UPDATED 7/15: When I draft, I always have a tier sheet handy. I find that organizing players by tiers is far more beneficial than merely ranking players.
I could rank Jimmy Graham over Greg Olsen but it is impossible to truly predict who will finish better between the two of them, but I do know that both should finish better than a guy like Zach Ertz. Tiers also allow me to gauge the draft and plan my picks around how many players in a particular tier are still available. But in the end, it is up to you to digest the research and make your own decisions on who to draft based upon your own beliefs on who you feel is the better player this year.
Another reason I prefer tier rankings is that a range of outcomes approach is preferable to just this is what a guy will finish with at the end of the season. Jason Witten and Frank Gore have low end RB1 and TE1 numbers the past two years, but their weekly numbers are not going to help you win your weeks for the most part. In essence, you are looking for a player that has a chance to perform at a weekly level that is higher than a mere replacement level player, even if that replacement level player may have decent looking year-end numbers. Which brings me to my final point, fantasy football, in season long leagues, is about winning weeks, so you need to draft a combination of players where some have high ceiling, while some of high floors. That is how you win.
TIGHT END TIERS
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots – Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Gronkowski are by far the three most dominant weekly difference makers in fantasy football. In fact, Gronk has 69 touchdowns in just 88 games. His draft position has plummeted due to a down year caused by Brady’s suspension and his back injury. Fully healthy now, Gronkowski will be just as dominant as ever. Do not let him slip to the third round, because if you do, you are giving your opponent a major advantage right out of the gate.
Travis Kelce, Chiefs – With Jeremy Maclin cut, Kelce is this team’s most dominant and reliable receiving option. The passing game could very well be funneled through him, although, unfortunately it is still Alex Smith throwing the passes. Kelce caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, look for similar numbers this year but for the touchdowns to rise to six or more. He was Pro Football Focus’ (PFF’s) number one rated tight end and also finished number one in Football Outsiders DYAR rating.
Jordan Reed, Redskins – Numbers were down across the board last season, as he dealt with injuries one again. HC Jay Gruden mentioned that “the offense runs through" Jordan Reed with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon departing. Unfortunately some of that could just be bluster, since this is still a very crowded receiving core with Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder looking like future studs, and Josh Doctson supposedly healthy and the team’s first round draft pick from last year. Reed’s 4th round ADP is a little too risky for me given all the weapons the Redskins have and with his concussion history.
Jimmy Graham, Seahawks – Now fully healthy, expect Graham to be a reliable fantasy option as Russell Wilson’s main passing target along with Doug Baldwin. Graham finished second in Football Outsiders DYAR rating and fifth in their DVOA rating. Essentially DYAR means a tight end with more total value while DVOA means a tight end with more value per play. There will be down games, but such is life at the tight end position.
Greg Olsen, Panthers – Cam Newton played horribly last year, yet Olsen was his usual reliable self, going for 80 catches and over a 1000 yards. He did have an eight-year low of just three touchdowns; look for that to move back to his mean and bounce back with at least five.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings – What a difference a quarterback makes. Potential only lasts so long, fortunately for Rudolph it lasted six years and he finally broke out. The mojo between Bradford and Rudolph is real and there is no reason to doubt it won't continue. Per ESPN Stats, he ran a route on 58 percent of his snaps and was targeted on 23.7 percent of them, on his way to catching 83 passes and 7 touchdowns. A legitimate red zone threat, finishing second in the league in red zone targets with 24, expect similar numbers this year, despite the tendency to still not believe in him. Fight the urge.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals – A touchdown monster and clear-cut second option in their passing game ... when healthy. Unfortunately he was injured again (back surgery) last season and now doesn’t know if he will even be ready for training camp. Drafting him high is risky without a solid backup option. I just can’t rank him higher with all his health issues, especially since their offensive line is so bad and he might be asked to block more than usual. He’s one of the slowest healers in the league.
