The Gut Check No.466: Five Tight Ends I'm Targeting in Dynasty Leagues

Matt Waldman ends his series on players he's targeting in various dynasty leagues with tight ends.  

It's the most wonderful time of the year. If you're thinking about the playoffs in re-draft leagues, that's understandable but you'd be wrong. It's time that this column can focus on dynasty formats.

If you missed the Gut Check's look at stretch-run candidates, sneaky playoff options and valued players who could face troubling times in December, you now have the links for your re-draft needs.

This month, the Gut Check has been profiling five players at each position that should be targeted in various dynasty formats. Each player will fit a specific situation that is common in dynasty formats:

  • Anchors: This is a premium value talent with a supporting cast that can help him deliver multiple years of elite production at the position (no worse than a top-12 player and a great opportunity for top-3 value).
  • Fine Wines: Older talents that can deliver starter production for at least another year or two at a reduced cost in the ageist world of dynasty leagues.
  • Emerging Forces: These players have earned playing time but have only scratched the surface of their top value.
  • Futures: Young talents who have the skills but are waiting for an opportunity to put them on display.
  • Rookies: College players who are eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft.

Two other tiers of players you can also classify are "starters" and "contributors." The definitions are self-explanatory once you understand that neither tier has players that you believe have elite production potential. We won't include them for this series.

Before we get to these five tight ends, a short conversation about dynasty strategy is in order.

PLAYER WINDOWS

The average NFL career is a little less than three years in length. Early-round picks tend to bolster the length of the average whereas late-round and undrafted players tend to weigh it down.

Using three-year increments to assess the value of your depth chart is a good way to begin evaluating your dynasty team. These three-year increments are called Player Windows. Here are the criteria for each window length (you can adjust them as you see fit):

  • One Window: When projecting the player's value beyond three years is an even greater fool's errand than normal.
    • UDFAs who haven't earned any traction on an NFL depth chart.
    • Players coming off a significant injury with a bad track record for successful rehabilitation.
    • Veterans performing at an age where the majority of long-term starters at his position have already retired or lost starter skill.
  • Two Windows: These players should have at least 4-6 years of starter skills left as long as they stay healthy and have a quality supporting cast.
    • A young running back or receiver with less than four years in the league and has a good track record of health.
    • A top quarterback or tight end with less than seven years in the league.
  • Three Windows: Players with at least 7-9 years of starter skills left as long as they stay healthy and have a quality supporting cast.
    • Rookie running backs.
    • Quarterbacks and tight ends with no more than five years of NFL experience.
    • Receivers with no more than three years of NFL experience.

You should assess every player with these windows and then add the value assessments to each window type:

  • Anchors (these players can have one, two, or three windows)
  • Fine Wines (strictly one-window players)
  • Starters (capable of one, two, or three windows)
  • Contributors (capable of one, two, or three windows)
  • Emerging Forces (capable of two, or three windows -- most will have three)
  • Futures (capable of two or three windows -- most will have three)
  • Rookies (most will have three windows but could have two if enter the league with an injury history)

When you do this exercise, it should give you a clearer idea of the state of your dynasty roster. It will help you determine the strength of your team. Is it centralized and deep at a small number of positions or is it strong at the top of the depth chart at a few positions but spread thin?

This exercise should also help you determine how you should build or maintain your team. For example, this team, which is leading the league in scoring and now a serious contender, was blown up several years ago — trading away the likes of Marshawn Lynch, Peyton Manning, Antonio Gates, and a few other players about three years too early. As a result, it floundered as a below-average team and yours truly compounded the issues by trying to pinpoint specific positions from a draft spot that didn't warrant the picks.

Once yours truly opted to assess his team with this method, it became clear that for this team's situation, stockpiling quarterback talent was better than taking a chance on lesser talents at position need was a better way to go. Although none of these talents (Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes II, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson) have been traded away for additional resources because the team has improved through the draft and free agency, the stockpiling is hurting other teams in need to quality passers. Eventually, this talent will lead to trades when the need arises.

