The Never-Too-Early 2014 TE Rankings
Welcome to the fourth and final installment of my 2014 Never-Too-Early Rankings. (No, I will not be ranking kickers just yet.) Be sure to check out the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers rankings as well.
I’ll rank the position in tiers, but don’t get too caught up in the rankings within the tier. Things can and will change during free agency and the draft.
Note: Any mention of fantasy points refers to a standard scoring format.
THE SUPER STUD
1. Jimmy Graham, Saints*
There’s an asterisk next to the team name because Graham is technically a free agent, though I’d expect New Orleans to move heaven and earth to re-sign him, either to a long-term deal or under a one-year franchise tag. After finishing as the #2 TE in 2011, Graham has been the top tight end in back-to-back seasons. He played through a plantar fascia injury for the last half of the season and still averaged 4.4 catches for 56 yards and 0.83 TD. While his yardage was down from his per game average in 2011 and 2012 (74 yards per game), he more than made up for it in the touchdown department. Given Rob Gronkowski’s injury concerns (torn ACL), Graham is currently sitting in a tier of his own.
Julius Thomas is the safest pick of this bunch. He’s one of the favorite weapons in the league’s most productive passing attack, and with Eric Decker possibly on his way out of town via free agency, the fourth-year tight end could see an increase in targets as well. He scored 12 TDs in 14 games, but wasn’t simply a redzone threat — he also averaged 4.6 receptions per game, which was 6th among tight ends.
Rob Gronkowski has been hugely productive when upright, but his health is a major concern heading into 2014. He had surgery on Jan. 9 to reconstruct a torn ACL. He was injured on Dec. 8, and we’re not sure why he waited a month to have the surgery. Regardless, it typically takes a full year to recover, though Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III have made quicker returns (with varying success). Gronkowski is tentatively expected to be ready for the start of the season, but don’t be surprised if we don’t know his status until deep into August or even early September. This makes him a major risk in 2014 fantasy drafts. The ACL surgery was the eighth (known) surgery of his career.
Vernon Davis finished the season as the #2 TE, but his numbers took a dip after Michael Crabtree returned to the fold. Davis averaged 3.8-62-.90 on 6.1 targets without Crabtree in the lineup. After his return (and including three playoff games), those numbers fell to 2.4-35-.75 on 4.6 T/G. Those are still top 10 numbers at the position, but Davis simply isn’t a no-brainer top 5 pick with Crabtree in the lineup. If the 49ers let Anquan Boldin walk in free agency and don’t replace him with a quality WR2, Davis can and will serve in that capacity. Davis has a history of being underutilized in the 49ers’ run-heavy offense, and that’s a possibility again in 2014.
Jason Witten turns 32 this May, but has been extremely steady, finishing #5 or #6 at his position in three straight years and in the top 8 in seven straight seasons. He’s not going to single-handedly win any fantasy titles, but almost always represents solid value in the middle rounds. The same can be said of Greg Olsen, who has two straight top 8 finishes. He’s a boring pick on draft day, but sometimes boring production in the middle of a draft is just what the doctor ordered.
Sandwiched between Witten and Olsen in this tier are three high upside tight ends in Jordan Cameron, Jordan Reed and Dennis Pitta. Cameron was the #2 TE through Week 8, but ranked #23 from Week 9 through Week 17. Some of this had to do with the QB issues in Cleveland, though his targets remained relatively steady (8.4 T/G through Week 8 vs. 7.3 T/G thereafter). Despite the departure of a TE-friendly coaching staff that included HC Rob Chudzinski and OC Norv Turner, there is still a lot to like about Cameron. He should enjoy a QB upgrade (to a healthy Brian Hoyer or whichever rookie the Browns decide to draft) and new OC Kyle Shanahan is pretty TE-friendly in his own right. Under Shanahan, Jordan Reed was targeted a healthy 6.6 times per game (11th-highest among TEs) in 2013. While the new regime is not an upgrade for Cameron, it’s not a huge downgrade, either. Don’t forget that Cameron is entering his fourth season and is still improving as a player.
Jordan Reed was on pace for 80-887-5.3 (#7 TE-type numbers) prior to his injury, but didn't even crack the 50% snaps played mark until Week 6. In the five games where he played at least 50% of his team's snaps, he averaged 6.2-76-.40 or #3 TE-type numbers. The main concern with Reed is his injury history, specifically with concussions. According to NBC Washington, Reed suffered two concussions while at Florida. If he can stay healthy, he's a likely top 5 fantasy TE, but that's a pretty big 'if' at this point. He’s also dealing with a new offense led by former Bengals OC Jay Gruden.
Dennis Pitta missed most of 2013 due to a hip injury and he was sorely missed in the Ravens’ passing game. Upon his return, he saw 33 targets in four games, putting him on pace to finish with the 3rd-most targets in the league. It’s not a solid sample size, but it’s still an indicator of what may come. (For what it’s worth, he finished with the 12th-most targets in 2012.) The big plus for Pitta heading into 2014 is the arrival of OC Gary Kubiak who has been very TE-friendly throughout his career, specifically with Shannon Sharpe in Denver and Owen Daniels in Houston. Pitta is a free agent, but Kubiak has already spoken about his importance to the offense, so we’re fully expecting the Ravens to lock him up.
