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Fantasy Football 2018: Tight End Primer

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Heath offers his overview of the big guys.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

About a month ago I researched average TE1 production over the last two seasons. Here’s the link to that cursory study. In a nutshell, I found that the average production for a TE1 over the last two years is a line of 730 yards and six touchdowns. At the risk of being obvious, achieving TE1 status in fantasy football is not that difficult—at least not compared to other skill positions.

For reference, in standard leagues a year ago that baseline of 79 points was the same level of production as Austin Ekeler (79.90) and Tyler Lockett (79.30). In other words, Eric Ebron (79.40) was last year’s TE13, and he was sandwiched between the RB46 and WR53.

2016 was more of the same, as C.J. Fiedorowicz (79.90) and Charles Clay (79.20) finished as the TE15 and TE16 respectively. They were sandwiched between Will Fuller V (WR60) and Michael Floyd (WR61). In summation, average TE1 production over the last two years is equivalent to that of a WR5. Yikes.

Put differently, over a 16-game stretch that 79 points averages out to 4.94 points per week. Such. A. Low. Bar.

Therefore, if you don’t snag an elite option at this position, WAIT. You can stream and be just fine—at least compared to your counterparts who also aren’t getting elite production from the tight end position.

To be clear, though, my preferred strategy in 2018 is to get one of the top three guys or Trey Burton. There are definitely other tight ends I like at their respective draft positions, but in general I want one of the big three if I can. If I can’t, I’ll aim for Burton, who I think has the next greatest chance to go “boom.”

Let’s run through my TE1s for 2018 and then touch on the rest before we get outta here.

1 Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots

Drafting Rob Gronkowski is a no-brainer, slam-dunk, stone-cold-lead-pipe-lock decision in 2018. Remember that 4.94 PPG average for the average TE1 over 16 games? Gronk smashed that in 2017, checking in with a whopping 11.31 PPG average. He is a ridiculous advantage in the fake game, even over the two guys being drafted behind him. I will take him everywhere in Round 2 this year. Given the dearth of healthy (and not suspended) receiving talent in New England, the best tight end in the game may see a more opportunity than ever in 2018. It doesn’t hurt that former red zone maven Eric Decker announced his retirement yesterday (Sunday). Gronk’s 23 red zone looks a year ago ranked second among tight ends—the best one in the game may rank first this season...and first in the league, even. That’s a scary thought, if you don’t draft him.

2 Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

I view Kelce and Ertz as splitting hairs, and Ertz is a round cheaper. I will have minimal Kelce shares due to this discrepancy in ADP. I’m not sure if that’s a hot take, but I’m dinging the Chiefs offense slightly given the loss of Matt Nagy and the insertion of Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. Ertz feels a tad safer, and that’s what I value in the early rounds.

3 Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs

There is shootout potential in Kansas City given the state of the defense. But a rookie quarterback and no more Matt Nagy (who breathed new life into Kelce last year) are concerns. The addition of Sammy Watkins siphons away targets as well. Spencer Ware is nearly as capable as Kareem Hunt when it comes to receiving out of the backfield. Head coach Andy Reid suddenly has a full cupboard to play with. I doubt Kelce leads all tight ends in targets like he did a year ago, as there’s no need to feature any one player on this squad. Add in the fledgling signal-caller and I’m slightly bearish on Kelce. There are a lot of moving pieces in Kansas City, and expecting it to all fall seamlessly together seems unwise. All that said, he’s too good and Reid’s offenses too cushy a place for fantasy goodness. I can’t drop him below the TE3 spot.

4 Trey Burton, Chicago Bears

Matt Nagy should feature tight end, as the Bears made signing Burton a priority this offseason. Burton’s preseason usage reflects this. If Mitchell Trubisky turns in a Jared Goff type of season like many are projecting, Burton reads as the most obvious beneficiary. I can’t find much upside behind him at tight end unless I start projecting injuries, and that’s not something I’m down with. Therefore, Burton looks like a major steal at his ECR of TE9. That’s a Round 8 ADP in a 12-team league. I’m all over that upside and would take him as soon as Round 7 to make sure I landed him. For reference, he went 7.3 in a mock draft I did on FantasyPros last night (and I didn’t draft him). Get ready to pay a little bit!

5 Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings

What do I love about Rudolph? In a word, plenty. He is playing with the best quarterback he’s ever had in Kirk Cousins. He is the only guy at tight end in Minnesota, as backup David Morgan saw only 2.34% of targets last year. In the two years prior, Rhett Ellison siphoned away only 2.51% of targets and MyCole Pruitt managed 3.74%. Meanwhile, Vernon Davis managed 12.57% and 9.95% in Washington over the last two years due to Reed’s injuries. But there were still two viable guys there. In Minnesota, there is only one.

While Rudolph’s 14.75% target share in 2017 was solid, the 23.45% share the year prior was nuts. Granted, the Vikings passing tree is now a tad wider given the emergence and health of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (not to mention running back Dalvin Cook). But consider the red zone, where Rudolph has finished 2nd, 1st, and 1st in targets for Minnesota over the last three years. I’m penning this with standard leagues in mind, probably should have mentioned that sooner. Kyle Rudolph in Round 8 or 9 is a safe investment given his quarterback play and his nose for the end zone. He’s Jimmy Graham with more yardage in 2018, but he costs less at the draft table.