This exercise should be enough to not only help you assess the players you need but the ones you can actually afford to target without hurting the overall mission of your team-building strategy.

Here are the five tight ends the Gut Check is targeting dynasty leagues based on these scenario types explained above.

THE ANCHOR (George Kittle)

Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the league and if you can live with the likelihood that he "only" has 3-5 years of greatness left (I can), then you pay the premium on the featured act in the Patrick Mahomes II Magical Mystery Tour. A 29-year-old player who only projects to have 1-2 windows of excellence in his game is not the ideal anchor — and having Mahomes as his quarterback will make him especially costly. Still, the upside of having a tight end with fantasy WR1 production is a game-changer.

This writer can hear "that guy" asking about Rob Gronkowski. He's still terrific when he's healthy. Despite being the same age as Kelce, Gronkowski has played nine NFL seasons to Kelce's six and suffered more serious injuries. Gronkowski is much closer to being a "Fine Wine" than an "Anchor" at this stage of his career. If you can get him at a "Fine Wine" discount, he's an ideal candidate for that slot. Unfortunately, he's still probably priced somewhere between a "Starter" and "Anchor."

The best tight to serve as an anchor to your dynasty team is George Kittle. He's a great blocker, which allows his offense to be a lot more multiple than it would if he were a Jimmy Graham or Jared Cook type. Although the jump ball is not his specialty, Kittle's burst and balance contribute to is route running and skill after the catch.

Only 25 and starring for a team that has been a quarterback turnstile due to injuries, Kittle has already proven that he's a top NFL receiver at the position. With 72 catches and 1,154 yards this year, he's performing like a solid fantasy WR2 if he had 3-4 additional touchdowns on his box score. This lack of red zone love has more to do with his quarterback issues than his play.

You'll have to pay the premium but the projected ability, longevity, and production without a proven quarterback makes Kittle worth it. If Eric Ebron's emergence is a product of him taking his professional or seriously (remember, he entered the league as a 20-year-old), he's as valuable as Kittle because he's in a better offense. Ebron and Kittle are the same age, so it stands to reason that Ebron's emergence is, at its root, a product of worldly maturation.

If Hunter Henry is available at a discount, he might be worth considering. However, it's hard to project how he'll perform without Philip Rivers, which is an eventuality sooner than later.

Fine Wine (Greg Olsen)

In real life, fine wines are expensive, which is what Gronkowski would be in this fantasy situation. However, there's a lot of risk-reward embedded in his profile that keeps him off this list.

Jared Cook is 31 years-old and delivering well for the Raiders. However, he's been a Titan, a Ram, and a Packer before landing in Oakland and there's a good reason to believe that his relevancy is based on the loss of Amai Cooper, Martavis Bryant, Marshawn Lynch, and a few others. Cook is a talented receiver but an inconsistent player. If there were a reason to believe he'd earn the targets next year that he's earning this, he's worth an investment for a season and could be the best option on this list.

Delanie Walker almost made the cut. Although the Titans have a promising receiver in Jonnu Smith and earned some quality play from Anthony Firkser, Walker is still the class of that tight end room when healthy. Yesterday, Tennessee announced that Smith is working out and he's not far from clearance to run.

The risk here is Walker's age (35) the direction of the Titans offense. If the Titans commit to Walker for a year, he's worth the risk. If they move on, it will depend on where he lands. You can probably get him cheaply, which makes him appealing.

These situations above are why Greg Olsen is the best name on the list. Olsen will be 34 when he begins the 2019 season and he will be recovering from foot surgery — an injury he suffered in Week 1 and missed five weeks before playing until Week 13.

There's a good reason to believe that Olsen never truly recovered from the injury and tried to gut through the season before rupturing his plantar fascia. If so, reports about him losing his athletic ability won't be as accurate as they appear.

