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Fantasy Football 2019: Tight End Position Primer

Six crucial questions to consider when sizing up the tight end position for your fantasy drafts.

The tight end position is the runt of the fantasy football litter—the thinner, scrawnier one that gets picked on and treated with little to no respect. Sure, kickers and team defenses may garner a tad less attention, but drafters just seem to not want to deal with the position as a whole. This is the year to change that stigma and create excitement around a position that can be a difference-maker in your fantasy football season.

Like in real football, the trends have been that teams either boast a stud at tight end or they do not. You either have a Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates or Rob Gronkowski, or you make your way through the season with a serviceable player at the position to get you through. There will always be an elite tier of players, this year consisting of Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz, but there’s an emergence of a larger middle layer of tight ends who present value and potential output that should have drafters excited about the 2019 season. Not only are there a plethora of veterans who can provide consistency to your roster at a very affordable price point, but a younger crop of tight ends is materializing in the NFL, which is making the position itself more valuable and stimulating for the fantasy football community. With that said, let's take a look at the tight end position with six burning questions to consider leading up to draft day. 

Will Travis Kelce still be king despite Tyreek Hill being cleared to play in 2019?

All signs point to yes. Kelce has finished with the highest number of PPR points among tight ends for three consecutive years and has boasted the largest target volume at his position for the past two seasons. Some drafters are taking their foot off the gas when it comes to Kelce at his ADP after Hill’s non-suspension, but the number of balls thrown his way should remain just as elevated.

Last season, Kelce saw 150 targets to Hill’s 137, which he translated to 103 receptions for 1,336 yards and 10 touchdowns. Kelce’s target share and production have both increased with each year in the league and there’s no reason to think Patrick Mahomes will look to the 29-year-old any less in 2019.

Kelce is the clear TE1 in both fantasy and fake football in 2019 and should be drafted as such. In best-ball and redraft formats, he’s currently coming off draft boards in the late-first round, with an average ADP of 1.10

Will there be another tight end to break through into the top trio tier this season?

While some people have Evan Engram or O.J. Howard next in line to crack that elite-tier ceiling, it’s Hunter Henry who is on my radar as having a shot at it. After a torn ACL sidelined the Chargers’ tight end for all of the 2018 regular season (he returned for a playoff game, but had just one target in 14 snaps), he’s back to 100% and is set up for the breakout year we’ve all been anticipating.

Philip Rivers and his tight end have been a thing of beauty in the past, as Antonio Gates is first at his position and sixth overall in NFL history in career receiving touchdowns with 116. From 2006-2018, 91 of those end zone dances are courtesy of Rivers’s arm. In his short two-year stint before being sidelined in 2018, Henry scored eight touchdowns his rookie season and managed to find the end zone four times in 12 games in 2017. He was among the top 10 at his position both seasons in red-zone targets, with Gates joining him on that list in 2016.

There are also a ton of vacated targets up for grabs in Los Angeles in 2019. With Tyrell Williams now in Oakland, and Gates calling it a career, that leaves 110 targets unclaimed from last season. Mike Williams should have an increased role, but Henry is in a perfect spot to step up and produce in this offense. He’s been a matchup nightmare from Day 1 with his ability to beat out defenders both on deeper routes and short crossing patterns. Henry’s presence alone will open the field for Rivers, allowing for more offensive effectiveness as a whole. If there’s a tight end to bust through that elite triumvirate this season, Henry could be that guy. 

Do aging/oft-injured veterans Jordan Reed, Jimmy Graham and Delanie Walker still have value in 2019?

It’s completely understandable why drafters may be hesitant to pull the trigger on any of these three tight ends this season, but perhaps reconsideration is in order. If you miss out or are not comfortable paying up for the top tier, two of these have the potential to finish as a TE1 this season, and for a very budget-friendly price tag.

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Reed, who is surprisingly only 29, managed to stay healthy for most of the 2018 season, missing only the final three games due to a toe injury. Last year wasn’t exactly a highlight reel for the seven-year veteran, as he posted just 54 receptions for 558 yards and two touchdowns, but he did end the season as TE15 in total PPR points throughout 13 games. In both 2015 and 2016, Reed topped all players at his position in PPR fantasy points per contest with 17.4 and 14.1, respectively. Targets per game is a stat that tends to correlate strongly from season to season with the tight end position, and in 2018 Reed ended sixth with 6.4 balls per contest, which was just two balls away from that upper tier of tight ends. With such a forgettable list of pass-catchers in Washington this season, Reed could even see an uptick in volume, propelling him back to tight end starter status. He just needs to stay healthy.

