We asked our staff to make a call on a tight end. Who will surprise - either good or bad?
My pick is O.J. Howard. Not only do I think Howard will be heavily used along with Rob Gronkowski in Tampa Bay, but he may also be the primary source for tight end targets in a Tom Brady-led offense. Is it that much of a stretch to think that a grade-A tight end with 4.5 speed in the prime of his career could have success in a potent offense, led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback? Even if Rob Gronkowski is just as good as he was four years ago, there is still room for Howard to be a fantasy-relevant option. Personally, my gut says that Gronkowski will see reduced snaps and be more of a red-zone presence on the team.
The best part about Howard is that he can be drafted as a TE2 or maybe even TE3 depending on how deep your rosters are. He has disappointed the previous three years compared to the lofty expectations set when he was drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The reality is that he has two seasons with five or more touchdowns and two top-16 finishes, all with Jameis Winston at quarterback. If Howard and his immense talent can't be productive with Tom Brady then it just wasn't meant to be. The alternative is a breakout season that finally gives us what we expected from him all along.
From a pure volume and overachieving their draft cost perspective, the Colts tight ends are a team position to leverage this season. The Colts tight ends are fourth in the NFL over the past three seasons in total targets, behind only the Eagles, Chiefs, and Ravens. The Colts tight ends had a robust 141 targets in 2019 and Eric Ebron (52 targets in 11 games) is gone in free agency. Jack Doyle is the projected TE1 after seeing 72 targets last year despite a firm committee in those 11 games of dual activity. Also, the Colts wide receivers beyond T.Y. Hilton are question marks with their NFL track record. Parris Campbell saw just 24 targets last year as a minimally-playing rookie and Michael Pittman Jr is an incoming rookie this year. Jack Doyle can be had as a mid-TE2 in drafts and Trey Burton in a true late-round (or waiver wire) dart throw.
For a late-round or waiver wire target in deeper, dynasty, and/or TE 1.5 PPR leagues, take a look at Donald Parham of Los Angeles Chargers. Hunter Henry is the undisputed TE1, but he's also never made it through a complete 16 game season healthy. TE2 is Virgil Green, a dependable but, at this point, unexciting ten-year veteran.
Meanwhile, scouts called Parham the most dominant player in the XFL at any position. He's 6-foot-8 and 243 with a 7-foot wingspan, "and speed."
As the Chargers are starting Tyrod Taylor at QB1, Parham has been building confidence in training camp as a red-zone, chain-moving target with fellow "rookie" Justin Herbert as they both are running with the second team. It's possible Parham has supplanted Green on the depth chart. At 22 years old, he has the upside of an extra draft pick.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but Jared Cook will again be a value. Only three tight ends have posted top-12 seasonal finishes each of the past three seasons: Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Cook. Cook has finished TE7 and TE5 the past two seasons, with only Kelce, Ertz, and George Kittle finishing in the Top 7 tight ends each of the past two seasons. The best part of Cook is the cost, as he offers top-five upside at a cost closer to TE12. That’s a five-round or more discount on Kelce, Ertz, and Kittle. The offense should look largely the same in 2020, which bodes well for another under-the-radar Cook value season.
I think you all know where I'm going on this one.
T.J. Hockenson will be an elite fantasy value this year. I've written at length about my views on Hockenson already, so I won't belabor the point. But I will say his recent "still not 100%" news blurb was an added bonus since it knocked some of the air out of his sails; he had been creeping up in drafts lately. No sooner did that story break, did Hockenson go out in practice and put on a clinic making acrobatic one-handed grabs.
The basic premise of my analysis is simple enough. Hockenson's rookie season -- while forgettable in fantasy terms -- was a near carbon copy of the rookie seasons for the composition of the league's best tight ends in history. The position is almost always one that takes adapting. Hockenson's rookie year puts him on par with all the greats, past and present. Considering he dealt with half a season without Matthew Stafford, it's a true testament to his skillset
He's a once-in-a-decade talent. Scouts saw absolutely no holes in his game. Many modern fantasy stars at the position are glorified oversized wide receivers. Hockenson is a throwback, he blocks like a left tackle, is as fast as a wide receiver, and has a my-ball mentality at the point of attack few others can match.
