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2016 was not a banner year for tight ends, it was a bummer year. Only two (Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen) cracked the 1,000-yard plateau after four had done so the previous year. The top dog at the position, New England’s Rob Gronkowski, had his season ruined by another injury. Other top-10 tight ends like Jordan Reed, Gary Barnidge, Tyler Eifert and Delanie Walker had down 2016 seasons compared to what they did in 2015 thanks to injuries, terrible quarterbacks and/or maybe they played over their heads the previous year. So tight ends have nowhere to go but up in the eyes of many fantasy football owners. 2017 has some serious sleeper candidates that you should keep an eye on throughout the off-season. Keep these names in mind when your league’s draft day rolls around next August.

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Tight End Sleepers for 2017 Fantasy Football

Jesse James, Pittsburgh Steelers

James was probably not drafted in 99 percent of fantasy leagues entering the 2016 season. He was a fifth-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft who caught eight passes during his rookie year and was slated to be the backup to high-priced free-agent acquisition Ladarius Green. He was going to be more valuable for Le’Veon Bell owners because of his run blocking than he was going to be for owners who spent late-round picks hoping he would score a touchdown or two due to his pass catching.

But Green missed the first half of the season due to an ankle injury and the last couple contests due to a concussion. That greenlit James to start and helped him get the opportunity to catch 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns. Green continued his solid play in the postseason where he accounted for 10 receptions for 131 yards in Pittsburgh’s last two playoff contests.

With Green a humongous question mark heading into the 2017 campaign due to his caution-worthy concussion history and the myriad of injuries he has suffered in recent years, James could be the Steelers’ starting tight end next season. If Martavis Bryant hits a snag in getting reinstated from his drug suspension, James could be Ben Roetlisberger’s go-to guy in the red zone.

James is not going to win many running races and break many (or any) 30-yard plays. But his combination of a big body and soft hands works well down by the end zone, and if Green cut by Pittsburgh or unable to suit up, James lines up to be a super sleeper in 2017.


Jared Cook, Green Bay Packers

Cook has been a perennial disappointment to fantasy football owners longer than Evan Turner has been a disappointment to fantasy basketball owners. Football owners were disappointed by Cook again this year after he signed a contract with Green Bay. Many thought he would finally realize his potential with Aaron Rodgers throwing to him. Instead, Cook delivered 30 receptions for 377 yards and one lone touchdown and was worthless to fantasy owners … again. But Rodgers discovered Cook after the rest of his receiving corps was decimated during the playoffs. While top target Jordy Nelson was hurting due to his broken ribs, Cook became Rodgers’ go-to guy and shockingly caught 18 passes for 229 yards and one score over the Packers’ three playoff games. So was this a fluke? A three-game burst to get a richer off-season deal, or a sign of things to come?

Cook only signed a one-year pact with Green Bay, so he is a free agent for the second off-season in a row. While his regular season probably did not cause NFL general managers to rush to clear salary cap space for him, what he did in the playoffs had to open some eyes, especially in Green Bay’s front office. Green Bay has not gotten much out of its tight ends in recent years. If Cook re-ups with the Packers, he is a sleeper heading into 2017.


Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons

Hooper was the second-highest tight end selected in the 2016 NFL draft behind San Diego’s Hunter Henry, but Hooper did not enter with much hoopla. He had 937 receiving yards and eight touchdowns over two seasons at Stanford. Fantasy owners did not strain themselves penciling in Hooper’s name on their draft day cheat sheets.

Hooper had 19 receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns during his rookie season. He showed that he can stretch the field with four 20-yard-plus grabs and an impressive 14.3 yards per catch. Once veteran Jacob Tamme went down with a midseason injury, Hooper received more playing time and proved he can be a starting tight end in the NFL. But other than in deep leagues where tight ends were scarce or owners were desperate for a bye-week fill-in, Hooper’s fantasy impact this year was relatively minimal.

Atlanta had the best offense in the NFL in 2016, and there is no reason to think they will not be one of the best again next year. Even though offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will move on to become San Francisco’s head coach, they will still have reigning MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback, one of the top wideouts in Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman as the best tailback tandem in the league. Hooper will be a year wiser and could flourish in Atlanta’s high-powered offense in 2017. 50 receptions for 650 yards and five touchdowns from him would not be a surprise.