Now we’re into the less dependable section of these rankings, though there are definitely some intriguing names/situations here. Take Kyle Rudolph, who was the #13 TE through Week 9 prior to a season-ending fracture in his foot. He was 15th in targets per game during that span, so there’s still some opportunity in the workload department, especially with new OC Norv Turner in town. Turner isn’t necessarily as TE-friendly as his old boss Rob Chudzinski, but he featured Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron in his last two jobs with the Chargers and Browns. Rudolph is just 24 and could make a nice jump if the Vikings figure out what their doing at quarterback.
Delanie Walker is another interesting tight end to monitor this offseason. He finished as the #12 TE on the year, posting 60 catches for 571 yards and six TDs. He was targeted much more heavily in games where Ryan Fitzpatrick was under center (6.8 vs. 4.2 T/G), but Jake Locker did throw three TDs to Walker while he was still the starter. From Week 10 to Week 15, Walker had the 6th-highest PPG (8.7), so he’s capable of playing at a TE1 level. Moreover, new HC Ken Whisenhunt had this to say about Walker: "Working with Antonio Gates got me excited about the position, and I think there's a lot of elements to what Delanie does that are similar in that capacity.” This bodes well for Walker’s usage in Whisenhunt’s offense.
Charles Clay and Martellus Bennett finished 7th and 8th in total targets, respectively. Clay is dealing with a new offense (under Bill Lazor, who was previously the QB coach in Philadelphia), so his usage is a bit up in the air. Bennett was targeted more heavily by Jay Cutler than he was by Josh McCown, which bodes well for 2014, assuming Cutler can stay healthy. Removing Week 7 and Week 10 (where both QBs played extensively), Bennett averaged 4.8-58-.33 (on 6.6 targets) with Cutler and 3.4-41-.20 (on 5.2 targets) with McCown. Those numbers with Cutler are top 10 caliber.
Zach Ertz averaged 2.8-32-.56 over the final nine games of the season (including the Eagles' sole playoff game) and that included two goose eggs in Week 10 and Week 14. This equates to 6.6 fantasy points per game, which is what Martellus Bennett averaged as the #10 TE in fantasy football. Both Brent Celek and James Casey are expected back in 2014 and they are far better run blockers than Ertz. He has top 5 fantasy TE potential, but his run blocking may continue to hinder his playing time.
Dwayne Allen could benefit from the arrival of special assistant Rob Chudzinski, but the presence of Coby Fleener seems to cap Allen’s upside. Jared Cook was the #11 TE on the season, but when his stellar Week 1 performance (7-141-2 against the Cardinals) is removed, he was only #18 the rest of the way.
Tim Wright had his moments, finishing #13 at his position, but his college coach (Greg Schiano) is gone and his usage in new OC Jeff Tedford’s offense is a bit up in the air. He’s a converted wideout, and his run blocking is a problem, so the team may elect to replace him this summer with a more well-rounded tight end. On the plus side, he really didn’t get many targets until Week 3, and over the final 14 games, he was the #10 TE in fantasy football.
20. Ladarius Green, Chargers
21. Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars
22. Coby Fleener, Colts
23. Tyler Eifert, Bengals
24. Brent Celek, Eagles
25. Zach Miller, Seahawks
26. Brandon Bostick, Packers
27. Heath Miller, Steelers
28. Rob Housler, Cardinals
29. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals
30. Joseph Fauria, Lions
31. Mychal Rivera, Raiders
32. Travis Kelce, Chiefs
33. Levine Toilolo, Falcons
This group is filled with upside plays and middling talent. Ladarius Green was the #3 TE from Week 11 to Week 13, but averaged just 0.6 catches for 13 yards and 0.08 TD in the other 13 games. Playing behind Antonio Gates, he’s not likely to have a big fantasy impact until Gates is out of the way. Marcedes Lewis was the #3 TE from Week 13 to Week 17, but he was getting extra targets due to the state of Jacksonville’s banged-up/suspended receiving corps. He probably won’t be as productive with Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts back in the fold.
Coby Fleener and Tyler Eifert have had their moments, but they’re still just part-timers, which doesn’t usually equate to consistent fantasy success. Eifert would move into the top 12 if Jermaine Gresham were out of the way. Fleener was #15 in 2013 with Dwayne Allen on the shelf for most of the year.
With the (possible) departures of Jermichael Finley and Brandon Pettigrew, Brandon Bostick and Joseph Fauria could move into starting roles in 2014. Levine Toilolo currently sits atop the depth chart in Atlanta with the retirement of Tony Gonzalez. Keep an eye on what their respective teams do at the tight end position this summer and draft accordingly.
This is not a great group of free agents in terms of potential fantasy impact. It gets a lot better when Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta are included, though I don't think the Saints and Ravens will let them get away. Jermichael Finley’s fantasy stock would be the highest if he re-signs with the Packers, but since he’s coming off a serious neck injury, they may pass.
Garrrett Graham and Fred Davis could potentially make some noise if they land in good situations, though there aren’t too many good situations to be had.
At this point, I see nine TEs I'd be comfortable starting in 2014 and another 3-5 who could emerge during the offseason as potential fantasy TE1s. Graham and Thomas look like very safe early-round picks. I'd expect Graham to go in the late 1st round with Thomas going in the late 2nd or early 3rd. As always, Gronk is the wild card.
If I miss out on the top two tiers, I think I'd wait a while and see who's left of "The Stars" tier. Olsen typically goes in the 8th round or later, and I don't see that changing drastically this season. Rudolph and Walker are somewhat risky picks later on, but I think both players will provide at least baseline TE1 value at a good price on draft day.
Streaming is also a fallback option; savvy owners were able to pick up Thomas, Clay or Walker early in the season. There are always a few surprises at the position and that will likely continue in 2014.