Backing up Jason's call a bit, here are the top 20 fantasy tight ends since 1985 along with where they ranked in their first and second seasons in fantasy (using non-PPR scoring since that's quicker for me to look up; the trend is the same in PPR).
- Tony Gonzalez - 18th, 10th, 2nd
- Antonio Gates - 19th, 1st, 1st
- Shannon Sharpe - 33rd, 16th, 5th
- Jason Witten - 23rd, 3rd, 5th
- Rob Gronkowski - 5th, 1st, 2nd
- Jimmy Graham - 22nd, 2nd, 1st
- Keith Jackson - 1st, 2nd, 2nd
- Ben Coates - 39th, 21st, 3rd
- Travis Kelce - 110th, 9th, 7th
- Wesley Walls - 57th, 61st, 66th
- Greg Olsen - 21st, 10th, 10th
- Brent Jones - 87th, 35th, 3rd
- Steve Jordan - 55th, 31st, 21st
- Zach Ertz - 19th, 13th, 10th
- Jay Novacek - 77th, 71st, 14th
- Jeremy Shockey - 3rd, 11th, 6th
- Mark Bavaro - 13th, 2nd, 1st
- Eric Green - 6th, 3rd, 24th
- Todd Heap - 32nd, 1st, 3rd
- Dallas Clark - 25th, 10th, 12th
(George Kittle-- 21st, 2nd, 3rd-- is very likely to this list in the next 2-3 years, too.)
You'll read a lot about how steep the learning curve is at tight end, and that's true. These are the 20 best fantasy tight ends of the last 30+ years, and just four of them (20%) were Top 10 options as a rookie.
But the guys who will eventually be stars tend to show it big-time starting in Year 2. 65% were Top 10 options as sophomores, and four of the seven who hadn't hit by then instead hit in Year 3. (The only true "late bloomers" at the position were Steve Jordan-- a 7th round pick in 1982-- and Jay Novacek and Wesley Walls, both of whom had to switch teams to unlock their value; they were 6th and 8th, respectively, in their first season with their second team.)
If you look just at true top-of-range outcomes, 10% of these tight ends had a top-3 finish by their rookie year, but 45% hit the Top 3 by Year 2 and 60% had hit it by Year 3.
I don't know if T.J. Hockenson is eventually going to be a star in the NFL. But if he is eventually going to be a star, it's very likely he has a tremendous season this year. So if you like him in the long term, you should be bullish on him in the short term, too.
My flag is in Seattle, and it's not on who you might think.
Will Dissly will be the steal of fantasy drafts at tight end.
Seattle has been looking for a viable tight end option since the departure of Jimmy Graham. Graham was the starter for two seasons with the Seahawks, and he posted two consecutive Top 4 fantasy campaigns in both 2016 (65-923-6) and 2017 (57-520-10). Even with Graham as the clear starter and go-to target at the position both seasons, Luke Willson posted respectable backup numbers both in 2016 (15-129-2) and 2017 (15-153-4).
The past two seasons have been a committee approach at the position in Seattle, but the various contributors cobbled together respectable production at the position. In 2018 it was Nick Vannett (29-269-3), Ed Dickson (12-143-3), and Will Dissly (8-156-2). The combined eight touchdowns showed Seattle's commitment to involving tight ends in the passing game, especially in the red zone. Last year Dissly was on fire out of the gate, posting a 23-264-4 start across the first five weeks of the year before tearing his Achilles. Jacob Hollister (41-349-3) filled in admirably, but this year Dissly was overshadowed by the acquisition of veteran Greg Olsen, who signed a significant one-year, $7M deal. Adding Olsen only furthers the point that Seattle values contributions from their tight ends on offense. The problem is that Olsen is 35 and has missed 18 games across the past three seasons, and even when healthy he has shown ample signs of decline.
Dissly enters his third season with the chance to prove he deserves starter snaps right out of the gate, but even if Olsen gets that nod in September, odds are that the veteran will struggle to stay healthy all season long. Given the touchdowns and yardage over the past four years that Seattle’s passing game provides for their tight ends, the top performer this year is a likely dark horse candidate for fantasy consideration and a Top 10 finish. I’m picking Dissly to be that tight end, and his value at one of the last picks in most drafts (if chosen at all) is off the charts.
