The final of the four major position groups in fantasy football is tight end, which of late has been Rob Gronkowski and then everyone else. Yet, only one person in your league will be able to get their hands on the Gronk, and it will likely cost a first rounder. For the larger demographic of those who would rather have a running back or wide receiver with their first pick, find your guy and stick with him. From well-known producers like Greg Olsen to possible fantasy studs like Coby Fleener, getting consistent points from a volatile position is key to taking home your league’s title.
Statistics and rankings courtesy of espn.com, strength of schedules courtesy of fftoolbox.com
The Top Tier
For no other position in the NFL, real or in fantasy, does one player stand so far above the rest that he is the only one in the top tier.
Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots, Bye Week 9)
The Gronk is without a doubt the most dominant tight end in the NFL today. The party-loving former Arizona Wildcat may not care for blocking, but is almost unstoppable in the passing game. Gronkowski has scored double digit touchdowns in every season but an injury-riddled 2013 campaign, and has gained over 1,100 receiving yards in the each of the last two years. These impressive statistics led to Gronkowski averaging 11 points per game in fantasy, significantly ahead of Jordan Reed and Gary Barnidge (9.4 and 9.3 respectively). For people considering drafting Gronk, keep tabs on how he performs in the preseason to ensure that he remains the same player even with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Nonetheless, Gronkowski is head-and-shoulders above the next best tight end, and is deserving of a late first round pick.
The Top Tier (If Gronk wasn’t around)
If you aren’t willing to shell out for Gronkowski, there are other strong tight end options.
Jordan Reed (Washington Redskins, Bye Week 9)
Almost exclusively considered a fantasy afterthought, Reed’s explosion into the top tier of tight ends was one of the biggest storylines in the NFL last year. Prior to 2015, Reed had never eclipsed 500 yards receiving in a season and failed to score a single touchdown in his sophomore season. Then, when Kirk Cousins took over the reigns, Reed finally capitalized on his tantalizing capabilities, posting 952 yards and eleven scores in just fourteen games. If Reed can stay on the field, which has been his biggest weakness as a player, he will be one of the top tight ends.
Greg Olsen (Carolina Panthers, Bye Week 7)
One of the most consistent players in fantasy, Olsen has been a top-ten tight end and has played sixteen games every year since 2011. He seems to be getting better with age, as he posted back to back 1,000 yard seasons the last two years. Somehow the arrow is still pointing up for the 31-year-old Olsen. His Panthers face the fourth-easiest schedule for tight ends, he doesn’t have much competition for catches, and his quarterback is the best in the game. If you want a safe bet at a relatively volatile position, look no further.
Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs, Bye Week 5)
Entering his fourth season in the NFL, Kelce has been a dependable producer with the potential for more this season. Kelce will see the easiest schedule for all tight ends in this upcoming season, making him a strong upside play. Despite complaints from fantasy owners about lack of usage, Kelce was on the field for 92 percent of the Chiefs’ offensive plays. However, the Chiefs have always been a ground and pound offense, and with Jamaal Charles back, he may not see the red zone opportunities that other tight ends might have.
Delanie Walker (Tennessee Titans, Bye Week 13)
Walker quickly became the favorite target of rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota last year, leading the league in targets and receptions out of all tight ends. The bruising tight end eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career and hit paydirt six times in a Titans offense where he was the only downfield threat. Though Kendall Wright is returning from injury, the Titans peculiar trade of Dorial Green-Beckham should keep Walker in the position of Mariota’s primary receiver in the red zone.
Coby Fleener (New Orleans Saints, Bye Week 5)
Though he doesn’t have the track record of success like the others in this category, Fleener may have the most upside for this season. Stuck in a tight end committee with Dwayne Allen in Indianapolis, the usually disappointing Fleener will be the sole tight end in one of the most high-flying offenses in the league. Jimmy Graham was dominant with Drew Brees, and the aging Benjamin Watson was the 8th best tight end in fantasy last year in his only season in the Big Easy. The Saints will face the third-easiest schedule for tight ends this season, making Fleener a serious breakout candidate.
If you are one to wait until later rounds to grab your starting tight end, there are some overlooked players who provide good value.
Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati Bengals, Bye Week 9)
Last year’s sixth-best tight end, Eifert could miss some games due to offseason ankle surgery. Injuries have been an issue for the former first round pick, and are something to consider when drafting him. Eifert did the majority of his damage in the red zone, as he scored a touchdown for every four catches (13 touchdowns off of 52 receptions). However, touchdowns are fluky, and Eifert’s paltry 615 receiving yards last year was his career best. With Andy Dalton back from injury, there will be opportunity for Eifert to succeed, but proceed with caution.
Gary Barnidge (Cleveland Browns, Bye Week 13)
An unknown reserve tight end before last year, the 30-year-old Barnidge was the lone bright spot of the Cleveland offense. He lead the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns with 1,043 yards and nine scores despite having just 603 yards and three touchdowns in his six year career before 2015. With Josh Gordon reinstated and first round pick Corey Coleman joining the team, targets will decrease for Barnidge. Factor in the second hardest schedule for tight ends, and Barnidge is a volatile player.
Zach Ertz (Philadelphia Eagles, Bye Week 4)
Though he has never put up any spectacular numbers in his short career, Ertz has been a top 20 tight end in each of his three seasons. Touchdowns have been a concern, as he has only struck paydirt nine times in his career. If Ertz can find the end zone more often, he could vault into the top tier of tight ends. He posted 853 yards last year and caught 75 passes. Ertz has established himself as an integral part of the Eagles offense, and there isn’t much competition for catches in Philadelphia. He is a much safer bet than Eifert and Barnidge.
