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Campfire Chat: Favorite Rookie TE for 2017

Footballguys staff members discuss the top rookie tight ends

In a redraft league, which rookie tight end would you most want to have on your roster? And "none" can be an answer.

David Dodds: I am in the NONE camp here. Most are being picked way before I would ever roster them. I generally shy away from rookie tight ends because the transition from college to the NFL is a steep curve. Typically college tight ends aren't big enough to block opposing DEs so they play them sparingly in year one. Of the 6 tight ends drafted in the first two rounds of the last 3 years (that stayed at the tight end position), only Hunter Henry has surpassed 350 receiving yards in their rookie season.

Dave Larkin: David makes the excellent point about the uphill battle tight ends face in their transition from college, but I think that can be mitigated at times by the influence of scheme and surrounding talent.

This may be cheating in a way, but I would probably lean towards Evan Engram if I had to select any. The Giants were sorely lacking a seam threat last season - and we have seen Eli Manning thrive with options like Martellus Bennett, Larry Donnell and others in the past. The veteran loves to attack the middle of the field and trust his rangy receivers to make plays 'above the rim'. Engram has the skill set to do that in spades.

The initial transition may be tough, but his natural hands and route-running should earn the trust of Manning quickly. Not to mention he has help from the array of other quality receiving options around him. Engram may stumble into weeks like 8-80-1 as defenses shift their focus to Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham Jr.

Danny Tuccitto: I agree with David: none. Here are some stats summarizing the 141 rookie tight ends this decade:

  • They've averaged 26.8 PPR points (which equates to the TE61 projection currently).
    • Restrict this to 86 tight ends that were drafted, and it's 35.3 (TE59).
    • Restrict this further to 46 tight ends that were drafted in the first four rounds, and it's 50.5 (TE49); with a 62.7 average for tight ends drafted in the first three rounds (TE38); a 71.1 average for tight ends drafted in the first two rounds (TE35); and a 91.5 average for first rounders (TE27).
  • The best season by a rookie tight end this decade was Rob Gronkowski's 156.6 PPR points in 2010; which would rank as the TE12 projection heading into 2017.

In short, if you take one of the highly touted rookie tight ends this season for upside, understand that said upside will have to be the absolute best this decade for you to consistently use him in your lineup (i.e., TE12 or better). Far more likely is the far less exciting range of recent historical outcomes between TE27 and TE59.

Alex Miglio: Rookie tight ends have historically been fantasy football albatrosses. I can think of tree who have made an impact as rookies--Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Hunter Henry, who barely cracked the top 12 in per-game scoring last year.

That said, David Njoku is the clear starter in Cleveland, and he could command the third-most targets on the team. That is if he stops dropping passes in practice.

Jeff Haseley: I beg to differ on Njoku's immediate presence in the Cleveland offense and subsequent fantasy value. There is growing interest in second year tight end, Seth DeValve. I could see him being a road block of fantasy production for David Njoku at least early on and potentially through the season. DeValve, a former wide receiver from Princeton has good route running skills and more experience blocking than Njoku. Cleveland, which may have a heavy-run oriented offense, could elect to give DeValve more snaps at the position to cater to their running game. I don't expect Njoku to be left in the dust, but his involvement may center around passing downs in the early going. To be considered fantasy relevant, I would imagine he would need to see more regular snaps and I'm not sure we will see that from him - at least not until later in the season. I'm still shying away from Njoku until I see him getting the majority of snaps at tight end.

Adam Harstad: I mean, I'm not necessarily disagreeing that rookie tight ends are a bad bet in general, but some of the people in this thread seem to be forgetting about Jordan Reed's 2013. Yes, he got hurt, (he is Jordan Reed, after all). But when he was in, he also chugged along at around an 80/900/6 pace. And that's including a game where he left early after one catch for twelve yards-- otherwise he'd have been on pace for 88 catches and nearly 1,000 yards.

Now, yes, Reed is an outlier. But I think the idea that a rookie could repeat that, given that we already saw it once, is less "historically improbable" and more "very unlikely".

Throw in Hunter Henry, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez, and that's four rookie tight ends to provide totally startable production in the last six years. Go back a decade and you add John Carlson, who was TE7 in standard scoring in 2008.

Now, again, we're talking about a low-probability of being a marginal starter. In terms of major difference-makers as rookies, you're basically looking at Jeremy Shockey, Keith Jackson, and and Mike Ditka, which is... not much, given the nearly 60-year history of the position. So talk of "upside" definitely needs to be tempered.

With that said, I don't mind taking a flier on any of the highly-regarded rookies as a low-end TE2 or TE3 in best ball, especially when paired with a solid starter like Kelce or Olsen. You know their teams are going to involve them. They'll all have some solid weeks along the way.

