The tight end position has undergone a transformation over the last few seasons. Rob Gronkowski is a constant, of course, but the rest of the position’s leaders turned over in just two short years.
Back in 2013, Jimmy Graham led all tight ends in fantasy points. Other players in the top 10 included Vernon Davis, Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Charles Clay. What does it look like three years later? Gonzalez has retired. Thomas is still a player of note in Jacksonville, but he’s not the reliable weapon he was in his Denver days. Witten is still hanging on to fringe TE1 value with the Cowboys. Davis, Cameron and Clay are irrelevant.
A new class of tight ends is now in command. Greg Olsen turned into a fantasy power over the previous two seasons, joining Gronkowski as the veteran rulers of the position. Meanwhile, youngsters like Jordan Reed, Travis Kelce and Tyler Eifert injected some much-needed life into the position. Add in the steady Delanie Walker and surprising Gary Barnidge, and it wasn’t hard to find a reliable weekly starter at tight end last season.
All of those players remain in a TE1 class that has been buttressed by off-season moves to free up a handful of intriguing options. Plus, former stars like Thomas and Graham can still get into the low-end TE1 discussion, and Antonio Gates seems like he’ll be doing this forever. There’s hope that this position can be even deeper this year.
Get a full overview of the position with our 2016 tight end primer. My complete tight end rankings, as well as those of fellow SI.com fantasy writer Pat Fitzmaurice, can be found at the bottom of the story.
Jordan Reed or Greg Olsen?
Rob Gronkowski rules over the entire tight end group—there's no debate there. There is, however, much debate for the next spot, centered on Washington’s Reed and Carolina’s Olsen. The two present an interesting dichotomy, and the one you prefer could say more about you as a fantasy owner than you realize.
Reed is the ceiling play, without question. After injuries marred his first two seasons, he played 14 games last year, showing what he can do when he is able to stay on the field. Reed caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns, finishing second to Gronkowski in both total points and points per game. At 26 years old, it’s entirely likely that Reed’s best days are still in front of him, and as the focal point of a pass-heavy Washington offense, he could realistically surpass all of last year’s numbers.
Olsen, on the other hand, is the safe, reliable play. The 10th-year player out of Miami is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He set a new career high with 1,104 yards last year, to go along with 77 receptions and seven scores. If that high-floor reliability is boring, than you might as well stock your roster full of boring players and start engraving your name on your league’s championship trophy.
So, Reed or Olsen? Upside or floor? The two are draft-day neighbors, with Reed’s average draft position in the middle of the fourth round and Olsen’s just half a round later at the beginning of the fifth. In a vacuum, I’ll take Reed. His injury risk cannot be ignored, but the ceiling that comes along with it is worth taking that gamble. Olsen’s touchdown upside is capped because of Carolina’s justified infatuation with running the ball in the red zone, and Kelvin Benjamin is back to take away some of his high-value targets.
Here’s the thing, though. Rankings are in a vacuum, but draft picks are not. By time you’re thinking about either of these players, you’re going to have three or four players on your team. That should help drive your decision. If you already have a few high-risk, high-reward players, Olsen’s reliability should be attractive. On the other hand, if you targeted safe, high-floor players early, you can better afford to take a shot Reed.
Is this finally Ladarius Green’s year?
This is Green’s fifth year in the league, which means it’s at least the fourth year that we’ve heard his breakout is on the horizon. Despite a 6' 6", 250-pound frame and a skill set that matches up with the modern pass-catching tight end, Green was never able to unseat the ageless Antonio Gates. Even when Gates missed four games due to suspension last season, Green failed to take over and was out-produced by Gates in fewer games.
Green had to leave San Diego to get his first true shot at a starting gig. He couldn’t have picked a better landing spot, joining up with Ben Roethlisberger and company in Pittsburgh. No matter what happens with Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers are going to feature a potent passing attack. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the league. Sammie Coates, one of my favorite targets this year, and Markus Wheaton will provide plenty of firepower down the depth chart. Green could be the seam-splitting tight end that Roethlisberger has never really had at his disposal.
There’s nothing wrong with looking askance at the Green breakout argument. He had four years in San Diego to prove he deserved a meaningful role in the offense and came up short every time. The difference here, though, is that the Steelers don’t have anyone even one-third as good as Gates for Green to battle. Green’s going to have every opportunity to prove he can be a top-tier pass-catching tight end, and that’s something he didn’t have with the Chargers. He’s well worth a shot at his eighth-round draft-day price.
Will the Chiefs unleash Travis Kelce?
