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Tight End Risers and Fallers - 2019 Season Review

With the 2019 fantasy season over, it's time to start studying what happened this past year and what is ahead of us in order to plan accordingly for the 2020 drafts. In this series, I'll be tackling this year's biggest risers and fallers at each of the four skill positions. In order to do that, I'll look at both 2018 and 2019 statistical outcomes from every player, contrast their performances in each season, calculate the delta or difference in each of the categories analyzed, and come up with the most prominent names for the good and the bad going forward.

This article will examine the players at the tight end position, which had one of the brightest years of late when looking at the overall picture of the season. Compared to 2017 and 2018, 2019 saw the most players at the position breaking the 200-point mark (five), and the most players averaging at least 10.0 FP/G (11) in the past three years. Injuries hit hard and finished some great-to-date seasons early (Evan Engram, Will Dissly, Delanie Walker) but the Big Three (Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Zach Ertz) performed the expectations while we welcomed some newcomers to the top tier of the position.

While that is the bright side of the story, there is also a dark one to it. Not every tight end finished atop the leaderboards and more than one saw terrible decreases in production during the 2019 year. Here is the breakdown of those with the biggest statistical surges this past season and those with the most crushing of downturns during the past few months.

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Tight End Risers

Darren Waller, Oakland Raiders

If you didn't draft Waller in 2018 and don't even remember seeing him available on your waiver wire, I can't blame you. Waller's 2018 year was one to forget as he was completely overshadowed by a massive season by veteran Jared Cook in Oakland. Cook finished the year playing in all 16 games and racking up 896 yards on 68 receptions while breaking the 100-mark in targets and scoring six touchdowns. That rendered Waller invisible and unusable in fantasy leagues, as the tight end finished with just six targets for 75 yards in his four games.

By the time 2019 drafts arrived, though, Waller was penciled in as the No. 1 tight end of the Raiders after Cook's departure for New Orleans. The role and the opportunity were always going to be there, and Waller truly fulfilled the expectations and became one of the ultimate sleepers of the year. Waller finished 2019 with the second-most fantasy points (223.1) only behind Travis Kelce (256.3) and averaged 13.9 FP/G on the season. He was also second in receiving yards with 1,146 and receptions with 90, and third in targets with 117. His lone blip came in the scoring department as he could only log three touchdowns on the year, although that might mean positive regression could come his way in 2020 and allow him to reach even higher heights in Las Vegas.

Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens

While Andrews wasn't a true sleeper entering 2019, the now-sophomore of the Ravens didn't have an otherworldly rookie season in 2018. His 107.2 fantasy points had him as the TE17 on the year and his 6.7 FP/G was dead-average and nothing to be too proud of. Both Andrews and Nick Boyle played in the 16 games of the 2018 season and almost split targets with 50 going Andrews' way and 37 thrown to Boyle (the rest of Baltimore's TEs accounted for 30 more combined targets). Andrews caught 34 of those 50 passes for 552 yards and scored three touchdowns. Not bad for a rookie, but far from league-winning in a fantasy context.

Andrews became a late-round pick in most 2019 drafts and most fantasy owners had him on their radar, but the expectations weren't that high with him. At the end of the season, though, Andrews found himself in the perfect offensive system playing under Lamar Jackson in an unstoppable attack that helped him thrive in 2019. Mark Andrews was one of just five tight ends to break the 200-point mark on the year by racking up 209.2 fantasy points in his 15 games while averaging 14 FP/G (more than double his 2018 average). He finished the season with a league-leading 10 TDs (!) on 64 receptions for 852 yards and was targeted 98 times. The efficiency has been sublime for Andrews in his second year as a pro and while he might not be considered a top-three TE in 2020 he has shown everything to reach that level.

Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams

If you only caught the first two-thirds of the NFL season this year and then turned your attention off, I'm sorry for you. But let's start at the beginning. Higbee was already on the Rams in 2018 but with Gerald Everett installed as the No. 1 tight end of the team his chances were limited all year long. While Everett saw 51 targets, Higbee could only attempt to catch 33 throws and finished the year with 24 receptions (to Everett's 33) and two touchdowns (to Everett's three). Those weren't bad numbers, even more given his low usage, but the 4.1 FP/G and 65.2-point tally on the season weren't remotely close to being a league-winning combination in his 16 games played.

