Deep Sleepers: Tight Ends - Footballguys

The Footballguys staff digs deep for sleepers at tight end

A fantasy draft is all about obtaining the most value with each selection. There is value available throughout a draft, and grabbing it is one of the most important keys to a successful fantasy team. This article specifically targets deep sleeper value (players that can be found very late in a fantasy draft). In an attempt to point out this value, we asked our staff to look deeper than the Top 150 and identify players that should significantly outperform their late draft position. These players should be your targets after the 12th round of your draft.

Player Receiving 5 Votes

Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh

Alexander: McDonald is a former second-round pick, who has never lacked the size, athleticism, and run-after-the-catch ability to create mismatches out of the slot. We caught glimpses of his talent in spurts with the 49ers in 2015 and 2016, and again late last year, after he had a chance to acclimate to the Steelers offense following a preseason trade. Our last memory of McDonald is a 16-10-112-0 receiving line in the 2017 Divisional Round against Jacksonville, which wets the whistle for what he can accomplish in a seam-stretching role while defenses focus on Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Le'Veon Bell in the passing game. Jesse James stands in the way of a top-end finish, but McDonald is capable of low-end TE1 numbers on only 50-60% of the Steelers offensive snaps.

Bloom: McDonald has always had the athleticism to be a top fantasy tight end, but his hands and role have not been there. The Steelers acquired him right before the season last year, but they didn’t completely work him into the offense until the playoff loss to Jacksonville when he caught ten passes for 112 yards on a team-high 16 targets. Offseason buzz has been that the team is working to feature McDonald in the passing game. A streaming tight end approach should lead off with McDonald against Cleveland and hit the waiver wire for a hot Week 1 name if that doesn’t work out.

Hester: McDonald was acquired late in the 2017 offseason (August 29, to be exact), which hindered his ability to learn the offense enough to take over the TE1 role. Injuries also led to inconsistent production. But late in the season, the team began to use McDonald more. In the team's final three "real" games (quotes used to emphasize that the Week 17 game vs. Cleveland in which many Pittsburgh starters were rested doesn't count in this sample), McDonald caught 18 passes for 216 yards on 27 targets, including 10 for 112 yards on 16 targets in the team's playoff loss. McDonald is the superior athlete to Jesse James, and with more time to learn the offense this offseason, he could eat into James' snap share and get a handful or more targets consistently. In a high-octane offense with a top-tier quarterback, that represents a valuable fantasy football asset.

Hindery: The 10-catch, 112 receiving-yard performance against Jacksonville in the playoffs was a coming out party for McDonald in his first season with the Steelers. He has a real chance to build on that momentum in his second season. With Le'Veon Bell at running back and a talented receiving corps led by Antonio Brown drawing most of the defensive attention, McDonald should see single coverage across the middle of the field. With his huge frame and sub-4.7 speed, McDonald can be a mismatch for both linebackers and safeties. He has a great chance to outperform ADP and put together a TE1 season.

Parsons: Vance McDonald is already being talked up as a critical piece to Pittsburgh's high-flying offense for 2018. We saw flashes of what a dynamic tight end down the middle of the field can do with Ladarius Green and now McDonald with defensive attention squarely on Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Now, the Steelers offer JuJu Smith-Schuster as another weapon to free McDonald with optimal matchups. Jesse James is the preferred blocker for Pittsburgh at tight end, but a middling mover beyond 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Look for McDonald to dominate targets from the position.

Players Receiving 3 Votes

Charles Clay, Buffalo

Brimacombe: The Buffalo Bills offense, in general, is in search of pass catchers, and that alone will benefit Clay’s ability to see a heavy volume of targets. Clay is coming off a 13-game season where he finished as TE19 with a 49/558/2 stat line. If you have to look for a TE2-type, you have to consider Clay this year as he has ranked 7th, 16th, 19th, 18th, and 19th over the past five seasons. Those numbers also have to take into account that Clay has missed 10 games over the past four seasons. He could have been more of a fringe TE1 if healthy.

Hicks: With the lack of quality tight ends, Charles Clay is a safe option later in drafts. He has had 500 yards in each of the last five years but lacks the touchdown numbers to become a regular starting option. With an inexperienced quarterback, whoever starts, and questions at wide receiver, Clay should continue his consistency into 2018. While others are shooting for the stars, reach for the moon and get a viable every-week starter.

Holloway: Charles Clay has not been able to play all 16 games in a season since 2013 when he set career highs of 69 catches, 759 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Despite missing games and playing in a mediocre at best passing offense in Buffalo, he has averaged 52 catches for 546 yards and three touchdowns. The Bills are starting over at quarterback this year, and inexperienced quarterbacks frequently favor their veteran tight ends, due to their reliability in critical situations. Clay could improve on his past production in 2018.