In a roundtable discussion earlier this season, my partner Pat Fitzmaurice dreamed of a world in which Kelce was a Green Bay Packer. Fitz’s blatant homerism aside, he certainly had one thing right: Kelce would look a whole lot better in an offense that isn’t as painfully conservative as Kansas City’s.
To be fair, Kelce had a fine 2015 season. He hauled in 72 passes for 875 yards and five touchdowns, ending the year as the No. 8 tight end in standard-scoring leagues. At the same time, there was essentially no growth over his rookie year, in which he had 67 grabs for 862 yards and five scores. This is a guy who earned the nickname Baby Gronk. He’s not supposed to be having a “fine season.” He’s supposed to be powering his way to the top of the tight end rankings while doing things like this:
The problem, however, is that Andy Reid and Alex Smith are still at the helm of this offense. As long as that’s the case, Kelce’s going to be part of a scheme that doesn’t take full advantage of his skill set. He’s going to get more than his fair share of targets as no worse than the second-best receiving threat at Smith’s disposal. How many of those are actually deep down the field where Kelce can do serious damage, unfortunately, remains to be seen. His draft-day price tag places him in the sixth round, and that feels appropriate, all things considered. Still, it’s hard not to dream about what he could do in a high-octane offense.
Separated and it feels so good?
Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen always got in one another’s way in Indianapolis. The Colts selected both in the 2012 draft, and they spent four years as teammates. Over those seasons, they posted the following combined stat lines, including where a single tight end with those numbers would have ranked in standard-scoring fantasy leagues:
2012: 71 receptions, 802 yards, five touchdowns, TE7
2013: (Allen missed 15 games): 53 receptions, 628 yards, five touchdowns, TE13
2014: 80 receptions, 1,169 yards, 16 touchdowns, TE1
2015: 70 receptions, 600 yards, four touchdowns, TE13
Taken together, they were never worse than TE13, and twice put up top-seven seasons. Taken separately, they combined for one top-10 and just three top-20 seasons. Luckily for both, as well as the fantasy community, they’re no longer hurdles to the other’s production.
Fleener signed with New Orleans this season, joining up with Drew Brees while leaving Allen behind with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. That makes both, but especially Fleener, valuable fantasy commodities. Look at what Brees has done with his tight ends. He made a star out of Jimmy Graham. He revived Ben Watson’s career last season. Fleener turns 28 in September and has one monster season in his rearview mirror. Allen is just 26, and is now freed of playing with Luck’s college teammate, who always seemed to be just a step ahead on the Colts tight end depth chart. Both should thrive in '16.
Are there any worthy dart throws at the position?
Zach Miller, Will Tye and Clive Walford should have bigger roles for the Bears, Giants and Raiders, respectively, than they did last season. Forever underwhelming Jared Cook will attract attention yet again now that he’s in Green Bay. If you’re looking for a high-leverage late-round flier, though, you’re going to want to get familiar with San Francisco’s Vance McDonald.
McDonald’s ADP is so low that he doesn’t even show up at invaluable ADP clearinghouse Fantasy Football Calculator, so he’s essentially free. The 26-year-old fourth-year player out of Rice finally got a chance to emerge from Vernon Davis’s shadow last year, catching 30 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. McDonald didn’t get more than three targets in a game until a November matchup with the Falcons. From that point forward, he averaged five targets, three receptions, 40.14 yards and 0.42 touchdowns per game. That comes out to 104.54 fantasy points in a 16-game season, which would have made him the No. 9 tight end last year.
Highlighting a worthy dart throw isn’t as simple as finding a guy who had a strong finish over a small sample and then projecting that sample over a full season. Still, take a look around at the 49ers’ offense. Who is Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert going to throw to, other than Torrey Smith? Bruce Ellington? Quinton Patton? Devon Cajuste? Volume will not be a problem for McDonald, and that’s half the battle. Any owner in a deep league would be wise to have his name circled for the end of the draft.
Tight end categories
Elite: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
Who else could it be? Should we just run down his list of accomplishments?
Gronkowski has scored at least 10 touchdowns in five of his six seasons, and the only one in which he fell short he played just seven games. After that season—2013—health was supposedly the only knock against him. He has played 15 games in both of the seasons since then, averaging 1,150 yards and 11.5 touchdowns per year. By season, he has finished fifth, first, second, 17th (2013), first and first at tight end in fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. Gronkowski legitimized the first-round tight end. He’s as dominant as they come at any position.
