Fantasy Football: Old Faces, New Places: Tight Ends
We’ve hit on running backs and wide receivers. Now it’s time for everybody’s favorite position in fantasy football: the tight end. It’s like the catcher position in fantasy baseball. After the first few go off the board on draft day, they are all pretty much the same in terms of production. It’s a position I’ll never spend an early pick on, nor do I reach to grab one. No pun intended.
We’ve seen fantasy owners in the past spend first- and second-round picks on Rob Gronkowski or Jordan Reed only to be disappointed in the long run, dealing with the headache of wondering if they’ll even suit up, or how many snaps they’ll get. Why grab a TE when you can get yourself an RB2 or WR2? There’s no question that having a healthy Gronk all season will separate yourself from the rest of the pack, but you’re taking a huge risk.
There isn’t a lot of fantasy football relevance with the names below, but it’s certainly an interesting group. Jimmy Graham finished as a top-five tight end last season, Trey Burton is getting a lot of buzz in the fantasy community, Eric Ebron finds himself in a situation that fits his skill set, and Ben Watson returns to a team where he was most successful. There are also some rookies in new places at the tight end position this season, and you can find out more about them in the 2018 rookie rankings.
Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers
By the time it’s all said and done, Jimmy Graham will be able to tell his grandkids he caught passes from Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. Not too shabby! Graham is a long way away from his 85-catch, 1,000-yard seasons, but he did manage to find the end zone 10 times in 2017. The problem is, Graham is starting to become your prototypical TE — touchdown dependent. Graham’s 57 catches last season were the third-fewest of his career, his 520 yards the second fewest behind his rookie season, and he had a career low 9.1 yards-per-catch average. The former third-round pick topped 50 yards in only five of his 16 games, he never had more than 72 yards in a game, and he finished the year with the second most dropped passes (7).
Graham’s value lies inside the red zone where he had a league-high 26 targets and 10 touchdowns in 2017. His 16 targets inside the 10 were the most in football, and his eight receptions and eight touchdowns inside the 10 were behind only Jarvis Landry. Part of that had a lot to do with Seattle’s poor run game. However, Green Bay showed signs of an improved rushing attack in 2017, and Rodgers just can’t help himself when he’s near the goal line.
The Packers quarterback finished first in red zone passing attempts (115) in 2016, and he finished second in 2015 and 2014. With Jordy Nelson gone (2016’s red zone target, catch and TD leader), Graham will yet again be a threat to score each and every time his team gets inside the red zone. That alone gives Jimmy the potential to be a top-five tight end. That said, start thinking about drafting him after Greg Olsen and Hunter Henry come off the board. Graham is unlikely to match the yardage totals of those two, but his scoring upside makes him a mid-to-late round pick that’s pretty safe compared to others at the position.
Trey Burton, Chicago Bears
Trey Burton has all the tools to be a top tight end in this league: route running, hands, after-the-catch explosiveness, and, oh yeah, he can throw. All of which are reasons the Bears signed him to a four-year contract worth $32 million, which some may view as an overpay. To put that into perspective, Jimmy Graham signed for $30 million over three years, and he has a much different resume than Burton. Along with one of the greatest play calls in Super Bowl history, Burton has 63 career catches in his three NFL seasons — all with Philadelphia. He has 60 catches on 91 targets for 575 yards in his last two seasons playing behind Zach Ertz and Brent Celek.
Burton had seven catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns in two games without Ertz in the lineup last season, and he really showed his potential in a Week 13 win in Los Angeles when he came away with five receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Burton will get every opportunity to play in Chicago in what will be a pass-happy offense led by new head coach Mike Nagy, and one that will be familiar to Burton having played in a similar scheme with Doug Pederson over the past two seasons. As you’ll recall, it’s a system that Nagy and Pederson used together in Kansas City, and one that Nagy will adopt in Chicago. Ultimately, it’s a big reason why the Bears spent as much as they did on the potential breakout candidate.
Burton may not get drafted as a top-12 tight end, but he’s the perfect example of a late-round flyer with some upside who has the potential to finish inside the top 10. It’s not a stretch to think Burton could be second in line for targets behind Allen Robinson, and he may just emerge as Mitchell Trubisky’s favorite red-zone option.
Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts
This signing puts a bit of a damper on those who have Jack Doyle in dynasty formats, and it also allows those in the fantasy community to get excited about Eric Ebron again. After seeing a boost in his numbers from year one to year two, and then year two to year three, the former Detroit Lions tight end failed to live up to the hype in year four despite finally playing a full season.
The hype may just be warranted this season, though, when you look at what offensive coordinator Frank Reich was able to do with the Eagles’ tight ends last season. Reich used all three of his tight ends in Philly (Ertz, Burton, and Celek) and that’s exactly what he plans on doing with the Colts — assuming Eric Swoope returns to full health. The newest Indianapolis head coach said just that at the NFL Annual Meetings. Reich also went as far to say he thinks Ebron is elite, and they plan on using him like the Cleveland Cavaliers use LeBron James, and not because he has “Ebron” in his name.
Ebron can create a one-on-one mismatch due to his size and catch radius, especially in the red zone. He’ll have to improve on his drops (15 last three seasons, third most in 2016), and a lot of his fantasy production will, of course, be dependant on Andrew Luck. However, this is a great system for the former 10th overall pick to show his potential. Reich says 13 personnel (1 wide receiver, 3 tight ends) is going to be hard to defend, and although I do believe that, it’s probably more of a good thing for Andrew Luck than it is Ebron, should it work out. If anything, Reich is trying to ignite the Ebron hype once again. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Ben Watson, New Orleans Saints
Ben Watson is headed back to New Orleans, where he had his best NFL season in 2015. Watson caught 74 of his 109 targets that year for 825 yards and six touchdowns. All marks that were career highs for the 13-year vet. Watson was serviceable last season, as he caught 61 of his 79 targets for 522 yards with Baltimore, but he never crept in the TE1 conversation. He’ll unlikely finish inside the top 12 in 2018, but he may make for a decent bye-week fill-in or injury replacement due to the fact Drew Brees has played with him for three seasons.
The Saints cut Coby Fleener, and Josh Hill has never been able to live up to expectations. Brees is coming off a season where he failed to reach 600 passing attempts and 400 completions for the first time since 2009 due to the Saints’ strong run game, but Watson will be a red zone option for the future Hall of Fame QB thanks to his 6-foot-3, 251-pound frame. All six of Watson’s touchdowns in 2015 came inside the red zone, and his 12 RZ catches were tied for the 10th most. Watson may be worth a DFS look or deep league play with Mark Ingram sidelined for the first four weeks, and maybe the Saints will be less likely to run the ball when they get inside the 20s with Ingram suspended.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars also signed Niles Paul, formerly of the Washington Redskins, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins has the most fantasy football appeal. We finally started to see some of ASJ’s potential last season with the Jets, as he racked up 50 grabs for 357 yards and found the end zone three times. Jenkins had a three-game stretch with New York last season where he totaled 17 catches on 22 targets for 95 yards while finding the end zone in all three games.
Seferian-Jenkins can play, and he’ll get every bit of opportunity in Jacksonville. However, the truth of the matter is this team is a run-first offense and will likely lean on Leonard Fournette when they get inside the red zone. With that said, ASJ will be a red zone option for Blake Bortles, and the biggest one he’ll have. Even so, Seferian-Jenkins shouldn’t be owned in many 12-team leagues this season.