The fantasy game changes incrementally from season to season and goes through sea changes over a longer term, but there has been one immutable fact in the 20 years I’ve been playing this game: There is no position shallower than tight end. Even with Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham legitimizing the idea of using a first-round pick on a tight end over the last few seasons, it can be a challenge to find more than 12 or 14 consistent starting options at the position.
While tight end is still the shallowest position on the board in 2015, the middle of the position has fattened up in recent years. Travis Kelce could turn into a top-50 player, regardless of position, this season. Greg Olsen went north of 1,000 yards last year. Martellus Bennett was just shy of that same mark while hitting pay dirt six times. All told, seven tight ends scored at least 120 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, the most since the turn of the century. What’s more, talented youngsters like Dwayne Allen, Tyler Eifert and Austin Seferian-Jenkins could join their ranks this season.
Elite: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
Even though I believe Jimmy Graham is undervalued this season, Gronkowski is in a tier of his own at the tight end position. Gronkowski stayed upright for the entire 2014 season (the one game he missed was Week 17 when the Patriots had nothing to play for), catching 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in addition to outscoring all tight ends by at least 30 fantasy points. He also had more points in standard-scoring leagues than Mike Evans, Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton or Calvin Johnson. Tom Brady’s suspension hangs over the New England offense, but even if the appeal falls apart and Brady is out for the first four games of the season, those marginal effects aren’t enough to change Gronkowski’s season-long ranking.
Over his five seasons in the league, Gronkowski has averaged 11.66 fantasy points per game. Dating back to 2000, a tight end has accomplished that in a season eight times. Four of those seasons belong to Gronkowski. Health is always a concern, especially the back issue that plagued him in 2013 and traces its origins back to his college days at Arizona, but if he’s healthy, he’s like another elite receiver for fantasy purposes.
Breakout: Travis Kelce, Chiefs
It may seem that picking Kelce as the breakout tight end of 2015 goes against the spirit of the category. After all, the fantasy community is treating Kelce as though he has already broken out. Despite his lofty ranking heading into draft season—Kelce is widely seen as the best tight end once Gronkowski and Graham come off the board—he was just the No. 9 tight end in standard-scoring leagues last year. Much of the fault for that does not lie with him.
First of all, for reasons that remain unclear, Andy Reid kept his dynamic tight end shackled for much of the season. Kelce played 70% or more of the Chiefs’ snaps seven times all season, and none of those games came before Week 11. Kelce got just 87 targets last year, fewer than Mychal Rivera, Jared Cook and Larry Donnell. When Kelce was on the field, it was easy to see why he’ll be the next big thing at the tight end position. The 25-year-old out of Cincinnati racked up 2.26 yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Gronkowski, at 2.53, got more. Olsen checked in at 1.88 yards per route run, while Graham was down at 1.7.
Secondly, the entire Chiefs’ passing game was a mess last season. They infamously did not have a touchdown reception by a wide receiver, the first time that has happened in NFL history. With Kelce let loose and Jeremy Maclin in the fold, the passing attack as a whole should be better. You’re going to have to pay for Kelce. He has an ADP of 54.1 and an average auction value of $17, but he can still turn a major profit at that price.
Steal: Tyler Eifert, Bengals
It’s silly to read too much into one game, be it good or bad. If we believed everything we saw from an individual data point, then Rivera’s Week 14 performance from last season (seven catches, 109 yards and a touchdown) would have made him, and not Kelce, the breakout pick in this primer. That’s why we don’t base conclusions on one game. It’s beyond foolish. It’s fatuous.
Having said all that, let’s talk about the first quarter of Eifert’s 2014 season. Not the first four games—the first quarter of the first game. Eifert caught three passes for 37 yards in that quarter, with two of those three receptions going for at least 14 yards. Here’s the first of those long catches.
And here’s the second.
Unfortunately, Eifert suffered a season-ending dislocated elbow on that second catch. Still, I think we got a glimpse of how the Bengals want to use him when he’s healthy. Don’t forget that Eifert was a first-round pick after three years at Notre Dame and entered the league with lofty expectations. After A.J. Green, the Bengals are unsettled at wide receiver. Marvin Jones had a strong 2013 season, but he’s coming off foot and ankle injuries that cost him all of last year. Mohamed Sanu, Greg Little and Denarius Moore are just faceless cogs in an offense. Eifert can be the third receiving weapon for Andy Dalton, alongside Green and Giovani Bernard. Forget top-10 upside: If all goes well for Eifert, he could be a top-five tight end this year.
Reach: Josh Hill, Saints
Just because a player is the starting tight end for the Saints doesn’t mean he’ll automatically be on the receiving end of 130-plus targets from Drew Brees. It seems that a large portion of the fantasy community expects Hill to step right in and fill Jimmy Graham’s shoes, to a certain degree. Hill’s current ADP of 119.7 has him off the board before Delanie Walker and Dwayne Allen, and his consensus ranking of 12th among tight ends on FantasyPros is better than that of Antonio Gates and Owen Daniels. Remember, Graham did not have one of his more dominant seasons last year. He played all 16 games, but injuries limited him in at least three of those, and he was on the field for fewer than 70% of the Saints’ snaps six times.
If Hill were a capable replacement, it would follow that he would have stepped in to fill the void in those games. Yet he had just 14 catches for 176 yards all season. If Hill truly had top-10 tight end upside, we would have seen more evidence of it last year.
On top of that, the Saints have led the league in receptions by running backs in seven of the last nine years. In the two seasons they didn’t lead the league, 2009 and 2010, they finished third and second, respectively. C.J. Spiller is going to be a busy man, and it’ll be at Hill’s expense. He’s no better than the fourth option in the Saints’ passing game. Price him accordingly.
Injury Risk: Dwayne Allen, Colts
Allen’s name is going to start ringing in your ears once nine or 10 tight ends have come off the board in your draft. If you’re one of the last people to nab a starting tight end, you’re going to want to prize upside, and there’s no doubt that Allen has it. He scored eight touchdowns in 13 games last year and is a key piece in a pass-happy offense with an elite quarterback. He has also missed time due to injury in each of the past two seasons. A hip injury suffered in the first game of 2013 knocked Allen out for the year. He was inactive for three games and sat for large chunks of two others last season because of a knee issue. When you’re incapacitated for at least five games in consecutive seasons, you officially become an injury risk.
The Colts have a perfectly capable second tight end in Coby Fleener, as well as a strong receiving corps headlined by T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson. Even if Allen is healthy for 16 games, he’s going to have a lot of competition for targets in the Colts’ offense.
Rookie to Watch: Maxx Williams, Ravens
The Ravens made Williams the first tight end selected in this year's draft, using the 55th overall pick to grab the Minnesota product. In his final season with the Gophers, Williams had 36 catches for 569 yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers may not jump off the page, but they were good enough to earn second-team All-America and first-team Big Ten honors. From Todd Heap to Dennis Pitta to Owen Daniels, tight ends have had significant fantasy roles throughout Joe Flacco's time in Baltimore. New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman made great use of Martellus Bennett in Chicago over the last two seasons, with the big tight end catching a total of 155 passes for 1,675 yards and 11 touchdowns in '13 and '14 combined.
At 6'4" and 250 pounds, Williams has the size and receiving ability to fit right in with the new breed of tight end. His days as a starter in traditional fantasy leagues are most likely in the future, but those in deep leagues with multiple flex spots would be wise to keep him in mind when the draft reaches its latter stages. While he’s justifiably outside the top-20 tight ends to start the season, he has the opportunity and the ability to make a dramatic leap as a rookie.