Is there are any tight end waiting in the wings ready to become the next Rob Gronkowski? Probably not.
There are some young tight ends with terrific talent and breakout potential, however. It is never too early to write some names down on your fantasy football draft chart or cheat sheet and track these players’ progress between now and the time your draft is in August or September. Drafting a breakout star in the middle-to-late rounds can help vault your fantasy squad into playoff contention, and getting a top-tier tight end without using a top pick on him is always a boost, too.
Here are the early 2017 sleepers at the tight end position.
Early Sleepers: TE
Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons
This third-round rookie was not expected to make a big fantasy impact in 2016 with veterans Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo clogging up Atlanta’s depth chart at tight end, and frankly he didn’t. But Hooper showed enough promise and is setting up to be in the perfect position to be a breakout tight end in 2017.
Hooper was able to get onto the field after Tamme suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and showed flashes of speed, hands and route-running ability. He had 19 receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns during part-time duty and likely made Tamme expendable and confirmed that Toilolo should be the No. 2 TE next season (if he returns). The door is open for Hooper to be the starting tight end, and that will happen unless Tony Gonzalez un-retires and dons a Falcons uniform again.
Atlanta’s offense should still be one of the best in the NFL, if not the best in 2017. Quarterback Matt Ryan, tailback tandem Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and top targets Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu will all be back and are all in their primes. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian should have no problem continuing what former O.C. Kyle Shanahan started and keep the Falcons as one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. With a year of experience in the league and alongside his teammates under his belt, and with his role in the offense probably expanding, it would be surprising if Hooper did not double or triple his stat output next year.
Vance McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers did not sign McDonald to a five-year, $35 million extension at the end of the season because they think he is a difference maker in the running game and/or the locker room. McDonald was given big bucks because San Fran does not have much else in the talent department at tight end, and because he is one of few tight ends in the NFL who can break big plays – very big plays.
McDonald established himself as someone with some serious fantasy potential this past season. While his 24 receptions for 391 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games does not come right out and slap you upside the head like a pass-rushing defensive end, his 65 and 75-yard touchdown receptions accentuate the fact that he has above-average playmaking ability for a tight end.
Unless San Francisco acquires a decent wide receiver or two during the offseason, McDonald should be one of the top options in the 49ers passing game in 2017. McDonald will only be as effective as his quarterbacks, though, so if Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are still the terrible twosome passing him the ball, his fantasy value will be limited. But if new head coach Kyle Shanahan can find a better answer at quarterback and turn the 49ers offense into anything resembling the Falcons offense he did such a fine job running this past year, McDonald could be a fantasy breakout star.
Erik Swoope, Indianapolis Colts
No fantasy owners gave a damn about Swoope last September when they were in the midst of their drafts and auctions, and rightly so. He was third in the pecking order out of Indy’s tight ends, had never caught a pass in the NFL and was an undrafted free agent. No one was looking to stick Swoope on his or her fantasy squad unless that person played in a 30-team deep, deep, deep league.
Swoope did not find many passes or targets behind Dwayne Allen and the surprising Jack Doyle in 2016, but he turned the mere 15 receptions he had into 298 yards for a 19.8 yards per catch clip that only fleet wide receivers normally post. When a 6’5”, 255-pound guy can make plays downfield to the tune of 20 yards per catch, you know you have a physical specimen on your hands.
Doyle is a free agent and could have a hungry market since the NFL is not swarming with available tight ends this offseason, and Allen is an injury-prone block-first tight end without much upside. Swoope could swoop in and be Andrew Luck’s top tight end next season and put up impressive numbers if he can transition from part-time player to key contributor in 2017.
Check out RotoBaller's famous 2017 fantasy football draft sleepers and waiver wire pickups list, updated regularly!