Before we get into Olsen, I’d like to say that if I were in a draft I’d be skipping over this glut of tight ends until I reached Njoku. These middle rounds are murky waters, filled with aging and/or injured guys.

6 Greg Olsen, Panthers

I admit I could be far too low on Olsen if he continues to stay healthy. He looked the part in the Panthers’ third preseason game, hauling in 4-of-5 targets for 44 yards receiving. But Carolina’s additional passing weapons are concerns, as is the 33-year-old’s ability to stay upright. I’m inclined to pass on Olsen and wait for Njoku, who is younger and in a similar situation.

7 Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans

Walker is a classic “floor” pick at a top-heavy tight end position. In most cases I’ll pass over Walker and draft Burton for his upside. But there are scenarios where he might land on my team—i.e. if I had a lot of risk built in over the early rounds and needed to find some safety. Walker isn’t exciting, but he’ll outplay plenty of other tight ends on a week-to-week basis. Sidenote: Marcus Mariota is the GOAT and this holiday season I am grateful he has an actual offensive coordinator this season.

8 Evan Engram, Giants

Evan Engram played the fewest slot snaps of any tight end last year, which might explain his terrible catch rate (he and Graham were the worst among TE1s last year). If Engram’s slot usage goes up, his catch rate should follow suit. Last year’s volume is guaranteed to go down, though. OBJ is healthy, Sterling Shepard is healthy and underrated, Saquon Barkley is going to be fed...who isn’t going to pay off their ADP in this offense? My money is on Engram, despite any rise in efficiency. Note: Engram suffered a concussion during Friday’s preseason game, but should have enough time to clear the protocol if he avoids setbacks. That said, everyone’s brain is different, and we never know how fast or slow someone will recover from a concussion. This is more reason for me to continue to avoid this grouping and wait for Njoku.

9 Jimmy Graham, Packers

Graham didn’t have a single game with over 72 yards receiving last year. He was all about the red zone, leading all NFL players with 29 red zone looks. He faded badly from Week 14 to Week 17, with yardage totals of 0, -1, 3, and 45 over his last four games (the fantasy playoffs!). The lone score against Dallas in Week 16 kept those four weeks from being a complete nightmare, but this isn’t a pretty picture. My money is on Davante Adams, the running backs, A-Rod’s legs, Ty Montgomery...really anyone else in that offense. Still, the golden arm of Rodgers is undeniable, so I can’t go lower on Graham.

10 David Njoku, Browns

Njoku is among my favorite buys at the tight end position. He is seemingly buried on Cleveland’s depth chart, but it doesn’t take much to be a TE1 in fake football. He has shown chemistry with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield this preseason, an encouraging fact given the crazy tendencies of Hue Jackson and the Browns. In an offense that seems murky with three running backs and a stud receiver who may or may not play, I’ll take the ueber-talented tight end at ADP, somewhere in Round 9 or 10 (if I miss out on the big three or Burton).

11 Jack Doyle, Colts

Doyle is still Andrew Luck’s chain-mover, okay? There is room for two tight ends in this offense given the lack of wide receiver talent. And no, I’m not buying Ryan Grant. Give me Doyle AND Ebron this year. Doyle should offer a consistent floor with his receptions and yardage totals, while his partner in crime (Ebron) should see more scores.

12 George Kittle ,49ers

Kittle is a notch above Ebron since he’s not battling another tight end on his own team for opportunity. Kittle’s 16 red zone targets last year tied him with Kyle Rudolph for fifth among all tight ends, and Kittle was just a rookie. Only Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz had more red zone opportunity last season. Pretty fine company to keep, in my opinion. Kittle’s 43-515-2 line a year ago doesn’t sound very impressive, but he only started 7-of-15 games (and missed one entirely due to injury). It wouldn’t surprise me if he finished a few spots higher than this ranking, and drafters who are checking last year’s statistics will miss out.

The rest...

Eric Ebron, O.J. Howard, and Jordan Reed seem like the next-best options to finish as TE1s this year (and that’s how I have them ranked, 13th through 15th). I’m passing over Tyler Eifert and his injury history in my drafts, for better or for worse. I’d rather take a stab at Tyler Kroft way late.

I don’t see any reason to select Charles Clay when I can get Jared Cook later. Cook has superior quarterback play and his team isn’t in shambles.

I am scared that I’m overlooking Cameron Brate. The Buccaneers did just pay him 40 million big ones over the next six years, and he has finished as the TE6 and TE8 in the last two seasons. But O.J. Howard is emerging (and was already efficient last year) and Chris Godwin has matured quickly heading into his sophomore campaign. This team should have multiple red zone threats in 2018, which takes away from Brate’s ability to overcome his low target volume. Right now I’m bearish...but if I was in a bind and chasing upside, I think Brate still offers some as a scorer.

If I’m digging deeper, I’ll land on Benjamin Watson one way or another. He’s old for our purposes, but when he’s healthy he’s still wed to Drew Brees and quarterback play counts for a whole lot when we play the streaming game.

Feel free to check out our consensus rankings later today to see how everyone else stacked up. That’s it for me this morning, let’s end this with a poll:

Poll

Which tight end do you prefer to draft in the middle of your fake draft?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Jimmy Graham, Packers
    (35 votes)
  • 24%
    Greg Olsen, Panthers
    (34 votes)
  • 16%
    Evan Engram, Giants
    (23 votes)
  • 34%
    Kyle Rudolph, Vikings
    (48 votes)
140 votes total Vote Now