After two down years of scoring at the tight end position, the tight end renaissance was back in full force in 2018. The Big Three of Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz all posted scores that would have led the league in 2017 and 2016. Kelce, in particular, led the way - scoring the most tight end points since 2013 while breaking the receiving yards record for tight ends.... which Kittle promptly broke later that day. Beyond these fantasy elites, which the majority of managers in your league won't own after the draft, who are the best of the rest? This question is why the 2019 Fantasy Football Tight End Preview holds a special importance from the other positions previewed at F6P.
Farewell to an Old Friend
Unfortunately, we're losing one of the league's (and fantasy football's) brightest stars in Rob Gronkowski as he's retiring to pursue full-time partying. Thankfully, he's left the position in good hands, as the Big Three are joined by a plethora of young talent stepping into the spotlight.
Hunter Henry will be back from an ACL. Evan Engram will have the opportunity to step out of Odell Beckham Jr's shadow. O.J. Howard will continue to be a behemoth of a man. As more tight ends than ever are being drafted in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, the tight end position is as deep and as talented as ever.
We're going to see that juxtaposed with the twilight years of some legendary tight ends like Antonio Gates, Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, and America's favorite Monday Night Football announcer Jason Witten.
It's going to be one of the most exciting years for the position in years. Let's take a look at what we can expect in 2019.
2019 Fantasy Football Tight End Preview
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Will the volatility at the tight end position continue in 2019?
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For each of the last five years, there has been an average of 5.6 new entrants to the top-12 tight end scorers. In fact, in 2018, 8 of the top-12 tight end scorers were not top-12 scorers in 2017. We already know that Rob Gronkowski will unfortunately not be returning to this list in 2019. So should we expect 4-5 other players to join him and if so, who might they be? Let's try to predict them.
The top-12 tight ends in 2018 were (in order):
- Travis Kelce
- George Kittle
- Zach Ertz
- Eric Ebron
- Jared Cook
- Trey Burton
- Austin Hooper
- David Njoku
- Kyle Rudolph
- O.J. Howard
- Rob Gronkowski
- Vance McDonald
Right off the bat, we can assume Kelce and Ertz will make the list again. Kelce has been a top-10 scorer yearly since he became a starter three top-2 finishes in the last three years. Similary, Ertz has been a top-11 scorer in his last four years with third place finishes in his most recent two seasons. They are both firmly cemented in prolific offenses with no signs of slowing down. They're in.
I feel comfortable including Kittle in 2019's TE1 rankings. He was the TE2 in 2018 and will be the focal point of the Niners' offense. I don't expect him to be a one-hit wonder like Gary Barnidge in 2015.
George Kittle was the league's highest-graded tight end from the 2018 season pic.twitter.com/nbWzaBSMhs
— PFF (@PFF) May 20, 2019
Rounding Out the Higher Tier
That means four to five players from Ebron, Cook, Burton, Hooper, Njoku, Rudolph, Howard, and McDonald will most likely not be a top-12 tight end scorer in 2019. With Evan Engram and Hunter Henry (likely) returning to form from injury, it's easy to see how this might happen.
Rudolph is an easy one to single out for me. His stats have been in steady decline (126 pts in 2016, 101.2 in 2017, and 87.4 in 2018) and the Vikings offense is moving away from him.
The rest of the list gets more difficult as they are all younger guys with upside or starters with a firm grasp on their role. If I had to choose, I would say Burton, Njoku, and Hooper would be my last three out, with Ebron as a sleeper choice - more on him later.
Can we count on any of the young tight ends to step up?
In the 2018 NFL draft, eight tight ends were taken in the first 120 picks - the most since 2010. Based solely on last year, the latter half of those eight tight ends (Jordan Akins, Ian Thomas, Chris Herndon, Will Dissly) were a much greater value than the first four, scoring 169.6 fantasy points to 171.1 by Hayden Hurst, Mike Gesecki, Dallas Goedert, and Mark Andrews.
Will any of the latter four step up and show they were worth such a high pick? The results may vary.
I'll touch on Andrews later, but of these four, I believe he has the best chance to break out. Hurst is quickly losing favor to him in Baltimore. Barring injury to Ertz, Goedert is the clear TE2 on his team, albeit a very explosive offense.
That leaves Gesecki, who caught 22 of 32 targets for 202 yards in 2018. There's a path to success for him as the Dolphins don't have any reliable targets (count me out on DeVante Parker). Offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea comes from a Patriots offense that obviously featured the tight end. That being said, Gesecki will also be catching passes from either Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen. Yikes.
— PFF (@PFF) April 2, 2019
Okay, well how about the 2019 draft class? People love to say rookie tight ends need to sit a year to "learn the offense and the NFL game" and the 2018 class didn't do anything to dispell that line of thought. However, we're looking at another talented tight end class, with 9 players drafted within the first 121 picks and four within the first 52.
Obviously, the easy bet is T.J. Hockenson who was drafted eighth by the Detroit Lions and has received Travis Kelce comparisons. As an excellent blocker, he should see the field a ton, but I question how much Matthew Stafford, who historically underutilizes tight ends, will target him.
Not Quite Ready
The rest of the class was drafted into backup or supplementary roles. Noah Fant joins a hapless Denver offense and will likely join a rotation at tight end while he improves his blocking. There was some thought that Irv Smith Jr. would immediately supplant Kyle Rudolph, but Rudolph ended up getting a four-year extension. Drew Sample will have to contend with Tyler Eifert and CJ Uzomah. Jace Sternberger is behind Jimmy Graham on the depth chart, but could see significant snaps if Graham misses any time. Josh Oliver (Jaguars) probably has the clearest path to snaps, but I don't see him as the focus point of a run-first offense.
