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Unless you drafted George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Eric Ebron or Jared Cook it was a downright depressing year at tight end. What we learned at tight in 2018 could be summed up as “don’t expect to get many points from the position”. Streaming was more difficult than ever, but it was more viable because so many teams ended up in that boat by necessity. Yet another strong tight end class is coming in the draft this year and the NFL continues to move towards a more creative and versatile offensive approach, so better days could be ahead. Before we dive into that, let’s look back at this trainwreck of a season.
The years and surgeries (and TB12 training regimen?) have caught up to Rob Gronkowski
In one of the sadder stories to watch this year, Rob Gronkowski now has the flexibility of the tin man and the turning radius of a lawn tractor. He came out of the gate strong, but immediately faded and slowed and eventually needed some in-season rest to just to stay functional. He had some moments in the playoffs, but none more memorable than his feeble attempt to turn and chase Kenyan Drake at the end of the Miami Miracle. Watching Gronkowski on the field and in our lineups was one long death scene for the most part.
Somehow Gronkowski is still going in the top 10 tight ends in early drafts even though the risk of retirement is high. Even if he plays (and drops the Tom Brady branded TB12 training regimen that some blame for his lack of durability this year), one wonders why we would expect him to be any more productive or effective than he was this year. Even if
Rookies had an impact, but not the ones we expected
After Evan Engram led the strong 2017 rookie tight end class by defying conventional fantasy wisdom and becoming a fantasy relevant option at the position in year one, we were on the lookout for instant contributors from the 2018 class. The first three drafted - Hayden Hurst (Baltimore), Mike Gesicki (Miami), and Dallas Goedert (Philadelphia) never really established themselves, although Hurst was hurt at the beginning of the season and Goedert did have a few big games. Instead a late season push from third day picks Chris Herndon (New York Jets) and Ian Thomas (Carolina) led the 2018 rookies. Hurst was upstaged by third-round pick Mark Andrews, who appears to be one of Lamar Jackson’s favorite targets, and the other tight end taken in the first two days - Houston’s Jordan Akins - was upstaged by offensive tackle-sized and former wide receiver Jordan Thomas, who went in the late sixth round
The third straight extra stacked tight end class could contribute a first-year fantasy stud like Engram from the trio of TJ Hockenson, Noah Fant (both from Iowa), and Irv Smith (Alabama). The class is deep enough to produce a surprise fantasy relevant tight end or two. The chances of a rookie tight end making a splash go up every year with the introduction of more impact players and athletes at the position and more open-minded offensive schemes.
There was a breakout tight end from the 2017 rookie class, but it wasn’t one of the marquee names
After Evan Engram’s big rookie campaign, we were on the lookout for a second-year step forward from him, and a leap forward from his fellow first-round picks OJ Howard and David Njoku. Njoku’s production came in fits and starts, but did trend up at the end of the season once the Browns offense got settled in with different names at the helm than the ones we saw in Week 1. Howard was having a very good season, settling into the mid-TE1 tier, before his season ended with foot and ankle injuries suffered in Week 11. A name did emerge into the elite from the 2017 class but it wasn’t one of the second round picks. Adam Shaheen was hurt and Gerald Everett is still a bit player for the Rams. It wasn’t third round pick Jonnu Smith, who got a big opportunity when Delanie Walker went down, but languished with the rest of the Titans offense. It wasn’t fourth round pick Michael Roberts, who had the door opened for him when Eric Ebron was released, but couldn’t stay healthy before and after a Week 7 false breakout. Presaging the possibility of two Iowa tight ends getting into the first round this year, fellow Iowa product George Kittle took the 49ers opponents by storm, no matter who the quarterback was (he had three in 2018), and even better days could be ahead for him.
Njoku and Howard are good picks at very reasonable early draft ADP, but Kittle is priced in full very near the Ertz/Kelce ADP. None of the other 2017 class appears poised for a breakout season at this juncture. Other than Herndon, Ian and Jordan Thomas, and Andrews, who all finished the year with the arrow pointing up, Dallas Goedert is a name to remember late in tight end premium drafts or on early waiver wire runs, unless he has an outstanding offseason and summer and generates buzz, then add him to your sleeper list.
