Tight End Tiers

A look at the 2015 tight end crop for fantasy leagues through the lens of tiers

The 2014 season saw Rob Gronkowski assume his rightful place on the tight end throne and 2015 has already seen Jimmy Graham take a big hit in value. What other surprises does this year have in store for us. The tight end group gives us a lot of potential strategies this year.

Elite

Rob Gronkowski, NE

What can 26-year-old Gronk do with a completely healthy offseason? We’ll probably enjoy the answer to that question with him on our rosters. I don’t really care about the handicap of four games of Jimmy Garoppolo (wouldn’t you just tell him, throw to 87 and you’ll be fine, kid?), because Tom Brady is going to be on a revenge tour with malice, and we’ve seen this team get gratutious about scoring in the past. Plus, Gronk. I won’t talk you out taking him #1, but you’re forgoing the chance to pull off any number of other strategies later on. I’m probably looking running back in the first, but if my top six backs are gone, I won’t be able to pass on Gronk.

Maybe Elite, Maybe (Probably) Not

Jimmy Graham, SEA
Travis Kelce, KC

Graham is a puzzle. He’s good and so is Russell Wilson. Yes, Seattle is a low volume passing game, but not moreso than say, Dallas, and Graham will be the clear #1 target. Something like 120 or 130 targets should be there for him. The initial reaction to the trade was too pessimistic. Still, I hear a guy talking about how the run-based Seattle offense will lengthen his career because he takes fewer hits as troubling. It reminds me how he wears down seemingly every year and isn’t trustworthy by the time the playoffs roll around.

Every time I look at Kelce and Graham in my rankings, the two are closer. Kelce is a faster but not as dominant at the catch point Gronk, and his snaps/targets are going to spike from 2013 levels. Alex Smith doesn’t strike me as a fantasy fortune-making quarterback, but he did make some of his best throws in San Francisco to Vernon Davis. Kelce feels like the ascendant player at the position, and if he’s going a round after Graham, he’s worth targeting over Graham. If he falls to the fifth, he’s worth forgoing Gronkowski in the first.

Steady Eddies

Greg Olsen, CAR
Julius Thomas, JAX
Martellus Bennett, CHI
Delanie Walker, TEN
Jason Witten, DAL
Owen Daniels, DEN
Heath Miller, PIT
Antonio Gates, SD

This is my least favorite tier to draft from. To be fair, you have a pretty good idea what you are getting here. These are high floor players, likely to not fall in the bottom part of their range of outcomes. The problem is that few of them offer scenarios where they greatly exceed their draft value. The high season-long floor isn’t as valuable when tight ends with similar weekly floors are available on the waiver wire.

Olsen is a curious case because he had a very high demonstrated weekly ceiling in PPR and gave you high TE1 numbers almost 75% of the time in 2014. The problem is that four times he was a dud, which is tough to stomach when you are spending a 5th-6th round pick. If the Panthers young wide receivers advance at all, he could come back to the pack a bit.

Julius Thomas is getting some rave reviews in camp and many are billing him as a centerpiece, but this is still Jacksonville and Blake Bortles. Thomas is a pure receiving tight end, no doubt, but I don’t know if I trust Bortles enough to spend a pick on him. Thomas does offer the best chance to eclipse ADP value by a few rounds of this group, but Bortles makes me feel like that chance is low.

Martellus Bennett is being overdrafted mainly on a four-game stretch early in the season when he soaked up targets while Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were banged up. Eddie Royal is going to take some of his high percentage targets. He’s an easy avoid.

Delanie Walker was maybe the only good thing about the Titans offense last year. Like Thomas, his talent seems to offer upside from his ADP, but his quarterback and surrounding offense suggests that his ceiling is still not exciting enough to make you pull the trigger at current value.

Witten, Daniels, and Miller have the risk of age catching up to them, but they have great quarterbacks and Daniels/Miller are generally good values to pair with an upside tight end to protect against a bust.

I’m generally against drafting Gates except in deep bench, 16+ team, or TE premium leagues. You aren’t sure what you’re getting until you see what Ladarius Green does, and you will forgo important waiver opportunities to hold him.

Upside Plays

Jordan Cameron, MIA
Dwayne Allen, IND
Kyle Rudolph, MIN
Zach Ertz, PHI
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TB
Tyler Eifert, CIN

If you don’t go for Gronkowski or Kelce early, your best bet is taking two tight ends from this tier. The combination of talent and quarterback/offense gives all of top 6-8 upside, albeit with different obstacles to overcome.

Cameron is pretty much a proven talent at this point, but has to stay healthy. Concussions are a big concern. He offers demonstrated top 5 upside and the Dolphins offense should give him a lot of seam routes and chances to use his underrated speed.

Allen has slimmed down and changed his offseason regimen to hopefully avoid injuries this year. If the Colts switch to more three tight end sets and he’s the one tight end, he has a top 5-6 ceiling because of his status as Andrew Luck’s most efficient red zone target.

Rudolph is yet another “has to stay healthy” player, but now he’s with Teddy Bridgewater. Rudolph caught nine scores from Christian Ponder in 2012, what can he do with a functional passer?

