More than any other position, tight end is characterized by haves and have-nots. For much of this decade, you’ve had a few teams living luxuriously at the position—the Patriots with Rob Gronkowksi, and then a rotating cast of teams and characters that has included Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Travis Kelce—with everyone else generally filling the position with a complementary piece. That naturally trickled down to the fantasy game.
The makeup of the position has changed a bit in recent years. There’s a growing middle class featuring players who aren’t quite stars, but also are far more than afterthoughts. Some are former stars who don’t quite have the ceiling they once did, like Graham and Olsen, while others are younger up-and-comers with significant potential, like Evan Engram, George Kittle, Trey Burton, O.J. Howard and David Njoku. Add to that steady veterans such as Delanie Walker, Jack Doyle and Kyle Rudolph, and you get a tight end position that looks as deep as it has been in recent memory. It’s still top-heavy thanks to Gronkowski, Kelce and Zach Ertz separating from the pack, but all fantasy owners should be able to find a palatable starting option at the position, no matter how they attack it.
Is Gronk’s reign at the top over?
Well, not really. Rob Gronkowski led all tight ends in points per game in standard-scoring and PPR leagues last year, and nearly outscored Travis Kelce on an absolute basis despite playing two fewer games. The only thing that has held him back in the past is health, and he has played at least 13 games in three of the last four years.
This is a worthwhile question, however, because Gronk’s status as the league’s best tight end is being challenged in a way it hasn’t been in at least six years, and perhaps ever. Kelce is a legitimate star at the position, and possibly the most dangerous pass-catcher on his team. There are few tight ends who can say that. Gronk is definitely one, Kelce and Zach Ertz may be in that group, and Jordan Reed is in the rare instances that he’s healthy. That’s it, and it’s a powerful thing for any tight end.
As good as Ertz and Reed can be, if anyone unseats Gronkowski atop the tight end rankings this year, it will be Kelce. He has 168 catches for 2,163 yards and 12 scores in the last two seasons, topping 80 grabs and 1,000 yards in both years. The move to Patrick Mahomes from Alex Smith comes with some risk, but also major potential given Mahomes’s physical tools and acumen for the quarterback position he demonstrated at Texas Tech. Kelce’s floor looks like the 80-reception mark, a threshold Gronkowski has reached just twice in his career, and he’s a good bet to post his third straight 1,000-yard season. His touchdown upside remains high, though not as high as Gronk’s, and that’s where the Patriots star regularly pulls ahead of the competition. He has 76 touchdowns in 102 career games, and has never had fewer than eight in a season where he played at least 11 games. Kelce will likely need to hit at least that number to be fantasy’s No. 1 tight end this season.
Who’s the best bet to break up the Gronk-Kelce-Ertz triumvirate?
There are arguments for Evan Engram, Jimmy Graham and Delanie Walker here, and some would put Greg Olsen in that group, too. I’m going a bit off-script, however, and turning my attention to San Francisco. George Kittle has a real chance to be the position’s breakout star, and if everything breaks right for him a top-three season is absolutely within his realistic range of outcomes.
Kittle had a decent rookie season, catching 43 of 63 targets for 515 yards and two touchdowns. There were two big factors working against him that are no longer in place. First, he started just seven games last year and had a 57% snap rate for the season. In other words, he was a part-time player, a status he will shed in year two. The other was his dreadful quarterback situation. C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer started the first 11 games of the year for the 49ers, decreasing the value of every single one of Kittle’s limited snaps. That, too, has changed, and we already got a glimpse last year of just how good it could be for Kittle.
