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Advice for April Rookie Dynasty Drafts: Part IV, Tight Ends

Matt Waldman shares his rookie tight end choices that are best investments for the unique nature of April dynasty drafts. 

ADVICE FOR DYNASTY LEAGUE ROOKIE DRAFTS PRE-NFL DRAFT: PART IV, Tight endS

If you've read Parts I-III, skip to the heading "Tight Ends." Otherwise, welcome to the frontier. If your dynasty league picks rookies before the NFL Draft, that’s where you are. I applaud you guys for having the stones to pick players without a landing spot.

If you’re in a league where you don’t have that information before making your picks, you need to think about the draft a little differently.

There aren’t many players with the skills to transcend their landing spot. So unless you are sold lock, stock, and smoking barrels on a specific player’s talent  (Ezekiel Elliott for me at this time last year), you need at least a basic plan tailored for each phase of the draft. Even if your rookie drafts take place after the NFL’s selection weekend, this series of four articles will help you identify players at each position who can help you formulate a strategy with a level of risk that suits your style.

THE BASICS

After splitting the draft into the typical three phases of early, middle, and late rounds let’s categorize the type of talents that will likely be available in each:

Early Round Types (Rounds 1-2, and possibly the 3rd round in rookie drafts with at least 9 rounds)

  • Transcendent: Prospects with enough versatility to pay in any scheme early on. There aren’t many of them in any draft, and it’s even rarer to find them after the early rounds.
  • Only a Dysfunctional Organization Screws This Up: Prospects with great talent, but their style or skill is specialized to a specific type of system. Although these players have more limitations than transcendent talents, they are often as productive when paired intelligently with a scheme that maximizes their talents. Sadly, there are organizations that screw this up. When it happens, heads roll but these prospects often get left behind in the transition because a new scheme or coaching regime may not be the best fit.
  • Name Brand: Prospects with a strong resume bullet points that NFL front offices use to justify early-round picks, including prototypical height-weight-combine data, big-name college program, few health issues, and strong statistical production.
  • Great Athlete: Prospects with elite physical attributes for their respective positions but limited technical skills and/or flaws that early on could restrict them to a narrow role, at best.

Mid-Round Types (Rounds 3-5, depending on the size of the draft)

  • Great Athlete: See above.
  • Off-Brand Name, Talented Game: NFL front offices like early-round picks that have justifiable resume points of the Name Brand types, but these players lack one or more of these bullet points despite possessing the talent and skill of future starters.
  • Off-Field Issues: Prospects with Early-Round talent but off-field risks.
  • Health Concerns: Talents with starter potential but could be 1-2 years away due to recent injuries.
  • Over Achieving Technician: Prospects with greater football skill than athletic talent but enough physical skill to play in the NFL.

Late Round Types (Rounds 6-9, depending on the size of the draft)

  • Great Athlete: See above.
  • Off-Brand Name, Talented Game: See above.
  • Off-Field Issues: See above.
  • Health Concerns: See above.
  • Over Achieving Technicians: See above.

When you sort players by categories of risk, it will help you identify contingency plans or mid- and late- round values. This article will cover early-round picks of each type and some mid- and late-round contingencies if the desired early picks are gone or you aim for value.

The profiles below are neither scouting reports nor an inclusive list. For an exhaustive look at 22 quarterbacks and 136 other skill prospects, including rankings, tiers, scouting reports, and breakdowns you won’t see anywhere else, download the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

You can take the tour of the RSP here:


Tight EndS

Tight Ends

Strictly from the standpoint of potential, this is the best tight end class I’ve ever seen as a football fan. Of course, there’s a huge gulf between potential and reality. We got a powerful reminder of that yesterday upon learning that former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in prison.   

Hernandez was arguably the most talented tight end of the best class I’ve ever studied for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. The 2010 group included Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Dennis Pitta, Garrett Graham and Tony Moeaki as the headliners. Moeaki could have been as productive as Pitta if not for chronic health issues.  This class also had depth, including long-time contributors Jermaine Gresham, Ed Dickson, Michael Hoomanawanui and Jim Dray.

