2017 Initial Rankings: A Closer Look at Kyle Rudolph, Martellus Bennett, Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle
Our 2017 projections are up, so it’s a good time to discuss a few players that jump out at each position. On Monday I covered quarterbacks, and on Tuesday it was running backs. Today I’ll discuss the tight end position.
The two best fantasy tight ends in the league – Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed – have missed a combined 21 games over the last three seasons. In early drafts, they’re going in the 2nd round and 4th round, respectively. If healthy in August, they’re worthy of that draft capital, especially since it’s relatively easy to find production on the waiver wire. Tight end is typically a “onesie” position (i.e. each team only has to start one), so there are usually decent options on the wire. If either player plays a 15- or a 16-game season, he could be a league-winner, but it's tough to count on that durability from these two.
On the flip side, Greg Olsen hasn't missed a game since his rookie season. Olsen finished as the #3 TE (PPR) last year, which is his third straight finish in the top 5 and it makes five straight in the top 7. In my view, he’s the safest pick at the position and is going in the late 5th round. Last year’s #1 overall tight end, Travis Kelce, is currently going near the 3/4 turn. He has finished in the top 8 in three straight seasons and should continue to grow as a player. He's a solid pick, but has yet to catch more than five touchdowns in a season.
Delanie Walker finished #5 in 2016, which marked back-to-back finishes in the top 5 and his third straight finish in the top 8. He’s turning 33 in August, which has seemingly depressed his ADP (8th-round). Last year, he was going a full round earlier.
When healthy, Tyler Eifert is a top tier tight end and an elite option in the red zone, but he has missed 26 games in the last three years. Jimmy Graham bounced back from a #20 finish in 2015 with a #4 finish last year, playing a full 16-game slate for the Seahawks.
I’ve already mentioned seven of the first eight tight ends that are going off the board in early drafts. The other is Hunter Henry, who had a fine rookie season but is still dealing with the presence of red zone vulture Antonio Gates.
If you want one of these tight ends, it will cost you a pick in the first eight rounds. Below, I’m going to discuss four tight ends who I believe have top-5 potential and are going in the 9th round or later.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings (9th round of 12-team drafts)
After making the Pro Bowl in his second season (collecting 53 passes for 493 yards and nine touchdowns from Christian Freaking Ponder), it looked like Rudolph’s star was rising. But he was only able to play 17 games over the next two seasons, and was lost in the shuffle in 2015 as the Vikings only threw for 3,246 yards and 18 touchdowns, which didn't leave much for Rudolph.
Rudolph’s targets actually increased after Norv Turner resigned in early November. He saw 7.7 T/G through the first seven games. After Pat Shurmur took over as offensive coordinator, Rudolph saw 8.7 T/G in the final nine games. His per game average (PPR) increased from 11.6 PPG under Turner to 14.2 PPG under Shurmur. Rudolph is not a particularly explosive player, but he has good hands and is a huge target for Bradford, who led the league in completion percentage last season.
Rudolph finished #2 at his position in PPR (#3 in standard) and nothing has changed. With the addition of Dalvin Cook and a reworked offensive line, the team should be able to run the ball better, but Rudolph is still poised to be Bradford’s primary target in the red zone.
Martellus Bennett, Packers (9th round)
Coming off of a top-10 finish – his third in the last four seasons – Bennett joins another great offense in Green Bay. The Packers signed Bennett to compensate for the loss of Jared Cook to free agency. Last year, Cook struggled with a foot injury, but once he returned in Week 10, he was very involved. Over the final 10 games (including the playoffs), he averaged 4.2 catches for 55 yards and 0.30 touchdowns, which equates to 11.5 PPG (PPR), or low-end TE1 numbers. This is a good estimate for what Bennett can do this offense. Another comparable for Bennett’s likely production is Jermichael Finley, who averaged 3.7-46-0.34 (10.3 PPG) in 38 games from 2011 to 2013.
I like Cook (and Finley, for that matter), but Bennett is a better all-around player and is probably more durable. (He has four 16-game seasons in the last five years.) Bennett looks like a low-end TE1 with top-5 upside if he can catch 8-10 touchdowns.
Eric Ebron, Lions (10th round)
In 2016, Ebron finished #14 in total points and #12 in points per game. He only caught one touchdown, so he’s due for positive regression after catching five touchdowns in 2015. The absence of Anquan Boldin, who caught eight touchdowns and was targeted 22 times in the red zone – the most on the team – opens up a lot of opportunity.
Ebron is just 24 years old and as he enters his fourth season, he has increased his receptions, receiving yards, yards per reception and catch percentage in back-to-back seasons.
Provided he stays healthy, I think his touchdowns bounce back and he finishes in the top 10.
Jack Doyle, Colts (11th round)
In 2016, Doyle finished with 59 catches for 584 yards and five touchdowns (#13 TE in PPR), and played especially well when Dwayne Allen missed Week 7, posting nine catches for 78 yards and a touchdown against the Titans. With Allen now in New England, Doyle should see an increase in snaps and targets, provided that Erik Swoope doesn’t vulture too much work.
To get an idea of Doyle’s upside, consider this: In Andrew Luck’s last two seasons where he has played 15-plus games (2014 and 2016), tight ends have accounted for 26.5% of the team’s catches, 26.9% of the team’s receiving yardage and 40.5% of the team’s receiving touchdowns. Applying those shares to Luck’s current 4for4 projection, we get roughly 98 catches for 1296 yards and 13.5 touchdowns. If Doyle gets 60% of that production, he’s looking at a top-6 season.
For more on Doyle, be sure to read TJ Hernandez’s excellent column about his prospects in 2017.
The Bottom Line
I don’t remember a year where there were this many good TE values available at approximately the same point in the draft (9th-11th round). If these ADPs hold, I’ll likely wait until the 9th round to address the position, and try to acquire one (or more) of these four players.
Since I’m also likely to wait until the same point in the draft to find a quarterback, it will leave me with my first eight picks to use on running backs and wide receivers.
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