I was all set to jump on Will Dissly here, but Jeff beat me to the punch. Maybe I will still write about him. Alternatively, I can play devil’s advocate and provide my next strongest flag at tight end and that is to be cautious on T.J. Hockenson.
How about both?
Late in drafts, you can look for another tight end that is considered the safe route and pick your 40-421-3 for a season type of player or instead look for a guy that has top-six upside potential. Such a player is Will Dissly. Dissly has only appeared in 10 games over two seasons to date with six of those showing elite production, two he was injured in, one was his first game and only one other game had disappointing numbers. Fitness is a concern for Dissly with recovery from an Achilles injury to be monitored closely. The arrival of Greg Olsen shouldn’t scare you away. Olsen is now 35 and has been either injured or in decline for three years. He is Dissly insurance and not the other way around.
It is fine to say he matches up to the greats of the past in rookie production. The counter to that argument is simple, so did the following:
- Brandon Pettigrew
- Clive Walford
- Alex Smith
- Doug Jolley
- Tony Scheffler
- Martellus Bennett
- Jace Amaro
- Alge Crumpler
- Ian Thomas
- Jordan Thomas
I could go on. Some of these players had fine careers but were hardly the fantasy superstars painted by Adam. Some were high draft picks just like Hockenson too.
All are in different positions to succeed and some in maybe even better situations than Hockenson. They all present better values.
If we are being true, Hockenson’s stats are inflated by his very first game. If we have some fun with that and take it out we are in the rookie territory of L.J. Smith, Lance Kendricks, Richard Rodgers, Kyle Brady, Luke Willson, and Maxx Williams.
If we are being cheeky, former Jets receiver Stephen Hill had a great first game too. The rest of his rookie season was similar to Hockenson. Not much, then injury then a washed out career.
Realistically where Hockenson ends up is down to talent, hard work, and luck. Talent isn’t in doubt. Luck hasn’t been on the side of Detroit at running back or tight end or just about any position this century. Maybe Jason and Adam get it right, but it is always interesting to try and look at the other side for any other player. Sometimes the results surprise you.
Blake Jarwin will finish among the top-six fantasy football performers at tight end.
Give me Blake Jarwin out of the late-round tight end crop this year. I can make a case for Chris Herndon, but Gase, or Irv Smith, who could be the #2 target in Minnesota, and won't talk you out of targeting them late. Jarwin is my favorite because he was already highly efficient at creating big plays last year and should get a big part of the 80+ targets vacated by Jason Witten. Jarwin is 4th in the pecking order along with Ezekiel Elliott for targets, but that also means he is in a stacked pass offense which will create great one on one matchups for him against defenses preoccupied with stopping the run. If Jarwin gets 80 targets this year, he'll be a TE1. If he gets 100, he'll flirt with the Top 5.
Austin Hooper is the best bargain amongst all tight ends. It feels so weird that it is a contrarian take to say that we should be jumping all over Hooper in the 12th round. Prior to getting injured, he was the overall TE1 at the halfway point of the 2019 season and it wasn’t particularly close. Hooper had 52 catches for 591 yards and 5 touchdowns through eight games and was on his way to one of the best tight end fantasy seasons of all time. In fact, if Hooper had kept up his first-half pace, he would have finished with the fifth-best fantasy season ever at the position. Instead, he got hurt in his ninth game. Even after missing 3.5 games and playing at less than 100% down the stretch, he still went on to finish as the TE6 in his Age 24 season.
There are a couple of narratives out there that have caused Hooper’s ADP to nosedive. First, some will say that Hooper is “just a guy” and he earned more targets than Calvin Ridley last season just because of some accident of scheme. That defies logic. Second, there is this idea that Hooper will rarely get the ball because the Browns won’t pass much and Hooper will be well behind the two wide receivers in the pecking order. Early reports out of Cleveland training camp should disprove that notion.
