Tight ends. Love them or hate them, we’re stuck with them. For the few radical leagues that have done away with them, good for you; I’m not sure that’s my cup of tea…yet. (sorry Jeremy Markus: It’s time to get rid of tight ends (in fantasy football)) For now, they are here to stay. TEs are gaining a larger role in NFL offenses and serve a very important role in modern football. At one end of the spectrum would be the Philadelphia Eagles: targeting their top two TEs—Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert—210 times in 2018, out of a total of 599 passing attempts—good for 34% of all targets. That’s the most targets for the tight end position since 2015 when the Titans targeted Delanie Walker & Anthony Fasano 36% of the time.
In fantasy, the tight end position falls off faster than any other position after the top 4-5 “stud” assets. If you want to build around one of these stud tight ends, make sure you’re okay spending a late second or early third-round dynasty startup pick to get those guys. That’s a hefty investment, but is it worth it?
We commonly see the term “positional scarcity” thrown around in reference to tight ends simply because it’s such a top-heavy position and it’s pretty much a crapshoot trying to predict how TEs outside the top 5 will finish in the rankings. That second tier of up-and-comers—Njoku, Henry, Hooper, Howard—still carries a lot of risk due to a lack of development, injuries, or other outside factors.
The position often takes longer to learn in the pros, sometimes even a 3- or 4-year learning curve; the biggest outlier being Evan Engram’s 64/722/6 rookie year in 2017. According to PFF, the top-12 tight ends’ average age is 27.7 years—that’s a full year than the top-12 wide receivers and two years later than the top-12 running backs respectively.
Arguably the most frustrating position on your roster, there are many philosophies I’ve seen when it comes to evaluating the TE position for dynasty:
- “I’ll never invest a 1st round rookie pick in a tight end; they take too long to develop.”
- “I’ll always overpay if it means owning a top 3 TE (Kelce, Ertz, Kittle, etc).”
- “I’m sure I’ll find someone on the waivers who will get a shot due to injuries.”
- “I’m going to roster 5 mid-tier TE’s and hope one breaks out.”
- “I’ll invest in them in their sophomore or junior campaigns when they haven’t proven anything and are considered a buy-low candidate.”
- “I simply cannot evaluate the TE position coming out of school. It’s too hard.”
With that said, I decided to go to the Twittersphere to get a quick snapshot of current rookie tight end sentiment. I honestly thought the results would have been closer to 70% of participants NOT wanting to spend early draft capital on tight ends. I was happily surprised to see a more even split.
We also know that the position is becoming more and more top-heavy, with folks cashing in if they invest in the top 3 or 4 guys each season. But what about the guys who round out the top 12 to be considered a “TE1.” Well, those players are slowly becoming less and less valuable.
- 2018 TE12: 103.8 pts = 6.48 ppg
- 2017 TE12: 105.9 pts = 6.61 ppg
- 2016 TE12: 117.8 pts = 7.36 ppg
- 2015 TE12: 121.0 pts = 7.56 ppg
- 2014 TE12: 127.1 pts = 7.93 ppg
Regardless of your TE philosophy, the offseason may be the best time to get your guys at a reasonable price and take a risk on TEs in high-octane offenses. Here are 3 guys I’m willing to bet on making the leap towards the top 5 at the position. I’m not going out on a limb to say they’ll finish top 5, but they’re heading in the right direction.
Probably most known for throwing CB Chris Conte six feet under during a 75-yard touchdown, Vance finally has the opportunity to shine at the prime age of 28. In 2018, McDonald set career highs in receptions—50—and yards—610—an offense with tons of mouths to feed. That stat line—including 4 TDs—was actually good enough to be TE10 in 0.5 PPR leagues. Pittsburgh has moved on from Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Jesse James—meaning there are 207 targets up for grabs in that offense. Chasing targets should never be a reason to invest in a player, but Vance can make the jump towards top-tier status consideration now that there’s a clear path to become Pittsburgh’s 2nd-most-targeted pass catcher.
Projected 2019 Stat Line: 95 targets. 75 receptions. 820 yards. 7 TDs = 161.5 pts (0.5 PPR) which would have been good enough for TE6 in 2018.
A fourth-round draft pick out of Indiana University, Thomas was most likely selected in the 4th or 5th rounds of rookie drafts in 2018—going under the radar compared to his draft class peers in Mike Gesicki, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, & Dallas Goedert.
Thomas was forced into the spotlight when Greg Olsen suffered his second season-ending foot injury in as many seasons, and he didn’t disappoint. Thomas caught 36 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns, with 25 receptions and both touchdowns coming in between Week 13 and 17—good enough to make Thomas the PPR TE6 during that span. He will be splitting time with Olsen to begin 2019, but I don’t expect Olsen to be on the roster in 2020—leaving Thomas to become the new security blanket for Cam Newton.
Projected 2019 Stat Line: 55 targets. 48 receptions. 520 yards. 5 TDs = 106 pts (0.5 PPR) which would have been good enough for TE11 in 2018.
Knox is definitely the biggest project of these three tight ends. Coming out of Ole Miss, Knox was quietly taken with the 96th pick in the third round by Buffalo. At the collegiate level, Knox surprisingly didn’t find the endzone at all—never scoring a single collegiate touchdown in 18 games—but found a way to stretch the field with 18.9 yards per catch in his senior year. Given Ole Miss’s lackluster QB, simplistic passing scheme, and producing three NFL-caliber pass catchers this year alone, Knox put up very solid numbers for his role.
What we do know is that Knox is dangerous when mining the middle of the field due to his NFL-ready frame, but he doesn’t have the short-area burst to maximize his impact underneath like traditional tight ends. Often, you’ll watch game tape of Knox and will be blinded by a sluggish route. Over the middle, Knox will be a YAC machine and reminds me a lot of Vance with his ability to make tacklers miss thanks to a strong center of gravity and the ability to use his hands to fend off defenders.
2019 Dynasty PPR TE Rankings
The biggest question mark around Knox will be his role in the Buffalo offense. With a pretty undefined pecking order amongst the WR corps, it’s hard to predict targets will go with Josh Allen at the helm. His two TEs in Charles Clay and Jason Croom were the fifth- and sixth-most targeted in the offense, showing an affinity to use the check-down when necessary. Now, Clay is gone and Croom has been pushed to the back of the depth chart—in part due to Buffalo bringing in veteran Tyler Kroft during free agency. Kroft also has his issues, never eclipsing the 450-yard mark in a single season, and battling injuries that have led to starting the 2019 season on PUP.
As a general rule, teams don’t invest a first, second or third-round pick without the expectations of providing an immediate impact and eventually becoming a starting-caliber player; and that window is open for Knox to make a name for himself, as he’s going to be given every opportunity to be the Bills’ starting tight end.
Projected 2019 Stat Line: 28 targets. 22 receptions. 220 yards. 2 TDs
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