Delanie Walker, Titans – His numbers came back down to his four-year mean after a one year spike. He’s a steady option, but they have a full complement of receivers this year, especially with the addition of Eric Decker, in addition to Demarco Murray out of the backfield. Look for him to have around 60 catches, 800 yards, and 5-6 touchdowns. In the unreliable world of tight ends, he’s a safe and steady top 10 option at the position that is a great grab at his current ADP in the 8th round.
Eric Ebron, Lions – He’s improved his play every season and certainly looks like he is ready to break out. Nagging ankle injuries hampered him last season, even though he tried to play through them, so health is key with him. He also only caught one touchdown after catching five the previous year. I believe he’s capable of easily scoring six or more, especially since Anquan Boldin, who worked the same area of the field as him, abandons the third highest redzone targets of all receivers, with 22. Ebron is a great value pick with an ADP in the 11th round, and at that price, he is easy to pair with another decent option if you still have reservations.
Hunter Henry, Chargers – There is a big gate(s) in Henry’s way to being a reliable weekly TE1. Henry saw the 4th most red-zone targets of all tight ends last season, with 16, just two behind his buddy Antonio Gates who had 18. Although Henry caught two more of those (10) targets and tied with most catches in the red-zone for all tight ends. He averaged a solid 67.9% catch rate and just over 13 yards per reception, while scoring 8 touchdowns as a rookie. In fact, Philip Rivers passer rating was an impressive 147.9 when targeting Henry, far surpassing all the other Chargers pass catchers last season. Gates turns THIRTY-SEVEN this year, and has had his share of injuries, so it is quite possible Henry takes over lead duties this year, and I would expect the target share to shidt into Henry's favor. In fact, coaches and Gates himself have mentioned that Gates isn’t going to play his full complement of snaps this year. Unfortunately with Keenan Allen back from injury there is more competition for targets in this offense. While I think Henry is a slight reach at his current ADP, I would love to have him on my team and he would be a high end TE1 if Gates got injured.
Zach Ertz, Eagles – A quality tight end that has a good connection with Carson Wentz, which seems to be carrying over to OTAs this year. He had 105 targets last year, but as Sig Bloom pointed out, 31 of those came in just two games when Jordan Mathews was out. I also can't imagine the Eagles want Wentz throwing the ball another 38 times a game and the Eagles now have two legitimate outside receivers in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. All of that said, in the 9th round, a lot of the downside is being built into his ADP and the mojo between a quarterback and a receiver cannot be underestimated. I also have a funny feeling the Eagles will inexplicably let Wentz throw it 35+ times a game again. Just a gut feeling.
Jack Doyle, Colts – The Detective Jack Doyle gets a major bump with Dwayne Allen shipped out of town. He led all NFL tight ends in catch rate (78.7%) last season and ranked fifth in red-zone receptions (9). He saw a healthy 12 targets in the red-zone and that should increase to 17+ with Allen’s 9 targets vacated by his departure. As ESPN's Mathew Berry pointed out, "during the past three years, 25.3 percent of Andrew Luck's completions, 24.3 percent of his passing yards and 37.2 percent of his passing touchdowns have gone to tight ends." Count on the detective as your main tight end, but just make sure to keep an eye out on the more athletic Erik Swoope in training camp.
Martellus Bennett, Packers – Aaron Rodgers will know how to take full advantage of his talents and I think he is an upgrade over Jared Cook, who averaged a paltry 3 catches and 37.7 yards a game playing the same role with Green Bay last year, although Cook did finally see an uptick in the playoffs. The problem Bennett faces is that Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson are all great possession and end-zone receivers. Additionally, the Packers added tight end Lance Kendricks who is a capable short area receiver, quietly having a 50-catch season in the dreck that was the Rams offense last year. Over the past three season the Packers tight end core has avergaed around 60 receptions, 600 yards and 5 touchdowns on the year, which is something we can expect as Bennett's floor, making him a borderline top 12 tight end at worst on the season. With an ADP of 9.11 the downside is built in, but I would also make sure to get a later guy like Hooper or Gates.
