Tight End Tiers - Footballguys

A look at the 2018 tight end landscape through the lens of tiers

Quarterback, running back, and wide receiver have been amorphous landscapes over the years, forcing us to look at the position as a whole to create a backdrop for our player evaluations and strategy. Tight end hasn’t been as mercurial. The blueprint is that the names change, but you can count the difference makers on one hand and the reliable every-week options on two hands. This despite an ever-growing list of tight ends with potential as the league appears to put a premium on the position in the draft. 2018 isn’t going to sharply diverge with the pattern, but better weekly analysis has made streaming more viable and decreasing (depending on your league’s waiver wire and your skill/luck at picking the right tight end each week) the penalty for waiting at the position.

24K GOLD STANDARD

Reserve your second-round pick for Gronkowski. With Julian Edelman suspended and coming back from an ACL tear and Brandin Cooks gone, he should dominate targets. No one has figured out how to stop him yet, and injuries haven’t been an issue three out of the last four years. He’s worth a first-round pick in every format.

14K GOLD STANDARD

Kelce is the only tight end within shouting distance of Gronkowski in terms of ability, but he could take a step back with a new quarterback and addition of a WR2 (Sammy Watkins) who is more like a 1A. He and Alex Smith were riffing well the last two years, and that might have boosted his per target efficiency. He’s still the clear No. 2.

HIGH FLOOR TE1

Ertz is a fine mid-level TE1, but he’s being drafted as a near-elite option because of his touchdown spike last year. Dallas Goedert is going to form a dynamic duo with him and Goedert is the superior red-zone option. Olsen had recent numbers similar to Travis Kelce going into last year, and he did regain his form in the playoffs after a foot injury ruined his regular season. He did just turn 33 and has the best supporting cast in his career, so Olsen could take a step back from his previous healthy production levels.

BOOM/BUST TE1

Any of this group could allow you to get away with waiting until the mid-rounds at tight end and still putting up top-three numbers at the position. They could also force you to find another option due to foreseeable reasons. Graham looked like he lost a step last year, but he could be Aaron Rodgers favorite red zone and middle of the field target, and look at what he did with Jordy Nelson when a backup quarterback couldn’t make anything out of him? Engram can’t possibly be as prominent as he was last year when Odell Beckham was out, Sterling Shepard struggled to stay healthy, and Saquon Barkley was at Penn State, but the team is lining him up at outside receiver and keeping him on the field as much as they can. Reed had surgery to fix the problem with his toe, but we all know the history here. At least he’s discounted by multiple rounds more than he was last offseason.

SOLID TE1

This group will hold the line and occasionally give you a top-five score, but they are unlikely to return a great profit at ADP. Walker should see a dip in targets as Jonnu Smith comes on, but at least he’s in a better offense. Doyle gets Andrew Luck back and although his targets may drop with the introduction of Eric Ebron, they will be better quality targets than what he got in 2017 from Jacoby Brissett.

YOU NEVER KNOW

Eifert feels like a fool’s proposition even more than Reed, but he has been discounted even more after a delayed start to camp, and at least he’ll be coming back to an offense that should be improved from the 2017 dumpster fire he mostly avoided. Eifert is the only tight end who can approach Gronkowski in red zone usage and effectiveness. At his very modest price, Eifert is a fine Plan A with an opening game against weak Colts defense and a downside of having to stream or prospect for late round/waiver wire finds like a few other teams in your league.

UPSIDE TE1

And thus begins the annual tradition of lining up the options at tight end that don’t cost much and have the situation to potentially make the leap to every-week fantasy relevance while on the upslope of their careers. Kittle came on with Jimmy Garoppolo and was surprisingly good for a rookie. What can he do in year two with the offense fully molded around the new quarterback? Burton was a big-ticket free agent addition and he’s probably the most familiar with Nagy’s offense of anyone on the roster after playing under Doug Pederson. Seals-Jones was a surprise as a rookie in very limited opportunity. Jermaine Gresham’s Achilles injury along with an anonymous group at wide receiver after Larry Fitzgerald for Arizona will only increase that opportunity - not to mention the Arizona quarterback situation has improved since Seals-Jones late season mini-breakout. Njoku is oozing with talent and the Browns offense still has a lot of targets up for grabs while we wait for Josh Gordon’s situation to resolve itself. Dallas Goedert is much higher than you’ll see elsewhere, but he has been outstanding and used heavily in camp, Zach Ertz’s injury history isn’t spotless, and the Eagles are too good an offense and organization to ease Goedert in when he has such an easy advantage to exploit when he’s out there with Ertz and the plethora of targets they confound defenses with every week. Ebron might be the 2A target in the Colts offense, but he might have trouble approaching his target rate from last year and he’s not a touchdown scorer. Still, if Luck's pass volume is in the 600's and no one emerges as a strong WR2 option, Ebron could get 100 targets. McDonald is dealing with a foot injury in camp but finished with a huge bang of 10 catches and 112 yards in the playoffs and the team wants to make him a bigger part of the offense.

