The narrative for a rookie quarterback is that usually, a tight end is their best friend. The thought is that rookie quarterbacks will have a more significant target share in the tight end position. These young players find comfort in the short area of the field in which a tight end will be running routes.
In this article, I will see if this suggests the situation is actual. I’ve dove back 20 years in looking at each rookie quarterback who started at a minimum of eight games and see if the tight position had a more prominent target share than the norm. I’m using the average target share data based on Fantasy Pros’ target share from 2013 to 2022. In the last ten years, the average target share to a tight end has been 20.82%.
If we look at some overall stats pulled from my research.
- There have been 52 rookie quarterbacks to play eight-plus games during their rookie season.
- 23 rookies were above the average target share for a tight-end
- You could go up to 35 rookies who reached at least 18% target share.
- Of those 23 rookies, 11 of them played less than 12 games
- 15 of them threw for less than 400 passing attempts
- Twenty of them targeted the tight-end position at least 80 times.
As I said, I researched data over 20 years to find as many rookie quarterbacks as possible. Let’s break it down by decades and dive into the 2000s. From 2003 to 2009, 13 quarterbacks played as least eight games in their rookie season. The average target share for a tight-end was 20.86%, slightly above the average we are comparing. Seven quarterbacks exceeded that number by a high margin, making the tight end a focus point in the offense. Some of these names you may remember are Todd Heap, Brandon Pettigrew, and Kellen Winslow, who were solid tight ends during their times. These individuals would have many robust tight end seasons and explain why a rookie quarterback would throw their way. Other tight ends in that grouping were lesser known but benefited from rookie quarterbacks like Robert Royal, Bo Scaife, Alex Smith & Dustin Keller.
I also looked at if these tight ends were at the top in targets for a tight end for their year. Just twice in that time frame did a rookie quarterback have his tight end as a top-12 targeted tight-end in a given year. Mark Sanchez and Kyle Boller contributed to help their tight-end finish a season in the top 12 of targets. I also looked at tight-ends if they had career highs, and only two fit that category. I looked at passing attempts, and only the quarterbacks with high target shares did not throw over 400 passing attempts. At the same time, those who had a higher target share would also need at least 60 targets to beat the average.
The norm back in the day was that rookie quarterbacks usually sat and eventually would go on to start after the first month of the season. All but two of those seven rookie quarterbacks who had a bigger target share to a tight end started less than 12 games that season. This states the early question, does a rookie not getting more work with the starters in his first offseason lead to more targets for the tight end? We’ve seen quarterbacks in this era get the week-one start and have a lower target share than tight ends. Players like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Kyle Orton have lower output to tight ends than most in this era.
In the 2010s, we saw a boost in target share to tight ends from 20.86% to 21.39%. Much of that increase is thanks to the 2010 and 2011 draft classes, with six rookie quarterbacks who finished with a high target share to their tight ends. Of the 30 rookie quarterbacks who played over eight games, 40% finished higher than the 20.82% target share to the tight ends. Some like Jason Witton, Zach Ertz, Kellen Winslow, Ben Watson, Delanie Walker, Greg Olsen, and Charles Clay were great tight ends to throw to. It states that having an elite tight end does help a rookie but also focuses them on throwing that direction anyway. This era features fewer no-name tight ends than some you may have yet to hear of: Tim Wright, Scott Chandler, Zach Miller, and Visanthe Shiancoe.
I looked at games played to see if that had an effect on the stats in this era, but it has a different level than the 2000s. Four of the twelve rookies with high tight-end target shares played less than twelve games during their rookie season. The notion that playing fewer games doesn’t fit the mold as it did in the 2000s. The tight end in the 2010s started getting traction in producing fantasy football. Passing attempts numbers were all over the place, as only five rookies did not finish with 400 attempts.
Another interesting statistic is that five tight ends during that period finished in the top 12 in targets. The rookie quarterbacks helped many tight ends reach career highs during the 2010s, as 12 tight ends had their best season with a rookie. It also seems more and more that if a tight-end group sees that higher target share, then the quarterbacks need to throw at least 80 targets to the position. The 2010s reveal that a rookie’s best friend can be the tight end.
Since 2020, nine rookie quarterbacks have played eight or more games during their rookie season. Four of those nine rookies have produced over the average target share to their tight ends. Of those four rookies, only two played under the 12-game mark, which stands at 50% currently. Three of those four rookies have finished with under 400 attempts in a season. Other numbers show that four tight-ends have finished in the top 12 in targets over the last three seasons. Five tight ends have had career highs in targets since 2020 too. Over the decades, one thing that seems consistent is that the tight end position needs 80-plus targets to reach the average share.
2020’s target average is below the historical average of 20.82%. I firmly believe that number will get back over the median average as tight ends are becoming more involved in the offense. Tight ends are getting more athletic and aren’t staying in that natural inline position to block. Tight ends are increasingly being used in the slot, and we have teams that use them as a focal point of an offense. In just three seasons of the new era, we’ve seen tight-end become one of the top targets among pass catchers and tight ends reaching career highs. These tight ends include young Cole Kmet, Pat Friermuth, Mike Gesicki, and Hunter Henry.
Is the rookie quarterback’s best friend a tight end? I think the simple answer is no. Based on the data, less than 50% of all the rookie quarterbacks in the last 20 twenty exceed the average target share to tight ends. We can’t just base everything off numbers because the NFL has evolved. The tight-end position has become more athletic and is used outside the traditional inline position. The 2010s showed growth in the target share, and I believe by the end of the 2020s, the average could increase to surpass the 2010s average. The norm of saying that a rookie quarterback favors a tight end is more of a folk tale told around the league. How the NFL has changed: that folk tale could become real over the next decade.
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