Who is the random late-round tight end who will finish as a top-6 scorer?
Let's continue to look at historical trends. In each of the last five seasons, at least one relatively unexpected tight end has exploded onto the scene to finish as a top-6 scorer at the position. The following table compares the Average Draft Position (ADP) to the final scoring rank of some recent top-6 finishers.
|Year||Player||ADP (among TEs)||Finish (among TEs)|
|2018||George Kittle, SF||12||2|
|Jared Cook, OAK||>20||4|
|Eric Ebron, IND||16||5|
|2017||Evan Engram, NYG||22||4|
|2016||Cameron Brate, TB||>17||5|
|2015||Gary Barnidge, CLE||>19||2|
|Jordan Reed, WAS||>19||3|
|Tyler Eifert, CIN||9||6|
|2014||Coby Fleener, IND||>18||6|
As you can see, we can count on one or more player to come out of nowhere and score top-6 points. There's not too much in common with these players. They range from rookies (Engram in 2017) to veterans who were one-hit wonders (Barnidge in 2015) and many different archetypes in between.
The two things they had in common were touchdown variance and opportunity. The majority of the players on this list had never scored nearly these many touchdowns before and never got close afterwards. Touchdowns are the hardest statistic to project year-to-year so let's set that aside for now - but keep it in mind.
That leaves opportunity. The average player on this list amassed ~105 targets. In some cases it was due to another player's injury, and while that's impossible to predict, it should also be something we keep in mind.
So to sum up, we're looking for a player who might see 100+ targets and won't split scores with another prolific touchdown scorer. We also shouldn't be looking for outrageously talented players. Those guys are probably already producing or being drafted with the expectation to produce.
With those parameters set, I've combed through the depth charts and come up with these names:
- Mike Gesecki, Miami Dolphins - see above.
- Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins - I know, I know. But Reed is legitimately one of the most talented tight ends in the league. If he could stay on the field, he's going to see the majority of the looks in a limited offense.
- Charles Clay/Ricky Seals-Jones, Arizona Cardinals - If Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray can really jumpstart this offense, there's a scenario where one of these tight ends sees a ton of targets. There's a lot of love for the Cardinals' young receiving core, but they are VERY young outside of Larry Fitzgerald.
- Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens - more later.
Most years, I don't have too concrete of a draft strategy regarding tight ends. However, this year that's definitely changed. If I don't find myself in position to take one of the top-3 tight ends at a reasonable point in the draft, I will wait as long as I possibly can to draft one of the tight ends I have ranked between 4 and 14. You can find my draft rankings here.
The truth of the matter is I'm just not seeing that much of a difference between the guys here. They're all young, talented guys who are stepping into an opportunity they theoretically should take advantage of. However, as I detailed in the section on volatility above, it's a coin flip as to who actually will. I'd rather use a valuable mid-round pick on a more valuable position (wide receiver or running back). I might even consider grabbing two of the guys I have ranked in the early 10's.
Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts, ADP: TE6.5
If you've followed me for some time, you'll probably know that I'm a well-known non-believer in Eric Ebron. He was never that good in Detroit and I think his 2018 was a little flukey. I still think he'll be a fantasy asset in 2019, but I'd bet
my life money he doesn't play up to his ADP this year.
In 2018, all the planets aligned and Ebron turned in his best year to date. He caught 13 touchdowns after his previous high in Detroit was five. Not only is he a likely candidate to regress to his career mean, but he will have to contend with the return of Jack Doyle and the additions of Devin Funchess (also a big-bodied redzone threat) and Parris Campbell.
Speaking of Doyle, Ebron especially benefitted from his absence. Per Rotoworld, Doyle out-snapped Ebron 331-to-165 and saw 33 targets to Ebron's 22 in their six games together.
Delanie Walker, Tennesee Titans, ADP: TE13.3
Before his season-ending ankle injury in 2018, Walker was one of fantasy football's most consistent performers. He turned in four straight top-8 finishes dating back to 2014.
However, he's 34 years old now. There's not a long track record of tight ends succeeding past age 34. Benjamin Watson is the only non-HOFer in the modern age to be a serviceable player at that age.
In addition, Walker will be on a run-first offense featuring Derrick Henry. More importantly, he will no longer be the surefire first option in the passing attack with Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, Adam Humphries, and Taywan Taylor in row.
Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh Steelers, ADP: TE9.5
McDonald isn't exactly a steal at where I have him ranked (8) compared to his ADP, but I think this is a good spot to discuss him. Also, any excuse to use that picture above to remind you of that play. He was a top-12 tight end last year and that was with a marginalized role in the offense. The departure of Antonio Brown and Jesse James opens up 207 targets for the taking.
Signs point to McDonald taking a significant portion of these targets as the Steelers only added Donte Moncrief (boooo) and a fifth-round tight end in the draft.
Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens, ADP: TE23.8
— PirateLife Football (@PirateLifeFF) June 25, 2019
Although the Ravens drafted Hayden Hurst in the first round in 2018, Andrews was the more impressive rookie. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch (second among tight ends) and finished the season with 552 yards and three touchdowns on a respectable 50 targets.
The Ravens have shown they want to commit to Lamar Jackson as a passer. Andrews was one of his favorite and most reliable targets down the stretch. If rookie Marquise Brown struggles to return from injury or getting acclimated to the league, Andrews will see an even larger target share.
He should easily outperform his TE24 ADP and I'm betting he's going to be a fringe TE1 this season.