Ertz has the promise of a spike in snaps if he masters blocking, which would lead to more targets and everything that comes downstream from targets in an offense that lost its #1 wide receiver for the second straight year. I’m lukewarm on him from a talent standpoint, but the Eagles offense tends to magnify the production of its players. Ertz doesn’t have the durability questions of his peers in this tier, but we’re asking him to make a leap, when he didn’t under similar circumstances last year. His high ADP makes him the easiest avoid of this group.

Seferian-Jenkins has a very wide range of outcomes. His recent history suggests a Jordan Reed-esque career path where his cumulative nicks and bruises keep him from capitalizing on a good skillset/role combination. On the other hand, he has a young quarterback who will likely be asked to throw a lot, and a pair of outside receivers to keep safeties occupied.

Eifert is maybe the toughest to gauge. He has the type of talent that lands a tight end in the fantasy top five, but there’s only one football and the Bengals have a lot of other priorities on offense. When they are winning, Jeremy Hill and ball control football will reign, and when they aren’t AJ Green, Marvin Jones, and Giovani Bernard will still get theirs. I won’t blame anyone for targeting Eifert higher but I am having trouble seeing consistency unless Andy Dalton is a lot better than we expect or the Bengals have a losing season.

Draft and See/Monitor In Early Weeks

Ladarius Green, SD
Josh Hill, NO
Larry Donnell, NYG
Eric Ebron, DET
Coby Fleener, IND
Vernon Davis, SF
Niles Paul, WAS
Ben Watson, NO
Charles Clay, BUF
Jace Amaro, NYJ
Jordan Reed, WAS
Crockett Gillmore, BAL

This group is typified by players with a wide range of outcomes. The reveal in the first few weeks will be most crucial for Green, who has to perform to force a larger role when Antonio Gates returns. Hill will be in a specialized role that could be above the line of fantasy relevance because of the number of targets freed up in New Orleans, but the buzz around him has cooled as Ben Watson is playing well and Hill is sidelined at camp.

Donnell and Ebron have upside, but are limited by surroundings. Neither should be higher than 3rd or 4th in the pecking order in any scenario. Donnell’s numbers dropped off a cliff when Odell Beckham emerged, and Ebron is not a red zone specialist. Both are on the upside of their careers, but the peak might not be that high.

Fleener is a mediocre player, but even mediocre players can put up numbers in Indianapolis. The problem for him is the projection of fewer two tight end sets in the Colts offense and fewer snaps in favor of Dwayne Allen. Davis looked done last year, but was hurt. The 49ers aren’t exactly a fantasy goldmine, but he could bounce back to fantasy relevance in a best case scenario.

Paul is the starter in Washington, and he could have rosterable value if Jordan Reed can’t stay healthy. If Reed does stay healthy, neither will be reliable or worth owning. Clay could have fantasy relevance just about anywhere else, but not in Buffalo. Amaro is trying to carve out a spot in his second year in what could be a surprisingly decent pass offense, but we’re still waiting for signs that is about to happen.

Gillmore is just an average talent when it comes to passcatching, but he could get a lot of targets by default in a Ravens offense with only one proven target, who just told us he is retiring at the end of the season.

Outside of Green and Hill, I’m probably not drafting any of these guys in typical leagues, but they could become waiver targets/bye/injury/emergency coverage.

Waiver Wire Speed Dial

Dion Sims, MIA
Tim Wright, TB
Scott Chander, NE
Luke Willson, SEA

No need to draft any of these guys, but know that they are all good enough to have fantasy relevance, and they will inherit a plum situation if the starters ahead of them go down. Sims is behind Jordan Cameron, Wright, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Chandler, Rob Gronkowski, and Willson, Jimmy Graham. In very deep TE premium leagues (FFPC best ball 28 rounders for instance), they are worth end of the draft picks.

Rookie Watch

Maxx Williams, BAL
Clive Walford, OAK
MyCole Pruitt, MIN

Rookies are notoriously slow to get up to speed at tight end because it is basically learning two positions. Never say never, though. Williams could actually grow into a very nice situation in Baltimore, Walford might become a checkdown king to replace Mychal Rivera by year’s end, and Pruitt is behind Kyle Rudolph, who hasn’t been known for durability. File these names away.

You Never Know

Richard Rodgers, GB
Lance Kendricks, STL
Mychal Rivera, OAK
Jared Cook, STL
Rob Housler, CLE
Virgil Green, DEN
James Casey, DEN

I’m not betting on any of these players to be worth a roster spot this year, but they deseve mention. Tight end hasn’t been big in Green Bay’s offense, but there’s Rodgers in case it does by some chain of events. Kendricks could overtake the all-world athlete Cook now that he has a new contract, but the Rams TE role remains split. Rivera might have some good PPR games early, but Walford is coming. Housler has athletic ability, but still needs to work on the football part of his profile. Green and Casey are lesser parts of a Kubiak TEBC, but if old hand Owen Daniels goes down, they could catch our eye.