Wednesday, June 7, 2017

NFL Fantasy Football 2017-18 Top 20 Tight Ends

Does Gronk top my list of tight ends again, or could he be unseated?
Read more to find out!
My list of top tight ends goes 20 deep, as tight ends are not a real popular fantasy player, and are even not required in many leagues at all.  You’ll find a few differences in my list from the top lists you’ll see, starting right at the top:
1)      Greg Olsen
By now, you should know many of my projections, values, and rankings are going to be based in large part off opportunity.  That’s just how it goes in fantasy.  The more targets, rushes, or attempts one has, the better chance they have to succeed.  Olsen will have more of those chances than any other tight end, given the complete and utter lack of options Cam Newton has in Carolina.  Look for him to top the TE ranks this season.

2)      Travis Kelce
Kelce is another player whose ranking benefits from a lack of any other options around him.  Sure the Chiefs have Tyreek Hill, who is exciting, but after cutting Jeremy Maclin this past week, other than Kelce there just really isn’t anyone that QB Alex Smith can rely on.  He’s a “dink and dunk” type of QB anyway, and talented TE’s are often a great option for that type of player.  Smith will be looking to keep his job, or bolster his resume for the next stop, feeling the pressure of Pat Mahomes no doubt.  Look for Kelce and Kelce fantasy owners to be the beneficiary of that.

3)      Jordan Reed
Yet again, opportunity rules the day.  The Redskins allowed both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to walk away in free agency, opting to replace them with only Terrelle Pryor; a QB turned receiver in his first year, who put up 1,000 yards in a limited offense in Cleveland, but not exactly a reliable superstar you can bank on for 10 targets, 6-7 catchces, and 100 yards every week, right?  Reed could be “that” guy.  Everyone knows Cousins wants a long term deal, yet he’s struggled to prove himself as a starter to Redskins management.  His rise over the last two seasons has come at the same time as Reed’s availability to the team has increased, and Reed’s catch rate of over 75% makes him the 5th best TE in the league last season.  Look for Cousins to go back to the Reed well time and time again in a third effort to prove to his team’s management and the front offices around the league that he’s a legit starter in this league.

4)      Kyle Rudolph
Last season, Rudolph was the best tight end option in the league in the red zone, with 24 of his league tight end leading 132 targets coming within the 20.  He converted 14 of those targets into catches, and 5 into touchdowns, making him the best tight end in the league inside the 20.  Not only that, but those 24 targets represented over 32% of the team’s total targets within the red zone, making Rudolph the second most used PLAYER in the league inside the red zone, trailing only Odell Beckham Jr in that usage stat, and indicating a high likelihood for a productive season for Rudolph, considering the fact the Vikings didn’t do anything this off-season to bolster their receiving corp or otherwise think that Rudolph would lose targets.

5)      Rob Gronkowski
I won’t be able to leave my house after these rankings come out, as I’m located deep in the middle of Patriots fan territory.  In fact, I often worry that instead of being a “homer” I tend to be far too critical and/or pessimistic about New England based players in an effort to ensure I’m not identified as a “homer”.  I’m not sure, and I’ll have to do some self reflecting, but regardless I have a hard time putting Gronkowski higher than this for one reason: availability.
Gronk has only played one complete season his entire career, and missed half of it last year, playing in only 8 games, starting just 6 of them, and grabbing just 25 catches for 540 yards in those games.  While that average is ridiculous for a tight end (21.6 yards per reception) I’m just not sure the Pats are going to ride him hard this year.  It’s a contract year for him, the Pats hate paying people, and probably also don’t want to see him walk right?  What better way to help that negotiation than a down season?  Don’t target him as much-you won’t need to with 1309571398513525234 other options on the field for Brady-and definitely don’t push him if he has ANY kind of injury whatsoever.  I think the equation ends with him having a bit of a down year.  I couldn’t push him out of my top 5, but I considered it, so that should tell you most of what you need to know regarding my confidence in the superstar tight end.

