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UPDATED 8/21: When I draft, I always have a tier sheet handy. I find that organizing players by tiers is far more beneficial than merely ranking players.
I could rank Jimmy Graham over Greg Olsen but it is impossible to truly predict who will finish better between the two of them, but I do know that both should finish better than a guy like Martellus Bennett. Tiers also allow me to gauge the draft and plan my picks around how many players in a particular tier are still available. But in the end, it is up to you to digest the research and make your own decisions on whom to draft based upon your own beliefs on who you feel is the better player this year.
Another reason I prefer tier rankings is that a range of outcomes approach is preferable to just this is what a guy will finish with at the end of the season. Jason Witten and Frank Gore have low end RB1 and TE1 numbers the past two years, but their weekly numbers are not going to help you win your weeks for the most part. In essence, you are looking for a player that has a chance to perform at a weekly level that is higher than a mere replacement level player, even if that replacement level player may have decent looking year-end numbers. Which brings me to my final point, fantasy football, in season long leagues, is about winning weeks, so you need to draft a combination of players where some have high ceiling, while some of high floors. That is how you win.
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots – Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Gronkowski are by far the three most dominant weekly difference makers in fantasy football. In fact, Gronk has 69 touchdowns in just 88 games. His draft position has plummeted due to a down year caused by Brady’s suspension and his back injury. Fully healthy now, Gronkowski will be just as dominant as ever. Do not let him slip to the third round, because if you do, you are giving your opponent a major advantage right out of the gate.
Travis Kelce, Chiefs – With Jeremy Maclin cut, Kelce is this team’s most dominant and reliable possession receiving option. The passing game could very well be funneled through him, although, unfortunately it is still Alex Smith throwing the passes. Kelce caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, look for similar numbers this year but for the touchdowns to rise to hopefully six. He was Pro Football Focus’ (PFF’s) number one rated tight end and also finished number one in Football Outsiders DYAR rating. The emergence of Tyreek Hill stretching the field should also help him work the middle and the seam.
Jimmy Graham, Seahawks – Now fully healthy, expect Graham to be a reliable fantasy option as Russell Wilson’s main passing target along with Doug Baldwin. Graham finished second in Football Outsiders DYAR rating and fifth in their DVOA rating. Essentially DYAR means a tight end with more total value while DVOA means a tight end with more value per play. Per PFF when Wilson is scrambling outside of the pocket his main target on those throws is Graham, not Baldwin. There will be down games, but such is life at the tight end position.
Greg Olsen, Panthers – Cam Newton played horribly last year, yet Olsen was his usual reliable self, going for 80 catches and over a 1,000 yards. He did have an eight-year low of just three touchdowns; look for that to move back to his mean and bounce back with at least five.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals – A touchdown monster and clear-cut second option in their passing game ... when healthy. Unfortunately, he was injured again (back surgery) last season and has been one of the slowest healers in the league. The good news is that he is at least in camp practicing and looks to be good to goto start the season. Drafting him is risky, so it is wise to have a solid backup option, but he's a Tier 2 talent.
Jordan Reed, Redskins – Numbers were down across the board last season, as he dealt with injuries one again. Head coach Jay Gruden mentioned that “the offense runs through" Jordan Reed with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon departing. Unfortunately, some of that could just be bluster, since this is still a very crowded receiving core with Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder looking like future studs, and Josh Doctson supposedly healthy and the team’s first round draft pick from last year. Reed’s 4th round ADP is a little too risky for me given all the weapons the Redskins have and with his concussion history, he has had SIX over his career so far, dating back to college. Not to mention he has not been practicing due to a toe injury, which is worrisome since it risks further injury blocking defensive ends. Footballguys medical specialist, Jene Bramel, mentioned that it might actually be a sesamoid bone fracture, which is an extreme version of turf toe that may require surgery.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings – What a difference a quarterback makes. Potential only lasts so long, fortunately for Rudolph, it lasted six years and he finally broke out. The mojo between Bradford and Rudolph is real and there is no reason to doubt it won't continue. Per ESPN Stats, he ran a route on 58 percent of his snaps and was targeted on 23.7 percent of them, on his way to catching 83 passes and 7 touchdowns. A legitimate red zone threat, finishing second in the league in red zone targets with 24, expect similar numbers this year, despite the tendency to still not believe in him. Fight the urge.