Although Ian Thomas is a nice young prospect who will earn a lot of promising fantasy analysis this summer, Olsen is still under contract through 2020 and he had some decent weeks while still playing with a foot injury that clearly bothered him. A repaired version of Olsen should return in 2019 and remain one of Cam Newton's favorite options up the seam and in the red zone.

Regardless of whom you chose from this list, consider paying for another starter or at least an emerging force to pair with your fine wine.

Emerging forces (O.J. Howard)

If O.J. Howard didn't get hurt, he'd probably be neck-and-neck with Zach Ertz in the fantasy tight end rankings. Howard studied Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Gates this summer and the results showed. Howard exhibited better body positioning and more consistent hands at the catch point, and his quarterbacks were far more willing to target him on downfield routes.

There will be a contingent of fantasy players who will be anxious about Howard's injuries that have prevented him from finishing his first two seasons. This year, he suffered ankle and foot injuries that sent him to injured reserve. The foot injury is more serious than the ankle but he should make a full recovery and be practicing by training camp.

An excellent blocker and emerging force as a big-play receiver, Howard would easily have been in consideration as an "Anchor" if healthy. Wise fantasy players will still value Howard as such if they have him on their rosters.

David Njoku has a promising quarterback and he made strides this year in Cleveland. However, he still has issues with catching the ball properly, which leads to egregious drops, and he hasn't emerged as a blocker. He's worth consideration.

If Matt Ryan would target Hooper on more tight-window targets in the red zone (insert every other capable receiver for the Falcons in this statement and it would also be true), he'd earn consideration as well.

Futures (Dallas Goedert)

Mark Andrews is intriguing because he could emerge as the main option for Lamar Jackson in an offense that will afford him similarly easy opportunities that he earned in Oklahoma with Baker Mayfield. He's essentially a big, slow, and crafty wide receiver who has shown developmental upside as a blocker.

Although not the most complimentary assessment, there have been a lot of capable tight ends in the league who've fit this description. Still, it hasn't been a great recipe for consistent fantasy production.

Dallas Goedert is the play here. He's an excellent receiver on 50-50 targets, skilled after the catch, and although it wasn't his strength at South Dakota, he's the best blocking tight end on the Eagles.

Zach Ertz is signed through the end of 2021 but there's a potential out at the end of 2019. Goedert has already demonstrated greater athletic promise as a receiver and blocker than the more experienced and savvy Ertz — a top option in the league.

The problem with the Eagles is it has an abundance of receivers and tight ends who work the middle of the field and only one perimeter option who lacks game-breaking speed. Part of this is by design because Carson Wentz's deep accuracy on timing routes beyond 40 yards is below average. Unfortunately, there have to be some viable deep vertical countermeasures in this offense that earns respect from opponents and it's not there.

How the Eagles address this offense as well as Ertz and Goedert — especially Goedert who has some vertical potential as an outside receiver — will be one of the most intriguing dynasty developments at the tight end position. Goedert is already a "patience play" in these formats. What we don't know is how patient we'll need to be.

Based on the playing time and impact he's made this year despite working as Ertz's understudy, the wait won't be as long as Ertz's contract appears and the payoff is promising.

Rookies (T.J. Hockenson)

If Hockenson declares for the draft, he's one of the best tight ends in this class. He's already a superior prospect to his more heralded teammate Noah Fant, who fights the ball and makes more unforced errors than you'd like to see from an NFL player.

Hockenson, like former Hawkeye George Kittle, is an excellent blocker who can stay on the field as an in-line tight end of value against defensive ends and outside linebackers and a receiver who can play H-Back, slot, or the perimeter. He's a sturdy athlete after the catch with enough burst and speed to earn strong gains after the catch.

Alabama's Irv Smith is a quality player of note but he's the only one I've seen thus far who deserves mentioning in the same tier as Hockenson, who reminds me of a faster Dennis Pitta. You'll probably hear even more complimentary comparisons in the coming months from others who catch onto his talent.