If you have a dominant tight end on your fantasy roster who puts up wide receiver stat lines, you are likely to dominate your league and win it. However, selecting who that breakout tight end gets harder and harder each year. It seems like each year, some guy will haul in double-digit touchdowns, register top 5 fantasy stats at the position, and rocket up draft boards the following year only to leave fantasy owners disappointed when they don’t repeat. In 2013, Julius Thomas had 788 yards receiving which wasn’t overly impressive, but he had 12 touchdowns, making him one of the best TE’s in fantasy that year. In 2013, Orange Julius was going as one of the top 3 tight ends off the board and he flopped.
Heading into 2017, it isn’t hard to identify who the top end talent is at the tight end position. However, most of the top talent at the tight end position has a long history of injury problems. When Gronk, Tyler Eifert and Jordan Reed are on the field, few can dispute their dominance, but there are also very few people willing to bet that they will play more than 12 games in a season. Knowing when to pull the trigger or not pull the trigger on a tight end may make or break your 2017 fantasy football season.
This week, I am doing something new. I participated in a Kentucky Fantasy Football State Championship (KFFSC) draft on Tuesday, August 15th, and will use that draft data for my draft position analysis. The KFFSC is a PPR league with a 3rd round reversal in the draft order.
#1 – Rob Gronkowski (28) 6’6″ – 38 – 25 – 540 – 3 TD – Gronk is one of the ultimate difference makers in the NFL. If healthy, Gronk is virtually guaranteed to score double-digit touchdowns. The addition of Brandin Cooks only helps Gronk as it will take attention away from the middle of the field. In my view, with the addition of Cooks, teams will have to make a choice whether they tailor their defensive game plans to taking Cooks away over the top because, as we have seen in the past, if you don’t do that he can literally score from anywhere on the field. If teams do opt to make the Patriots beat them with multiple play scoring drives and not 75 yard bombs to Cooks, then Gronk and Julian Edelman will be roaming around the middle of the field, seemingly free. It’s easy to get down on Gronk because of his injury history, and it’s understood why. But lets call it like it is: he’s the best and most dominant player at his position right now. If you are at a point in your draft where you don’t like any receivers or running backs and want to take the first tight end off the board, take Gronk, not Kelce, because if you don’t take Gronk and he plays in 14+ games, you will hate yourself for passing on him. Gronk was drafted with the 6th pick in the 2nd round of the KFFSC which is a gamble. I don’t like the pick, but if he’s healthy, it will work out.
#2 – Travis Kelce (27) 6’6″ – 117 – 85 – 1,125 – 4 TD – Travis Kelce has become Alex Smith’s favorite target over the years. With the departure of Jeremy Maclin, there is no reason to believe Kelce’s production won’t continue to be near the top at his position. Kelce offers more value in PPR leagues as he is virtually a lock for 80+ grabs, but he has never been a huge redzone target, so his production needs to come from yardage in standard leagues. But he’s one of the best at his position regardless of the scoring format. In the KFFSC Kelce went with the 11th pick in the 3rd round as the 2nd TE off the board. Kelce was drafted over players like Golden Tate, Joe Mixon, Allen Robinson and Alshon Jeffery. If you want Kelce where he has been going in drafts, you need to make sure you load up at the RB and WR position later in your drafts. The owner who drafted Kelce in the KFFSC on Tuesday is starting DeMarco Murray, Mark Ingram and Eddie Lacy at the RB position. In a PPR, I am not sure how excited I would be about that. At the end of the day, if you like Kelce better than some of the receivers and running backs still on the board, then own your instincts and pull the trigger on him.
#3 – Greg Olsen (32) 6’5″ – 129 – 80 – 1,073 – 3 TD – Greg Olsen has been as consistent as it gets seeing over 120 targets, hauling in at least 77 balls and going over 1,000 yards in each of the last 3 years. Availability has also been a strong attribute for Olsen, as he has started all 16 games for 5 straight years. Gronk, Kelce and Reed may have a little more upside than Olsen at this point in his career, but Olsen’s consistency makes him a lock to be one of the first 4 or 5 tight ends drafted off the board. In the KFFSC draft on Tuesday night, Olsen went in the 6th round as the 5th tight end off the board. I was wrestling with the decision whether to draft Jordan Reed or Greg Olsen in the 6th round and opted to go with Reed for the upside. However, if I need to make that decision 10 times, I think I would go with Olsen 6 times out of 10. On Tuesday night I decided I was going to swing for the fences, so I went Reed over Olsen.