The 2017 class has the potential to produce 12-15 players of note as significant contributors. As promising as this seems, fantasy owners must understand that tight end is one of the most difficult positions in the NFL.

Blocking in the college game is worlds apart from the pro game because even the best athletes along the defensive line in college lack the wide base knowledge of NFL defenders when it comes to hand usage and leverage.  Even good college run blockers and pass protectors have a steep learning curve.

This is not meant to dissuade you from targeting players from this rich class. Just don’t lose patience after the first year with a top prospect on your roster. If you expect immediate production from your first and second-round picks, then you either shouldn’t pick at this position or, better yet, you should adjust your expectations.

Early Rounds

Transcendent

O.J. Howard: From the perspective of real football, Howard is clearly the best tight end prospect on the board. He’s an excellent college run blocker and he has wide receiver speed and acceleration. The last time I saw an athlete near Howard’s 6’6” 255-pound dimensions take an end-around, accelerate past two defenders in the backfield, and turn the corner on defensive backs up the sideline for a play at least 60 yards, I was watching ABC College Football with Keith Jackson bellowing “Whoa, Nellie!” as he did the play-by-play of his tight end namesake at Oklahoma in 1988.

This all sounds excellent for fantasy owners because his blocking should get him on the field early and his athletic ability will make him a mismatch. However, the fantasy production gap between Howard and the other top tight ends in this class may not be nearly as great.

As top fantasy options, Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed make plays against tight coverage—often physical coverage. Howard didn’t earn nearly as many of these opportunities at Alabama as I saw from these five when they were in college. The Alabama passing game rarely flowed through Howard and when it did, he was often the recipient of misdirection plays or zone passes that didn’t require him to beat tight man coverage.

Howard adjusts well to the ball in space and he can run away from almost anyone, but the biggest thing he’ll have to prove is that he can make those NFL “big boy” catches that separate a weapon—a top-five fantasy tight end—from a functional starter/low-end fantasy TE1.  Many tight ends in this class have won in ways that Howard hasn’t had the opportunity.

Even if Howard lacks this skill in tight coverage, he’ll generate big plays with his speed. However, a lack of skill against tight man coverage could make him a minor fantasy disappointment for his draft spot. I recommend Howard as a buy, but there are too many good tight ends in this class to trade up for him. If he you don’t expect Howard to arrive in your range based on his ADP or below value, there are several other viable options with his upside in the receiving game.

David Njoku: A former high jumper, Njoku has the build, athletic ability, and hands, of a top NFL tight end. Unlike Howard, Njoku’s film has plays where he has won targets in tight coverage in the red zone and on vertical routes. However, Njoku’s blocking isn’t on Howard’s level and he will face a development curve. Skilled after the catch, Njoku has an equal-to-greater upside to Howard as a fantasy option but will require a year or two more patience.

 

 

Only a Dysfunctional Organization Screws This Up

Evan Engram: It’s possible a team will make Engram a receiver because he’s not a good blocker. Some compare his blocking to Jordan Reed, but Reed was more functional than Engram at the same stage of their careers. Reed also gained 20 pounds of muscle that we’re not anticipating from Engram.

If Engram fails it’s because we falsely assumed rational coaching would mold the scheme around his pass-catching and minimize his blocking in the way that New Orleans did with Jimmy Graham, Miami with Charles Clay, and San Diego with Hunter Henry. This may not happen, but I’ll take the risk that the Engram will be paired with a staff that understands how to use him without expecting more than what he’s capable of doing.

Because Engram has the speed and agility of an NFL receiver—and I’d have him as a top-tier option at that position if he’s switched—he’s a safe pick despite the risk of an inept coaching staff trying to force him into a role that most know would be stupid.  Let’s hope against stupidity.