LOW CEILING/LOW FLOOR TE1

Rudolph’s touchdown rate saved him last year, but his targets took a major dip and there’s more risk there than his 2017 finish indicates. He could be a par at ADP, but if you are investing in a mid-round tight end, there are better options.

ESTABLISHED STREAMERS

There’s a high probability that none of this group will end up being an every-week answer at tight end (save for a Jack Doyle injury), but all of them can be suitable plays in any given week and good plays given matchup or changes to situation and momentum. Brate is, but his preferred quarterback is suspended for the first three games and the Bucs pass offense is crowded with ascendant talents. Who knows what to make of Oakland, which is basically what we say about Cook every year. Watson is returning to familiar confines and is the #1 tight end in a strong pass offense, but father time looms. Clay might be the No. 1 target by default in Buffalo, but that is also the means the quarterback could be decided and his durability is questionable. Seferian-Jenkins has generated good buzz this spring/summer in Jacksonville at times, but how many targets could there possibly be up for grabs. Hooper should grow in year three, but Calvin Ridley’s arrival shuts down his chances of emerging as the No. 3 target this year.

Schedule Notes: Cook (vs Los Angeles Rams) and Seferian-Jenkins (at New York Giants) have the best Week 1 matchup if you’re looking for your streaming tight end leadoff hitter.

BIG PLAY/TOUCHDOWN INJURY UPSIDE STREAMERS

This group presents some possibility of finding an every-week starter if injuries clarify crowded situations, but also presents a lot of weekly volatility. Howard would be atop breakout tight end lists if the Bucs hadn’t re-signed Cameron Brate, but he still has top-five fantasy tight end big play weekly potential. Smith is going to become a bigger part of the offense in Tennessee, the only question is how big, and he has Delanie Walker injury upside. Roberts is easily the best red-zone receiving option of the ragtag tight end group in Detroit. Shaheen was have been a much better breakout candidate before the Bears signed Trey Burton, but he’s still a potential red zone monster in an improved offense.

Schedule Notes: Smith (at Miami) has the best Week 1 matchups if you’re looking for a tight end streaming leadoff hitter.

IN CASE OF INJURY BREAK GLASS

Reed and Eifert tend to go down more than they stay healthy, which could create value in their backups at any time. Davis has the higher weekly ceiling, situation, and talent - even at this late juncture of his career, and Kroft is more likely to start for most, if not all of the season.

ROOKIE TRENDSETTERS?

If you are going to take a rookie tight end in your draft, take Dallas Goedert. If you don’t want to take Goedert because he’ll be in a committee, Hayden Hurst could emerge in Baltimore (although a committee is possible there), and Mike Gesicki could emerge in Miami. The odds are against them, but they should at least stay on your waiver wire watch list.

WILL SOMEONE EMERGE?

The Rams pass offense is exciting and it has two good talents at tight end, but the talents at running back and wide receiver keep them buried in the pecking order. Higbee and his Baby Gronk style is more interesting with Gerald Everett nursing a sprained shoulder, but Everett is on the rise and was hand-picked by this regime. The Texans offense is much more interesting in fantasy leagues with Deshaun Watson back, but Anderson and Griffin will split the tight end targets and rookie third-rounder Jordan Akins could mix in, but watch for injuries to clarify this eventually. Dallas, Seattle, the Chargers, and Denver just don’t present much upside in terms of talents on the roster and overall situation, although a return of Antonio Gates to the NFL could give us a bye/injury/streaming option.