In 2019, all the way until Week 13 when Everett was forced out due to injury, Everett was beating Higbee one yet again in snaps played. It made sense, considering those 12 games yielded Everett 89.8 fantasy points and Higbee just 53.2 of them. Then, the historic five-game run from Higbee took place. The fourth-year tight end finished the season reaching at least 18 fantasy points in PPR-format leagues five consecutive times, scored two touchdowns, logged 104-plus yards in four of those five and became the best tight end to close the season by far. That span helped Higbee end 2019 as the TE8 (734 yards on 69 catches and 89 targets with three touchdowns) averaging of 10.7 FP/G and entering the offseason in an upward trend that will raise his ADP in the upcoming drafts no matter what.


Tight End Fallers

Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts

Talk about a legendary season for Ebron in 2018. That wasn't a good year, that was the year for the Colts tight end. By the end of the season, Ebron had lapped the field in touchdowns and scored 13 in his 16 games played while catching 66 passes good for 750 yards (fifth-most among TEs). No tight end had scored 13 TD since Tyler Eifert in 2015, and Jimmy Graham in 2013 was the last player at the position with a greater mark (15) since Rob Gronkowski did so (17) in 2011. There were a few red flags in Ebron's season, though, as his yardage was a little low compared to that of those other tight ends named here, but with such a massive year Ebron was a lock to get off the board early in 2019 drafts.

Enter 2019, though, and everything changed for the worse. Andrew Luck retired, Jacoby Brissett became Ebron's passer, and it took the tight end seven games to break the 50-yard receiving barrier in any match. He didn't even score a single touchdown after Week 7 as he got injured and missed the last four games of the season. It was a year to forget for Ebron, who finished the season with just 375 yards on 31 receptions (better average per reception, but on really low volume) and three touchdowns compared to his last season's 13. This is Ebron's true-talent level and 2018 was a mirage. Forget about him getting back to his league-winning traits in 2020, as that is highly unlikely.

Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh Steelers

I have to confess that after his 2018 season I had McDonald as one of my sleepers entering the 2019 draft season. Just peep at his stats: 15 games played in which the tight end finished as the TE10 in total fantasy points with 135 over the full season, 610 yards, and 50 catches on 73 targets that went for four touchdowns on the year. Those were definitely not gaudy numbers, but they weren't bad and with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell leaving Pittsburgh I was buying on the uptick in targets and usage for 2019.

Had Ben Roethlisberger been the leading man of the Steelers, that might have been the case (McDonald finished 2019 with only 18 fewer targets and 12 fewer receptions than in 2018) but injuries to the whole group of quarterbacks during the season and a completely broken offense didn't help McDonald one bit. The tight end played 14 games this past season and in those he dropped his yardage a massive 337 yards from his last year's mark, finishing with a putrid 273 receiving yards on 38 receptions (55 targets) and somehow three touchdowns. He will keep being the No. 1 tight end in Pittsburgh but this level of play doesn't bode well for him going forward.

O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccanneers

After a promising rookie season, OJ Howard entered 2018 with his owners expecting him to build on that first ultra-efficient year thanks to heavier usage and a healthier amount of opportunities, and Howard provided. It was a shame that he went down injured after playing just 10 games but in those matches, he showed everything we needed to treat him as one of the best tight ends available out of the Big Three in 2019 drafts. Howard finished 2018 with 565 yards on 34 receptions (48 targets) and scored five touchdowns. His yards per reception combined with the insanely high catch rate made him a fantasy darling only lacking the extended playing time, which should definitely come this past season.

Tampa opted to bring Bruce Arians in as head coach entering 2019 and virtually no one paid attention to it and its implications, which turned out to be massive for Howard's upside. The tight end finished the season with 14 appearances in which he logged a total 459 yards on 34 receptions, thus lowering his average in that department and also in yards per target, as he saw more (53) than he did in 2018. The touchdowns were nowhere to be found other than the single one he scored in Week 10. Fantasy owners waited and waited for him to finally find his rhythm but he never did and ended as the TE28 in 2019.

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