Fantasy Football 2016: Tight End Tiers and Rankings
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before — Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in football? Yawn, I know.
Well, once again this year “Gronk” finds himself in a tier all by his lonesome when it comes to the fantasy side of the game. But the gap is closing as the position now boasts stronger depth than ever before.
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But durability remains a concern with the tight end position as three of the first four in my rankings have missed games with injuries three years in a row.
Does this mean you should draft a backup tight end? Not necessarily, but it might mean that waiting on a tight end until later in the draft might be a good strategy as there are plenty of excellent breakout candidates in Ladarius Green, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.
Plus, remember last year when you drafted Gary Barnidge and that paid off big time? Oh wait, no one drafted Barnidge last year and he finished as the No. 4 fantasy TE last year in PPR leagues.
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Of course Gronk will be the first tight end chosen in every redraft league once again this year, most likely in the first round and with good reason. He’s put up the best per-game numbers at his position in four of the past five years. Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 5.1 receptions for 76.7 yards per game with 23 touchdowns during that span (30 games). Expect more of the same this year, even with Jimmy Garoppolo starting the first four games due to Tom Brady’s suspension as well as the Patriots moving back to a two-tight end system following the acquisition of Martellus Bennett.
2. Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
If durability wasn’t a concern when talking about Reed a very good argument could be made that he is a better value where he is drafted than Rob Gronkowski (considering Gronk is usually a first-round pick). Reed has emerged as Kirk Cousins’ favorite target and opposing defenses can’t seem to get a handle on him. He averaged 71 yards per game last year, with 12 touchdowns in 14 games, including the playoffs. Plus, he’s caught 77 percent of the passes thrown his way over the last two seasons, best among tight ends.
3. Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
Did you know that 25 percent of the Panthers’ offense runs through Olsen? (Credit to iSports.com for that stat.) Even with Kelvin Benjamin returning after missing all of last year with a torn ACL, Olsen will remain Cam Newton’s favorite target. Olsen has led the Panthers in both receptions and yards in each of the past three seasons. He might not have as much upside as some of his peers, but you won’t find a more consistent option on a week-to-week basis, something that is very important when drafting a fantasy tight end.
4. Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans
Walker led all tight ends in receptions last year with 94 (ninth in NFL among all players) thanks to rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota constantly looking his way over the middle on intermediate throws. Walker is Mariota’s security blanket and with all the unproven wide receivers on the Titans’ roster, Walker is going to be in for another year of heavy targets. He’s the perfect tight end to snag in the middle rounds in PPR leagues.
5. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
Ertz finished last year sixth at his position in receptions and seventh in receiving yards with a pair of touchdowns. What’s most impressive is that Ertz was on the waiver wire for basically the entire first half of the season until he caught fire in the last four games when he produced more than half of his yards and nearly half of his catches. New Eagles head coach Doug Pederson comes over from Kansas City where he was the offensive coordinator. He’s no stranger when it comes to throwing to the tight end, as Travis Kelce was second on the Chiefs last season in targets, receptions, yards and touchdown catches. Ertz could be quite the steal on draft day.
6. Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
Eifert led all tight ends with 13 touchdowns in 13 games last year and since touchdowns can be so fickle, he is unlikely to repeat that kind of production. He’s also not a freak athlete at the position like Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham in his prime, but Eifert should see an uptick in targets this year considering the turnover at wide receiver behind A.J. Green. However, there’s a strong chance that Eifert may miss the beginning of the season after undergoing ankle surgery in late May.
7. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
As long as Kelce plays on an Andy Reid-coached team, he is always going to entice us with his talent, but disappoint us with his numbers. That’s not to say that Kelce doesn’t produce good fantasy numbers, it’s just that his owners always hope for more. Two years in a row now he’s finished with close to 70 catches, 870 yards and six touchdowns. So if the upside isn’t there for Kelce, at least he’s consistent.
8. Coby Fleener, New Orleans Saints
What Fleener lacks in blocking and route-running, he more than makes up for in speed and athletic ability, which is what the Saints were after when they signed him as a free agent this offseason. Fleener finds himself with the opportunity of a lifetime in an offense which has historically been very good for tight ends. Besides Jimmy Graham before he was traded to Seattle, don’t forget that 35-year-old journeyman Benjamin Watson caught 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns last season. There might not be a bigger breakout candidate at the position than Fleener.