6)      Jimmy Graham
While initially many were worried that Graham just wasn’t working out in Seattle, he seems to have settled in a bit more last season.  While he didn’t quite have a season like any of the years he had in New Orleans (and who would expect him to, given the differences between the two offenses?), he approached 1,000 yards (923) and snagged 6 touchdowns as well.  During his years in NO he regularly went over 1,000 and posted double digits in touchdowns by comparison, so there’s definitely room to grow his role in Seattle.
If you’ve read my other rankings, you know I’m projecting Seattle for much more focus on the running game this year, but often that sort of game helps the production at the tight end position, so I don’t expect his production to fall off too much.  Regardless of his growing comfort level with QB Russell Wilson, as a 30 year old tight end, gone are the days of 1,000+ yards a season and 10+ touchdowns, but I think you can probably rely on Graham for 800-1000 yards and 5-8 touchdowns, making him a fringe top 5 tight end for fantasy owners.

7)      Martellus Bennett
Last season, Bennett was the 7th ranked fantasy tight end despite spending at least 6 full games in an offense with Rob Gronkowski, who was averaging over 20 yards per catch and piled up over 500 yards receiving in about a third of the year.  Bennet put up some solid numbers himself, with more than 700 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns.  This season as he moves from one future HOF QB to the next, Bennett should find himself a bit more involved in the offense than he did last year.  Those  7 touchdowns were despite being targeted third most on the team (behind Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell) in the red zone.  With just those ten targets inside the red zone, Bennett caught 8 passes and 5 touchdowns.  Those ten targets gave him the second lowest usage rate (13.9% of the team’s red zone targets) of the 25 players at any position who caught 5 touchdowns inside the red zone last season, and indicates that with increased opportunity-which he should see now that he’s not sharing the field with Gronk-he’ll produce.
Another indicator, is that the leading player inside the red zone last year in terms of targets, was Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson.  Nelson is a great player, who turned those league leading 29 red zone targets into a league leading 11 receiving touchdowns, and had a great catch rate, but he turned 32 a few days ago and receivers don’t typically get better with time.  He’s about 4 inches smaller than Bennett, who will make a huge target for QB Aaron Rodgers.  Look for Nelson’s usage to get turned way down, and Bennett’s to almost double from where it was last year in New England for what should be a great season for him.

8)      Delanie Walker
Last season, Walker ranked 5th overall in fantasy point production among NFL tight ends on the strength of a 800 yard, 7 touchdown season.  Over the past three seasons, Walker has remained heavily involved in the Tennessee offense, being the target of about 22% of the passes thrown, and piling up over 2,700 yards and 17 touchdowns over that span of time.  The only problem with Walker, is that unlike many other tight ends, his target share doesn’t pick up in the red zone, where he stays at roughly 20-25% of team targets, about the same as running back DeMarco Murray, limiting his potential for touchdowns and fantasy points for would be and actual fantasy owners.

9)      Hunter Henry
I’ve heard it reported that last season, the Chargers were making a concerted effort to get tight end Antonio Gates the ball, as he was pushing for the all-time NFL record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end (he ended up tying the record when he caught his 111th), and that Henry could have had a much better season than he did.  Force-feeding Gates, and Henry coming on lead to the Chargers being the only team in the league to put two tight ends into the top 15 fantasy point scorers at the tight end position (and nearly putting both in the top ten, as they came in 10th and 11th). 
This force-feeding of Gates is really one of the only things that can explain last year’s targeting numbers, as Gates was targeted 93 times despite a 57% catch rate, while Henry was targeted just 53 times with a much better catch rate of 67.9%.  I’m looking for those targeting numbers to be flipped this season, with Henry being the player to get 80-100 of them.  If he’s able to produce at about the same rates as he was last year, I’m projecting him for about 800 yards and 10 touchdowns, which could be enough to push him into the top 5.  Grab him if you can late, he’ll be a great value. 
Definitely pick him up in keeper leagues.  Over his 14 year career, Gates has been targeted roughly 100 times per season, meaning Rivers is comfortable looking to the tight end.  Henry has the talent to replace Gates’ production from that position for the foreseeable future.

