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The Gut Check No.366: Over-Under, TEs

Waldman's first pass at the 2016 tight ends through the lens of average draft position.

Precision is overrated in May and June. The archery, surgical lasers, and nanotechnology will have its time in July. This spring, it's all about horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons at the office of the Gut Check. 

We all have to start somewhere. As I create my first set of fantasy rankings, I'm beginning with the broad strokes. Today's Gut Check profiles tight ends that I like significantly more or less than the current ADP in PPR leagues. 

A COMMUNIQUE FROM CAPTAIN OBVIOUS 

My values versus existing ADP will change. How much, I have no idea. This article is that starting point. The purpose of this exercise is to note which tight ends merit closer examination when creating your draft plans.

Overrated

Zach Ertz (ADP 70, The Gut Check 138): Our player summary at Footballguys poses the basic question underlying how people feel about Ertz, " Is he a young, franchise asset that's simply been underutilized? Or is he a good but not great player that had unreasonable expectations thrust upon him thanks to his association with the Chip Kelly offense?" While many believe the answer lies somewhere in between, I think it's clear: Until I consistently see otherwise, count my vote for the scheme fit over the franchise talent.

Ertz is an average to above average receiving tight end and we'll look back at the fuss over his upside between 2013-2015 as only partially accurate due to Kelly's scheme. Top talents at this position score touchdowns and with only minor exceptions do touchdown producers at this position lack above average athletic ability and skill versus physical play. Ertz's athletic prowess is not as good as people think. 

Draftniks projected Ertz highly because they saw a fluid, gliding athlete working from the slot. They liked his height and wingspan. They foresaw an all-around weapon due to these characteristics. While I agree that his athletic ability meets a partial definition of "fluid", it's not complete. 

Where his athletic ability works is after the catch. Ertz was fifth among tight ends with 321 yards after the catch, average 4.3 yards after each reception. This is a solid number for a tight end that's within the range of players like Greg Olsen (4.6) and Delanie Walker (4.1) but it's not in the same neighborhood as elite athletes like Jordan Reed (5.6) and Travis Kelce (7.4) and Ertz caught three more passes than Kelce. Eric Ebron is a more fluid athlete on tape and his YAC average was 6.1. 

The takeaway is that Ertz may make the first man miss or carry a defender a few steps before tackled but he's not an open-field weapon that will create a lot of yards. The only way an offensive scheme will change this fact is if there are three All-Pro skill players playing in the same offense and their presence forces defenses to leave Ertz uncovered on a high percentage of his routes. 

Not gonna happen. 

Even the best athletes at the position have no more than a handful of breakaway plays a year, and this doesn't include touchdowns. The more damning issue is Ertz's physicality at the point of the catch. The red zone is the place for physical play and Ertz was never a physical player at Stanford nor has he shown much different in Philadelphia. 

Brent Celek is still on this team because he's a much better blocker. Although he can't stretch the seam as well as Ertz, he's also better at making plays as he's taking a hard hit. Until Ertz shows he can win the ball in tight coverage and take punishment to do it, he's a low-end TE1 at best in an offense that most project to run far fewer plays in Doug Pederson's scheme than Chip Kelly's. 

Good but not great? Nope. Better than average? Maybe, but not probably. 

If you can get Ertz as one of the last TE1s on the board, you won't be overpaying but his ADP is dictating a sucker's bet. 

Ladarius Green (ADP 92, The Gut Check 175): I want to jump on the fantasy bandwagon for Green, I really do. But he had golden opportunities to wrest the job from an aging, and oft-injured, Antonio Gates and couldn't do it. It's not like Green was Delanie Walker sitting behind Vernon Davis while Davis was churning out TE1, TE3, and TE8 production from 2009-2011.  

That sounded good but it's wrong: Gates was TE12, TE9, TE2, and TE11 since Green entered the league and he only missed 5 games in 4 seasons after missing 9 games the 2 years prior to Green's arrival. The fact is, Green played behind a future Hall of Famer with gas left in the tank and a quarterback who knows every contour of Gates' vehicle. Then why the doubts?

Because I only see three ways Green turns in a TE1 season:

I'm not counting on a slew of injuries, which means either Green is the third or fourth option in a new offense and quarterback or Roethlisberger is undervalued and poised for a huge year. I'm more open to this fantasy juggernaut possibility than it appears.

Roethlisberger was on pace for QB7 production last year but that was without LeVeon Bell for half of those games. Wheaton flashed big-time ability for two weeks at the end of the season and if Roethlisberger can demonstrate more rapport with Wheaton, opponents will be forced into mismatches with Wheaton—especially if Coates raises his game as a slot option. But there are too many ifs in a good but not great passing offense to think Green puts them over the top. 

One of these ifs is Green. He runs fast, he catches the ball over his shoulder, and he has some skill after the catch. But if he can't develop the quality of rapport with a veteran like Philip Rivers, it's not going to happen with Roethlisberger. 

