2015 Fantasy Football Draft Prep: TE tiers & strategies
Tight ends are the most polarizing position in Fantasy this fall, but Dave Richard says past experience could shape your strategy for them. He spills the beans in his Tight End Tiers.
What do you need to know about tight ends that you already don't know?
Rob Gronkowski is a legend. Jimmy Graham was traded but is still really good. Travis Kelce is the hot name. Greg Olsen is the good ol' standby. Martellus Bennett is the last decent weekly starting tight end. Zach Ertz is the re-tread sleeper from last year. Julius Thomas is the cold name. Antonio Gates is old and suspended and old. The Colts guys are who you take late. Delanie Walker, Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are, too. Josh Hill isn't going to be Graham. Owen Daniels isn't going to be Thomas. Ladarius Green isn't going to be Gates. Vernon Davis isn't going to be Vernon Davis. Charles Clay, Jace Amaro, Kyle Rudolph, Larry Donnell and Tyler Eifert are all tight ends we'll rationalize passing on because we think we can pick them up off waivers later on. And where the heck is Tony Gonzalez when you need him?!?
The truth is, how you view tight ends will likely come from personal experience and past results. What worked for you before will shape your plan for this year. Old habits die hard, so if you think you did well last year just because of Rob Gronkowski, you're going to be inclined to take him again this year. If you got by without a great tight end, you'll pass on him. You can win either way in Fantasy.
Make no mistake: It is absolutely worth it to have a quality, reliable starter at tight end. But it's also worth it to get one the most cost-effective way possible. And for as long as Fantasy Football's been around, tight ends who qualify as decent starters have been found past the early rounds in drafts. The premier ones get lots of attention but the serviceable ones can be uncovered past the first few rounds.
Now for some trivia: What makes a good Fantasy tight end? I'm talking numbers, not skills. Ten points per week? Twelve? Fifteen?
Are you sitting down? The legitimate tell-tale sign of whether or not a tight end had a good week is if he scores more than seven points per week in a standard league and like 11 in a PPR.
Don't believe me? Look up what the average Fantasy points per week were for the Top 12 tight ends in any of the last three seasons.
Too slow! I did it for you: 7.4 in 2014, 7.76 in 2013 and 7.01 in 2012. That's standard leagues. In PPR it's about the same but replace sevens with elevens. So beating those numbers should be considered wunderbar.
Again, you know that a tight end who averages more than seven points a week is great. But there's more than one way to get a great tight end.
Is Gronk worth it?
If you want the best, you'll have to spend the most. Gronkowski's track record is solid so long as his body isn't breaking. Yes, a four-game suspension for Tom Brady might impact the kinds of targets Gronk will get, but it's not like Jimmy Garoppolo is going to miss the big lug entirely.
Expect to feel an advantage against other tight ends during the season if you draft Gronk, but it'll mean feeling a disadvantage on Draft Day and potentially beyond. If you nab him, it'll have to be with a pick between fifth and 15th or so overall depending on league scoring (closer to fifth overall in PPR). That means you'll use a pick typically reserved for a stud running back or receiver on Gronkowski. That's fine, but you'll spend the next several rounds looking for quality starters when a lot of them were taken -- especially at running back. You'll absolutely have to make some concessions on your starting lineup, especially in leagues with 12-plus owners.
Then again, if you think running back and receiver corps are deeper than we've made them out to be and/or you're confident you can find running back and receiver help via trade or waivers throughout the season, invest in Gronkowski.
If it's me, I don't touch Gronk unless he falls to me late in Round 1. Then I not only feel good about catching a big fish in Round 2, but the late Round 3 and early Round 4 picks should also be nice. That gives my team a fighting chance to be strong at rusher with a start-worthy receiver and rock out with Gronk.
Graham a bargain?
Maybe the best argument against taking Gronkowski is to wait (if you can) and land Jimmy Graham with a selection between 22nd and 30th overall. After all, Graham should deliver a solid Fantasy average and compete to score double-digit touchdowns.
The trade to Seattle hurt Graham's outlook for Fantasy. It had to -- he went from a team that threw over 650 times a year for five straight years to a team that has thrown 450 times or less three straight seasons. That's not changing. While that might crush Graham's chances at a 1,000-yard season, which no one in Seattle has had since Bobby Engram in 2007, he should still be a giant in the end zone. A 900-yard, 10-touchdown season is in play and would be fantastic.
Just like Gronkowski, Graham gives owners a lineup advantage in that he'll never get benched so long as he's healthy. He should average a handful of points more than the Top 12 average for tight ends. And unlike Gronk, you can get Graham and still put together a pretty dang good lineup since he'll come at a discount. A Round 3 selection of Graham is the real sweet spot.
The case for Kelce
Maybe the best argument against taking Gronkowski and Graham is to wait for Travis Kelce with a pick around 50th overall. He's this year's hot Fantasy tight end breakout candidate, and for good reason.
While receivers couldn't sniff the end zone in Kansas City in 2014, tight ends accounted for nine of the team's 18 receiving scores. Kelce had five. The quarterback for the Chiefs, Alex Smith, has completed 131 touchdown passes in nine seasons including the playoffs -- and 38.9 percent of them (51) have gone to tight ends.
