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Fooled Me Once... Sophomore Tight Ends Set to Bust Again

As part of our "Fooled Me Once, Not Again" series, RotoBaller is looking at second-year players who struggled as rookies and aren't likely to pull themselves out of those struggles in 2020.

Tight end is the position that seems to take the longest when it comes to NFL development. Rookie tight ends rarely come out of the gate on fire. While some make a leap in their second seasons, plenty more remain unusable fantasy options.

Let's look at three sophomore tight ends who we shouldn't be expecting a ton from this season.

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Drew Sample, Cincinnati Bengals

I really could have called this article "Why you should only roster T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, and maybe Irv Smith Jr.," because I think we see a pretty sizable drop-off right after those guys when looking at second-year tight ends.

Let's start with the fourth tight end drafted last year: Drew Sample of the Cincinnati Bengals.

The narrative as soon as Sample was taken was that he was a blocking tight end, and his college career supported that idea:

Sample wasn't a receiving threat until his senior season, and even then his 25 catches were fourth on that Huskies team. Sample flashed enough for the Bengals to take him where they did, but as a rookie he did virtually nothing. Playing in nine games, Sample caught five passes for 30 yards. His offensive snap rate topped out at 30.3 percent.

Sample could theoretically open 2020 as the starting tight end, though C.J. Uzomah will challenge him for that role. Sample's got some encouraging workout metrics, including a 4.71 40-yard dash and a 72nd percentile catch radius -- but putting those physical traits together and playing high-caliber NFL football isn't going to be easy.

The Bengals have a lot of wide receivers to put around rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, from veterans A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd to rookie Tee Higgins, as well as a couple of guys who flashed their potential last year in Auden Tate and John Ross III. They also have an offensive line that wasn't good in 2019. To me, this suggests that whoever lines up at tight end is going to spend a lot of time in-line blocking and not out running routes.

It's just really hard to see a way Sample is fantasy-relevant in 2020.


Josh Oliver, Jacksonville Jaguars

A back injury limited Oliver's rookie year to a close after just four games, with the San Jose State product finishing his rookie campaign with three catches for 15 yards.

The top tight end in terms of targets in Jacksonville was James O'Shaughnessy, who had 20 in five games. That ranked seventh on the team in targets. What seemed pretty clear was that quarterback Gardner Minshew wasn't super interested in targeting tight ends.

Jacksonville ran 81 plays out of 10 personnel last year -- one running, four wide receivers, and no tight end. Only two teams ran more plays from that formation. So, there's that -- the Jags seem like they'll be fine not having a tight end on the field sometimes.

And when a tight end is on the field, will it be Oliver? Not only was O'Shaughnessy a bigger part of the team than any other tight end while playing very few games, something that suggests he could see a larger role this year, but the team also signed the oft-injured Tyler Eifert.

Never bet on Eifert being healthy, but you have to assume that when he is capable of being on the field, the Jags will see him as their top tight end, not Oliver.

Like Sample, Oliver feels like someone who has the physical profile to be very good, but also like someone who is a year behind in development because of a lost rookie year. I'm interested in Oliver in 2021 after he gets more experience in the NFL, but for now I think he'll still need time to get up to speed.


Jace Sternberger, Green Bay Packers

Jace Sternberger missed much of his rookie ear with an ankle injury. Once he returned, he played in six games, playing 60 snaps and recording no catches on one target.

So, that was a bummer if you were high at all on Sternberger.

Jimmy Graham was the leading tight end for the Pack last season, finishing third on the team in targets with 60. He caught 38 of them for 447 yards and three touchdowns. But Graham left Green Bay this offseason, opening room for...someone, right? Maybe Sternberger?

Maybe. But Marcedes Lewis played a lot for Green Bay last year and provides Aaron Rodgers with a more reliable, veteran target at the position, and I think that's going to matter a lot. Remember: while most sports narratives are actually wrong, one narrative I believe wholeheartedly is that Rodgers doesn't really like to throw to tight ends.

Green Bay also spent a third-round pick on Cincinnati's Josiah Deguara, which doesn't seem like a vote of confidence in Sternberger. Deguara's versatility could help him see the field early on, and since playing time in the NFL is a zero-sum game, extra snaps for Deguara likely take away extra snaps for the team's other young tight end.

Still, Sternberger is the player of these three who seems like the best bet to break out. He's a different kind of tight end -- more athletic with more receiving upside -- than Rodgers has had in a while, so he could break through and wind up playing a key role.

But I'm not really very confident in that outcome, and there are tight ends I like more who I'd rather take a chance at late in fantasy drafts.

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