2016 Fantasy Rankings – Top 10 Tight Ends
Another Wednesday, another set of rankings, just the way it should be. In preparation for the upcoming football season, we have another installment of our top ten positional rankings. This week we have the Aaron Hernandez special, tight end. Now while it may not be the most important position on your team, the tight end position is still no slouch either. Similar to quarterback, tight end is a position that I prefer to draft later rather than sooner. I fell victim to the Gronk hype train a few years back, and while he was fantastic and helped me tremendously that season; it certainly hamstrung me in terms of drafting a running back or wide receiver in the first round. This can turn into a never ending debate, but the fact of the matter is that I will not be selecting a tight end until the back ends of drafts, unless something substantial falls into my lap.
While the position might not always fill up the box score, you undoubtedly must find yourself a capable and consistent tight end. Last year I was able to snag Delanie Walker in most leagues and rewarded me with a top 5 season at the tight end position going 94-1,088-6. I was able to consistently snag him in the last round of drafts. As a colleague of mine likes to say, “That’s great value.” Since these articles are for you, the reader, we highly suggest waiting on the position and trying to grab someone late in your drafts. In terms of finding your so called sleepers or diamonds in the rough, you want to look for players that you know the quarterback will have to rely on. We usually identify these players as having a rookie quarterbacks (e.g. Jared Goff), or a quarterback with a new team (e.g. Brock Osweiler) because the quarterback needs someone to trust and someone that can be their safety valve. This is a spot where tight ends tend to shine.
Another thing to remember when looking at the tight end position is health. This is one of the reasons why I tend to draft one later rather than sooner. Injuries are rampant across the tight end position because the position is basically a combination of offensive lineman and wide receiver. Combine the injuries that occur at these positions (mostly lineman) and you have players that are going to get consistently beaten up. Keep health and injury history in mind before grabbing one of these guys. But enough of my hot air, let’s get to the rankings.
- Rob Gronkowski – Need I say any more? Perennial number one tight end, the future HOFer does it all. Even without Brady for four weeks (pending NFLPA appeal to the Supreme Court) Gronk is the best tight end in the league and it’s not even close. The only worry is injury, so keep that in mind. He’s only missed one game each of the past two seasons, but he is constantly dinged up and his knees are always a target for tacklers. Understand the risk associated with a.) drafting a tight end early and b.) drafting Gronk. If he does stay healthy, you can set your tight end every week and forget about it. There’s no overthinking or analysis needed when you have Gronk. He’s one of the few matchup proof guys and will reward you every week.
- Jordan Reed – Reed is an absolute animal at the tight end position and can dominate when he’s on the field. He finds open zones, runs the seam extremely well, and was consistently on the same page with Kirk Cousins last year, especially towards the end of the year. Even with the addition of Josh Doctson, we still have Reed as our number two overall tight end. His injury history is alarming, but the talent and athleticism is up there with the likes of Gronk. One more concussion, though, and Reed’s already knocked around brain will be looking like Campbell’s soup. He’s our clear number two ranked tight end, but you might want to have a backup plan in case he gets jarred in the head again.
- Greg Olsen – One of the safest bets at tight end, year in and year out, similar to a Jason Witten. He does battle the nagging and consistent injuries that most tight ends have to deal with, but his toughness is up there with the likes of offensive linemen and the aforementioned Witten. Witten has played all 16 games every year of his career besides his rookie year (14 games). Cam Newton will have a slew of options in the passing game this year, but Olsen should continue to remain his safety valve, and that is what makes him so valuable. Newton loves to throw the deep ball to guys like Ted Ginn and Corey Brown, and the jump ball to Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin, but he also needs a great route runner who can find the seam or the hole in the short to intermediate area of the field. That is where Olsen excels. Constantly staying healthy at such an injury riddled position doesn’t hurt either.
- Tyler Eifert – Here is where things started to get dicey for us in terms of ranking these guys. After much discussion, this is who it came down to at the four spot. Eifert is a fantastic athlete who should see an uptick in targets following the departures of Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Those roles were filled with Tyler Boyd, who seems to be similar to Sanu in that he’ll be a mediocre pass catcher at best, and Brandon Lafell, whose hands are similar to cobblestones. That leaves Giovanni Bernard, A.J. Green, and Eifert to scoop up the majority of the targets from the Red Rifle. The potential is there for Eifert to again excel in the red zone as Green is likely to be doubled and Eifert is a big body who can box out defenders. We wouldn’t say that last year’s number are duplicable, but 8+ touchdowns and 900+ yards are in the realm of possibility for Eifert.
- Delanie Walker – We know this might come as a bit of a surprise with the old man (31) Delanie Walker coming in before Travis Kelce. But that’s the way the wind blows, and quite frankly Travis Kelce has yet to fully live up to his potential of becoming that top three tight end in fantasy. Back to Walker, who was one of the best values in fantasy last year, being drafted in the 15th round of most leagues if he was even drafted at all. He will again have Marcus Mariota under center throwing him the ball and similar to last year, we believe that Walker will be that safety net for the sophomore quarterback out of Oregon. Walker is not a flashy player by any means, but similar to Greg Olsen he’s a smash mouth, tough tight end who can find the open spaces in the defense and be a check down for Mariota when need be. Walker is also very dependable as he has only missed one game a year for the past three seasons. We’re expecting similar numbers for Delanie this year, with a projection of 75+ catches, 900+ yards, and 6+ touchdowns.
