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.
Antonio Gates (13.07) & Ladarius Green (10.10), Chargers
It’s hard to believe that Gates’s ADP is low enough that I’m able to describe him as a sleeper. Gates was the #9 TE in both standard and PPR formats last season, but the fantasy community has written him off in favor of the new young thing (Green). For Green to score more fantasy points than Gates, one of two things will have to happen: 1) Gates gets injured, which is a distinct possibility, or 2) the team will have to play enough “12” (two-TE) formation to allow Green to see enough snaps to be productive. With Green going in the 11th and Gates in the 14th, it’s a reasonable strategy to draft both and play Gates until Green emerges. Unfortunately, the baton-passing may not be as cut and dried as that. I just don’t see the team playing Green ahead of Gates as long as he’s reasonably healthy. Green's hype train has been chugging along for some time, but he has legit top 5 potential if he gets the requisite targets.
Delanie Walker, Titans (14.02)
Walker 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 when given the work. 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.
Travis Kelce, Chiefs (14.04)
Kelce is finally healthy after tearing his ACL last summer and he's making plays in the preseason. Considering how desperate the Chiefs are in the passing game, Kelce should see his snaps increase quickly, though he's still behind Anthony Fasano on the depth chart. He was one of the best tight end prospects in the 2013 Draft.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals (13.09)
Eifert has had a good camp and seems poised for a jump in snaps after playing mostly second-fiddle to Jermaine Gresham last season. With Marvin Jones on the shelf for the first month, the team will likely feature Eifert in two-TE sets since the team will be missing Jones in the passing game.
Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars (16.01)
The team was pleased with Lewis’s play once he returned from injury. He’s a good blocker and is a big target in the redzone. He was the #8 TE in the final eight games of the 2013 season, and has a top 5 season under his belt (albeit in 2010). He’s not likely to be an every-week start, but he’s a dirt cheap TE2 who should catch his share of touchdowns.
Garrett Graham, Texans (16.01)
Once the team parted ways with Owen Daniels, re-signing Graham became much more feasible. After Daniels went down, Graham was the #11 TE from Week 6 to Week 14 before getting injured himself. He could be a baseline fantasy option at TE, but Gary Kubiak's TE-friendly offense is gone and it's not clear how much new HC Bill O'Brien will feature the tight end. He was an assistant with the Patriots when they featured a two-TE attack with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, so that bodes well. While O’Brien was at Penn State, TE Jesse James was second on the team in receiving yards (333) in 2013, while TE Kyle Carter was second in 2012 (453 yards). Graham could have a sizable role in the offense, especially if the tumultuous offseason of Andre Johnson continues.
There are a few other tight end situations to monitor as the summer wears on:
- I’m not usually high on rookie tight ends, but Eric Ebron (Lions), Jace Amaro (Jets) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Bucs) should be monitored as more and more teams utilize a “move” tight end as part of their base offense. Ebron seems most likely to make an immediate impact, but all three players were drafted for need.