#4 – Jordan Reed (27) 6’3″ – 89 – 66 – 686 – 6 TD – You cannot doubt Jordan Reed’s talent, but the fact is he simply can’t stay healthy. If you told me that Reed was going to be healthy for 14 games, I would consider drafting him as the 1st tight end off the board. However, you simply can’t count on him, so you can only draft him if the value is right. In the KFFSC on Tuesday night I was looking to avoid Reed but he fell to the 6th round and I decided I simply couldn’t pass on him at that point in the draft. At the end of the day, if you are a risk averse person, you won’t draft Reed. But if you don’t mind a little risk, you will be ok with him. I will say, however, that I made it a point to draft Coby Fleener in the 12th round to make sure I had a quality, high upside backup. If you draft Jordan Reed and you fail to draft a quality backup TE later in the draft, that decision may prove to be foolish.
#5 – Jimmy Graham (30) 6’6″ – 95 – 65 – 923 – 6 TD – Jimmy Graham is a touchdown machine. Last year, he put up just under 1,000 yards on 65 grabs and rumors out of Seattle are that he played in the 285 pound range. Since the 2016 season ended, Graham has shed about 20 pounds so that should help the health of his knees and improve his odds of playing 16 games. Graham is the #2 passing option in Seattle which makes him intriguing and his 5th round draft position is fair value.
#6 – Tyler Eifert (26) 6’6″ – 47 – 29 – 394 – 5 TD – Tyler Eifert is a huge wild card, as usual. If Eifert remains healthy the entire year, he has the potential to be a top 3 tight end. However, Eifert has never put together a full season which is a huge cause for concern. Tight ends usually take more time to develop than other skill position players, as evidenced by Kyle Rudolph’s rise to stardom in his age 26 season last year. Here’s to hoping Eifert figures out how to stay healthy at age 26. Eifert is a great pick in standard leagues because he is a huge red zone threat. On Tuesday night, Eifert was drafted as the 7th tight end off the board in the 7th round. Spending a 7th round pick on Eifert is fair market value. Pay attention in your draft rooms, because if tight ends start flying off the board at a certain point, you need to make a decision whether to pull the trigger on a truly elite talent such as Eifert a round or two earlier than expected because you want to secure the position, or opt to pass on him and take the chance that you will lose out.
#7 – Kyle Rudolph (27) 6’6″ – 132 – 83 – 840 – 7 TD – Sam Bradford is not terribly aggressive as a thrower and that seemed to benefit Kyle Rudolph in 2016. Rudolph saw 132 targets last year which is a lot for a tight end and he should continue to see similar usage in 2017. Even though Rudolph ascended as one of the league’s top tight ends in 2016, he still isn’t being drafted as such, but he did go in the 7th round of the KFFSC on Tuesday night. Rudolph is a player you can target as a back-end TE1 in your draft, but don’t reach for him, because if somebody else does reach for him, it will open the door for somebody else at another position to fall to you. I have seen Rudolph get drafted anywhere from the 7th to the 12th round (12th round in some 10 team mocks). The bottom line is, you need to evaluate the other players on your board, and if you don’t like what’s there, then take Rudolph. For example, if you are sitting there in the 7th round, and you cannot make a decision between Bilal Powell, Mike Gillislee, Eric Decker and Tevin Coleman, you may end up thinking that all of these players are potential disasters, forget it, I am going to draft my tight end, Kyle Rudolph, and not look back.
#8 – Delanie Walker (33) 6’1″ – 102 – 65 – 800 – 7 TD – Over the last few years Delanie Walker has been one of the best tight ends in fantasy football. Heading into 2017, the Titans have added several receiving weapons to their passing attack, signing Eric Decker and drafting Corey Davis which may take targets away from Walker. At this point, we know what Walker is, and he’s a safe top 10 TE, but I think his days of flirting with 1,000 yards receiving are over because he may not see much more than 100 targets given the new receivers on the Titans roster. Walker fell to the 8th round of the KFFSC which is a good value for him.