9. Gary Barnidge, Cleveland Browns
Barnidge sure looked good last year, with 79 catches for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. But Cleveland (again) has a new coaching staff, new offense and a bunch of new teammates, so banking on him repeating last year’s numbers might be foolish. But last year no one thought Barnidge would do anything and he ended up as fantasy’s No. 4 tight end, so he will be featured in the Browns’ offense, but how much is anyone’s guess at this point.
10. Julius Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars
It’s true that Thomas is injury-prone but once he got healthy he was the ninth-best fantasy tight end from Week 6 on last season. Throw in the fact that the Jaguars now have a prolific passing attack and Thomas just might be the unstoppable red zone threat that made him so special back in his days in Denver.
11. Ladarius Green, Pittsburgh Steelers
Green joined the Steelers this past offseason after teasing fantasy owners over the last two years with his vast potential. It was just too bad he was stuck behind some future Hall of Famer named Antonio Gates in San Diego. Now Green steps into the role that Heath Miller excelled at for many years – catching intermediate passes from Ben Roethlisberger. Green is a near lock to finish the year as a TE1 and he has the potential to crack the top five.
12. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers
Gate’s 2015 numbers (56 receptions, 630 yards, 5 TDs) are impressive, especially considering he missed a total of five games (four games due to suspension, one with a knee injury). But Gates is now 36 years old and has a lot of miles on those tires. He slowed down steadily as last season progressed, topping 80 yards receiving in a game just once after Thanksgiving. This might be the year that Gates finally falls out of the TE1 class.
13. Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
Allen is the only tight end left standing in Indy after the Colts let Coby Fleener leave for the Saints in free agency. This should mean plenty more targets for Allen since he and Fleener had to share them over the past four years. Having a healthy Andrew Luck back under center makes Allen an intriguing option come the middle to later rounds of your draft.
14. Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
There’s no doubt that someone in your league will draft Graham thinking that he is still an elite tight end, but that ship has sailed. Even when Graham was healthy last year he was an afterthought in Seattle’s offense used more as a blocker than a pass catcher. Don’t expect much to change this year, especially considering how difficult it is to return from the injury Graham suffered last year, a torn patella tendon.
15. Zach Miller, Chicago Bears
Miller, a six-year backup, didn’t get much of a chance until midseason, but he made an immediate impact. He caught 74 percent of the balls thrown his way and don’t forget those balls are coming from Jay Cutler, so that’s pretty impressive. Now Miller is the No. 1 tight end in Chicago and a major breakout candidate for 2016.
16. Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions
Ebron, who was drafted 10th overall back in 2014, made noticeable strides in his second season, becoming a larger part of the Lions’ offense. He’s always had the talent to be a TE1 and now with Calvin Johnson gone, he has the opportunity. Someone has to become a major target in the red zone for the Lions’ and Ebron fits that role perfectly. Ebron apparently avoided a serious injury early in training camp when what was initially feared to be an Achilles situation turned out to be a high-ankle sprain. Keep an eye on his progress the rest of the way, but there are reasons to be bullish on Ebron this season.
17. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
There’s no doubt that Witten is a Hall of Famer, but there’s also no denying that his best days are behind him, even with Tony Romo returning. The Cowboys are built to run the ball and they drafted Ezekiel Elliot fourth overall to make that happen. Witten is no longer someone you can rely on to be your weekly starter for your fantasy team.
18. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Seferian-Jenkins lost more than half of last season to a right shoulder injury, and he never looked right after his return. Now heading into his third season, he’s a big, physical tight end who fits the new catch-first mold at the position, and has a significant role in an offense captained by a quarterback (Jameis Winston) on the rise. He has excellent sleeper potential.
19. Clive Walford, Oakland Raiders
Walford started slow last year, but slowly and surely, he wrestled the primary pass-catching role away from Mychal Rivera. With QB Derek Carr improving, the Raiders’ passing offense should take another step this season and Walford could fly under defenses’ radars all season, giving him the potential to be a borderline TE1.