10)   Eric Ebron
Despite missing 3 games in the middle of the season, Ebron put up his best year thus far as a pro last season, with more than 700 yards on 61 receptions and a catch rate of nearly 72%-roughly a 5 point improvement on the prior year, and nearly as many yards in that one season as the prior two combined.  The one wild card with Ebron is the touchdowns.  Does he score 5, or does he score 1?  Thus far those have been the two options for his season totals. 
While his final touchdown total might not be one of those numbers precisely, it does highlight how hit or miss it can be for Ebron and transitively for his fantasy owners.  Over his first three seasons, his target share within the red zone-prime scoring territory for most tight ends-hasn’t really changed, which is an issue because he’s barely present in the offense when it comes to target share in the red zone, being targeted 5, 8, and 6 times respectively within the 20 over those three years.  The puzzling part is turning 5 of those 8 targets into touchdowns during his second season, while only converting 1 in each of the seasons surrounding it.  Which will it be this year?  Several touchdowns, or almost never?  That’s the decision you have to make when deciding whether or not to draft Ebron this season.

11)   Jack Doyle
I think Jack Doyle is going to sneak up on some people.  He’s currently (as of 6-6-17) being drafted as the 18th overall TE in ESPN leagues, roughly 129th overall.  That’s about the eleventh round in 12 team leagues.  CBS and Fantasy Football Calculator show similar ADP rankings.  Yet last year, Doyle was the 13th overall TE by the end of the season, and that was with Dwayne Allen-the 19th overall fantasy producing tight end-sharing targets, taking away as many as 4 a game.  This year, Doyle’s backup is Erik Swope, a third year ex collegiate basketball player who had never played football prior to being signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by Indianapolis. 
This could go one of two ways for Doyle;
a) he gets most of the tight end targets as Swope is inexperienced and Luck might prefer Doyle’s experience.
b) Swope can catch really well, is very athletic, but lacking football experience doesn’t block well if at all.  Thus, Doyle as the more experienced player and better blocker, is given more blocking assignments and Swope eats up a lot of targets.
It’s hard to predict, but I prefer the known quantity over the unknown, and have Doyle projected as basically a first team tight end here.  That could take a hit though, so keep an eye on Swope in pre-season, and what his role is in two tight end sets, how he’s blocking, and if he’s able to take hits.  Could dictate Doyle’s fantasy success this upcoming season.

12)   Tyler Eifert
Health has always been the issue with Eifert, not talent or opportunity.  If he could stay on the field, the Bengals would throw it to him, they’ve shown that over the past two seasons.  Despite missing 11 regular season games entirely and not starting in 7 others over those two years, he’s remained a top target, gathering 18 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards. 
It’s hard to be any kind of confident in his health-he’s never played a full 16 game season, and going back four years has missed a total of 27 games including one season (his second) when he played in just one.  If he were to remain healthy and play a full 16 game season, I could see him posting 1,000 yards and double digit touchdowns every year. 
That’s a big “if” though, so here he lands at 12th on the tight end list.

13)   Zach Ertz
I feel like Ertz is being a bit overdrafted right now, going 13th overall amongst tight ends in ESPN leagues, and higher in CBS (7th) and Fantasy Football Calculator (11th) current ADP’s.  Sure he ranked 8th amongst tight ends in fantasy points last year, but he did so off the strength of 106 targets, making him the 5th most targeted tight end in the league, despite playing in just 14 games.  I don’t believe this trend will continue this season, as Philly brought in pass catchers Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith in to improve their receiving corps.  I think the targets get spread out a bit more this season, and Ertz’s production falls off a bit as a result, bumping him just outside the “first team” tight ends, landing him at 13th overall.