#9 – Hunter Henry (22) 6’5″ – 53 – 36 – 478 – 8 TD – Hunter Henry is a high upside pick as he looks to assume the full-time tight end role down in San Diego….I mean LA. It still sounds weird hearing “Los Angelas Chargers.” Henry is an ascending player, and the arrow is pointing up. He did have a lot of touchdowns in limited action in 2016, which is a little concerning because touchdown dependency is not usually consistent from year to year, but if Philip Rivers has shown us anything over the years, it’s that he looks to the tight ends in the red zone. I am not going to actively target Henry in my drafts this year, but if the run on tight ends starts rolling, and he is one of the last remaining top-tier TE’s left, I will snag him and I will be ok with it. Henry was the 10th TE off the board in the KFFSC in the 8th round which is about where he should go. At that point in the draft, tight ends were starting to fly off the board, so the owner needed to make a move or he would have lost out at the position.
#10 – Jack Doyle (27) 6’6″ – 75 – 59 – 584 – 5 TD – Andrew Luck has targeted tight ends heavily in the red zone over the years and with Dwayne Allen out of the picture, Jack Doyle looks to ascend into the full-time tight end role. Doyle was drafted in the 11th round in the KFFSC and is a nice consolation prize for you if you aren’t able to get one of the top-tier options. Doyle is not one of those elite athletes at the position that is going to jump out at you, but he gets it done, and there’s something to be said for that. Take advantage of people if they chase upside in your draft and allow Doyle to plummet down the board.
#11 – Zach Ertz (26) 6’5″ – 106 – 78 – 816 – 4 TD – No more Jordan Matthews? Does this mean Zach Ertz will see more targets in 2017? I think so, but I am not going to actively go after Ertz. If there is a massive run at the tight end position that I miss out on, then I will snag Ertz, but to me, guys like Eifert and Henry need to be drafted ahead of him because of touchdown upside. Ertz was drafted in the 6th round of the KFFSC which is much too rich for me. Think of Ertz as a Travis Kelce-like producer that only gets 75% of the yardage.
#12 – Eric Ebron (24) 6’4″ – 85 – 61 – 711 – 1 TD – Eric Ebron is the opposite of Jack Doyle. Ebron is big, he’s fast, he’s exciting to watch, but he simply cannot stay healthy. If you were to tell me that Eric Ebron was guaranteed to start 14 games this year, I would draft him as the TE6 off the board. However, injuries have slowed him down during his entire career and you need to see him come through and stay healthy before you can fully trust him with a high draft pick. Anquan Boldin, who was a quasi tight end for the Lions last year has departed, meaning red zone opportunities should open up for Ebron this year. In the KFFSC, Ebron went in the 8th round, just after Hunter Henry and just before Martellus Bennett. Being drafted around those players is where Ebron should go, but the 8th round may be a little aggressive depending on how savvy your league is. In a savvy league, Ebron will get drafted early because of his upside, but in a league filled with less savvy owners, people may let him slide because he has’t broken out yet. Know your league.
#13 – Martellus Bennett (30) 6’6″ – 73 – 55 – 701 – 7 TD – I am not really a Martellus Bennett fan. He is a great red zone threat, however, which makes him a viable fantasy option. To me, Bennett isn’t very exciting. He’s not ascending. But he does have value, warranting a ranking in the top 15. The only way I am drafting Bennett is if I completely punt on the position or there is a run on the tight end position that I completely miss out on. It should be noted that Packers tight ends have never really seen top end production. It can be argued that Bennett is the best tight end Rodgers has worked with since Jermichael Finley, but only time will tell if he can return TE1 production.
