Delanie Walker Is Flying Under the Radar in Fantasy Football
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Delanie Walker is going at an average draft position (ADP) of 77.8. That makes him, on average, the eighth tight end off the board in the seventh round of standard 12-team drafts.
In a year full of exciting tight end options, with Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce making up the elite two, Jimmy Graham landing in the league's best offense. and Zach Ertz and Evan Engram showing the potential to join the elite at the position, an unheralded veteran like Walker can be easy to forget about.
For a guy that is consistently a high-volume fantasy producer, Walker's current ADP creates serious value ahead of the 2018 season.
In Good Company
Thanks to the low correlation for the number pass plays teams run year over year, my preferred method for looking at targets is to calculate a player's target market share, the percentage of a team's targets a player accounts for.
Since Walker landed with the Tennessee Titans in 2013, the only two players that have ranked top-10 among tight ends in target market share in all five seasons have been Walker and future Hall of Famer and now ESPN broadcaster Jason Witten, who even in the twilight of his career was a focal point of the Dallas offense.
And to just say top-10 undersells how impressive Walker's volume has been.
Those three top-two finishes put him in truly elite company. Only one other tight end -- Greg Olsen -- has ranked in the top-two even twice since 2013, having ranked first a ridiculous three times.
If that's not impressive enough, Walker is also the only tight end to record a target market share north of 20% in each of the last four seasons.
How Much Do Targets Matter?
For tight ends, a position so frequently targeted in the red zone, is volume really everything in fantasy football?
With a .96 R-squared value between targets and PPR fantasy points over the last five seasons, even at a high-variance position like tight end, you want to make volume your top priority.
How much has Walker's elite volume translated to fantasy success? It shouldn't come as a surprise.
|Year||Fantasy Points||Positional Ranking|
The last time he didn't finish as TE8 (where he's being drafted this year) or better was 2013, when he first arrived with the Titans and spent almost half the season catching passes from Jake Locker. Needless to say, things have gone better for him on the receiving end of Marcus Mariota passes.
2017 was a rough year for fantasy tight ends in general. As you can see above, Walker finished as the TE4 despite actually posting 1.5 fewer fantasy points than he did in his TE8 campaign in 2014. That ranking covers up what might be room for concern for Walker, as he experienced a drop in fantasy production even with a big market share. Should we be worried about his efficiency?
In looking for a cause for the decreased efficiency, one of the first things that stands out is the way the Titans' offense produced as a whole.
Players being targeted by Marcus Mariota averaged 1.72 fantasy points per target in 2015 and 1.76 in 2016, before that mark plummeted in 2017. Now, with Walker's big market share, there's obviously something to say for Walker's inefficiency impacting that of Mariota's. But Walker's 1.58 fantasy points per target still sat ahead of the team average, propping up that 1.54 clip a season ago.
With the heavy influence that touchdowns have on fantasy scoring, Walker's three touchdowns (his fewest as a Titan) also hurt his fantasy numbers. To get a better understanding of what happened there, we take a look at his work in the red zone.
2017 was the first time in Tennessee that Walker's red zone touchdown rate fell below 25%. That stat is heavily prone to variance, particularly because of the small sample sizes involved. With a 29.0% touchdown rate over his first four seasons as a Titan, that drop of over 12% means that, in part, he was just on the wrong side of variance last year.
Scoring at 28.7% in the red zone (his average over the previous four seasons) would have given him an additional 1.4 touchdowns, bumping him to about 182.8 fantasy points (1.65 per target) in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring.
Even if we accept the possibility that the 33-year-old Walker may be losing a step, we still don't need to be too concerned.
Mariota only generated 0.04 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per dropback in 2017, making it by far his least efficient season, after 0.07 and 0.17 marks in his first two campaigns, respectively. Such a startling dropoff leaves him primed for a bounce-back, and that should help Walker's efficiency. And even if Walker does continue to underwhelm in that department, as we saw above, targets are what really matter.
The Titans have only seen two significant changes as far as pass-catchers in their offense go this offseason. They have replaced DeMarco Murray with Dion Lewis, and they have lost wideout Eric Decker.
Lewis likely stands to see more receiving volume than Murray, whose 47 targets accounted for a 9.7% market share in 2017, but he isn't likely to out-do Murray by enough to make up for the loss of Decker, whose 83 targets were good for 17.1% of the team's total. Decker's absence leaves an especially big void in the red zone, where his 11 targets in 2017 were second on the team, behind only Walker's 12.
It's tough to project Walker to absorb a huge share of the void left by Decker, as they play different positions and fill different roles, but having more weapons going out than coming in means that there's also not much reason to project Walker's workload to decrease. That's especially the case when you account for his workload being among the most consistent in the league in recent years.
The high floor afforded by his big volume makes him a very safe pick as the eighth tight end off the board, and the potential for a bounce-back in efficiency and for increased red zone volume and production expands his ceiling as well.
If current draft trends continue, a guy like Walker allows you to bypass the early-round tight ends in favor of similar production in the seventh.