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Make the Case: When It Comes to Fantasy Tight Ends, Go Big or Go Bargain Hunting

And cut out the overpriced middle class. Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz can give you an edge, but after that it’s time to exercise patience and wait for some deep sleepers.

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It’s early August, which means it’s time once again to argue about fantasy football. Who should you take with the no. 1 pick? Which offenses and players will surprise you? Which draft picks will completely tear your office apart? Welcome to “Make the Case,” a series in which Ringer staffers will answer the most pressing fantasy questions heading into the 2019 season. We’ll help you game your way to a championship—or at least avoid drafting like Dave Gettleman.

The NFL is in the middle of a passing boom that’s reshaped the fantasy football landscape. As offenses around the league spread the field and throw the football more and more, pass-catching running backs and less-heralded receivers—even teams’ third or fourth options—are rising in fantasy relevance. In many ways, we’re living in a fantasy-football dream; scoring is up, passing has exploded, and the sheer number of fantasy-relevant players is at an all-time high.

That embarrassment of riches isn’t spread evenly across every fantasy position, though. Apart from a handful of elite producers, the tight ends group is increasingly becoming a wasteland. Tight end usage and production has gradually declined during the past decade, and as Sharp Football Stats’ Rich Hribar points out, that trend has accelerated in the past three years. In that time span, overall tight end targets have dropped by 94, 175, and 156 from each season prior. Even with Eric Ebron’s (preposterously unrepeatable) 13-touchdown eruption from last year, tight ends produced their all-time low in collective touchdown share in 2018. The tight end group has long been the shallowest and lowest-scoring fantasy position, and with the production at the position declining even as overall passing offenses flourish, the gulf between TEs and other skill positions has grown. The dearth of consistent, high-volume players makes the question of how to draft at that position an important one.

I approach the first four or five rounds of my fantasy drafts with the goal of minimizing opportunity cost—if you take too many big swings at unknowns, you risk building the foundation of your fantasy squad on quicksand. That’s why my strategy this year at tight end has almost always been to skip the middle tiers at the position altogether; I’m either grabbing one of the can’t-miss guys early, or waiting until late in the draft to make my move.

The three tight ends who give fantasy drafters a high enough floor/ceiling combination that makes them worth an early-round pick in standard scoring leagues are the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (current consensus ADP of 15th overall in PPR leagues), the Eagles’ Zach Ertz (25th), and the 49ers’ George Kittle (29th). Kelce is fresh off a 150-target campaign in which he caught 103 balls for 1,336 yards and 10 touchdowns en route to an overall TE1 finish in all formats. Kelce remains perhaps the safest fantasy tight end in the game: He’s still catching passes from Patrick Mahomes, the most dynamic quarterback in the NFL, he’s a central focus in the most explosive and highest-scoring offense in the league, and he’s been incredibly durable, playing in all but one game during the past five seasons. Using a second-round pick on Kelce gives you all the consistency and upside you’re looking for at that spot.

If there’s a tight end who’s ready to make a run at Kelce’s throne as the TE1 in 2019, though, it’s Kittle. The 49ers star finished last year as the TE2 in standard formats and the TE3 in PPR, and racked up 136 targets, 88 catches, a position-record 1,377 yards, and five touchdowns while rumbling and tumbling for a league-high 873 yards after the catch. Crucially, Kittle heads into this season as a positive regression candidate in the touchdown column, and that doesn’t even factor in the change from C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens to a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Kittle remains the focal point and de facto no. 1 target in what should be a greatly improved (and higher-volume) San Francisco offense. I’m buying that stock.

As for Ertz, an encore performance of his position-record 116-catch season in 2018 seems unlikely with the Eagles’ injection of offensive weaponry. But the 28-year-old playmaker still boasts a high floor and should provide fantasy managers with week-to-week scoring consistency as one of Carson Wentz’s favorite targets underneath. That’s a hell of a lot more to offer than almost every other tight end outside the top three.

Past that trio, my confidence gets a whole lot shakier. The Buccaneers’ O.J. Howard (consensus ADP of 61th in PPR), the Giants’ Evan Engram (59th), and the Chargers’ Hunter Henry (65th) are all hot names as potential breakout stars this season, but they’re all priced on the high side and come with plenty of risk. We haven’t seen Henry make a catch since Week 15 of the 2017 season; he finished that year as the TE14 in PPR with a modest 62-target, 45-catch, 579-yard, four-touchdown line before missing almost all of 2018 with an ACL tear. Engram missed five games in 2018, too, and while he’s likely to be a focal point of the Giants’ passing game this year, his upside is capped by what I expect to be an anemic air attack led by Eli Manning and/or Daniel Jones.