Delanie Walker, Titans – His numbers came back down to his four-year mean after a one year spike, but Titans head coach recently stated that "he hasn't slowed a bit. He's still at full-strength, still very difficult to cover takes such good care of his body and it shows every day." He’s a steady option even though they have a full complement of receivers this year, especially with the addition of Eric Decker and Corey Davis, to go along with Demarco Murray out of the backfield. Look for him to have around 60 catches, 800 yards, and 6 touchdowns. In the unreliable world of tight ends, he’s a safe and steady top 10 option that is a great grab at his current ADP in the 8th round.
Zach Ertz, Eagles – The departure of Jordan Matthews helps Ertz more than anyone else on this team, as they worked the same area of the field. In fact, he had a monster 31 targets in the two games Matthews missed last season. When healthy, Ertz is a quality tight end that has a very good connection with Carson Wentz. Although he always seems to start slow, only to come on strong as the season wears on, so hopefully he can get things going right out of the gate this year. The additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith should also help to open things up for Ertz. He’s a safer option than he was.
Eric Ebron, Lions – He’s improved his play every season and certainly looks like he is ready to break out. Nagging ankle injuries hampered him last season, even though he tried to play through them, so health is key with him. He also only caught one touchdown after catching five the previous year. I believe he’s capable of easily scoring six or more, especially since Anquan Boldin, who worked the same area of the field as him, abandons the third highest red zone targets of all receivers, with 22. Ebron is a great value pick with an ADP in the 10th and 11th round, and at that price, he is easy to pair with another decent option if you still have reservations. Keep in mind he has yet to practice since the first week of pre-season with yet another hamstring injury.
Hunter Henry, Chargers – There is a big Gate(s) in Henry’s way to being a reliable weekly TE1. Henry saw the 4th most red-zone targets of all tight ends last season, with 16, just two behind his buddy Antonio Gates who had 18. Although Henry caught two more of those (10) targets and tied with most catches in the red-zone for all tight ends. He averaged a solid 67.9% catch rate and just over 13 yards per reception, while scoring 8 touchdowns as a rookie. In fact, Philip Rivers passer rating was an impressive 147.9 when targeting Henry, far surpassing all the other Chargers pass catchers last season. Gates turns THIRTY-SEVEN this year, and has had his share of injuries, so it is quite possible Henry takes over lead duties this year, and I would expect the target share to shift into Henry's favor. In fact, coaches and Gates himself have mentioned that Gates isn’t going to play his full complement of snaps this year. Unfortunately with Keenan Allen back from injury there is more competition for targets in this offense. While I think Henry is a slight reach at his current ADP, I would love to have him on my team and he would be a high-end TE1 if Gates got injured.
Jack Doyle, Colts – The Detective Jack Doyle gets a major bump with Dwayne Allen shipped out of town. He led all NFL tight ends in catch rate (78.7%) last season and ranked fifth in red-zone receptions (9). He saw a healthy 12 targets in the red-zone and that should increase to 17+ with Allen’s 9 targets vacated by his departure. As ESPN's Mathew Berry pointed out, "during the past three years, 25.3 percent of Andrew Luck's completions, 24.3 percent of his passing yards and 37.2 percent of his passing touchdowns have gone to tight ends." Count on the detective as your main tight end, but just make sure to keep an eye out on the more athletic Erik Swoope (who is injured at the moment) and the status of Andrew Luck’s shoulder.
Martellus Bennett, Packers – Aaron Rodgers will know how to take full advantage of his talents and I think he is an upgrade over Jared Cook, who averaged a paltry 3 catches and 37.7 yards a game playing the same role with Green Bay last year, although Cook did finally see an uptick in the playoffs. The problem Bennett faces is that Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson are all great possession and end-zone receivers. Additionally, the Packers added tight end Lance Kendricks who is a capable short area receiver, quietly having a 50-catch season in the dreck that was the Rams offense last year. Over the past three seasons the Packers tight end core has averaged around 60 receptions, 600 yards and 5 touchdowns on the year, which is something we can expect as Bennett's floor, making him a borderline top 12 tight end at worst on the season. With an ADP of 9.11 the downside is built in, but I would also make sure to get a later guy like Hooper or Gates.