- Travis Kelce – Kelce is similar to a guy that we’ll mention later, but he has struggled to move up into that top tier of tight ends. He has the talent to be a top three tight end, but his coaching staffs have not focused on getting him the ball regularly and Kelce has yet to show any big playmaking ability. This seems to be a recurring issue around the league, as many staffs would rather disperse the ball evenly to everyone rather than giving it to their playmakers and their best players. Kelce SHOULD be the number two target in the KC passing game behind Maclin, but with KC not throwing the ball much and the offense being run by a game manager, there is only so much you can do. On the plus side, offensive coordinator Doug Pederson has moved on, so it could open up the passing game a bit for the Chiefs, and he is still only 26 years old. We are expecting him to improve on his 2015 numbers because the Chiefs will be easing Jamaal Charles back in to start the season, and more teams are likely to focus on Maclin. Alex Smith will forever remain a game manager, but if Kelce can improve on using his body more and finding open space, especially in the red zone, then Smith should be able to find. Optimistically, Kelce could push for 80+ catches, 1,000+ yards, and 6-8 touchdowns.
- Gary Barnidge – The pleasant surprise of 2015. Another Cleveland TE coming out of relatively nowhere (see: Jordan Cameron), Barnidge wowed us all last year with some nifty catches and consistent stat lines. He now has 1,646 career receiving yards and twelve touchdowns over seven seasons, with 63% of those yards and 75% of those touchdowns coming last year. With RG3 finally returning to the field, albeit rusty as hell, Barnidge should continue to rake in the targets. As we mentioned earlier, quarterbacks new to a system will rely on their tight ends as a bail out, and we highly anticipate that being the case in Cleveland. It will also take a while for RG3 to get acclimated with his new targets (Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, etc.). If Josh McCown is quarterbacking the Brownies, don’t be afeard; Barnidge had most of his success last season with McCown at the helm. As much as we’d love to see the Barn-burner replicate his numbers from last season, a more realistic expectation should be around 75+, 900+, 6+. We expect a finish somewhere in the fifth to twelfth range.
- Zach Ertz – The struggles of promising tight ends continues with Zach Ertz. Not that it is necessarily his fault as he has never been given enough opportunities to make something for himself. The Eagles have consistently split time with her and Brent Celek (who?) and don’t seem to have a problem not utilizing their young and talented tight end to the best of his abilities. We have struggled to understand it. This year welcomes the monotonous and extremely conservative play calling of Doug Pederson. You might remember his work with the Chiefs who are a clock controlling, conventional offense, which has limited Travis Kelce’s upside as well. Ertz has remained healthy since coming into the league, having not missed a game yet through three years. But in those three years he has only amassed nine touchdowns. Nine. He is averaging three touchdowns a year, which is just brutal, and this coaching staff doesn’t lend itself to helping to improve on those numbers. We do like how healthy he has remained and the fact that Celek is another year older and another year slower (if he can get any slower). His rapport with Bradford should improve as well, he just needs to make a few big plays and break out of that proverbial shell that he has been stuck in for most of his career.
- Coby Fleener – What a difference an offseason makes. Fleener was expected to re-sign with the Colts and go back to his plodding role of pass catching tight end for the Colts, while simultaneously screwing up a handful of plays every week. Dwayne Allen was the one that was expected to move on but what do you know, Fleener somehow finds himself in one of the best landing spots for a tight end in the league. If you can catch passes from Drew Brees, you most certainly can flourish in this league as we saw last year with the resurgence of one (former Patriot great) Benjamin Watson. Brees should be able to straighten Fleener and his goofy self out enough that he can become at worst an above average pass catching tight end. The Saints have not relied too much on the tight end position for blocking (see: Jimmy Graham), and when they do need blocking from the position, they usually have a backup that can do it for them, such as Josh Hill. Fleener and the Saints should be able to figure things out, but with the log jam for targets in the Saints offense we have to temper expectations. A realistic season for Fleener would be 65+, 800+, 5+. As your ninth tight end off the board, we wouldn’t mind spending a late round pick on him.
- Ladarius Green – About time for this guy. Forever stuck behind the ageless, wheelchair-ridden Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green has finally gotten out from the shackles of San Diego and found himself in the most potent offense in the NFL. But can he finally get it going and put it all together? He’s had his opportunities but hasn’t necessarily made the most of them. Antonio Gates was suspended for the first four games of last season and Green did little to force San Diego to give him more playing time. Back came Gates in week five and back went Green to a reduced role in the offense. We have him rounding out our top ten receivers because if there is any offense that can put up big numbers and get everyone involved, its Pittsburgh’s. Even with the apparent but-not-yet official suspension of Le’Veon Bell coming, that offense won’t miss too much of a beat with DeAngelo Williams filling in nicely as he did last year. Our lone fear with Green is that he just can’t get it going for some reason, struggles with the offense, and only finds himself in reduced roles as he did with San Diego. We’re hoping that Big Ben and Co. are able to get him going and find that untapped potential that we all were hoping for in those years with the Chargers. Green represents some good value if you can snag him towards the tail end of drafts.
Honorable Mentions: Julius Thomas, Antonio Gates, Eric Ebron, Dwayne Allen, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Martellus Bennett
And that does it for the tight ends. Next week we’ll be bringing the heat again with the underrated position of defense and special teams. Josh will be breaking down the position like no other and will help you down the path to victory if your league doesn’t go down the IDP route. Remember to check out our podcast “Trophy Time,” on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, etc. and get an earful about our draft strategies.