14)   Jason Witten
Entering his 15th season in the league, Witten is still going strong, having not missed a game since 2003.  He’s been the most reliable Cowboy in recent memory, and although his production has fallen off a bit in recent years, he’s still out there every game, and reliability can be important in fantasy.  At this point in our rankings we’re talking about backups, so if I’m going to hold a backup tight end, it’s going to be one I’m pretty sure will be available if I need him.

15)   CJ Fiedorowicz
Fiedorowicz has picked up his production every year since being drafted in the third round by Houston in 2014.  This was capped last season by his production at least tripling, from targets to touchdowns across the board.  This was due to a renewed focus on the tight end position by the team as a whole, jumping from the rear of the league to second in tight end targets.  I would expect this trend to continue, as the Texans work to break in a young quarterback.

16)   Charles Clay
Clay has been a top 20 tight end in each of the past four seasons, and I see no reason he falls out of the top 20 this year.  While he’s struggled to produce consistently, his talent is undeniable and he continues to get targets, ranking 12th among tight ends in the league there last season.  Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy have recently been making noise about their desire to win, and with offense killer Rex Ryan having been shipped out of town, their offensive game could pick up quickly.  With or without the potential addition of Maclin, Clay would be prime to be a beneficiary of that, given Watkins’ inconsistent availability throughout his career and rookie Zay Jones already struggling with injuries.  Keep an eye on him to potentially crack the first team tight end rankings by the end of the season.

17)   Austin Hooper
Jacob Tamme not being brought back by the Falcons could potentially open up a few targets a game for Hooper, who should see anywhere from 3-5 targets a game, and turn that around into 600+ yards with a few touchdowns in his sophomore season.  There are still too many talented options around him to see him picking up too much of an overall share of the Falcons’ targets, Hooper isn’t a guy I’d build my offense around.

18)   Coby Fleener
For his first four years in Indianapolis, many of us expected production from Fleener, who was drafted alongside his college roommate, talented young QB Andrew Luck to be what most of us thought would be his most reliable target.  Instead, through his first three seasons Fleener consistently posted sub 60% catch rates.  Despite that, he secured a high dollar, long term deal from New Orleans last season, and renewed those expectations from analysts across the league.  By the end of the season however, he’d once again whiffed on meeting those expectations and justifying that contract, picking up just over 600 yards through the air and snagging just 3 touchdowns throughout the season.
In the pass happy offense of New Orleans, those numbers represent just about a 10-12% participation/usage rate in the passing game, and that was before the Saints signed a guy named Adrian Peterson, a player who will certainly demand his share of touches in every game.  While the Saints ultimately have 36 million reasons to try to make it work with Fleener, I’m just not sold that he has the tools to reciprocate, and wouldn’t be shocked to see him fall out of the top 20 entirely by the end of the season.

19)   Cameron Brate
I have such a hard time projecting Brate this low, given the fact he finished the 6th overall tight end last year.  If OJ Howard hadn’t fallen into their laps at 19th overall and been the most no-brainer pick of the draft-outside of the Redskins picking up Jonathan Allen perhaps-Brate’s projection would almost certainly have been top 10, perhaps even close to top 5. Instead, we find him here at 19th.  If this list went past 20, Howard would be found somewhere in the low 20’s, 21st or 22nd perhaps.  There are just too many targets in Tampa now, and I think that Brate will probably suffer the greatest fall off in production as a result of the off-season addition of not only Howard, but also wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

20)   Julius Thomas
Thomas has been a disappointment since exciting many in the 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Broncos, under now new head coach, then offensive coordinator Adam Gase.  Gase has been working to turn the Dolphins around, and the type of excitement Thomas generated by posting back to back double digit touchdown seasons in Denver under Gase is just the sort of thing you can kind of build an offense outwards around.  Look for him to be heavily featured in the Dolphins’ passing game, and provided he can remain healthy, outperform this projection and that of many others.  Keep an eye on him.

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