Jason Witten, Dallas – The juice is gone, but still will catch a ton of balls. Witten had 95 targets last year with 69 catches, but unfortunately just 3 touchdowns. He’s that old dude on the basketball court that dominates with his old man game. He’s a reliable, yet unspectacular, PPR option only.
Austin Hooper, Falcons – He’s a talented tight end who played great as a rookie, which is rare. With Jacob Tamme gone, Hooper is the unquestioned starting tight end on a team that doesn’t have a dominant receiving option after Julio Jones. Last year he posted a 70.4% catch rate and averaged 14.3 yards per reception, both numbers better than Hunter Henry. Hooper also had 3 touchdowns on only 19 catches last year. I know it’s aggressive, but I think he can hit 55-60 catches this year, to go along with 7 touchdowns. It’s good to bet on ascending players who play on good team’s and with a great quarterback.
Julius Thomas, Jaguars – After being called "nearly unstoppable" in OTA’s by the Jacksonville press last year, Thomas battled his usual injuries, playing in just nine games and then had to deal with the horrible quarterback play of Blake Bortles. Change can be a good thing though, and Thomas is back playing with HC Adam Gase, where he caught 24 touchdowns in just 27 games in Denver under this very offensive system. Dolphins beat reporter Armando Salguero recently stated that he believes Thomas is "going to be a thing" this year, and that the Dolphins have "multiple plays" designed just for him. Other reports have mentioned him and Tannehill are not getting on the same page. The talent is there, and hopefully Gase can rekindle the magic. One particular play Gase loved to run is having three receivers wide right, with Thomas alone on the left side, where he can dominate in a one-on-one situation. I doubt he has more than 55 catches, but 8+ touchdowns are certainly possible, with the grand caveat, “if he stays healthy.”
Antonio Gates, Chargers – The juice is gone, as he enters his age 37 season. As long as he sees the field, he will catch a ton of passes and many of the ones that count. It's actually quite possible he is only used in the red-zone where he is a beast to cover with his old man box out moves. I just hate investing in a player this old. Like Kobe Bryant in his final season, I think this is the year the wheels totally fall off.
Coby Fleener, Saints – Fleener is a post-hype known quantity. See what I did there. In any case, he’s not a very good player because he is a knucklehead. According to him, the Saints playbook was complex and he was swimming in it last year. Hopefully, with a year in this offense under his belt, we see him step up since there is serious opportunity playing in this offense for an athletic tight end like him. You cannot trust him as your main tight end, but he is an excellent tight end to grab as your TE2 who hopefully gets it together. If he does, and it’s a big if, he’s in a great position to be a difference maker for your team, especially with Brandin Cooks now in New England.
David Njoku, Browns – The Browns thought Njoku was pro-ready enough that they cut veteran tight end Gary Barnidge. Njoku put up a 93% SPARQ (athletic) score and stands 6-foot-4, 246lbs with an insane 11’1” broad jump. An underrated blocker, he has a huge wingspan, which helped him be the dominant pass catcher he was in college. There is tons of upside with Njoku and it looks like he will be on the field for a majority of the team’s snaps. While it is tough to go all-in on a rookie tight end, especially one playing on the Browns, there is a lot of opportunities here for him to make an impact in year one.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, Texans – He had a solid 89 targets, for 54 catches, 559 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. His upside is capped by the presence of fellow tight end Ryan Griffin, who had 74 targets himself. A pedestrian, yet capable, talent, he probably finishes around the 17 to 22 mark for tight ends when all is said and done, making him a viable bench player with streamable upside, especially if Griffin gets injured.