Don’t worry about Tom Brady’s suspension when valuing Gronkowski. It does bring down his ceiling ever so slightly, but not to the point that he should slide down your draft board. He’s still going to get 12 games with Brady, and Jimmy Garoppolo is, at the very least, competent.
What could hurt Gronkowski’s stock, though, is the deepening pool of startable tight ends. If you take Gronkowski, you have to be comfortable with chasing at receiver and running back. Do you want to do that knowing you can get someone like, say, Coby Fleener 60 or 70 picks later? That’s not an endorsement of fading Gronkowski, but rather a disclaimer to make sure you understand the full range of options when it comes to attacking the tight end position.
Gronkowski is coming off the board early in the second round of a typical draft. If he can approach what he has done the last two seasons, he will be worth that draft-day capital.
Breakout: Eric Ebron, Lions
I know, you’ve heard this already. Before you dismiss it, let’s start with the good for Ebron.
He’s all of 23 years old despite entering his third year in the league. He was the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft, and while there are busts every year, no one can simply wave off that impressive pedigree. He’s 6' 4" and 255 pounds, with the speed to be a weapon in the middle of the field. Finally, with Calvin Johnson retired, there are a lot of targets to go around in Detroit this season.
Now, Ebron hasn’t shown much to suggest a breakout is looming. He had a decent year in 2015, catching 47 passes for 537 yards and five touchdowns, but did nearly all that damage early in the year. From November through the end of the season, he had 27 receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns in nine games, translating to 4.32 points per game. That’s not an encouraging sign for a guy who said he hit the rookie wall a week or two into training camp the previous year.
Ebron is still very young and has two seasons under his belt. That’s a great foundation from which to make a leap. Ebron has the tools and the opportunity. He also won’t cost fantasy owners much, coming off the board in the 13th round, on average.
Value: Martellus Bennett, Patriots
The dog-whistle reaction to anyone who plays his way out of one city only to land with the Patriots is a little overstated and comical at this point. Not everyone can be Corey Dillon, right? Having said that, there’s more to a Bennett revival than there was to previous New England reclamation projects, thanks to a scheme that was once so profitable for the Patriots.
New England made an offense with two pass-catching tight ends sharing the field not only viable, but also explosive from 2010 to ’12. That offense has been in mothballs since Aaron Hernandez revealed his true colors. The Patriots just might be able to deploy it again with Bennett joining Gronkowski.
Bennett joined Gronkowski on the field in a large percentage of first-team reps early in training camp, a sure sign that the Patriots plan to use both tight ends together. That, in and of itself, isn’t noteworthy. What is, however, is that the Patriots base formation could have two tight ends, and that Bennett is expected to be involved significantly at the goal line.
Bennett has some great seasons in his past. From 2012 to ’14, he averaged 70 catches, 767 yards and 5.3 touchdowns per year, topping out at 90 receptions for 916 yards and six scores in ’14. Put him on the field with Gronkowski and Tom Brady, and he could easily reach that three-year average, which comes out to 108.5 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. That would have made him the No. 9 tight end last year, and yet he’s the No. 14 tight end by ADP.
Reach: Tyler Eifert, Bengals
I don’t want to pat SI Fantasy on the back too hard, but we loved Eifert before it was cool. From the earliest stages of last year’s fantasy draft prep, we touted him as a breakout player. He made us look good, leading the position with 13 touchdowns while catching 52 passes for 615 yards in 13 games. Injuries cost him three games and made him the No. 6 tight end in total points, but he was third in points per game, trailing only Gronkowski and Jordan Reed.
And yet, I can’t help but feel Eifert is overvalued at his late-sixth round ADP this season. First and foremost, he’s still in a protective boot after off-season ankle surgery, which was only necessary after an injury he suffered in the Pro Bowl. The Bengals still aren’t sure when, or if, he’ll participate in training camp, and at this point, it’s more likely than not that he misses at least one regular season game.
Even when he’s back on the field, he’s an obvious regression case. Eifert had 13 touchdowns on just 52 receptions, meaning that one in four of his catches resulted in six points. That’s likely an impossible rate to duplicate, even though all of Eifert’s touchdowns were in the red zone. He could still post an elite touchdown rate while dominating in the red zone, and see that TD-per-catch rate slashed in half. Remember, he has this teammate named A.J. Green who’s pretty good in the red zone himself but took a backseat to Eifert last season. What are the chances that happens again this year, especially if Eifert’s health is compromised early in the season?
Eifert remains a great player in what should be a strong offense, and I’d be happy to have him on my teams at the right price. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the right price is also realistic this season.
Michael Beller’s TE rankings
Pat Fitzmaurice’s TE rankings