Graham is a bit longer in the tooth at 32 but has managed to play in all 16 games for three straight seasons. He finished with 55 catches for 636 yards and two scores last year, but only had 89 targets—which was the lowest total for any season he played in all 16 contests. He also only saw five balls inside the 10-yard line in 2018, which could mean Green Bay just doesn’t trust Graham to make things happen, plus adding rookie Jace Sternberger probably isn’t a great sign for things to come this season, either. Being touchdown-dependent in an offense that doesn’t necessarily highlight the tight end hinders Graham’s value as well. He’s fine as a streaming option as the season progresses, but the Packers have a tough start to 2019 when it comes to teams defending the tight end, so I’m going to pass and let someone else draft him. 

Walker suffered a broken ankle in the season opener last year, sidelining him for the remainder of 2018. He had 74 receptions for 807 yards and three touchdowns the year prior, making him the No. 4 fantasy tight end that season in PPR formats. In fact, since donning the Titans’ uniform in 2013, Walker has finished among the top 11 tight ends in fantasy output every season but last, with three of those years checking in within the top five. Tennessee’s other tight end, Jonnu Smith, is starting this season on the PUP list, which helps Walker’s volume security, but they also brought in Adam Humphries, who could be his biggest competition since they both work the middle of the field. Walker comes with both age and injury concerns, but there should still be enough work for the 34-year-old to produce for fantasy purposes this season. If you miss out or prefer to skip that elite tier of tight ends and don’t want to pay up for Hunter Henry or O.J. Howard, Walker’s 10th-round ADP looks pretty appealing. He probably won’t find himself a seat at the top five table again in his career, but starting tight end numbers are certainly possible for Walker in 2019.

If you don’t want to pay up or wait and gamble at tight end in 2019, who’s a middle-round player to target?  

Vance McDonald is the perfect middle-rounder this season, as he’s set up for increased production with minimal fanfare. His ADP is currently hovering in the eighth round, as TE10. The 29-year-old is coming off of a career-best season where he posted 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns, and could find himself as Ben Roethlisberger’s second receiving option behind JuJu Smith-Schuster.

With Antonio Brown and Jesse James on different rosters in 2019, that leaves a whopping 208 targets for sale this season. McDonald and James split the tight end snaps last year at about 50% each, and with mainly blocking guys Xavier Grimble and rookie Zach Gentry to compete with, McDonald should see his playing time skyrocket with the potential to surpass 70% of Pittsburgh’s snaps.

Who’s a tight end that few are considering right now, but could turn into a weekly starter?

When Lamar Jackson took the helm at quarterback last season, Mark Andrews led the Ravens in receiving yards with 339, accounting for 26% of Jackson’s passing yardage. The two rookies clearly showed chemistry and will be looking to build on that in their collective sophomore seasons. Between Michael Crabtree and John Brown, the Ravens vacated 197 targets from 2018, which Jackson will need to disperse for this team to take the next step forward as a well-balanced offense. Baltimore’s receiver room is not exactly filled with veteran playmakers. In turn, Andrews could realistically see more than 70 targets in 2019, after being targeted 50 times last year.

Andrews also boasts a very favorable route in 2019 when it comes to schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed or (aFPA), which removes schedule bias. By removing bias, we can level the playing field and compare matchups in an "apples-to-apples" manner. In looking at 4for4’s hot spots tool, only five of their opponents all season long rank in the top half of the league when it comes to defending the tight end position. Baltimore’s matchups include the 32nd-ranked Chiefs, two tilts with Cleveland’s 29th-ranked defense in aFPA, and another two contests with the Bengals who checked in at 27th in tight end aFPA in 2018. Andrews presents the potential for top-10 upside this season, at a very affordable 13th-round price tag.

Any deep sleepers to look out for this season?

Oakland’s Darren Waller isn’t super deep, but he is seemingly coming out of nowhere and could be a starting tight end on fantasy rosters this season. He’s a converted wideout with drool-worthy measurables for a tight end. The Raiders let Jared Cook walk on down to New Orleans and Waller’s competition at the position consists of blocking tight ends Lee Smith and Derek Carrier, along with rookie Foster Moreau, so it appears the starting job is all his.

Last season, Cook posted an impressive 896 receiving yards and six touchdowns with an underperforming Derek Carr under center. Raiders head coach Jon Gruden has deemed Carr as their franchise guy moving forward, so perhaps the nod will instill the confidence necessary to move the sticks more frequently in 2019. Waller’s ADP is currently somewhere in the late double-digit rounds and he’s certainly worthy of a dart throw in larger leagues this season.