Jesse James, Stealers – With Ladarius Green gone, James is the team unquestioned leader at the tight end positions. While not overly athletic, he is above average talent and a big guy that is a solid and reliable red-zone option. While he will be totally touchdown dependent, but he could easily have 6 or 7. Not a ton of upside here.
Charles Clay, Bills – He’s a decent player who is hurt playing on a pedestrian passing offense and by chronic knee issues that keep him limited every week. He finished 28th in Football Outsiders advanced metrics and 31st in PFF’s. His 57 catch, 552 yard and 4 touchdowns from last year is probably his ceiling, which was the 18th best tight end for fantasy. Expect much of the same this year.
Cameron Brate, Bucs – Brate is a very solid tight end, but after being the only reliable target outside if Mike Evans, the Bucs have reloaded on talent. They added future stud tight end O.J. Howard, in addition to signing DeSean Jackson and drafting rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin. The key here is Howard though, if he doesn't show well in camp, you can bump Brate up. In fact, early OTA reports have stated that regarldess of how well Howard plays, Winston loves Brate and he will be invovled. It's a tough situation to get a full grasp of, but his volume will come down and I don't think he will have another 8 touchdowns, more like 4 or 5, making him totally unreliable as your main starter for fantasy purposes as things stand now.
Gary Barnidge, N/A – He’s a good all-around tight end who should hopefully find a land spotting before camp opens. Look for him to be a solid TE2 with upside, especially if he lands on the right team, which looks to be the Jaguars right now. He was the leagues number one rated pass blocking tight end last season, that's the sort of thing that gets you on the field during passing downs.
Jared Cook, Raiders – Didn’t light it up with Aaron Rodgers during the regular season last year, so probably not going to light it up with Carr this season. He’s a TE2 only, but someone worth watching and may provide them with a element down the seam that they are missing.
O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay – One of the best blocking tight ends to come out of college in a long time, who also has equally impressive offensive skills. He stands 6-foot-6, 251lbs with 4.51 forty speed and a monster 10-foot-1 broad jump. While most rookie tight ends are worthless for fantasy, Howard just could well prove that narrative wrong despite joining a crowded, and amazing, receiving core, which includes fantasy's number seven tight end from last year, Cameron Brate. If you are betting on talent, Howard is it, but he's not going to usurp Brate fully in year one, if at all.
Dwayne Allen, Patriots – Gronk owners would be wise to keep him on speed dial, but he seems to get hurt every season as well. Playing with Tom Brady is never a bad thing, so you could do worse for your TE2.
Jermaine Gresham, Arizona – After barely being involved to start the season, Gresham had a solid eight-week run from weeks 8-16, logging 34 catches, 317 yards and 2 touchdowns. Extrapolated over a full season and we are looking at rock solid 68/634/4 line. On a team devoid of big receivers, Gresham very well could surprise.
Evan Engram, Giants – Engram stands 6-foot-3, 234lbs with ridiculous 4.42 forty speed, finishing with a 94th percentile SPARQ athletic score. To be clear, Engram is not a blocker, he’s a receiver. Not since Marques Colston have we had a receiver being mislabeled as a tight end, which you should use to your advantage, especially in dynasty leagues. Engram does enter a crowded receiving core with three big time receivers (Beckham, Marshall and Shepherd), so it’s tough to expect the world from him, but he will at least be learning from the best. Unfortunately for fantasy, consistency is going to be tough to come by in season long leagues, so a better DFS play or deep bench stash.
Tyler Higbee, Rams – You don’t get a nickname like “Baby Gronk” for no reason. He had a horrible catch rate last year, but he also flashed some talent as well. He’s also certainly more talented than Lance Kendricks who had 50 catches for 499 yards and 2 touchdowns playing in this spot last year. Even with the addition of rookie Gerald Evertt, Higbee should be the team’s main tight end this season and the Rams could play with a lot of two tight end sets regardless, making Higbee a spot play TE2 who just might be a consistent PPR option.
