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How to Navigate Fantasy Football’s Tight End Crisis

Injuries have thinned out the tight end position, but that could create opportunities for players like Vance McDonald, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Cameron Brate to step up

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Injuries have left the NFL’s already-thin tight end position in shambles. Seahawks rookie standout Will Dissly is out for the year with a torn patellar tendon. Bengals starter Tyler Eifert will miss the rest of the season with a dislocated ankle. Giants tight end Evan Engram, battling an injured MCL, is expected to miss at least two more weeks, and the same goes for the Buccaneers’ O.J. Howard, who has a sprained MCL. Panthers star Greg Olsen is likely to be out a few more weeks with a fractured foot, and reliable Colts pass catcher Jack Doyle, nursing a hip injury, has yet to return to practice. Oh, and don’t forget about Rob Gronkowski, who suffered an ankle injury in the Patriots’ win against the Dolphins and is questionable heading into Thursday Night Football.

The rash of injuries has left teams―and fantasy managers―scrambling to fill the gaps. The replacement options aren’t exactly scintillating, but with so many tight ends set to miss time, a few under-the-radar players could step into the fantasy spotlight. Here are a few widely available tight ends that could be worth plugging into your starting lineup during the next few weeks.

Vance McDonald, Steelers (rostered in 67 percent of Yahoo leagues, 51.4 percent ESPN)

The Steelers’ tight ends group is just about as ambiguous as the Bengals’, but while Jesse James still owns a spot in the team’s offense, McDonald has separated himself as the more dynamic of the two―and after missing Week 1, McDonald has seen his role increase in each of the past three games. In the Steelers’ loss to the Ravens on Sunday night, he out-snapped James 39-to-27, ran 32 routes to James’s 11, and saw five targets to James’s one, catching all five for 62 yards. That was a solid follow-up to his four catches, 112 yards, and one touchdown the week before.

McDonald’s penchant for trucking through defenders might be part of his increased role. We all remember the stiff arm he delivered to Buccaneers safety Chris Conte in Week 3 …

But he proved that wasn’t a one-off play against the Ravens, beasting through Baltimore defenders on a number of his catches.

McDonald has seen five targets in each of his three games this year, and has collected 12 catches for 200 yards. His average depth of target is 4.9 yards, per PFF (which pales compared to James’s 12-yard aDOT), but McDonald is so strong after the catch that Ben Roethlisberger has begun to lean on the big tight end as an easy dump-off option. The Steelers haven’t looked to their tight ends much in the red zone this year―McDonald is the only player at his position thus far with a target―but between the 20s, the former 49er has proved to be a dynamic pass-catching threat.

Ricky Seals-Jones, Cardinals (26 percent Yahoo, 13.9 percent ESPN)

We can probably just throw out the first three weeks of the season when it comes to Seals-Jones’s potential in the Arizona offense. Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen’s box score Sunday against the Seahawks might not turn many heads (15-of-27 for 180 yards and one touchdown), but the former UCLA star threw with accuracy, and on a few dropbacks, showed a brand of aggressiveness we hadn’t seen in that offense under Sam Bradford. Importantly, at least for your fantasy squad, he looked for his speedy tight end down the field on a number of occasions.

Plugging Seals-Jones into your lineup is a leap of faith—he caught just two of four targets for 52 yards in the loss—but the Cardinals tight end has an intriguing combination of size (6-foot-5, 243 pounds) and speed (he ran a 4.69-second 40-yard dash at the combine), and Rosen’s apparent trust in him was promising. I believe Rosen changes the dynamic of that offense, particularly in their ability to attack defenses downfield, and Seals-Jones could be a primary beneficiary. He split snaps with Jermaine Gresham last week (narrowly out-snapping the veteran 39 to 33), but ran routes on 24 of Rosen’s 28 dropbacks.