My friend Kyle Posey at Bolts From the Blue has a strong analysis of Green's game that he wrote for the site last August. I'll give you the highlights:

  • Green is a terrific athlete who can run down the likes of Tavon Austin from 30 yards away. 
  • He is incapable of tracking and avoiding the middle linebacker dropping into zone coverage and a getting open for his quarterback.
  • Consistently gets rerouted by the defense, which means the offense will have to move Green around a lot to get him open.
  • Green lacks physicality with his route techniques to beat coverage.
  • Rivers didn't earn enough reps with Green to deliver the TE the ball in tight quarters consistently enough for Green to make a difference. 

Roethlisberger will need to show he trusts Green early and he's willing to fit the ball into tight areas where Green can win the ball. I've seen Green do this with some success as a weapon in college but the opportunities have been too few in the NFL to ascertain if he can transfer these skills to the pros. Understandably, Green is worth the risk as a late-TE1, early-TE2 investment for fantasy owners even if my rating is far lower. For now, I'm staying away from Green until I have a better feel for the Steelers' offense.  

Tyler Eifert (ADP 70, The Gut Check 94): Eifert's health is the greatest concern that I have. Eifert will miss the preseason and potentially the beginning of the regular season, which could dictate conditioning issues that either generate a slow start or poor finish. Cascade injuries are a prominent issue for a player with a long recovery time who is likely to rush his process to get on the field earlier than he should. 

What concerns me more is the loss of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Even if the red zone efficiency stats are better for the Bengals with Eifert on the field, the context for those stats is that Andy Dalton had five established weapons to throw the ball in a familiar offensive scheme. New offensive coordinator Ken Zampese is a long-time Bengals coach so it's likely he won't make huge changes to the scheme but the playbook will be new to Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd and these are two players Andy Dalton will be forced to rely on. 

Even if some of the Bengals young veterans climbing the depth chart overtake Lafell or Boyd, they lack the same experience and rapport with Dalton and it means defenses will cheat more to stop a still-recovering Eifert and let LaFell and/or Boyd prove they can win one-on-one. All of this tells me that Eifert's red zone totals from 2015 are in for a regression. Cut Eifert's 13 scores to 6 and fantasy owners are staring at a player in the TE9-TE14 range. 

I have Eifert as my TE11 and I for the reasons above, I don't expect his TD totals to climb because the absence of Jones and Sanu will force Dalton to lean on Eifert more. In this department, the former Golden Domer is closer to what people think Zach Ertz is, good but not great.  Eifert can make plays after contact but he's not a dominant athletic force. Absent of the same caliber of surrounding talent and Eifert's 2016 totals fade. 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ADP 123, The Gut Check Not Rated): He's big and fluid but he's not explosive. That's the difference between Seferian-Jenkins and a stud like Rob Gronkowski. Another difference is staying healthy. At yet another difference is remaining professional.

Seferian-Jenkins lost his temper and engaged in Twitter wars with followers after a practice session last week. This has nothing to do with the tight end's ability but it adds a layer to the number of reasons Seferian-Jenkins hasn't put it together on the field.

Cameron Brate offers more as a receiver from the position and Jameis Winston has already developed a rapport with Brate. The same can't be said of Seferian-Jenkins. I don't see much upside to taking Seferian-Jenkins as my second tight end when there are far more proven players or better athletes in appealing situations. 

Underrated

Martellus Bennett (ADP 133, The Gut Check 81): Bennett might be one of the smartest options to acquire as your TE2 this year. If you embrace risk, he's a great gamble as a TE1 at about half the price of is comparative fantasy value. His ADP is low because he's the TE2 on his team and there's only one team in recent history that has supported two fantasy TE1s. 

Fortunately, Bennett is on that team. He'll be paired opposite one of those tight ends, catching the ball from the same quarterback, and working under the same coach who made these multiple attack one o the most difficult schemes to defend in the league. 

Bennett is not the same caliber athlete as Aaron Hernandez but he's skilled enough to deliver TE1 production in his own right when the main act at the position. Working with Rob Gronkowski will actually raise the quality of his targets and there isn't a proven receiver in this offense who has developed years of rapport with Tom Brady and remained durable other than Julian Edelman. And Edelman is more slot receiver than a perimeter player. 

When Gronkowski and Hernandez ruled the Patriots passing game as rookies, Wes Welker had a few years of WR1 fantasy play that the duo interrupted. I expect Edelman to remain a quality fantasy starter but not a borderline WR1 if Gronkowski and Bennett remain healthy. 

Bill Belichick sees his personnel clearly. Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount present the potential for a diverse and potent ground game. Edelman works best from the slot but can deliver outside if the scheme finds mismatches. Gronkowski is the team's best player. 