Vance McDonald, 49ers – Not a bad player, but there are reports of him being cut despite averaging 16.3 yards per reception last year. He’s only a deep league grab in tight end premium leagues unless he finds a better landing spot.
Maxx Williams or Ben Watson, Ravens – With Dennis Pitta done for the season, it opens up a whopping 121 tight end targets. I really liked Williams coming out of college; but can he step up in year three? If not, Watson, who is coming off injury, could very well just step right into the Pitta role and provide the same exact return on value, catching 86 passes, albeit with little touchdown upside. Although keep in mind that Watson will be 37 years old this season. The winner of this completion holds value and will be bumped up in these rankings. Hopefully, they don’t end up canceling each other out.
Seth DeValve, Browns - The second year man out of Princeton could very well suprise if Njoku is still learning how to adjust to the NFL game. The team has talked him up and he is a converted wide receiver who stands 6'2" 244 pounds with a big time 40 inch vertical. The team released Gary Barnidge because of their belief in DeValve and recognizing that it's in their interest to develop young players than win now. In OTA's DeValve stood out as one of the second year players to have made the biggest jump since last year and supposidly looked "bigger, stronger and faster." He's a guy to watch, as he may have sneaky value in deep tight end premium leagues.
Erik Swoope, Colts – He’s another one of those basketball player converts that takes time to adjust to playing football. He’s more athletic than Detective Doyle and the really like him. It’s certainly possible that Doyle blocks more, while Swoope runs more routes. He averaged a monster 19.8 yards per reception last season.
Zach Miller, Bears – Clocking a 73.4% catch rate last season, he’s great when he is on the field, but unsurprisingly, he was injured much of the season again last year. While the Bears added free agent Dion Sims and drafted future starter Adam Shaheen, Miller should be the starter this year as long as he stays healthy. At least the quarterback play can’t be any worse than it was last season, or can it?
Ryan Griffin, Texans – Quietly had 74 targets last year. If Fiedorowicz got injured, he would be a solid backend TE1.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jets – ASJ recently stated that he has been clean and sober since January and has re-dedicated himself to playing football. He has lost 20 pounds and reports from OTA’s have been positive. There is a lot of opportunity for him in this offense and is someone to monitor closely since he is built like a skyscraper. For what it’s worth I’m not drafting a single Jet this year, who are the biggest dumpster fire this league has ever seen at this time of the year.
Gerald Everett, Rams – Think Delanie Walker or a lower case Jordan Reed, standing 6’ 3” 239lbs with 4.60 forty speed and a 37 inch vertical. While he is a talented pass catcher, it is worth mentioning that he has very small hands, just 8.5 inches. Good thing for him he plays in the sunny confines of southern California. The Rams will use plenty of two tight end sets; it’s just hard to imagine him being a reliable starter for you this season. A great dynasty hold, especially if Goff’s play improves.
George Kittle, 49ers – Someone to keep an eye on since Vane McDonald might be on the outs. While he didn’t have big numbers in college, he is a very good athlete, standing 6’4” 247lbs with 4.52 forty speed and a huge 11’ broad jump. Per PFF, he had just one quarterback pressure in his last two seasons at university and he received their second best run blocking grade, just behind O.J. Howard. That is the sort of thing that could have him see the field sooner than later. He's already seeing first team reps.
Ladarius Green, N/A – If he can get himself cleared to play from concussions, he would be a must add as your TE2 with bit time upside. Unfortunately his playing day may be over.
Lance Kendricks, Packers – Their blocking tight end. Would split time with Richard Rogers if Bennett got injured.
Rico Gathers, Cowboys – A former basketball player that is getting some first team reps. If something were to happen to Witten, he would have a lot of opportunity on a team devoid of talented pass catchers.
Adam Shaheen, Bears – He’s a big guy, standing 6’6” 278lbs. Like most rookies, it’s going to take him some time to adjust to the NFL game, so more of a dynasty hold than someone that will have value this year.