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2017 Fantasy Football Tight Ends: Jimmy Graham hasn't hit his ceiling with the Seahawks

Can Jimmy Graham rejoin the elite fantasy TE ranks? Is this finally the season of Eric Ebron? How does Hunter Henry's season look? Answering all the burning questions surrounding fantasy tight ends.

Tight end remains the least important position in fantasy football. Rob Gronkowski is obviously in a class of his own, worthy of a first-round pick if he were guaranteed to play 16 games. Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed aren’t quite Gronk, but they’ve separated themselves from the pack and can make a significant difference at fantasy football’s shallowest position.

After that, tight end is one big shrug emoji. Can Jimmy Graham fully break through in Seattle? Can Tyler Eifert stay healthy and remain one of the best red-zone weapons in the league? Will Martellus Bennett give Aaron Rodgers the reliable tight end he has rarely had during his career? Can Kyle Rudolph follow up the best season of his career with an encore? Is Hunter Henry ready to fully take the spotlight from Antonio Gates? Will Eric Ebron live up to his potential? Will Delanie Walker fully share in the new riches expected in Tennessee?

Despite the uncertainty at the position, it is deeper than it has been in recent years. Even fantasy owners that wait to fill it should leave their drafts and auctions feeling good about what they’ve done. That, too, helps make it the lowest-priority spot on draft day.

Burning questions

Is Jimmy Graham back?

Graham was left for dead by much of the fantasy community after a tepid, injury-shortened 2015 season, his first with the Seahawks. Last season, Graham, who was once neck-and-neck with Gronkowski in ADP, slipped to the 11th round in typical 12-team drafts, going after the likes of Julius Thomas and Zach Ertz. Anyone who bought in at that low price received a windfall.

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Graham bounced back toward, but not all the way to, his previous self last season, catching 65 passes for 923 yards and six touchdowns. He finished the season as the No. 4 tight end in both standard and PPR formats, trailing Kelce, Rudolph and Olsen. That season has him in the good graces of the fantasy community once again. Graham is typically the fifth tight end off the board after the big four of Gronk, Kelce, Olsen and Reed.

It’s hard to argue with Graham’s standing at his own position. Gronk, Kelce and Olsen are unimpeachable as the top three, and Reed’s only question mark is health. The better question is where does he fit in the overall player universe? Should he hear his name called shortly after Olsen and Reed, or should there be a gap, representing a drop from one tier to another?

While Graham is comfortably behind those tight ends on my board, he has a ceiling he hasn’t yet tapped in Seattle. He started to get there last season, but he didn’t fully reclaim the value he once had in New Orleans. Even though this Seahawks offense will never afford him the volume that Saints one did, Graham is easily the team’s best receiving weapon in the red zone. That wasn’t true of his time in New Orleans, when he split that honor with Marques Colston. A fully healthy Russell Wilson means good things for everyone in the Seattle passing game, and the team could put the ball in his hands even more frequently than it did last season. If there’s one already established passing attack I want to bet on taking another step this year, it’s Seattle’s.

In short, what we saw from Graham last season represents neither floor nor ceiling, but it would be a surprise to see him dip below those numbers. He’s fairly priced at his ADP and could easily place his name among the top three at the position once again.

Where does Gronk slot this year?

On a per-game basis, no tight end can come close to Gronkowski. If you eliminate the three games in which he played but was extremely limited due to injury last year, he had 24 receptions for 529 yards and three touchdowns in five games. That translates to 14.18 points per game in standard leagues and 18.98 points per game in PPR leagues. No TE approached those averages in either format and only wideouts Antonio Brown and Jordy Nelson were able to match or beat him in PPR leagues.

Of course, Gronk only gave his fantasy owners five healthy games. It was the second time in four years he played less than half the season, and third time in his seven-year career that he missed at least five games. He’s still just 28 years old, but each successive year adds to the wear and tear on a body, and one that has already dealt with as many injuries as his has, especially to his back, is less likely to hold up.

If Gronkowski were guaranteed to play 13 or 14 games, he’d be an easy pick at the end of the first round. That, however, isn’t the case. He’s the greatest injury risk of any player with a top-20 ADP and that makes him this season’s ultimate high-risk/high-reward play. Taking him means passing on players like T.Y. Hilton, Amari Cooper, Lamar Miller and Doug Baldwin, and possibly Dez Bryant, Leonard Fournette and Michael Thomas, too. He has a higher ceiling than all of those players, but they all likely have the high, reliable floors fantasy owners need to lock in early in fantasy drafts.

That’s why, no matter the reward Gronk might provide, he’s off my draft board at his ADP. Someone is going to take him there, and if he stays healthy for most of the season, my hat is off to that person for having the guts I lacked. I’m confident, though, that I can address the position later while getting a sure thing in my regular starting lineup at Gronk’s ADP. He’s as tempting as ever, but the risk just isn’t worth it.

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Is this Eric Ebron’s year?

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Ebron is viewed as a disappointment by a large percentage of the fantasy community. After being the 10th pick in the 2014 draft, Ebron has 133 catches for 1,496 yards and seven touchdowns across three NFL seasons. He has had his band of supporters every year, but has yet to break through and become a regular fantasy starter. That is all true. It is also unfair.