If Belichick can run a scheme where Brady can move Gronkowski and Bennett into one of five different positions on the field based on the defense, this team remains versatile without a great deep threat. Nate Washington will provide enough good work in the vertical game (and perhaps Malcolm Mitchell) but Belichick knows that Brady's strength is short and intermediate passing. Scrambling the defense with pre-snap shifts and formation conundrums will give Brady a high volume of easy targets. 

This should mean Bennett thrives as a PPR option with 5-7 scores and 700-900 yards. Hernandez was the No.3 fantasy TE in 2011 when he was the "No.2" option in this Gronkowski-led duo. His totals? 79-910-7. Gronkowski? 90-1327-17. 

I think Bennett has 79-910-7 upside. A more realistic figure is 60-70 catches, 750-900 yards, and 4-6 touches. It's easily low-end TE1 territory at the price of the No.14 TE off fantasy boards.That's value. 

Zach Miller (ADP 152, The Gut Check 111): Miller was TE16 last year and that was with starter Martellus Bennett playing 11 games. His average ranking at Footballguys is TE17 although Bennett is no longer in Chicago, Jay Cutler remains the starter, and no proven tight end was added to replace Bennett. It's a conservative perspective on Miller because he's in his early thirties and never saw extended time as a starter before 2015.

I get it. But unlike Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz, Miller has the athletic ability after the catch to extend plays for big gains. He has an aggressive quarterback in Jay Cutler. And he has little wear and tear. 

The Bears defense doesn't appear on the verge of massive improvement, the offense will be playing from behind, and it means opponents will often drop enough to give Cutler a soft underbelly to throw the ball in garbage time. Picture Miller in coveralls riding on the back of the truck. It may stink for Bears fans but it's money for those relying on Miller. 

I have no qualms Miller as my TE2. He has legit TE1 upside as an athlete in his scheme and due to game scripts.

Antonio Gates (ADP 113, The Gut Check 78): If you checked out Kyle Posey's article when reading about Ladarius Green, you read that one of Gates' talents is working free against zone coverage. He does this two ways: First, he understands coverage and has a strong pre- and post-snap rapport with Rivers. Second, he's a physical player who beat defenders with a masterful understanding of route running that includes using his leverage to bait defenders in close quarters. 

If you're waiting for Gates to drop off a cliff, look to Tony Gonzalez as a rebuttal to your expectation. During the final three years of Gonzalez's career, the Falcons tight end never posted worse than No.6 TE production. Although Gonzalez benefited more from the scheme in Atlanta than Gates in San Diego, I'll argue that Gates is more athletic at this stage of his career than Gonzalez was at the end of his. 

Gates has been a TE1 for the past four years and is only two years removed from a top-2 season at his position. To me, Gates is the offensive fantasy version of DB Charles Woodson. Most fantasy owners have been projecting a drop-off for several years and they continued to thrive. Woodson finally retired but I'm not retiring Gates from my draft board as a late-TE1 until the's proof it's over. 

Virgil Green (ADP 43*, The Gut Check 27*): I've written about Green for years. The low ranking I have for Green (still higher than most) comes from missing OTAs due to a finger injury and early uncertainty about his position on the depth chart. Jeff Heuerman lacks Green's athletic upside after the catch. If Green performs with the ball in his hands remotely like he did at Nevada, his athletic ability as a runner will belong in the top tier of tight ends. What we need to see is if Green earns the trust of the starting quarterback and will that starter possess the skills to feed three quality starters in the passing game? It's a difficult question but worth taking a flier at the end of your drafts.   

*ADPs are by position due to how low Green is on most draft boards if drafted at all. 


Austin Hooper (ADP 225, The Gut Check 134): In case you missed it, here's what I had to say about Hooper last week while sharing my thoughts on Matt Ryan

The most compelling reason I'm not completely sold on Ryan's ADP remaining in the basement is rookie tight end Austin Hooper. The fact Hooper is not allowed to participate in OTAs because of an NFL rule in place since the 1990s is depressing his value even more than the fact that rookie tight ends don't fare well for fantasy owners. 

Despite the missed time and his rookie status, Hooper could be an exceptional instance where the intersection of his talent, the Falcons' scheme, and the offense's needs could lead to immediate, low-end TE1 production. One of the things I agree with Shanahan about Hooper is route running: 

"We really liked his route-running ability," Shanahan told ESPN's Vaughn McClure. "He's come off the ball hard. He's not the fastest guy in the world, but he's fast enough. He's got good cutting ability so he can break guys off at the top of his routes. He's a big guy with length. he's got very good ball skills. And he's not scared to attack the ball. When he's covered, he still has a chance to make the play."

Let's show you some of that skill in action. 

Hooper wins after the catch with quick, compact movements and he wins at the catch point thanks to his toughness and my ball mentality. I don't see the downside of taking him at the end of drafts when it should become apparent within 2-3 weeks whether he'll be a factor.