By: David Jackson (Twitter: dynasty_beast)
Updated: 6/10/2017

Tight End Sleeper Alert: AJ Derby

Tight end. Oh, tight end. What a puzzle you are. Gary Barnidge, Ben Watson, Dennis Pitta, Richard Rodgers, Jack Doyle, Larry Donnell. All of these guys have emerged from relative obscurity to finish as a TE1 in the past three years.

The 2017 rookie class seems primed to produce several perennial TE1s but the unpredictability of the position means that I usually avoid investing heavily in it.

If you’re similarly-minded, I have a TE who is such a deep sleeper he’s practically comatose…
Standing 6’ 5’’ and weighing 255lbs, he runs an impressive 4.72 forty and an even more impressive 6.99 3-cone. The Broncos were impressed enough to invest a 5th round pick in him. No, I’m not describing Jake Butt. I’m talking about AJ Derby.

Derby was originally a 6th round pick by the Patriots, in 2015. At that point he had played the grand total of 11 games at TE, having converted from QB prior to his Senior season. The Pats were obviously intrigued by his potential with such little experience, demonstrated by a stunning 54-yard catch and run TD against Alabama, in only his fourth game at the position.

Having spent 2015 on injured reserve, Derby emerged in the 2016 preseason, catching 15 passes for 189 yards and 1 TD. However, such a stat line was unlikely to generate a bump in playing time, buried behind Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.

By week 8, the Broncos were growing impatient with the lack of production from their own TEs. Despite generating a lot of preseason buzz amid talk of a strong relationship with new QB Trevor Siemian, Virgil Green had struggled to stay healthy and had failed to impress.

So, the Broncos sent their 2017 5th round pick to the Pats, in exchange for Derby. As shown by the offensive snap percentages below, it didn’t take long for him to earn significant playing time, in just his third year as a TE. It’s worth remembering that 2016 was Green’s sixth year in Denver and that Jeff Heuerman was a 3rd round pick in 2015…

Derby suffered a concussion in Week 15 and finished the season with 16 catches for 160 yards from 20 targets, highlighted by performances of 4 for 43, 5 for 57 and 4 for 35.

As you might expect from someone with such little experience of the position, Derby can’t yet be relied upon as a blocker and may be best employed as a ‘big slot’, similar to the way Hunter Henry was used by the Chargers in 2016. Indeed, Andrew Mason of Broncos.com has already noted as much, saying that the team is “very high on what Derby can do” in that role.

If there’s one offense in the NFL that has the space for such a player, it’s in Denver, where Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have held close to a duopoly on targets since 2014. Something that could change that in 2017 is the appointment of Mike McCoy as Offensive Co-ordinator. As mentioned above, McCoy knows how to scheme to make the most of an athletic mismatch at TE.

Now, the flaw in my plan for AJ Derby’s world domination is clearly the presence of the other Broncos TE who cost a 2017 5th round draft pick: Jake Butt. Considered worthy of a pick in the first two rounds, his stock was hurt by the torn ACL he suffered in the Orange Bowl. An injury that could mean he opens 2017 on the PUP list. Even if he is able to play in 2017, the combination of this injury (his second ACL tear) and his rookie status means he is far from assured to achieve fantasy relevance.

Additionally, their respective prices make Derby the much more appealing purchase. According to MFL, in recent 12-team PPR league drafts, Butt is TE27 with an average pick of 210 from 44 drafts, with his highest pick being 169. Derby is TE46 with an average pick of 295 from just 13 drafts and has a high pick of 250. He is owned in only 24% of leagues. His price, age and potential mean that I would much rather own Derby over some of the guys drafted ahead of him (such as TE28 Jared Cook, TE34 Zach Miller, TE41 Vernon Davis).

I’m not expecting Derby to become the next Gronk but I do believe he is the favorite to open the season as the Broncos starting TE, with an OC who knows how to maximize his abilities and can accommodate two TEs. If I’m wrong, I haven’t lost anything at the prices I’ve been paying ($1 from the waiver wire and picks in the 23rd and 24th rounds of start-up drafts). If I’m right, he could be the latest in a long line of unlikely TE1s. At the very least, he should yield a great return on investment.