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Why You Should Wait on Tight End This Year


The tight end position is always one of the most frustrating ones to fill. There's a major gap between the top talent at the position and everyone else in a way that there isn't for running backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks, so it can be tempting to grab someone in the Rob Gronkowski/ Travis Kelce/ Zach Ertz top tier.

That's fine -- grabbing one of those players gives you an edge at the position over other fantasy owners -- but it can also make roster-building more difficult elsewhere. Tight end is just one roster spot in most leagues, whereas running backs and wide receivers fill more starting positions for your fantasy team. It can be a smart move to prioritize at the positions where depth matters and forsake the tight end position.

Once you get past that first tier, though, what should you do? Let's investigate why this is the year to wait until the later rounds to find yourself a couple of quality tight ends this year, even if that logic seems counter-intuitive at first.

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A Brief History of Tight Ends

How often do good fantasy tight ends emerge from the latter stages of fantasy drafts? Good question! Let's take a look at the past five seasons to try figuring that out.

Using Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP data from previous seasons, let's look at how often a player taken outside of the top 10 at the position ended up finishing a good bit above their ADP. Here's the data since 2013, with finishes based on full PPR leagues:

2017

Evan Engram is the big jumper here, going from being the 22nd tight end off the board to the TE5 at the end of the season. Jack Doyle jumped from an ADP of 12th to finish TE6. Even Zach Ertz, who finished TE3, was on average just the ninth tight end off the board.

2016

Kyle Rudolph fell outside of FFC's list, which included 17 tight ends, but finished as the TE2. Jimmy Graham was the TE4 after being drafted as the TE12. Cameron Brate was TE7 despite not being among those top 17 tight ends on draft day.

2015

Ahh, the Year of the Barnidge. Gary Barnidge came from nowhere to finish as the TE4, but that wasn't the only surprise. Ben Watson also came from outside of the rankings to finish as a top 10 tight end.

2014

Almost no one was picking Travis Kelce before he caught fire, going from the 18th tight end in ADP to the TE6 at the end of the season. Remember: the top tier tight ends weren't always the top tier tight ends. They haven't been in the league for 40 years putting up these stats. (By the way, others from 2014 who outperformed their ADP: Antonio Gates, who people thought was done at this point because of his age, finished TE3 despite an ADP of 14th, Martellus Bennett came from 12th to finish TE5, and Coby Fleener went from undrafted to TE7.)

2013

This is as far back as I'm going because 1) y'all get the point and 2) if I keep going I'll be analyzing data from the 90s. 2013 was a fun one. The overall TE2 at the end of the season, Julius Thomas, wasn't drafted and neither was the TE8, Charles Clay, but other than that things weren't as weird except for the fact that 2013 was the Zach Sudfeld year. Remember the Zach Sudfeld year? We all do -- yes, I drafted him that year too -- and for some reason bought into Sudfeld as a top option next to Gronk in New England, causing him to be drafted as the 12th tight end off the board, but he caught just five passes during the entire season. Lesson: hype trains can be perfectly fine if they involve reason, but the Sudfeld one was pretty much based on "New England has had two good tight ends before so Sudfeld will therefore be good." Ugh.

Conclusion

I'll keep this short: while it appears that the very top tight ends are pretty set in stone entering each season, there are always tight ends available late in drafts -- or even off the waiver wire -- who emerge over the course of the season to finish near the top of the position. You don't need to spend early draft capital on tight ends if you're willing to wade into the lottery.

 

Some Good Tight End Pairings

So, instead of picking a tight end early, you grabbed another running back instead. You're feeling pretty good about the rest of your roster and the draft is heading towards a finish, so you want to grab a pair of tight ends late who can provide you with good value. Let's look at some guys who are being drafted outside of the top 100 overall who can have strong finishes at the position.

George Kittle - San Francisco 49ers

Kittle has looked good at training camp, developing chemistry with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and showing off his impressive skills. As RotoBaller's own Jason Katz pointed out back in June, Kittle's workout metrics are off the board, including a 100th percentile burst score. He's currently the 11th tight end off the board and while there are enough unknowns to make some owners shy away, grabbing Kittle and pairing him with another tight end drafted late could be a winning move.

David Njoku - Cleveland Browns

Another second-year tight end, Njoku doesn't find himself in the same cushy situation as Kittle, but he's still got a ton of upside this season. Sure, his burst score is only in the 97th percentile and his catch radius is only in the 93rd percentile, but...oh, those are pretty good numbers! I don't think the Browns will be Cleveland enough to take snaps away from Njoku and give them to Darren Fells and Seth DeValve this year -- Njoku had just a 52.4 percent snap share last season -- but his targets could be inconsistent on a team with Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon, though the Browns trading away Corey Coleman can be read as a good sign for Njoku. 2018 Njoku has the words boom or bust tattooed across his chest, but at his current ADP it can be worth riding out the bad times to get those booms.

Tyler Eifert - Cincinnati Bengals

Trusting Eifert to be healthy isn't necessarily the smartest thing you can do, but he's a high upside player when he is on the field. Granted, his status seems to always be up in the air and we don't know if his physical skills are still going to be at the same level that they were in the past, but if you've got a lineup without a ton of risk already built into it, Eifert is worth a dart throw.

Mike Gesicki - Miami Dolphins

Rookie tight ends don't perform well in fantasy football, although Evan Engram last year and Hunter Henry in 2016 both threw a bit of a wrench into those ideas with solid performances. But Gesicki's metrics, per PlayerProfiler, are, well...I might need to send an email to make sure there isn't something wrong here:

Put him on a team that doesn't have a go-to guy at wide receiver and is looking to replace a ton of targets from the departed Jarvis Landry and you've got me really excited about Gesicki's potential to be one of those guys who makes a huge jump from this ADP to his overall finish at the position.

Vernon Davis - Washington Redskins

It probably isn't necessary to draft Davis in a lot of leagues, but he's got a good path toward fantasy football relevance: he plays behind Jordan Reed, who might be the league's most injury-prone player at this point, and he's playing with a quarterback in Alex Smith who proved over the past few seasons that he really likes throwing to the tight end. Sure, that tight end was usually Travis Kelce, but I still expect to see Smith taking advantage of his tight end. Davis will put up good numbers during weeks where Reed isn't on the field.

 

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