After OTA’s and minicamps wind up, the NFL will go into one last period of hibernation for beach vacations and a deep breath before becoming consumed by the season. Us fantasy football types are no different. Before training camp and the preseason start to make us question what we think we know entering fantasy draft season, it’s good to take a snapshot of our beliefs to refer back to when August hype makes the vert and horizontal hold go wicky-wacky on our TV’s. I’ll be running down my current tiers for redraft leagues (PPR) before the earth starts to move again in late July.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Tight end is as deep as it has ever been. Ten deep we have players with top 5-7 potential and relatively high floors, including one tight end rarely going in the top 12. After the top 10 there is potential and solid matchup plays galore. You can get loose at tight end and pick your spot based on value or pencil in any number of value picks that catch your fancy. I like the tight end crop so much that I am often taking three in MFL10s because I like their potential to put up flex-worthy weeks as much as or more than the RB/WR on the board in the same late rounds. There are going to be a few wrong answers at tight end this year, but more than enough right answers to accomodate differing approaches.
Rob Gronkowski, NE
For the first year in a long time, I’m not sure that I’m at the lead of the Gronk parade. Taking him with a first round pick seems less wise this year because of growth at the position from top to bottom. He’ll also be joined by the best running mate at tight end that he has had since Aaron Hernandez in Martellus Bennett. Gronkowski is going to help your team win fantasy leagues, but building a winning with much less invested at tight end in your draft is getting easier.
INJURY PRONE BUT STRONG TE1
Reed produced at the same clip as Gronk last year, and Eifert wasn’t far behind. The problem is that this duo has yet to show the ability to get through a 16 game season intact. Eifert might not even be ready Week 1 because of offseason ankle surgery. Reed got dinged in minicamp, but was also a very strong performer by most accounts. You might have to cover these guys for a few weeks here and there, but when they are on the field, we will project them as top five tight ends, so they are still worth a 3rd/4th (Reed) and 7th/8th (Eifert).
Greg Olsen, CAR
There’s nothing wrong with Olsen as your TE1, but his 2014-15 production levels might be enhanced by a paucity of viable wide receivers in Carolina - which should be rectified this year. Olsen is at or past his prime and the Panthers pass offense is low volume, so there’s not much ceiling built into this pick in the 4th/5th.
HIGH CEILING TE1
If there’s a breakout top 3-5 tight end this year, they will likely come from this tier. Kelce is hitting his prime as he turns 27 this year, and there has always been a sense that he can do more than the Chiefs ask him to. With Justin Houston likely out to begin the season, Kansas City might have more wide open games. Green was built to create mismatches in the middle of the field, and the Steelers have one of the best pass offenses in the league. His fantasy ceiling is unknown, and that’s a good thing. Bennett is already an accomplished fantasy tight end, and he’s also joining one of the best offenses in the league. New England will use multiple tight ends most of the time, so he’s basically a starter. Add in Gronk injury upside and you have an attractive late-round pick. I’m not buying Coby Fleener because he is a mediocre player, but the opportunity in a high volume pass offense is there, so if he can be merely competent, he might pay off. With an ADP creeping towards the sixth round, he’s being drafted close to his ceiling.
HIGH FLOOR TE1
Any of this group could finish in the top 5 and be the classic boring value picks that help shrewd teams win titles. The myriad of options in the 7th-11th round range at tight end is making it easier to wait on the position than ever. Gates was a top 10 tight end on a points per game basis last year, we just forget that because of his early-season suspension. With no Ladarius Green, he should at least sustain that level. Walker was the de facto #1 receiver in Tennessee. I don’t have faith in him to keep that up with a deeper wide receiver corps in an “exotic smashmouth” offense, but he is already going at a great discount from his 2016 production level. Barnidge was situated similarly to Walker last year, and if anything the 2016 wide receivers are less of a threat to his production. With three players in this tier, it’s easy to slow play the position and feel comfortable that you will get one in the 8th-10th round range.
Y’all know I love me some Robocop. Fleener has gotten all of the attention in the Colts tight end breakup, but Allen is getting just as good an opportunity as Fleener. Of course, Allen has never stayed healthy for long. We’ll still project him as a very strong touchdown scorer as long as he’s on the field. Ertz might be the #2 target in his offense, but it is an offense in transition, and Ertz doesn’t show up in the red zone, which makes any inconsistency in targets from week-to-week tougher to handle. Thomas should be a key red zone target for the Jaguars, but his health record is almost as spotty as Allen’s. You might be just fine with a member of this tier, but you should probably take a TE2 (*cough Martellus Bennett*) just to be safe.
There is talent in this tier, and there is opportunity, but there is also reason for diminished expectations. Ebron will be at best the 4th target, albeit in a high volume pass offense. Still, a leap to TE1 territory will require a lot of growth in year three. Walford should grow in year two, but enough targets to be an everyweek start is a tall order. Cook is maybe the most physically talented player on this list, but he isn’t healthy right now, and he has disappointed every time we have higher hopes for him. Cameron is also very gifted physically and has been an elite fantasy tight end, but he was anonymous last year and his injury history isn’t promising. Still, Adam Gase could result in the revival of more than one Dolphin’s fantasy prospects this year. Seferian-Jenkins is in a rising pass offense, but he was sent off of the field in a spring practice, and Cameron Brate continues to get praise as he tries to overtake Seferian-Jenkins on the depth chart.
LOW CEILING TE2
You can dabble in this tier, but it looks like bye/injury/emergency material to me. Clay is in too low volume of a pass offense, but he is almost as good as Walker in a vacuum. If Sammy Watkins misses time, remember him. Rudolph is sluggish and will share with MyCole Pruitt, although the new offensive line additions could free him up to run more routes. Miller only popped last year when the Bears wide receivers were depleted. Graham is coming back from a catastrophic knee injury and he wasn’t that exciting for fantasy once he got hurt anyway. Witten is solid, but with limited weekly and season-long upside, and Watson is going to be part of a passing offense that will use three, if not four tight ends over the course of a game.
DEEP/TE PREMIUM FLIER
A breakout tight end or three could come from this list. Gary Barnidge reminded us last year that target volume is enough to elevate a competent receiving tight end to startable fantasy levels, so if McDonald can get over his dropsies, he might be the breakout player. Brate is inching ahead of Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and he has red zone chemistry with Jameis Winston. Tye was maybe Eli Manning’s second-most reliable target, he just needs to hold of Larry Donnell. Fells is a basketball convert who has lost weight and gained more kudos from Carson Palmer. He just needs the elusive tight end targets that have been lacking in Bruce Arians’ offenses. Green was a Matt Waldman favorite and the job is wide open in a Kubiak offense that loves the tight end. Pitta was once a solid TE1, and he is on the comeback trail from two hip fractures.
DEEP/TE PREMIUM WAIVER WIRE WATCH LIST
If you need to cast a wide net because of your league tight end scoring or size, this group is worth monitoring because you never know. Jacob Tamme could give way to the rare breakout rookie tight end. Heuerman could emerge in a Kubiak offense in what amounts to his rookie year after an ACL tear nipped his real rookie season in the bud. Amaro could awaken from a two-year long slumber after going in the second round. Rodgers could hold off Jared Cook and be a role player for one of the league’s best quarterbacks again. Kendricks could be better with no Jared Cook and hopefully improved quarterback play. Doyle or Swoope could move into Andrew Luck’s line of sight if Dwayne Allen can’t stay healthy.