Critical Tier Drops: Tight Ends - Footballguys

Identifying the key value drop off points among 2018 tight ends

Each fantasy football season the landscape of the skill positions change. One year offers more depth, while another turns into a studs and duds feel to the available player pool. Dissecting key drop off points in the positional average draft position (ADP) is critical to maximizing draft day value. Here are the key pivot points for 2018 at tight end:

to gronk or not to gronk

Some tight ends over the years have approached or surpassed Rob Gronkowski in a single season of production. However, no tight end can approach the consistency of Gronkowski's per-game dominance. Since Gronkowski came into the league, he is 10 yards-per-game better than any tight end (Travis Kelce is second) and 10 percent higher than Kelce in yards-per-target. Of the list of tight ends averaging even 50 yards-per-game over the span, none approach Gronkowski 0.75 touchdowns-per-game either. In short, Gronkowski has been a monster producer and warrants selection in Round 2 of typical PPR formats with even more priority in non-PPR scoring.

With strong receivers lasting far deeper in the draft than a tight end like Gronkowski, the decision is easy. The one exception could be going running back in Round 2 over Gronkowski. However, with question marks littering the tight end position, team building exercises produce better results with Gronkowski in Round 2 (as long as Leonard Fournette is not still around) and addressing RB2 in the following rounds.

the shaky elite THRESHOLD

In the Round 3-4 zone, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz are the next tight ends off the board in most drafts. The issue with drafting either is two-fold. First, there is no wiggle room for Kelce or Ertz to underperform. They need to be a top-3 option with No. 1 overall tight end upside. Ertz enjoyed a career year, especially with more touchdowns in 2017 than the previous two seasons combined, as the Eagles were a high-flying offense. This year has Carson Wentz not only working back from a knee injury late in the season but also a strong touchdown rate regression. Also, Dallas Goedert projects as a bigger hinderance to Ertz's upside than Trey Burton as the previous TE2.

For Kelce, there is the quarterback change from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes, who is more of a gunslinger. Also, the team added Sammy Watkins, a substantial upgrade over their WR2 a year ago (and Watkins has WR1 potential). Both have a much more difficult road to being an elite producer than Rob Gronkowski, who should dominate in September with Julian Edelman and is still the best red zone target in the NFL with Tom Brady under center.

the top-5 upside tier

Once Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz are gone, the next handful of rounds encompass a bevy of options at tight end. However, most are illusions without the top-5 upside required to eschew waiting on the position until Round 12 or later. Here are the highlighted target tight ends with top-5 upside if opting for one before Round 12:

Jimmy Graham: Aggressively priced at TE4/5, but could be the Rob Gronkowski of the Packers with 10+ touchdown upside, even if more red zone threat than target maven.

Greg Olsen: Cam Newton's comfort target over the years returns from injury with a positional ADP around TE5. The one risk here is the additional targets in Carolina (healthy Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore drafted, Torrey Smith added) to soften Olsen's target upside enough to make TE4/5 his upside.

Evan Engram: The rookie phenom last year enjoyed a free run of targets with Giants wide receivers dropping like flies with injuries. The floor is outside the Top 10 considering the fight for targets with a returning Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard, and the addition of Saquon Barkley. However, Engram is also a historic talent who can shift target market share his direction as a matchup nightmare for linebackers or safeties.

Delanie Walker: Tennessee hopes to be a rebound offense overall in 2018 with Corey Davis entering Year 2. Even with a limited passing game last year, Walker was TE6 in PPR PPG with 111 targets (third-most of the position) and a touchdown regression-worthy three scores, his lowest in five seasons with the Titans. Walker is one of the best values beyond Rob Gronkowski in the Round 7-9 range of ADP.

Jordan Reed: Reports are Reed is as healthy as any point in recent memory. Yes, Reed has become synonymous with injury, but he also has the most Gronkowski-like run of per-game production over the past three seasons, finishing as TE1, TE1, and TE9 over the stretch. When Reed plays, he is a difference maker. Also, Washington has plenty of question marks at wide receiver and Alex Smith has fueled plenty of tight end production with Vernon Davis and Travis Kelce in his career. In Round 8-9, Reed is has a favorable ADP compared to his per-game production.

THE best of the rest

The criteria for tight ends beyond the first 10-12 rounds of a draft includes a clear lead role, quality quarterback, and ideally a weak wide receiver core. Here are the names to know:

Clay is the ideal later round tight end with a lack of clarity beyond Kelvin Benjamin among Buffalo's wide receivers. Clay also has 500+ receiving yards in each of the last five seasons. Cook lacks the upside of the rest of the list as he is one of the most anemic touchdown producers at the position in recent memory. Also, Oakland is strong (projected) at wide receiver with Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson, and Martavis Bryant - plus Marshawn Lynch will get plenty of work near the end zone. Jacksonville rolled out one of the weakest tight end depth charts in the NFL last season with a past-his-prime Marcedes Lewis as the lead option. Seferian-Jenkins is on his potentially last chance in the NFL for a lead gig. The perfect storm for Seferian-Jenkins is scoring eight or more touchdowns and blending well with Jacksonville's play-action attack near the end zone. Watson enjoyed his career-best season in 2015 with the Saints, accruing 110 targets, 800+ yards, and six touchdowns. The depth chart is Watson's for the Saints in 2018 and the WR2/3 roles are up in the air behind Michael Thomas. Watson is not even in the top-20 of positional ADP and has better TE1 odds than many ahead of him in draft orders.