Antonio Gates (San Diego Chargers, Bye Week 11)
One of the all time greats at the position is finally starting to show his age. The future Hall-of-Famer started in just four of the eleven games he played last season, dealing with injuries and the presence of Ladarius Green. However, Gates still finished as the eleventh-best tight end in fantasy, and was the second best player at his position in the season prior. There is potential for Gates to reclaim some of his old magic with an easy schedule, but don’t depend on the 36 year old as your full time starter.
Also worth mentioning: Julius Thomas, Jacksonville; Ladarius Green, Pittsburgh.
Veterans to Watch
As young players get hyped up in fantasy circles, it leads to veterans flying under the radar. Look for some familiar faces to see more opportunities this season.
Zach Miller (Chicago Bears, Bye Week 9)
After going three years without seeing the field on offense, the 31-year-old Miller is the clear cut #1 TE for the first time in his career. Chicago has relied heavily on the tight end in the past, meaning Miller will have many chances to succeed. However, with physical wideouts Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White and pounding rusher Jeremy Langford, Miller may not see a normal share of red zone chances. His 12th overall ranking is a bit high for a relatively unknown quantity.
Martellus Bennett (New England Patriots, Bye Week 9)
The former-Pro Bowler is a sleeper candidate after moving from, as his brother eloquently put it “the worst quarterback in the league,” to the “Golden Boy” Tom Brady. While Rob Gronkowski is a force to be reckoned with, the Patriots were most successful on offense when they ran a two-tight end set when Aaron Hernandez was still playing. Bennett should see plenty of opportunities, as he is simply too good of a player to not involve in the offense.
Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys, Bye Week 7)
Probably the most overlooked tight end in fantasy, the Canton-bound Witten is a great option as a backup tight end. He has consistently produced throughout his thirteen-year career, playing in all sixteen games with the exception of his rookie season, where he “only” played fifteen. Last year, as the twelfth-best tight end in fantasy, Witten had 77 receptions but only three scores. Look for him to rebound in 2016, and for him to outplay his sixteenth ranking.
Jared Cook (Green Bay Packers, Bye Week 4)
Always an enigmatic player in St. Louis, Cook joined the Packers in free agency to give Aaron Rodgers another downfield weapon. The 29-year-old Cook has been a staple of “Fantasy Sleepers” articles for most of his career as a result of his rare size and speed combination. However, capitalizing on his physical gifts never seemed to happen for more than a game or two at a time. But with Rodgers throwing the ball instead of Sam Bradford/AJ Feeley/Kellen Clemens/Austin Davis/Nick Foles/Case Keenum, maybe this will be Cook’s year.
Also worth mentioning: Jimmy Graham, Seattle; Benjamin Watson, Baltimore.
Younger Players to Watch
Despite not receiving the same media attention as Travis Kelce or Coby Fleener, there are a number of developing tight ends that can be had late in the draft or in free agency.
Eric Ebron (Detroit Lions, Bye Week 10)
Since Ebron was selected tenth overall in the 2014 draft, his career has been disappointing. At 6’4” and 250 pounds, Ebron is a matchup nightmare for most linebackers or defensive backs. However, he has totaled just 785 yards and six touchdowns over his two-season career. While Ebron may never deliver on his first-round promise, he was the 13th best tight end in fantasy, and despite being just 23 years old, he is ranked 15th in fantasy. The UNC product is a value pick with upside in fantasy.
Clive Walford (Oakland Raiders, Bye Week 10)
The relatively-unknown second year tight end is one of the best sleeper candidates this season. Walford is taking over for the underwhelming Mychal Rivera in one of the most promising offenses in the league. If Derek Carr continues to improve, the athletic Walford will own the middle of the field. However, Walford did undergo knee surgery in March after an ATV accident, but it shouldn’t affect his time or his play.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bye Week 6)
Another Class of 2014 tight end who has failed to deliver on his promise, Seferian-Jenkins may get his due in his third season. After gaining 110 receiving yards and reaching the end zone twice in the season opener last season, Seferian-Jenkins played only six games the rest of the year, and posted a measly 228 yards and two scores over that span. With a full offseason to build a rapport with Jameis Winston and the second-easiest schedule for tight ends in the upcoming season, Seferian-Jenkins should easily outperform his 23rd overall ranking if he can stay healthy.
Also worth mentioning: Vance McDonald, San Francisco; Jace Amaro, New York Jets; Richard Rodgers, Green Bay.
Though there weren’t any tight ends drafted in the first round this season, there are still a few who could make an impact in fantasy.
Hunter Henry (San Diego Chargers, Bye Week 11)
The consensus top tight end in this year’s draft class, Henry is the heir apparent to all-time legend Antonio Gates. At age 35, Gates suffered through an injury-riddled season last year where he started in just four games, leading many to believe this could be his last season. If Gates goes down again, Henry will step into an air-it-out offense that utilizes the tight end frequently. San Diego faces a very favorable schedule for tight ends, so if you plan on drafting Gates, keep an eye on Henry.
Austin Hooper (Atlanta Falcons, Bye Week 11)
While Jacob Tamme is officially listed as the starter in Atlanta, he has never proven himself to be more than a serviceable tight end. Enter Austin Hooper, the Falcons’ third rounder out of Stanford. With Tamme entering his ninth season, the Falcons will like to utilize their new weapon as much as possible. Facing a favorable schedule and with a quarterback who routinely throws for over 4,000 yards, Hooper could be a sleeper in deep leagues.
Tyler Higbee (Los Angeles Rams, Bye Week 8)
Another rookie tight end listed as a backup but with the potential to supplant the starter immediately. With Jared Cook leaving for Green Bay, Lance Kendricks will take over the starting job, but has shown little promise over his five year career. Fourth rounder Higbee might not be anything special either, but with a rookie quarterback in town, the tight ends in LA will be seeing more opportunities.