Ricky Seals-Jones, Arizona

Alexander: Expect to see Seals-Jones fly up tight end cheat sheets as we get closer to the season due to articles like this one. The Cardinals gave Seals-Jones a huge vote of confidence by passing entirely on tight ends in the NFL Draft despite Troy Niklas leaving for the Patriots and Jermaine Gresham recovering from a torn Achilles. From Week 11 through Week 13 last season, Seals-Jones -- essentially a gigantic wide receiver -- never saw more than 24% of Arizona’s offensive snaps, yet he still managed to pile up 9 catches, 170 yards, and 3 touchdowns on 16 targets. Outside of David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona is short on offensive weapons. They sorely need a player like Seals-Jones, who can create mismatches when motioned out of the slot or the backfield, and they've left themselves with little choice but to give him a chance.

Pasquino: Ricky Seals-Jones was something of a phenom who emerged in November last year for Arizona. He finished with 12 catches, 201 yards, and three scores in just seven contests, but the strange part is that he scored three times in his first two weeks on the field. The Cardinals will need receiver help after both John Brown and Jaron Brown have moved on, but the bigger upside for Seals-Jones is likely to come from a change at quarterback. Either rookie Josh Rosen or veteran Sam Bradford will need a reliable big target, which describes Seals-Jones to a tee. Grabbing him later in drafts offers a ton of upside for a low-cost TE2 price.

Waldman: A big receiver with some experience as an H-Back at Texas A&M, Jones lacked the speed of a wide receiver and it led to him becoming an undrafted free agent. He’s a smart route runner against a zone, he has the size to win man-to-man as a rebounder, and he’s a fluid player as a ball carrier. Blocking is the lone skill missing from Seal-Jones’ game, but with Jermaine Gresham rehabbing an Achilles tear and the Cardinals turning over the rest of its depth chart, Seals-Jones has an opportunity to become an integral part of the offense in a role similar to Cameron Brate in Tampa Bay. Between Weeks 11-15 last year, Seals-Jones was the No. 10 fantasy tight end. Although he may not prove a long-term answer for dynasty owners if the Cardinals staff wants a blocking tight end, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy may work with the talent he has this year, which means Seals-Jones’ receiving prowess will outweigh his blocking deficiencies.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jacksonville

Hicks: Austin Sefarian-Jenkins was drafted high in the second round by Tampa Bay in 2014 for a reason. He has exceptional talent and physical size. Unfortunately for him, his immaturity means he now joins his third team in five years. With a heavily incentivized contract, Sefarian-Jenkins is in a perfect position to turn that potential into reality this year. He showed promising signs with the Jets last year, on a team that doesn’t utilize the tight end position. As the Jaguars have demonstrated over the years, they do. He isn’t going to be a sure thing, but Seferian-Jenkins will be a value prospect with a high upside.

Pasquino: Jacksonville reached out to the free agency pool for their new starting tight end, reeling in Seferian-Jenkins after his career-best year for the woeful Jets in 2017 (50-357-3). The Jaguars will be without Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson this year, as both of their former starting wide receivers left via free agency. That leaves plenty of targets for the starting tight end, as both Julius Thomas and Marcedes Lewis combined for 81 chances through the first 10 weeks of 2017. Seferian-Jenkins will have the opportunity to emerge as a steady target for Blake Bortles over the middle and in the red zone, which could lead to the fifth-year player pushing for fantasy starter status.

Wood: Seferian-Jenkins may be the unluckiest player in the league. How many other players have multiple touchdowns called back from inside the end zone? The veteran now calls Jacksonville home and can fill a much needed red-zone role for an offense with middling wide receivers. Seferian-Jenkins hasn’t done enough in his career to bet on TE1 production, but his role, system, and athleticism add up to a compelling upside with a defensible floor.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Austin Hooper, Atlanta

Simpkins: When players disappoint the year prior, fantasy owners tend to write them off. Hooper is getting such treatment after high expectations were not met last season. While Hooper didn’t play his best football, the whole offense struggled to adjust to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s brand of playcalling. After a year of experience playing in Sarkisian’s system, the players, including Hooper, should be better adjusted. Hooper will be entering year three, and his potential as a pass catcher is certainly there. Though he had bad moments with drops last season, there were also instances in which he made impressive plays, too. There is no real competition for his role on the roster in the raw Eric Saubert and journeyman blocker Logan Paulsen. At his current ADP, there is very little to lose with Hooper, but there is very big upside if he puts everything together.

Wood: Fantasy owners are a fickle bunch, and Austin Hooper has fallen out of favor. That’s a mistake. Matt Ryan had a down season transitioning from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian, but the Falcons remains a talented bunch, and some positive regression is likely. If Ryan does look more like his usual self, there are plenty of targets to go around beyond Julio Jones. Hooper has the same skill set, including strong hands and crisp routes, to flourish in the same way Zach Ertz became a force of nature in Philadelphia.