Austin Hooper, Falcons – He’s a talented tight end who played great as a rookie, which is rare. With Jacob Tamme gone, Hooper is the unquestioned starting tight end on a team that doesn’t have a dominant receiving option after Julio Jones. Last year he posted a 70.4% catch rate and averaged 14.3 yards per reception, both numbers better than Hunter Henry. Hooper also had 3 touchdowns on only 19 catches last year. I know it’s aggressive, but I think he can hit 55-60 catches to go along with 7 touchdowns. It’s good to bet on ascending players who play on good teams and with a great quarterback.
Jason Witten, Dallas – The juice is gone, but still will catch a ton of balls. Witten had 95 targets last year with 69 catches, but unfortunately just 3 touchdowns. He’s that old dude on the basketball court that dominates with his old man game. He’s a reliable, yet unspectacular, PPR option only.
Antonio Gates, Chargers – The juice is gone, as he enters his age 37 season. As long as he sees the field, he will catch a ton of passes and many of the ones that count. It's actually quite possible he is only used in the red-zone where he is a beast to cover with his old man box out moves. I just hate investing in a player this old, but he could easily score 7 or 8 touchdowns; easily.
Coby Fleener, Saints – Fleener has a bit of post-hype value to him. He’s not a great player because he is a knucklehead, but there is no denying his athletic ability. According to him, the Saints playbook was complex and he was swimming in it last year. Hopefully, with a year in this offense under his belt, we see him step up since there is serious opportunity playing in this offense for an athletic tight end like him. You cannot trust him as your main tight end, but he is an excellent tight end to grab as your TE2 who hopefully gets it together. If he does, and it’s a big if, he’s in a great position to be a difference maker for your team, especially with Brandin Cooks now in New England.
Julius Thomas, Jaguars – After being called "nearly unstoppable" in OTA’s by the Jacksonville press last year, Thomas battled his usual injuries, playing in just nine games and then had to deal with the horrible quarterback play of Blake Bortles. Change can be a good thing though, and Thomas is back playing with HC Adam Gase, where he caught 24 touchdowns in just 27 games in Denver under this very offensive system. Dolphins beat reporter Armando Salguero recently stated that he believes Thomas is "going to be a thing" this year, and that the Dolphins have "multiple plays" designed just for him. The addition of Jay Cutler is also a boost to his fantasy stock since over the past three years, 27 percent of his completions have gone to tight ends. The talent is there, and hopefully Gase can rekindle the magic. One particular play Gase loved to run is having three receivers wide right, with Thomas alone on the left side, where he can dominate in a one-on-one situation. I doubt he has more than 55 catches, but 8+ touchdowns are certainly possible, with the grand caveat, “if he stays healthy.”
C.J. Fiedorowicz, Texans – He had a solid 89 targets, for 54 catches, 559 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. His upside is capped by the presence of fellow tight end Ryan Griffin, who had 74 targets himself. A pedestrian, yet capable, talent, he probably finishes around the 17 to 22 mark for tight ends when all is said and done, making him a viable bench player with streamable upside, especially if Griffin gets injured.
Jesse James, Steelers – With Ladarius Green gone, James is the team unquestioned leader at the tight end positions. While not overly athletic, he is above average talent and a big guy that is a solid and reliable red-zone option. While he will be totally touchdown dependent, but he could easily have 6 or 7. With Martavis Bryant back though, there is not a ton of upside here.
Jared Cook, Raiders – He didn’t light it up with Aaron Rodgers during the regular season last year, so hard to think he will light it up with Carr this season. However, the Raiders may present a better opportunity as they have little outside of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. One noted Raiders beat writer surmised that Cook could push 100 targets, which would be huge for his value and they could use a player like him stretching the file down the seem. He’s a TE2 only, but someone worth watching as the pre-season progresses closely.
Cameron Brate, Bucs – Brate is a very solid tight end, but after being the only reliable target outside of Mike Evans last year, the Bucs have reloaded on talent. They added future stud tight end O.J. Howard, in addition to signing DeSean Jackson and drafting rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin. The tight end position is difficult to adjust to in the NFL and there have been reports that Howard will be more of a blocker to start the season and that Winston loves Brate and he will be involved no matter what. I could see Brate start the year strong and fade towards the end as Howard starts to come on. I don't think he will have another 8 touchdowns, more like 4 or 5, making him a bit unreliable as your main starter for fantasy purposes.