#14 – Coby Fleener (28) 6’6″ – 82 – 50 – 631 – 3 TD – The Saints let Brandin Cooks walk. Does this mean the Saints plan on getting Fleener the ball more? Maybe. I targeted Fleener in drafts last year much too early, drafting him as one of the first tight ends off the board. Fleener burned me last year, but I don’t care, I am going back to the well. I am banking on Fleener taking a leap now that he has a full year under his belt playing with Drew Brees. Hopefully he improves on his 60.9% catch rate though. Fleener went in the 12th round in the KFFSC. At that point in the draft, why not take the chance on him?
#15 – Jason Witten (35) 6’6″ – 95 – 69 – 673 – 3 TD – Jason Witten is the model of consistency at the tight end position. Witten will play almost every snap of every game and will play all 16. If being risk averse is your thing, then wait on the tight end position, draft Witten with one of your last picks, and sleep like a baby. I am personally not going to target Witten because he offers little to no upside at this point in his career. However, if the rest of your team is stacked, he will get you 8-10 points a week in a PPR, lock it in.
#16 – Cameron Brate (26) 6’5″ – 81 – 57 – 660 – 8 TD – Rookie tight ends typically don’t produce and early reports out of Tampa Bay indicate that OJ Howard is likely to be used as a blocker early. Although Brate looks like he will once again be the man in Tampa Bay, his upside is capped with the presence of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Jacquizz Roders and Doug Martin. In my view, Brate’s 2016 season is his ceiling. If you draft him appropriately, as the 14th to 16th tight end off the board, he won’t let you down.
#17 – Austin Hooper (22) 6’4″ – 27 – 19 – 271 – 3 TD – In 2016 Hooper was part of a committee at the tight end position in Atlanta. In 2017, Hooper looks to take the next step. The talent is there, but we haven’t seen Matt Ryan pump the tight end with targets since Tony Gonzalez retired. I like Hooper a lot, but with Steve Sarkisian calling the plays for Atlanta this year, there is just too much unknown to rank him any higher. At the end of the day, Hooper plays with one of the best QB’s in the league, and if you need to decide between Hooper and somebody else, draft the player with the better QB tossing him the rock.
#18 – Jared Cook (30) 6’5″ – 51 – 30 – 377 – 1 TD – Reports out of Raiders camp are glowing over Jared Cook. We have heard this before, and we keep waiting for this athletic freak to have a truly breakout season, but it has yet to happen. In my view, Cook cannot be drafted as your starter, but he is the type of guy that could win you your league if he does break out (at age 30). In 2016, nobody wanted a piece of Kyle Rudolph in drafts but he ended up being a TE1. The way I see it, Jared Cook could be this year’s Kyle Rudolph, a guy that everybody passes on, drafted as a TE2 but ends up as a league winning TE1.
#19 – Antonio Gates (37) 6’4″ – 93 – 53 – 548 – 7 TD – The fantasy football community has been trying to turn the page on Antonio Gates seemingly since he was 32 years old when the Chargers drafted Ladarius Green. Gates has refused to let father time catch him, but that appears inevitable in 2017. Although the Chargers have made it clear that Hunter Henry is now the man, Gates is still a redzone threat and brings touchdown upside to the table even in a limited role. If you are in a pinch, Gates could save you for a few weeks if you are dealing with some adversity. In addition to that, if Hunter Henry goes down, Gates is still capable enough to put a solid 3-4 game streak together. Gates isn’t even the starting tight end for the Chargers anymore, but I would still rather have him than some other guys.
#20 – C.J. Fiedorowicz (25) 6’6″ – 89 – 54 – 559 – 4 TD – We need to watch the preseason to see if Tom Savage and/or Deshaun Watson favor the tight end in the passing game. Both QB options are young in terms of starting experience, so C.J. Fiedorowicz may prove to be a safety blanket.
#21 – Dwayne Allen (27) 6’4″ – 52 – 35 – 406 – 6 TD – Dwayne Allen is an extremely intriguing player at the tight end position. Allen offers TE2 value even with Gronk healthy, but if Gronk is unable to do so, Allen would be an immediate TE1 as a big time red zone target on the Patriots offense. Allen is worth a late round pick in your drafts, but if Gronk goes down during the preseason his ADP will shoot through the roof. If that happens, don’t jump on the hype train, because you will need to deal with painful decisions once Gronk comes back.