Chad Parsons: The historical odds are woeful for rookie tight ends for fantasy impact. Even the 'everyone hits as a fantasy starter eventually' draft zone of Round 1 tight ends have produced an average of only 2.2 games of 50+ receiving yards in their rookie season and 6% producing five or more qualifying games. 56% produce two games or less of 50+ yards.

2017 is a bumper crop with three Round 1 tight ends, but none are in optimal spots. Evan Engram and O.J. Howard face stiff competition in their passing game pecking orders to see fantasy-worthy production out of the gate. David Njoku has the clearest path to higher targets but has by far the lowest ceiling of his team's passing game (and weakest quarterback) of the trio.

The odds are brutal for tight ends beyond Round 2 with more than 90% producing minimal (or zero) results in Year 1. The odds are similar between Round 1 and Round 2 tight ends as rookies. Gerald Everett and Adam Shaheen are two Round 2 selections with optimistic depth charts to consider in a deeper format, premium tight end scoring, or best ball.

Jason Wood: For reasons of roster construction and the depressingly low bar a "TE2" means statistically in most leagues, I echo the majority view that rookie tight ends shouldn't be on your redraft radar.

There are two components of the discussion we want to make sure we don't completely dismiss, in an effort to look at this holistically:

  1. This is the best rookie tight end class in memory
  2. Rookie skill players are vaulting into prominence faster than we're used to

I throw these points out in the spirit of devil's advocate, since I too am in the camp recommending we pass on these rookies.

Devin Knotts: I agree with Jeff. I view Njoku as very raw and someone who is going to need time to develop in the offense. We are already seeing this in training camp as he has been fumbling and dropping the ball, he's only 21 years old and the team is really liking Seth Devalve. I am staying as far away from Njoku as possible.

Jeff Tefertiller: I think we can all agree that the rookies will face an uphill battle for fantasy relevance early in the season. Each of the top three in the class could finish strong, though. The one tight end with the clearest path early is Kittle. I doubt he's more than a TE2 but could provide upside on a team without receiving options. Also, Kittle has such a low ADP that the reward outweighs the risk.

Andy Hicks: As the others have pointed out, there is a clear problem for rookie tight ends in the NFL from a fantasy perspective. Without expanding much on the statistical evidence that the others have brought to the table, it should be noted that none of the players who have been successful as rookie tight ends in recent years (Hernandez, Gronkowski and Hunter Henry) were first rounders. All we have been discussing here, except Chad, is the first rounders, which have higher ADPs. As Chad touched on Adam Shaheen and Gerald Everett were drafted in roughly the same area as Gronkowski and Hunter, have shaky wide receiver positions on their team and relatively little in front of them on the tight end depth chart. If you have to take a rookie tight end, use one of your last picks on the 2nd rounders.

Phil Alexander: I'm not exactly bullish on any rookie tight ends for the reasons just about everyone in this thread has mentioned so far, but I don't mind O.J. Howard, provided you can get him late enough.

Howard is 6'6", 242 lbs., with 4.5 speed, long arms, and huge hands. At the very least, those traits make him a problem for opposing secondaries on seam routes, while they have their hands full with Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson on the outside. There are precious few tight ends in the league with splash play ability, but Howard projects as one of them right away.

Besides the rookie tight end stigma, Howard might slip in drafts due to the presence of Cameron Brate on the Bucs roster. Brate is coming off a remarkable TE7 finish in 2016, but part of me wonders if Jameis Winston is just a tight end star-maker. Brate was a former UDFA and practice squad player before last season's breakout. Going back to Winston's Florida State days, he was solely responsible for turning Nick O'Leary -- a complete stiff -- into a consensus All-American and John Mackey Award winner.

Brate has earned his playing time, but it won't completely come at the expense of Howard's. According to Sharp Football, the Bucs tied for the league lead in percent of plays using 12 personnel groupings, meaning the two should play together on about one-third of Tampa Bay's snaps.

Ultimately, Howard isn't someone you want to rely on as your TE1. tight end is already the most volatile skill position in fantasy football, and the presence of Brate, combined with the fact he'll be learning on the job, make drafting Howard especially high-risk. But once you're down around TE16 (Howard's current ADP according to our aggregated data), I wouldn't blame anyone for taking a shot on Howard's upside catching passes from Winston. Just don't draft him as your starter and don't overpay.

Chris Feery: I’m in the "none" camp as well, but I’ll concur with Jeff’s assessment on Kittle. The tight end battle for the 49ers is wide open this year, and he’s in line for a role if he delivers the goods in the preseason. I’ll consider Gerald Everett for a late round dart throw as well, but he has legitimate competition standing in the way in the form of Tyler Higbee. Outside of that, I’m sticking with the seasoned pros and allowing others to play the speculation game on draft day.