Hooper is now going off the board half a round behind T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant (best ball ADP over the last seven days). He is going just a few picks ahead of Blake Jarwin. Predicting breakout seasons is one of my favorite pastimes as well, so I get where my fellow analysts are coming from. But it just seems like a stretch to reach for those types of players when there’s a proven young guy coming off of a major breakout season sitting right there. Hooper has improved every single year in the league and we may not have seen his ceiling yet, either. Again, it is worth noting he is only 25-years old and just entering what should be his prime years.
Hooper has both a higher floor and a higher ceiling than the tight ends being drafted around him.
I'm going to take my stand against the Smiths. Both Irv and Jonnu are going to disappoint those expecting a breakout. Each for different reasons.
I believe Irv will take the job from Kyle Rudolph down the road, but that isn't going to happen in 2020. New play-caller Gary Kubiak is taking his cue from head coach Mike Zimmer and wants to be physical while running the football. He has been known for using high percentages of "12" personnel with two tight ends on the field. For Irv Smith owners this means Rudolph is going to be annoyingly involved. Yes, Smith's numbers did go up in the second half of the year - targets, receptions, yards, and time on the field - but Rudolph's numbers weren't materially different in the second half despite Smith seeing more time. For a team that doesn't want to throw the ball and only targeted the tight end a little over 100 times total, if Rudolph steals even 25 or 30 targets (it will likely be more) it will limit any real chance at a true breakout Smith might be in line for.
Jonnu Smith, on the other hand, has the horrible situation of being an athletic marvel but playing in an offense that doesn't really care about getting him the ball. After Delanie Walker went out for good in Week 7 Anthony Firkser earned 22 targets to Smith's 33. I'm not saying they'll push that many targets to Firkser again, but it is concerning that this offense is a low volume offense to begin with. But more worrisome is that the Titans have seen Smith for several seasons now and when Walker went out they gave Firkser 40% of the tight end targets. Even if you combine Smith and Walker's targets you only end up with 76 total opportunities. It seems like a stretch to project him to grab 100% of the vacated Walker targets, and if so he becomes an extremely inconsistent low volume option with around 60-65 targets and 40-45 receptions.
Pass on the Smiths when looking for your late-round breakout tight ends.
I'm gobsmacked to not see anyone plant their flag on Hayden Hurst so far. Number one, he has a first-round draft pedigree. Number two, he replaces Austin Hooper, who ranked in the Top 6 in PPR scoring among tight ends both of the past two seasons despite having Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley as (stiff) competition for targets/yards/touchdowns. And number three, after acquiring Hurst to replace Hooper, the Falcons didn't even bother drafting a tight end this year despite having a depth chart behind him that's more of a Who's That than a Who's Who. If you believe that volume is king in fantasy football (which you should), then there aren't many (if any) safer bets than Hurst at tight end with respect to outperforming expectations.
I'm planting my flag next to Sigmund's on Blake Jarwin. He's got everything we're looking for in a breakout tight end:
- A path to 100 targets
- Proven efficiency at the NFL level
- Requisite athleticism
- A potentially elite offense to bolster his touchdown expectation
We'll be drafting him inside the top-five tight ends heading into next season.
I want to agree with the folks on the Blake Jarwin train - but I just don't see there being enough targets/action to go around. Yes, Jarwin is never going to see the top end of the pass defense, but there will be just too many big-play options to go to him. If he does go off, it will be red zone TDS.
I have to say that I'm warming to the idea that Mike Gesicki could be one of the top tight ends this season. He's shown the talent and Athleticism to be a big factor in the Miami offense, and he'll be a nice safety valve for a rookie QB who will face some tough defenses. With Preston Williams still on the mend and looking like he'll get off to a slow start, Gesicki could be one of the big surprises to start the season and be the hot waiver wire pick in many leagues. Drafting a backup tight end is never a high priority, but Gesicki is worth keeping an eye on in the late rounds.
Darren Waller falls out of the top-10 at the tight end position. Everything went right last year for Waller in that he was the only capable body in Oakland leading to 117 targets in 2019. Now, in Las Vegas, the team has added Henry Ruggs III as well as I expect Foster Moreau and Jason Witten to take some volume away from Waller this season. This is a team that is going to become less one dimensional in the passing game and if Waller's targets could decrease by two or three per game he will no longer be a top-10 viable tight end.