#22 – Charles Clay (28) 6’3″ – 87 – 57 – 552 – 4 TD – Somebody needs to catch the ball in Buffalo in 2017. The Bills sent Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins packing to LA so if Charles Clay was ever going to live up to that contract he signed in 2015, this would be the year to do it, because they need to him. One thing working in Clay’s favor is that Rick Dennison, the new OC in Buffalo likes to use the horizontal passing game rather than the vertical passing game, which is likely why the Bills opted to let Watkins go. In Clay’s case, this helps his value, as he is more than capable of catching and running with the ball. If Nate Peterman plays because Tyrod Taylor gets hurt, Clay’s value will go up because Peterman will look to him as his safety valve.
#23 – Julius Thomas (29) 6’5″ – 51 – 30 – 281 – 4 TD – I am not drafting Julius Thomas in any leagues. Julius Thomas hasn’t been relevant since he burst onto the scene in 2013 with 65 grabs for 788 yards and 12 TD’s. Even at his best, playing with Peyton Manning, Thomas was extremely touchdown dependent. The writing was on the wall from day 1 that Thomas wouldn’t be a reliable fantasy option, so don’t chase his 2013 touchdown numbers. Not to mention, he cannot stay healthy.
#24 – Jesse James (23) 6’7″ – 60 – 39 – 338 – 3 TD – I want to like Jesse James as a red zone target, but there are just too many weapons in Pittsburgh to rank him as anything other than a low-end TE2.
#25 – Tyler Higbee (24) 6’6″ – 29 – 11 – 85 – 1 TD – Sean McVay likes to use tight ends in his offense. Higbee is in year two and the vibes are good out of LA but drafting Higbee is nothing more than a late round dart throw. Higbee has Jared Goff throwing him the ball, and that sounds gross.
Big Rigg’s Dynasty Picks
Rookie tight ends simply don’t have a history of producing or being fantasy relevant for that matter. For example, Greg Olsen, one of the most consistent tight ends in the game had less than 100 catches, less than 1,000 yards and only 7 touchdowns through his first 2 seasons in the NFL. Based on the track record for rookie tight end production, I am likely to pass on all of them in redraft leagues. However, during dynasty drafts, I will be targeting these four guys.
David Njoku – Njoku is a physical freak. He can run. He can stretch the field. When you think of him, think of a Greg Olsen type player. However, as I mentioned before, Greg Olsen took 3 years before he really came through for fantasy. If you draft Njoku you need to be patient, especially with the Browns QB situation.
O.J. Howard – O.J. Howard is a tremendous blocker and pass catcher. Howard is one of the best overall tight end prospects to come out of the draft in a long time. With Cameron Brate coming off a breakout season, however, the Bucs have no need to press Howard into action and will bring him along slowly, playing to his strengths. In a few years though, Howard might be the next Jason Witten with more juice and more upside.
Evan Engram – Having Evan Engram on the field is like having another wide receiver on the field. That being said, tight ends typically don’t play early if they can’t block, meaning Engram will likely only play year one if the Giants are looking to dial-up specific plays for him on obvious passing downs. Looking ahead to 2018, Engram has an extremely high ceiling.
Gerald Everett – Everett has drawn comparisons to Jordan Reed as his comparable pro player during the draft process. If that holds true, then I want every piece of Gerald Everett I can get in a Sean McVay led offense. It will, however, be interesting to see how he does with Goff throwing the ball to him. The Jordan Reed comparison is nice, but Reed does have Kurt Cousins throwing him the ball.
Seth DeValve – I understand Njoku is the tight end everybody wants to own in Cleveland but the fact is he’s a rookie and needs time to develop. DeValve is tall and fast. He has always been a great receiver, but he couldn’t block so he didn’t play last year. If DeValve can figure out how to block this year, he may offer great value for 2017. In dynasty leagues, however, he offers little to no value because the Njoku is the future.
Mychal Rivera – Mercedes Lewis is not a pass catcher at this stage in his career. The Julius Thomas experiment failed, and if Rivera is given an opportunity, he may be alright if Bortles struggles and looks to be conservative with the ball. Rivera will go undrafted and is somebody you should monitor on the waiver wire.
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