Cameron Brate, Buccaneers (29 percent Yahoo, 14.2 percent ESPN)

Jameis Winston’s return to the starting lineup alone might’ve been enough to push Brate up into FLEX contention thanks to the former Harvard star’s strong red zone connection with Winston. During the past two seasons, Brate’s up there with some of the superstars in the league in red zone touchdowns (13), behind only Davante Adams (16), Jordy Nelson (16), and Jimmy Graham (14) in that stretch. With Howard now out for up to a month, too, Brate could see a major uptick in targets and red zone opportunities in the Buccaneers’ high-flying scheme.

During the first three weeks of the season, Brate was on field a lot for Tampa Bay, running 52 routes (second to Howard’s 67), per PFF. But he saw only six targets total in those games as Ryan Fitzpatrick mostly tended to look elsewhere—namely, deep downfield in offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s new Air Raid–style scheme. On Sunday, though, with Howard injured and Winston taking over at the half, Brate ran 26 routes and saw four targets, catching three for 29 yards and a touchdown. The connection with Winston appears intact.

We’ll have to wait until after the team’s bye this weekend to find out how much the Buccaneers offense changes going from Fitzmagic to Winston, but I suspect Winston’s going to continue to lean on his reliable end zone target once the team gets inside the 20-yard line. Brate’s likely going to be a touchdown-dependent fantasy tight end, but he has a track record of red zone success.

C.J. Uzomah, Bengals (17 percent Yahoo, 3.7 percent ESPN)

With Eifert heading to injured reserve, Cincy’s two backup tight ends—Uzomah and Tyler Kroft—should both see major playing time. The big question is, of course, which one of them is going to get more volume. Last year, Kroft was the proverbial “next man up” when Eifert went down due to back surgery after Week 2, collecting 42 passes for 404 yards and seven touchdowns, and finishing as the TE10 with an average of 8.8 fantasy points per game (in PPR formats) from Week 3 on. This year, signs point toward Uzomah inheriting a bigger piece of the fantasy pie.

Uzomah out-snapped Kroft 51 to 20 on Sunday and ran 25 more routes (29 to 4), per Pro Football Focus. And while both players collected just one target each, Uzomah is a bigger factor in the passing game with seven catches on eight targets for 74 yards and a touchdown (Kroft has four catches on five targets for 36 yards). Uzomah lined up in the slot on 40 percent of his snaps this year, per PFF (19 percent for Kroft) and ran 26 routes detached from the formation (just four routes for Kroft). While Kroft’s average depth of target is deeper downfield (7.2 yards) than Uzomah’s (4.2), the latter has done more with his looks and is averaging 6.6 yards after the catch. Quarterback Andy Dalton’s passer rating when targeting Uzomah (144.8) is nearly 90 points more than what it is for Kroft (57.1).

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound pass catcher has shown flashes as a dynamic playmaker, lining up and running routes from multiple spots on the field, whether that’s in-line as a traditional tight end, in the backfield as a de facto fullback …

… or slicing across the formation on play-action.

There’s not much of a sample size for how the Bengals plan to utilize Uzomah now that Eifert is not part of the game plan, but Dalton’s always favored big-bodied pass catchers when throwing to the middle of the field and in the red zone. The fourth-year pro has a chance to step up and inherit a bigger role in the Bengals’ red-hot offense.

Antonio Gates, Chargers (11 percent Yahoo, 16 percent ESPN)

What can I write here that hasn’t already been said about the Philip Rivers–Antonio Gates connection? The chemistry’s still there, and the 38-year-old caught his first touchdown of the year last week against the 49ers (albeit on a broken defensive play).

If you’re looking for potential touchdown upside―and if you’re reading this column, you probably are―Gates is an option based simply on the trust Rivers has for him inside the 20-yard line. He leads Los Angeles’s tight end group in red zone looks (three, including two last week), and has begun to separate himself from Virgil Green as Rivers’s favored target. He’s run 34 routes in the past two games―21 from the slot (compared to just four for Green)―and collected five catches for 72 yards and a score on 10 targets.