Meanwhile, while Howard is an ascending talent, quarterback Jameis Winston hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency, and there are plenty of questions about how much volume the athletic tight end will get this year playing in a Bruce Arians scheme behind target-hog receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Arians’s offenses haven’t historically featured the position heavily, and as Pro Football Focus notes, “across Arians’ five-year tenure in Arizona, his top tight end averaged only 50 targets, 32 receptions, and 348 yards per season and were often fourth or fifth on the offense in targets.” Put it all together, and the point is this: The opportunity cost of investing in Howard, Henry, or Engram will be significant, and there’s little guarantee that they return value reflective of that investment. Players in and around their fourth-to-fifth round ADP in PPR include Calvin Ridley, Chris Carson, D.J. Moore, Tyler Boyd, Alshon Jeffery, Robby Anderson, Will Fuller, and Dante Pettis, all of whom offer more relative value considering managers have to fill just one starting tight end spot but multiple slots at running back and receiver.

Things don’t get a whole lot sunnier as the draft goes on. None of Eric Ebron, David Njoku, Austin Hooper, Trey Burton, or Delanie Walker excite me much, and I have been fading that group in drafts all summer. While each could sneak into the back half of this year’s TE1 group (i.e., the top-12 tight ends in scoring), recent history tells us that distinction just isn’t that valuable. As Hribar notes, last season, “TE6 through TE15 had lowest scoring output at each spot since 2008.” With such underwhelming numbers outside the top tier of tight ends, my plan this year is to attack the position much later in the draft while filling other more crucial roster spots in the mid rounds. There’s a cluster of tight ends in the 12th- to 13th-round range with the potential to far outplay their ADP, providing you significant value while filling that starting tight end spot on your roster on the cheap.

My most frequently targeted late-round tight end is Ravens’ sophomore pass catcher Mark Andrews, who’s currently listed as the TE17 with an ADP of 158 in PPR leagues. Andrews had strong numbers as a rookie and finished with 34 catches for 552 yards (the 22nd most by a rookie tight end in NFL history) and three touchdowns while posting elite efficiency numbers for the position. Andrews tied for fourth behind Kittle, Kelce, and Howard last year in yards per route run (2.01), per Pro Football Focus—a number that jumped to an NFL-best 3.24 yards per route run from Week 11 on after Jackson took the helm at QB. The smooth-running tight end finished first at his position in passer rating when targeted (129.9), second in yards per reception (16.2), second (only to Kelce) in deep yards (199), per PFF, and among tight ends with at least 50 targets, was tops at the position with an average depth of target of 11.1 yards. A breakout season could be coming: The Ravens’ pass-catching corps is super young and unproven, which gives him a direct path to major targets, and there are already reports out of Baltimore’s training camp on the incredible chemistry Andrews has developed with Jackson.

Redskins tight end Jordan Reed headlines a group of injury-discounted late-round fliers. The veteran is currently listed as the TE19 with an average draft position of 150, and while health is always a concern, Reed has been the “MVP to date of [Washington] training camp,” according to The Athletic’s Ben Standig. Colts tight end Jack Doyle (TE22, ADP168 overall) is priced far too low as well. While the “he needs to stay healthy” disclaimer applies here, too, Doyle averaged 10.1 PPR points in the six games he played last year, a per-game clip that would’ve ranked 10th through a full season. Along the same lines, Tyler Eifert (TE25, ADP202) is one of my favorite late-round dart throws who could return to being the red zone savant we saw in 2015 and 2016.

Broncos rookie tight end Noah Fant (TE20, ADP161) has a chance for FLEX appeal in PPR leagues as a focal point in what I expect to be a play-action, bootleg-obsessed offense under new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who spent his last two years coaching quarterbacks in San Francisco (where he witnessed Kittle’s explosion firsthand). Jets tight end Chris Herndon (TE21, ADP176) comes with a pretty big discount thanks to a four-game suspension to begin the year, but is a strong breakout candidate after finishing last season as the TE9 from Week 7 forward (he gained chemistry with rookie quarterback Sam Darnold as the year went on). Gerald Everett was pretty far down the pecking order in the Rams’ offense last year, but there’s buzz the Rams are “intent on getting him more involved” in the passing game. Everett graded out as PFF’s fourth fourth-ranked TE in 2018.

Second-year Texans tight end Jordan Thomas (TE37, ADP294) is another super-deep sleeper, and a former college receiver with size (he’s 6-foot-5, 277 pounds) and silky smooth moves in the open field. After catching 20 passes and four touchdowns as a rookie, Thomas is the projected starter for Houston following Ryan Griffin’s offseason release. And finally, Raiders’ tight end Darren Waller is another college-receiver convert with the chance to post fantasy-relevant numbers in 2019. Waller looks to be in line for the Jared Cook role in Oakland’s offense this year, giving him sneaky upside as a high-end TE1 (Cook finished as the TE5 with a 68-catch, 896-yard, six-touchdown line).

With so many high-upside dart throws available in the late rounds, there’s no reason to panic if you miss out on one of the Big 3 of Kelce, Kittle, and Ertz in the early rounds. In a league with so few high-impact fantasy tight ends, upside picks and weekly streamers look more than capable of keeping your team afloat at the position.