Ben Watson, New Orleans

Bloom: The last time Watson was with the Saints, he finished as a top-seven tight end. He’s back, and with Coby Fleener’s offseason release, Watson will be the top tight end in the Saints pass offense. His yards-per-catch average was down from 2015 levels last year with the Ravens, but some of that could be a function of the limited Ravens pass offense. He still scored at the same rate per target as 2015, and still looked capable of playing the role of a primary receiving tight end. If Watson is fading quickly because of his 2016 Achilles tear, the investment is so small that it won’t hurt to move on quickly. He’s an easy solution if you want to go cheap at tight end.

Waldman: Watson is old and two years removed from an Achilles injury. Watson is also a physical freak who ran down Champ Bailey from the opposite side of the field to prevent a touchdown in an AFC Championship game. Post-Achilles (and age 37), Watson lacks the speed to remotely match that feat again, but it underscores that he’s a special athlete who healed well. In fact, he was a 60-catch option for the Ravens last year and was the team’s most-targeted red zone threat. He returns to New Orleans where he was the Saints’ No. 2 receiver and a Pro-Bowl tight end in 2015. Look for Watson to earn the starting job and deliver as a low-end fantasy starter.

Luke Willson, Detroit

Alexander: The Lions pulled the plug on Eric Ebron and lost run-blocking tight end Darren Fells to free agency. Levine Toilolo was signed to play Fells’ role, which leaves just Willson, who came over on a one-year deal from Seattle, and last year’s fourth-round pick, Michael Roberts, to compete for the role of the pass-catching tight end. Willson has a decisive experience edge on Roberts, and coming out of Rice in 2013, he had the athletic edge on him too. At his Pro Day, Willson -- at 6-foot-5, 251 pounds -- ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds. He had a 38-inch vertical jump, 10’2” broad jump, 7.04 seconds three-cone drill, and did 23 reps on the bench -- all top-tier measurables for a tight end. Stuck behind Jimmy Graham for most of the last three seasons in Seattle, Willson’s career stats won’t blow you away, but he’s caught 65% of his career targets for a solid 8.24 yards per target and managed 4 touchdowns last year on just 22 targets. At the very least, we can expect Willson to emerge as a weekly streaming option, but there’s clearly upside for more.

Howe: Unselected in many early drafts, Willson looks like an ideal roster-closing TE3. He was out of sight for virtually his entire Seattle career, registering just 89 over 72 games, but he’ll dominate the position in Detroit. Bear in mind that Eric Ebron averaged 5.9 receptions here over the past two seasons, and Ebron is now safely out of town. Willson isn’t the same caliber of prospect Ebron is but did produce a speed score in the 94th percentile at his 2013 combine. Willson's ceiling looks tightly capped around 50 catches, but if he takes over even 75% of Ebron’s old role, late-drafting, best-ball owners could walk away with a steal.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Eric Ebron, Indianapolis

Miglio: It's easy to write off Eric Ebron after his relatively disappointing stint in Detroit. Going from Matthew Stafford to Andrew Luck's backup shouldn't help matters, but he is still the most talented tight end on his team. Yes, that includes Jack Doyle. Fantasy owners shouldn't be targeting him as a starter, but Ebron is going to make a big enough impact to be worth a spot on fantasy benches. He could even sneak into the Top 10 in scoring if he finally capitalizes on his potential.

Hayden Hurst, Baltimore

Howe: The fantasy world hates the Baltimore passing game, and in general, there are good reasons for that. But here’s where shrewd players mine their value: finding the volume potential in offense no one else wants a part of. The fact is, dating back to 2015, no NFL team has dropped back to throw more than the Ravens – and their 2018 depth chart is unimpressive at best. First-rounder Hurst should see a sizeable role off the bat, contending with only unreliable backup Nick Boyle and a fringe receiver (likely Maxx Williams) at the position. And with so much uncertainty at wideout, Joe Flacco could easily stick to his tight end-dominant ways of 2016 (86 catches for Dennis Pitta) and 2017 (61 for Ben Watson). Hurst didn’t dominate the combine like Mike Gesicki, but he’s a talented, fundamental player that Baltimore coaches will likely trust right away. He looks like an outstanding late-round candidate to chase 50 receptions and a handful of touchdowns – dynamite as your TE3.

Jonnu Smith, Tennessee

Hicks: Jonnu Smith drafted in the third round by Tennessee last year with the intention of eventually replacing the aging Delanie Walker. Although his stats don’t show it, Smith was on the field for a high percentage of snaps as he learned the offense. With Walker turning 34, Smith is a like-for-like replacement, especially by those expecting Walker to continue on his 800+ yardage seasons. Draft Smith very late, keep him on your roster, and watch as the season unfolds. Smith will be the starter by the end of the year.