Vance McDonald, 49ers – Just like with Carlos Hyde, the new regime talked of cutting him in order to motivate him. Per mutiple beat writers, he has had a great camp and is locked in as the teams starting tight end. He averaged a solid 16.3 yards per reception last year and the team signed him to a five-year, $35 million extension in December. With little else besides Pierre Garcon and deep threat Marquise Goodwin, the 49ers have very little depth at the receiver position. McDonald could very well suprise as a top 15 or 12 tight end option this year.
Tyler Higbee, Rams – You don’t get a nickname like “Baby Gronk” for no reason. He stands 6’6” 250 pounds and drew Jordan Cameron comparisons for his athletic ability. He had a horrible catch rate last year, but he also flashed some talent and is certainly more talented than Lance Kendricks who had 50 catches for 499 yards and 2 touchdowns playing in this spot last year. New coach Sean McVay also loves to feature the tight end and could use Higbee as he did Jordan Reed in Washington. Even with the addition of rookie Gerald Evertt, Higbee should be the team’s main tight end this season and the Rams could play with a lot of two tight end sets regardless, making Higbee a spot play TE2 who just might be a consistent PPR option. Multiple beat writers have predicted that he would see the second most targets next to Sammy Watkins and he has formed a solid bond with Goff, the two being roommates during camp as well.
Evan Engram, Giants – Engram stands 6’3”, 234 pounds with ridiculous 4.42 forty speed, finishing with a 94th percentile SPARQ athletic score. To be clear, no matter what the team says, Engram is not a blocker, he’s a receiver. Not since Marques Colston have we had a receiver being mislabeled as a tight end, which you should use to your advantage, especially in dynasty leagues. Engram does enter a crowded receiving core with three big time receivers (Beckham, Marshall and Shepherd), so it’s tough to expect the world from him, but he will at least be learning from the best. He’s a candidate to move up this board.
David Njoku, Browns – The Browns thought Njoku was pro-ready enough that they cut veteran tight end Gary Barnidge. Njoku put up a 93% SPARQ (athletic) score and stands 6-foot-4, 246 pounds with an insane 11’1” broad jump. An underrated blocker, he has a huge wingspan, which helped him be the dominant pass catcher he was in college. There is tons of upside with Njoku and it looks like he will be on the field a good amount. While it is tough to go all-in on a rookie tight end, especially one playing on the Browns, there is a lot of opportunities here for him to make an impact in year one.
Ben Watson / Maxx Williams, Ravens – With Dennis Pitta done for the season, it opens up a whopping 121 tight end targets. With most of their tight ends already injured, Watson, who is coming off a torn Achilles, could very well just step right into the Pitta role and provide the same exact return on value, catching 86 passes, albeit with little touchdown upside. Yet keep in mind that Watson will be 37 years old this season, so the wheels could fall off at any time. Williams on the other hand is a former second round pick who has dealt with injuries his first three season. He had some "mysterious" knee surgery this off-season, and looks finally to be healthy. He's flashed so far in camp and the job could easily be his as well. Whomever wins this starting job holds value, I just have no idea which one it will be. Throw a dart and hope.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jets – ASJ recently stated that he has been clean and sober since January and has re-dedicated himself to playing football. He has lost 20 pounds and has been the most impressive receiver in camp so far. There is a lot of opportunity for him in this offense since they literally have nobody of note and he is built like a skyscraper. For what it’s worth I’m not drafting a single Jet this year, who are the biggest dumpster fire this league has ever seen this early in the season, but Seferian-Jenkins just might be the exception to the rule.
Charles Clay, Bills – He’s a decent player who is hurt playing on a pedestrian passing offense and beset by chronic knee issues that keep him limited every week. He finished 28th in Football Outsiders advanced metrics and 31st in PFF’s. His 57 catch, 552 yard and 4 touchdowns from last year is probably his ceiling, which was the 18th best tight end for fantasy. Expect much of the same this year.
Jermaine Gresham, Arizona – After barely being involved to start the season, Gresham had a solid eight-week run from weeks 8-16, logging 34 catches, 317 yards and 2 touchdowns. Extrapolated over a full season and we are looking at rock solid 68 catch, 634 yard and 4-touchdown line. On a team devoid of big receivers, Gresham very well could surprise.
Vernon Davis, Washington – The juice is gone, but he’s still a capable player when given the chance on a team that loves to feature the tight end. Jordan Reed is dealing with a severe toe injury that has kept him out of the pre-season so far, not to mention 6 previous concussions. When you get this deep in a draft, he is a gamble with upside worth taking and not a bad handcuff for Reed drafters.
