Fantasy Football Sleepers & Values: Tight Ends
Updated August 20, 2014
While most fantasy pundits agree on strategy for quarterbacks (Wait!), running backs (Load up early!) and wide receivers (Get a stud or two!), the tight end position is another animal entirely. There are those who believe that it’s an easily replaceable “onesie” position -- i.e. owners only have to start one per team, so there are a number of decent options available on the waiver wire -- and therefore it’s not worth burning an early round pick on an elite tight end. Then there are those (like me) who believe that drafting an elite tight end is a good foundation for a championship roster.
Last year, I laid out The Case for J. Graham, and since then not much has changed. Using the “last starter” VBD methodology, Jimmy Graham had the 5th-highest relative value (RV) in 2013 in both standard and PPR formats. RV will vary based on roster requirements, but Graham wasn’t worth a 2nd round pick last reason – he was worth a 1st.
Fast forward 12 months and Rob Gronkowski is rehabbing another major surgery, so Graham is still safe atop our positional rankings. Last year’s #2 TE, Vernon Davis, is angling for a new contract and may experience a drop in targets now that Michael Crabtree is fully healthy. Julius Thomas (#3 TE in 2013) is certainly worthy of an early round pick, and I’ll be targeting him in the early 3rd round, but Tony Gonzalez (#4) has retired. Jordan Cameron (#5) may see more targets, but won’t have the benefit of playing alongside Josh Gordon, who demanded double-teams for much of last season. So I’d argue that the elite TE tier has gotten weaker, and that only strengthens Graham’s status as a bona fide 1st round pick.
But what if we miss out on Graham? As I mentioned, Thomas in the late 2nd/early 3rd is an option. Late 2nd is a stretch, but if I’m near the turn and know I can get a good RB or WR on the way back, I might pull the trigger on the Bronco TE knowing that he’s likely to see some more work with Eric Decker now residing in New York. Thomas is also still learning the game and should improve with more experience.
If I don’t get Thomas, then I’m likely to wait a while before drafting a tight end, hoping for value to emerge in the form of one of the players below, because it very likely will.
I do think Jason Witten (7.02) and Jordan Reed (7.04) are also solid values at their respective ADPs, but I put the cutoff at the 8th round for the purposes of this list. I’d be willing to draft either in the 7th round of standard leagues if I wasn’t thrilled with my other available options.
Greg Olsen, Panthers (8.03)
Olsen finished the 2013 season as the #8 TE and finished #6 the year before. The Panthers have overhauled their receiving corps, so Olsen is easily the most trustworthy pass-catcher on the roster. Kelvin Benjamin might steal a few redzone targets, but Olsen will be heavily involved in the base offense and is likely to lead the team in receptions for the second straight season. For those that want to wait on a tight end, Olsen is a great guy to target in the 7th or 8th round.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings (8.09)
Rudolph 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 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 heavily while with the Chargers and Browns. Rudolph is just 24 and could make a nice leap if the Vikings can get good play out of the quarterback position. He should continue to be a force in the redzone and has slimmed down to take advantage of a greater workload between the 20s.
Dennis Pitta, Ravens (8.06)
Pitta missed most of 2013 due to a hip injury and 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. (He finished with the 12th-most targets in 2012.) The big plus for Pitta heading into 2014 is the arrival of new OC Gary Kubiak who has been very TE-friendly throughout his career, specifically with the development of both Shannon Sharpe in Denver and Owen Daniels in Houston. The Ravens also signed Daniels, but he should be relegated to mainly two-TE sets in 2014.
Martellus Bennett, Bears (12.02)
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, so if Bennett and his QB stay healthy, Bennett is likely to outperform his draft position.
Charles Clay, Dolphins (12.03)
Clay was the #7 TE in 2013, so he’s not going to sneak up on anybody. New OC Bill Lazor comes from Chip Kelly’s staff in Philadelphia, and Kelly wasn’t afraid to use the tight end position last season. Zach Ertz and Brent Celek combined to catch almost 22% of Philadelphia’s receptions in 2013, while Clay was responsible for 19.3% of Miami’s receptions. He’s also a threat to get a goal line carry or two.