Middle Rounds

Off-Brand Name, Talented Game

Bucky Hodges: I’ve heard that some draft outlets have deemed Hodges “soft” as a blocker. It’s an unfair assessment of a player that has had a total of 14 plays an inline blocker during his career at Virginia Tech. I saw at least half of those plays and he didn’t appear soft to me.

Debate aside, the 6’6” 257-pound Hodges will face a steep learning curve if a team expects him to become an inline tight end. However, Hodges speed, vertical, and receiving skills could earn him an immediate role similar to Jimmy Graham in New Orleans with the right fit.

Hodges made more of those “big boy” NFL catches in tight coverage than any tight end I studied this year. He beats cornerbacks and safeties off the line of scrimmage with his hands and speed when split outside and he knows how to earn position with his height and 39-inch vertical.

Engram may be the guy everyone is targeting early, but Hodges is the better receiver of the two although not fast. It’s a viable strategy to pick a running back, top receiver, and top quarterback during the first three rounds and follow with Hodges in the fourth. I know I’m considering it.

 

 

Jeremy Sprinkle: If the Arkansas tight in was in last year’s class and earned similar production at an SEC school where he didn’t have to share time with Hunter Henry, he would have been one of the top four options on the board. Sprinkle is a good college blocker who should get better as he adds upper body strength and refines his skills to the rigor of the NFL game. He’s a big, fluid, strong runner with skill after the catch and adjusting to the target at the catch point. Think of Sprinkle as a player with Dwayne Allen and Austin Hooper’s skills with a little more work to do. He’s a safe patience play with a lower ceiling than the big-name receivers of this class, but with a higher floor.

 

 

Great Athlete

Adam Shaheen: It’s becoming likely that Shaheen will earn an early-round NFL pick and his value will make a sharp climb in May drafts, but if you’re seeking a potential bargain with high upside, Shaheen is one of those April players. A 278-pound athlete with excellent speed and flexibility at the catch-point, Shaheen arrived at Ashland University as a 205-pound basketball star. It means he’s still catching up to his frame as a blocker and it could take him a year or two before he’s a competent option as an every-down player.

Physically, the Gronkowski comparisons are premature, but not completely off base.  At the cost of a mid-round pick, it’s worth a flier before the fantasy public catches up to the NFL’s valuation. 

 

 

Late Rounds

Off-Brand Name, Talented Game

Cethan Carter: He’s the most underrated tight end in this draft class. An excellent athlete from Louisiana who backed out of his commitment to LSU to attend Nebraska, Carter is an excellent run blocker for his 241-pound frame. He has enough skill in this area to earn playing time as a second tight end or H-Back within his first year.

Carter excels as a route runner, especially the quick-turning and hard-breaking patterns that most inline tight ends run in the pros that often trip up top prospects early on. Statistical analysts have a poor measure Carter’s catch rate, but the data lacks the context of difficult targets, targets versus tight coverage, and targets versus contact.

These are the types of receptions Carter had to make thanks to his quarterback Tommy Armstrong—an NFL prospect trying to convert to wide receiver well ahead of the NFL Draft. Carter saw a lot of difficult targets and make excellent plays.

His talents remind me of Charles Clay and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s more productive as a pro than he was at Nebraska.  

 

 

Eric Saubert: The first time I studied Saubert, his style of play reminded me of Greg Olsen. The tight end from Drake makes a lot of difficult plays on the football.  After finishing my analysis and publishing the RSP, I read that Saubert has bad hands and ball tracking ability. While I might have missed something, I watched enough games that this kind of criticism would be apparent to me if it were valid. I didn’t see anything of the sort. As a late-round pick, he has early-round upside, which means missing on him because I didn’t see those 3-4 games where he dropped the ball (if it happened) isn’t a huge cost to you.

 


For an exhaustive look at 22 quarterbacks and 136 other skill prospects, including rankings, tiers, scouting reports, and breakdowns you won’t see anywhere else, download the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. 

Part III, Wide Receivers

Part II, Running Backs

Part I, Quarterbacks