O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay – One of the best blocking tight ends to come out of college in a long time, who also has equally impressive offensive skills. He stands 6-foot-6, 251 pounds with 4.51 forty speed and a monster 10-foot-1 broad jump. While most rookie tight ends are worthless for fantasy, Howard just could well prove that narrative wrong despite joining a crowded, and amazing, receiving core, which includes fantasy's number seven tight end from last year, Cameron Brate. If you are betting on talent, Howard is it, but he's not going to usurp Brate fully in year one, if at all. As of right now they are also looking at him as more of a blocker.
Rico Gathers, Cowboys – Something is happening here, and it's worht paying attention to. Gathers is a former basketball player that is getting some first team reps and making plays. If something were to happen to Witten, he would have a lot of opportunity on a team devoid of talented pass catchers and even with Witten, they may use him as a mismatch down the seam. He’s looked great as a red zone threat in the pre-season.
Dwayne Allen, Patriots – Gronk owners would be wise to keep him on speed dial, but he seems to get hurt every season as well. Playing with Tom Brady is never a bad thing, so you could do worse for your TE2. As long as Gronk is healthy though, this receiving core is too deep to rely on him as a weekly starter.
George Kittle, 49ers – Someone to keep an eye on since Vane McDonald might be on the outs. While he didn’t have big numbers in college, he is a very good athlete, standing 6’4” 247lbs with 4.52 forty speed and a huge 11’ broad jump. Per PFF, he had just one quarterback pressure in his last two seasons at university and he received their second best run blocking grade, just behind O.J. Howard. That is the sort of thing that could have him see the field sooner than later. He's already seeing first team reps.
Gerald Everett, Rams – Think Delanie Walker or a lower case Jordan Reed, standing 6’ 3” 239 pounds with 4.60 forty speed and a 37 inch vertical. While he is a talented pass catcher, it is worth mentioning that he has very small hands, just 8.5 inches. Good thing for him he plays in the warm confines of Southern California. The Rams will use plenty of two tight end sets; it’s just hard to imagine him being a reliable starter for you this season. A great dynasty hold, especially if Jared Goff’s play improves.
Erik Swoope, Colts – He’s another one of those basketball player converts that takes time to adjust to playing football. He’s more athletic than Detective Doyle and the really like him. It’s certainly possible that Doyle blocks more, while Swoope runs more routes. He averaged a monster 19.8 yards per reception last season but is dealing with an injury in camp and Andrew Luck may not be ready to start the season. Another deep guy to monitor.
Seth DeValve, Browns - The second year man out of Princeton could very well surprise if Njoku is still learning how to adjust to the NFL game. The team has talked him up and he is a converted wide receiver who stands 6'2" 244 pounds with a big time 40 inch vertical. The team released Gary Barnidge because of their belief in DeValve and recognizing that it's in their interest to develop young players than win now. In practice DeValve has stood out as one of the second year players to have made the biggest jump since last year and supposedly looked "bigger, stronger and faster." He's a guy to watch, as he may have sneaky value in deep tight end premium leagues.
Gary Barnidge, N/A – He’s a good all-around tight end who should hopefully find a land spotting before camp opens. Look for him to be a solid TE2 with upside, especially if he lands on the right team, which looks to be the Jaguars right now. He was the league’s number one rated pass blocking tight end last season, that's the sort of thing that gets you on the field during passing downs.
Zach Miller, Bears – Clocking a 73.4% catch rate last season, he’s great when he is on the field, but unsurprisingly, he was injured much of the season again last year. While the Bears added free agent Dion Sims and drafted future starter Adam Shaheen, Miller should be the starter this year as long as he stays healthy. At least the quarterback play can’t be any worse than it was last season.
Ryan Griffin, Texans – Quietly had 74 targets last year. If Fiedorowicz got injured, he would be a solid back-end TE1.
Ladarius Green, N/A – If he can get himself cleared to play from concussions, he would be a must add as your TE2 with big time upside. Unfortunately his playing days may be over.
Lance Kendricks, Packers – Their blocking tight end. Would split time with Richard Rogers if Bennett got injured.
Adam Shaheen, Bears – He’s a big guy, standing 6’6” 278 pounds. Like most rookies, it’s going to take him some time to adjust to the NFL game, so more of a dynasty hold than someone that will have value this year.
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