20. Charles Clay, Buffalo Bills
It happens every year, some tight end who doesn’t get drafted jumps into the TE1 class by the end of the season. This year Clay could be that guy. Tyrod Taylor looks as if he could be a dynamic QB and the Bills will look to make better use of Clay’s skill set this year, and they might have to if Sammy Watkins keeps getting injured.
21. Martellus Bennet, New England Patriots
Bennett was a major bust with the Bears last year after a fantastic 2014. Now he finds himself in New England where he will see plenty of snaps in two-tight end formations. The Patriots have produced two fantasy-worthy tight ends before, but will Bennett see enough volume to make him a weekly starting option?
22. Jordan Cameron, Miami Dolphins
New Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has always featured a tight end in his system. Just look at what he did for Julius Thomas in Denver and Martellus Bennett in Chicago. Cameron was a huge disappointment last year, but he could be a major surprise in 2016.
23. Will Tye, New York Giants
Tye didn’t get meaningful playing time until early November, but he made the most of it, catching 42 balls for 464 yards and three touchdowns from Week 9 on. If he manages to start ahead of Larry Donnell this year, he could reach 70 catches for more than 700 yards, making him a TE1 candidate.
24. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
Considering that he stayed healthy for a full season for the first time 2012, Rudolph’s fantasy production last year was mighty disappointing. The Vikings will remain a run-first team with Adrian Peterson and added another pass-catching option in first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, so it’s unlikely Rudolph’s production is going to increase this season.
25. Jacob Tamme, Atlanta Falcons
Tamme could be a major sleeper if Matt Ryan can bounce back after a disappointing 2015 campaign. In his three season with at least 80 targets, Tamme has averaged 59.3 catches and 614.3 yards, not too shabby. Even with rookie Austin Hooper on board, Tamme could surprise many this year.
26. Jared Cook, Green Bay Packers
Cook is entering his eighth season in the NFL and he has been disappointing fantasy owners for just as long. But this time he has a chance to make things right in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball. The Packers really haven’t featured a tight end since the Jermichael Finley days, so maybe Cook is just what the Packers needed.
27. Benjamin Watson, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens sure paid a pretty penny this offseason for Watson’s services, especially at his age. But he has to fight off Maxx Williams, Crockett Gilmore and Dennis Pitta for playing time. You’re better of letting the dust settle before trying to go after a Ravens tight end.
28. Vance McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
Remember what Zach Ertz was finally able to do over the last month of last season in Chip Kelly’s offense? If McDonald can do even half of that, he’s going to be a waiver wire steal or a legitimate bye-week fill-in at minimum.
29. Jace Amaro, New York Jets
Amaro missed all of last season because of a torn left labrum. He is projected to start as the No. 1 tight end for an offense that got next to nothing from the position last season. Having Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker to draw most of the defense’s attention doesn’t hurt either.
30. Richard Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Somehow Rodgers managed to score eight touchdowns last year and still have a terrible fantasy season. Only three times since 2000 has a tight end scored that many touchdowns and finished ninth or worse at the position in points. To make Rodgers’ outlook even bleaker, the Packers added Jared Cook this offseason, seemingly bumping Rodgers to the backup tight end role.
31. Lance Kendricks, Los Angeles Rams
Kendricks is a spot starter on your fantasy team on a bye week and only in deeper leagues. The Rams will be breaking in a rookie quarterback this year, plus they never feature a tight end in their system and don’t forget they have this running back named Todd Gurley who is going to get the ball a lot.
32. Ryan Griffin, Houston Texans
Remember when Owen Daniels was a great fantasy tight end for the Texans? Well, those days are long gone but Houston still needs to line up someone at the position. Whether it’s Griffin or backup C.J. Fiedorowicz, you don’t want to have to rely on a Texans tight end to help your fantasy team.
33. Hunter Henry, San Diego Chargers
Henry would be a great pick – if you’re in a dynasty league. There’s no doubt that he is the Chargers’ tight end of the future, but it appears that Antonio Gates has at least one more season left in him.