Kelce and Ertz both posted the best fantasy numbers of their careers in 2017, so it seemed a bit optimistic to expect them to surpass those heights in 2018. Both blew away previous career best numbers. Ertz broke the season record for catches by a tight end, fueled by massive games with Carson Wentz at the helm. Kelce, like the rest of the Chiefs offense, was finding more room to operate and bigger plays to create with Patrick Mahomes II. Both led fantasy teams to the playoffs and championships
Kelce and Ertz will cost you second round picks, possibly a third in Ertz’s case, but they are worth in VBD terms. There’s no reason to think they will significantly drop off from 2018 levels and the tight end position has the same hopes it has every year, the same hopes that are dashed when we end up with many fewer viable weekly options than the number of teams in our leagues. Kelce and Ertz will probably only cost a half round to round more than they did last year, which seems like an underreaction to career highs and stable situations at the most difficult position to solve in fantasy football.
Eifert actually was beginning look like his old self before a gnarly leg injury that wasn’t a product of his lack of durability ended his season. Reed never looked like his peak self and a morose Washington offense didn’t help. Olsen came back from foot surgery and aggravated the injury immediately in Week 1. He tried to play through it after missing a month, with a short return to fantasy relevance, only to hang it up in Week 14, perhaps for good.
Let’s not give up on Eifert completely in dynasty, but save the picks in redraft leagues until we hear optimistic news about his recovery. Olsen and Reed are still hanging around the end of early drafts (and ahead of Eifert, for what it’s worth), but seem less likely to have a 2019 impact than Eifert.
A Colts tight end had a huge season, but not the one we were expecting
The return of Andrew Luck and hiring of Frank Reich as head coach created some guarded optimism around the tight position for the Colts. Jack Doyle was going as a low TE1 in 2018 drafts, and Eric Ebron followed him as a late round speculative pick. Doyle suffered a hip injury in Week 2 and then a season-ending kidney injury in Week 12. Ebron spent time on the injury report for various ailments, but never missed a game, or a chance to score. His 13-touchdown season was a fantasy savior.
Ebron will cost a high pick as TE4 in the 5th/6th, one that might not return value if his touchdown rate doesn’t remain sky high. Doyle is a forgotten man, going very late in early drafts, and the pick to click among Colts tight ends.
Most breakout tight end candidates stayed in
Trey Burton started hot, David Njoku ended on a high note, Austin Hooper had some scattered showers of targets, and Ricky Seals-Jones never got out of the garage. In a typical story at tight end, while a few younger players at the position did hit on the high end in their range of outcomes, the majority ended at or below their median outcomes, and never presented a reliable weekly option for fantasy lineups.
We’ll go back to the well with Njoku, but Burton’s early ADP in the top 10 might be too rosy. OJ Howard and the forgotten Hunter Henry look like great candidates to make the leap and they are better picks outside of the top five tight ends, and maybe even Njoku, or *gasp* Evan Engram. Any number of 2018 rookies mentioned earlier will be candidates for late round picks that could help teams that go cheap at the position avoid the fate of streaming tight ends.
Older tight ends mostly looked over the hill
Leave to Jon Gruden of all people to get the best football of his career out of Jared Cook in his age 31 season. Jimmy Graham looked like a wasted free agent signing in Green Bay in his age 31/32 season after he was a wasted blockbuster trade target in Seattle. Kyle Rudolph shriveled on the vine until a late season hail mary fueled out of nowhere huge Week 16 (congrats if you accidentally started him), but it seems clear that he is well past his fantasy peak now. Olsen, Reed, Eifert, and Gronkowski’s injury issues have also been mournfully recounted here, and let’s not forget Delanie Walker’s Week 1 season-ending injury
We’ll avoid all of the aging landmines, with the exception of maybe Cook depending on his free agent landing spot.