Beyond touchdowns, Kelce caught an incredible 77 percent of his targets last year, second-best among tight ends with at least 60 targets (Jermaine Gresham was No. 1). That equated to 67 catches for 862 yards, and it includes all the weeks where Kelce's snaps were limited.
That's a lot of statistical evidence, much of which swayed me from not being a Kelce fanatic to digging him. But maybe the biggest factor you need is this: Kelce is entering just his second year of actual football (he missed his rookie season), plays on a team that doesn't focus on a lot of downfield shots and is a shade smaller and lighter than Rob Gronkowski. Maybe a top-50 pick is a lot for a tight end who isn't as proven as Gronk or Graham, but the stats he had last year were good enough for him to finish in the Top 10 at his position in total points scored. If you're taking him, you're banking on an improvement.
Olsen and Martellus
Greg Olsen is coming off a career year. Martellus Bennett is too. Either people are expecting a regression or they forgot just how productive they were because both are going within about 12 picks of each other in Round 6 or 7.
Olsen got just over 1,000 yards last season with a career-best 84 catches. The average of his previous two years in Carolina -- 71 grabs for 829.5 yards and 5.5 touchdowns -- should be the bare minimum for what Olsen can deliver. That's what makes him a top-five tight end in drafts.
Bennett has this crazy trend of playing huge in September, then stinking the rest of the year. Been that way for three consecutive seasons. If there's a saving grace this year, it's that new Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase saw how Peyton Manning utilized Julius Thomas for two seasons and should have some blueprints on how to maximize Bennett's numbers.
If you want the benefit of a bargain and the reliability of a quality tight end, Olsen is the perfect blend. Bennett is the consolation prize for when someone takes Olsen in front of you.
And then there's everyone else
Don't feel dumb if you end up without a tight end by the time Round 7 clicks in. It's not like there aren't guys to pick who have potential for a solid season, and even if you take them and they stink, you can find someone else on waivers.
That's why it's probably best to wait a while longer for a tight end if you don't latch on to any of the first five. The drop-off between guys like Julius Thomas and Zach Ertz to Dwayne Allen or Jordan Cameron isn't steep. The risk is basically the same whether you take one in Round 8 or Round 14 ... unless you feel a specific way about someone.
Here are some quick-hit thoughts on the remaining tight ends. If one strikes you with some kind of feeling, dig into him a little bit more and come away with a potential sleeper target.
Zach Ertz: Figures to get more run this year and improve on the 58-702-3 line he had in 2014. Eagles tight ends have combined for 16 scores in two seasons under Chip Kelly, which doesn't leave a ton of room for a monster breakout.
Julius Thomas: Players who change teams and land lucrative contracts tend to disappoint, and Thomas was exceptionally touchdown dependent in Denver. Not only does it seem unlikely he'll get a slew of scores in Jacksonville, but going back to his college days, Blake Bortles never really leaned on his tight end.
Antonio Gates: Lots of concerns about age and targets, and that's before you throw a four-game suspension into the mix. But he was the second-best in terms of consistency and total Fantasy points last year, even posting a three-year receiving average high in the process. I do like the idea of stashing him.
Dwayne Allen: It'll come down to touchdowns for Allen. He scored one in seven of his first nine games last year before getting hurt. He also has 10 touchdowns in his last 17 regular-season games. Don't expect him to play any less in the red zone.
Coby Fleener: While Allen's playing time shouldn't slide much with the Colts' new additions, Fleener's might. He's almost a lock to fall short of the numbers he had last season, though he is a heck of a mismatch for opponents who will already have a tough time lining up against Indy.
Jordan Cameron: If he delivered 917 yards and seven scores with Cleveland a few years back, you better believe he can do the same in Miami with a better passer. There are injury concerns, but a late-round pick like Cameron mitigates that risk.
Jason Witten: Remember him? He was a hero for the Cowboys as a blocker last year but will probably end up running more routes this year. Even though he's entering his 13th season, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him top the 703 yards and five scores from 2014. He will be there late in drafts.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins: Another big target in the Tampa Bay offense. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter likes utilizing the tight end, and Winston was a big-time believer in the tight end in college. He's got a lot of late-round appeal.
Delanie Walker: He's turned into a quality pass catcher, racking up at least 60 catches in each of two seasons with the Titans. But Marcus Mariota wasn't used to leaning on his tight end at Oregon. If that doesn't trip up Walker's numbers, the likelihood of a career year will.
The bottom line
The best game plan in a standard league is to have a handful of Round 7 or later tight ends in mind in case you whiff on the top five, but be ready to jump on one of the better players if they fall to the right spot. By doing this you're keeping your options open with a volatile position and you'll be prepared for those later round guys.
But in a PPR league I'd make an effort to land one of the top-fivefive tight ends since the running back and receiver talent pools are deeper. Recovering from making a tight end selection in that format is easier, plus the top tight ends who catch a lot of passes will reward you that much more.
Line 'em up
Tiers for tight ends aren't as helpful as they are for other positions. There are maybe 15 who will end up getting drafted in most leagues; the rest will sit on waivers. But at the very least they'll display just how top-heavy this crew really is.
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