Ebron is entering his fourth season, but he’s still just 24 years old. Tight end is famously one of the harder fantasy positions at which to transition to the NFL, with pass protection responsibilities getting the better of a number of highly regarded prospects. Ebron, thus far, has held up. He scored just one touchdown last year, but set career highs with 61 receptions, 86 targets, 711 yards and 11.7 yards per catch. You can look at him and see a disappointment, or you can look at him and see a former No. 10 pick on the rise. I see the latter.

With Anquan Boldin gone, Matthew Stafford is going to need a new favorite receiver in the red zone. Four of Boldin’s eight touchdowns last season came on plays starting inside the five-yard line. Ebron is the obvious choice to command those targets. In fact, he’s the most logical choice to earn the largest share of the 95 targets Boldin left behind. Detroit’s offense thrives on quick, short passes, and Stafford, once considered a gunslinger, has proved incredibly accurate in Jim Bob Cooter’s scheme. Ebron’s skill set is a perfect fit, and with Boldin out of the way, he’s set for a significantly increased role.

To answer the burning question: Yes, this is Ebron’s year.

What does Hunter Henry’s season look like if he doesn’t fully emerge from Antonio Gates’s shadow?

There’s little reason to consider the best-case scenario for Henry. It’s not that it has little chance of happening, but more that it’s obvious how his season will unfold if it does. The second-year player out of Arkansas, who was the 35th pick in the 2016 NFL draft, caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns while playing just 58% of the team’s snaps last season. If he’s the clear No. 1 tight end for the Chargers this year, there’s no intrigue as to what he’ll do. He’ll be a top-five fantasy tight end, without question.

The more interesting discussion concerns a timeshare between Henry and Gates. After all, that’s the reality fantasy owners will face on draft day. If Gates is still getting about 90 targets from Philip Rivers, what can fantasy owners expect from Henry?

To best figure this out, let’s start by looking at the games last season in which both played after Henry emerged while Gates was on the shelf in late September and early October. That includes 11 games, starting with the Chargers’ Week 5 loss to the Raiders. In those 11 games, Henry had 26 catches on 39 targets for 325 yards and seven touchdowns. Gates, meanwhile, had 42 catches on 74 targets for 438 yards and five scores. Henry found the end zone more often, but Gates was clearly the team’s top tight end.

Henry’s numbers in those 11 games extrapolate to 37.8 receptions, 56.7 targets, 472.7 yards and 10.2 touchdowns. That touchdown total looks nice, but it’d be nearly impossible for anyone to post that sort of touchdown rate. To bet on Henry, then, is to bet on him taking over as the No. 1 tight end to Gates’s 1A. Unless the Chargers prove that will be the case during the preseason, that will be a risky bet to make.

Where is the position’s Goldilocks equilibrium point?

Goldilocks equilibrium is an idea we talk about every year at the quarterback and tight end positions. The idea is that you can afford to wait on both positions, but you don’t want to wait too long. Strike too early, and you miss out on the volume of big-time stars you need at wide receiver and running back. Jump in too late, and you leave yourself grasping at straws at quarterback or tight end all season. You need to address the position when it’s just right, thus, at its Goldilocks equilibrium point.

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This season, Kyle Rudolph represents GEP at tight end. 4 For 4’s multi-site ADP has Rudolph coming off the board at pick No. 84.5, which is right at the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth round in 12-team drafts, and eighth among tight ends. Fantasy Football Calculator pegs his ADP at 99.8, 10th among tight ends. Any fantasy owner who gets him at either spot will not be disappointed.

Rudolph broke out with an 83-catch, 840-yard, seven-touchdown season last year, finishing second among tight ends in fantasy points in standard and PPR formats. While it was far and away his best season, it wasn’t an outlier in terms of production per opportunity. It was merely the first time the Vikings committed to him as a significant part of their offense.

In 2015, Rudolph had 49 catches on 71 targets for 495 yards and five touchdowns. That comes out to 1.12 standard-league points per target, and 1.81 PPR-league points per target. The previous year, he caught 24 balls on 34 targets for 231 yards and two touchdowns, good for 1.03 and 1.74 points per target in fantasy’s two dominant formats, respectively. Over his career, Rudolph has averaged 1.05 points per target in standard leagues, and 1.69 points per target in PPR leagues. By comparison, Greg Olsen has put up 1.05 points per target in standard leagues, and 1.67 points per target in PPR formats.

Rudolph broke out last season, but he actually fell below his career per-target averages, scoring 0.95 standard-league points per target, and 1.58 PPR-league points per target. Of course, it’s not surprising that a larger data set decreased his average, and you’d rather have 0.95 points per target on 132 looks than 1.12 points per target on 71. What this should drive home, though, is that Rudolph has always delivered on his chances. Now that he’s getting more, he’s an easy TE1.

Tight end rankings

2017 Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyProsECR ™ - Expert Consensus Rankings
ADP - Average Draft Position