It took the tight end a few games to get on the same page with new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Over the final three games of the season, though, Kittle and Garoppolo clicked, connecting 11 times for 194 yards and a touchdown. That comes out to 8.47 points per game in standard leagues, and 12.13 points per game in PPR formats. Those averages would have made him the No. 9 tight end in standard, and No. 4 tight end in PPR last season, and he was still doing that on a limited snap count. Kittle played in fewer than half of the team’s snaps in those last three games, barely outsnapping Garrett Celek. The veteran Celek is still in San Francisco, but it’s already evident that Kittle will have a much larger role in the offense this season. There’s also no clear dominant option in the passing game, which is no knock against Pierre Garcon or Marquise Goodwin. Still, Kittle has as much ceiling as either of them, and it’s unlikely either receiver dominates target share in a way that would curb Kittle’s production. If Garoppolo is the quarterback he appeared to be at the end of last season, Kittle could soar in fantasy leagues.
When is it okay to take the Jordan Reed plunge?
Every league, draft and auction is different, so I don’t want to put a specific round or dollar amount on it. I’m not drafting him so long as there are attractive options on the board, and that likely means that I’ll take at least 10 tight ends before considering taking the risk on Reed. My top-eight tight ends—Gronkowski, Kelce, Ertz, Graham, Engram, Walker, Kittle and Olsen—are all easy selections over Reed. I have Jack Doyle and Kyle Rudolph ranked ahead of him, too, but I could see opting for Reed instead of one of them, assuming he comes at a cheaper draft-day price.
Reed’s charms are obvious to anyone who has watched him play. He broke out with an 87-catch, 952-yard, 11-touchdown season in 2015. He missed four games the next year, but still caught 66 passes for 686 yards and six scores, ending that season first among tight ends in points per game in standard-scoring and PPR leagues. The problem, however, is that we get to see him play so rarely. Reed was limited to six games last season and has yet to start double-digit games in a season in his career. He wasn’t particularly great even when healthy last season, hauling in 27 passes for 211 yards and two scores, which translates to 5.52 points per game in standard leagues, and 10.02 points per game in PPR formats.
If Reed were guaranteed to play 12 games, he’d likely be a top-five or top-six pick at tight end, and he’d have No. 1 overall potential at the position. In reality, he’s one of the league’s greatest injury risks, and that makes it hard to trust him so long as there are legitimate TE1 options on the board.
Who’s a tight end few people are considering now, but will turn into a regular weekly starter?
Ben Watson signed in late March with the Saints, the team with which he had the best season of his 13 years in the league. It was just three years ago that Watson caught 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns with the Saints, ending that year as a top-seven tight end in standard and PPR leagues. Watson is back after two years in Baltimore, the first of which he missed entirely because of a torn Achilles. He was an effective pass-catcher last season, catching 61 passes for 522 yards and four touchdowns, admirable work on a team that ended the year 29th in passing offense.
There are a lot of mouths to feed in New Orleans, and Watson is going to take a backseat to Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram (when he returns from his four-game suspension) and possibly a second receiver, such as Cameron Meredith or Ted Ginn. That, however, is reflected in his draft-day price. Watson is the 14th tight end off the board in a typical draft, going early in the 13th round of 12-team leagues. Some of the other players in his neighborhood of the draft include Giovani Bernard, Matt Breida and Tyler Lockett. The opportunity cost is extremely low, and Watson gives you an investment in one of the best offenses in the league. There’s easy top-10 positional upside here, and you don’t have to pay for it.
Any deep sleepers to keep an eye on this summer?
The Ravens replaced Watson in the draft, grabbing South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst with the 25th overall pick. About 60 picks later, in the middle of the third round, they addressed the position again, taking Mark Andrews out of Oklahoma. Hurst may have been the first-round pick, but it’s Andrews who has the look of a deep sleeper going into draft season.
Andrews entered Oklahoma as a tight end, dabbled at receiver as a sophomore, and then returned to his original position last year. He thrived in his junior season, catching 62 passes for 958 yards and eight touchdowns, leading the Sooners in both receptions and receiving scores while developing into one of Baker Mayfield’s most trusted pass-catchers. He had a much better statistical college career than Hurst, and while at least part of that owes to the systems and conferences they played in, it can’t be completely dismissed.