and yards. Ian Thomas filling that role on the 2020 pant

Then in 2019, Bridgewater was one of the two QBs that contributed to Jared Cook's TE7 season. While they only played 5 games together, during that time Cook averaged 4.8 TPG, which was actually above the 4.64 TPG he averaged over the 14 games he played in 2019. TD rates were about the same regardless of QB for Cook, so that also bodes well for Thomas, since Cook was fairly TD dependent. Between Rudolph in 2015 and Cook in 2019, evidence suggests that Bridgewater does not have an aversion to throwing to the TE in the end zone.

Finally, while there are a ton of talented WRs on Carolina, Teddy Bridgewater just does not throw the ball downfield. He makes short calculated passes with a high probability of success, which has translated to an above average completion percentage and a low interception rate. In fact, over 2 years as a backup in New Orleans (6 games started), he had a completion percentage of 67.1% with a interception rate of only 1.4%. More importantly though, he had an extraordinarily low intended air yards per attempt of 6.2 yards per attempt, a full 0.2 yards less than Drew Brees, who finished 32nd of 32 qualified QBs. Worth noting as the bottom three qualified QBs all were on teams with Top-7 TEs. While I do not expect Thomas to rise that high, it bodes well that he has a QB suited for TE success.

Argument 3: ADP Value

The beauty of targeting Ian Thomas in redraft, is that not really anyone else will. He is going TE21 in standard, TE26 in PPR, and TE25 in Half-PPR, which makes sense given the expectation reasonably, is around 4-5 TPG for Ian Thomas. I have it a bit higher personally because I think they are going to be forced to rely on Christian McCaffrey, Thomas, and DJ Moore due to Bridgewater's inability to air it out, but reasonably, 4-5 TPG is achievable, and that boosts his value in standard scoring compared to PPR.

Regardless, this means in your typical 12-person league, you do not even have to draft him. You could wait a week and see if this is doomed to fail. If like myself you see the data and think he is a borderline starter, use a very late round pick on him instead of Noah Fant, who is going at ADP 11.03, a spot where instead you could draft key pieces such as the Buffalo Bills DST, Justin Jefferson, Sterling Shepard or Bryce Love. While not show stoppers, all of those pieces would provide value to most rosters. Ian Thomas could be grabbed in Round 15, and provide a nice return on investment by the end of 2020.

The Counterarguments

The counterarguments for Ian Thomas are mostly that we do not know much about him, and we know even less about what Matt Rhule and Joe Brady are going to do in Carolina. If it was the return of Ron Rivera, it would be pretty easy to slot in Thomas as a slight downgrade from a healthy Greg Olsen (if that, given Olsen's age), and project him pretty easily as a Top-12 TE, maybe even Top-10 given the lack of competition.

First, the good. While we do not have a huge sample size on Ian Thomas, he has had some flashes in his career so far, especially Week 14 at Atlanta last year, where he brought in 5 receptions for 57 yards and a TD (good for 16.7 points in PPR). Additionally, Head Coach Matt Rhule has stated publicly that this is Ian Thomas' opportunity, and main competition Chris Manhertz is seen as a blocking TE.

Now, the bad news. Matt Rhule and Joe Brady come from a college background, and while Thaddeus Moss was good enough as Brady's TE at LSU in 2019 to generate interest from NFL teams, many college teams ignore the position. Matt Rhule certainly never made it a focus during his time at Baylor. Thomas even hit on this concern when talking to the media, saying that the team is still figuring out how to best utilize the position. If they continue to struggle with this, Thomas could be left looking like Dan Arnold last year, who took until the end of the season to finally break out at all, once former college coach Kliff Kingsbury figured out throwing to the TE could have some benefits.

The Reality

Let us be clear, this article is not to try and get someone to draft Ian Thomas instead of Travis Kelce. This article is about finding value at TE, and that is exactly what Ian Thomas provides. For essentially nothing, he can provide fantasy managers can pick up a TE with Top-12 upside, which is good enough to be a starter. 

There are other players who could provide similar value, such as Chris Herndon, Blake Jarwin, and Jonnu Smith, but all have question marks and none are as cheap as Thomas. Combined with the fact that despite being filled with speedy WRs, this team is designed to be strongest in short yardage situations by putting Bridgewater under center, Ian Thomas should have all the pieces in place to take advantage of this opportunity to seize Olsen's mantle in Carolina.

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