2014 Fantasy Football Draft Guide: Eric Mack's TE Blueprint
Excuse this gratuitous play on words: A Graham is worth his weight in gold. That is the belief at the tight end position in fantasy football.
Everyone wants a piece of arguably the most productive fantasy tight end in history in his age-27 season. Only one team in your league will be so fortunate, and that team will have to pay the premium of an early first-round pick now. Tight ends historically haven't been Round 1 options in fantasy.
Jimmy Graham is the marvelous physical exception to many of the world's rules.
The tight end position is a lot deeper than this one big stud, though. We present you a meticulous look at it in this slideshow. We have all of the rankings, tiers, rookies, position battles, injury-risk assessments, breakouts, busts, sleepers, contract-year targets and overall strategies in one tidy, multidimensional draft-preview package.
Tight End Rankings and Tiers: Orange Julius Not Quite in Jimmy Graham's League
Before we dissect the tight end position piece by piece, take a look at our complete rankings from Nos. 1 through 50 below. If you need them further broken down into tiers, they can be like so:
Tier I: The Man, the Myth
No. 1 Jimmy Graham
He is in a class all by himself right now, which is why you are justified in selecting him earlier than any tight end in fantasy history. You can even go as high as No. 4 overall with him after Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson are off the board.
Tier II: Consolation Prizes
No. 2 Julius Thomas, No. 3 Rob Gronkowski
If not for Gronk's annual season-ending injury, he would be on the Graham level right now. If Thomas has another big year coming off his breakout—and Peyton Manning doesn't retire—he can make a case for the top tier, too. You will need to pick these guys by the time the middle of Round 4 is reached.
Tier III: Fairly Safe Bets
No. 4 Vernon Davis to No. 7 Greg Olsen
You won't want to pick these options before Round 5 unless your fantasy league rewards bonuses for tight end receptions versus other positions. Some formats do that. These are the last of the every-week starters on the board, a sign of just how uncertain this position is and how quickly it dries up in drafts.
Tier IV: Last of the Starting Options
No. 8 Jordan Reed to No. 15 Coby Fleener
There isn't much to choose from in this group now, but there are some breakout candidates in its ranks. Still, don't go reaching into this tier just to make sure you have a fantasy starter locked up by the middle rounds. You can wait a long time now to slot that position. Load up on running backs and wide receivers then and grab the remainder of this group late.
Tier V: Late-Round Fliers/Bye-Week Replacements
No. 16 Eric Ebron to No. 22 Travis Kelce
You shouldn't pick a backup tight end and suck up a valuable roster spot in leagues that don't limit in-season transactions. Options from this group will have their moments periodically this season, but they won't come with any kind of consistency.
Tier VI: Everybody Else
There might be some surprises from this group, but at this point you probably won't have to burn a draft pick on them to lock them up. Tight ends can be dime a dozen off the waiver wire during the season. Even the aforementioned Thomas was a pickup after Week 1 during his breakthrough campaign a year ago.
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Rookie TE Rankings: Solid Draft Class Will Take Time to Impact Fantasy
- Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions
- Jace Amaro, New York Jets
- Richard Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
- Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals
- Justin Jones, New England Patriots (undrafted rookie free agent)
- C.J. Fiedorowicz, Houston Texans
- Larry Webster, Detroit Lions
- Arthur Lynch, Miami Dolphins
- Ted Bolser, Washington Redskins
There are some real potential playmakers in this 2014 tight end draft class, but the demands on learning blocking schemes along with NFL pass routes keep rookies from making an immediate impact in fantasy. There is going to be an adjustment period for most of these guys, so you might not consider drafting any of them and just waiting for someone to assert himself as a waiver-wire pickup.
If drafts were held today, here is a look at how the top 10 rookie tight ends should go off the board, if at all:
You should place tight end as the fourth-most important position to scout rookies for in dynasty and keeper leagues, but there is a nice group of sleepers in here.
Ebron will eventually be a star, working with Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford for his career, while Amaro and Rodgers find themselves in tight end-friendly offenses right away. Webster, the son of a former NFL player (Larry Webster Jr.) and a small-college defensive end, is a long-term project.
TE Position Battles: We See a Lot of in-Line Ends Versus Receiving Ends Here
- Philadelphia Eagles: This is the reigning No. 1 rushing offense, so blocking is the first priority, which might be the only reason Brent Celek starts and Zach Ertz is saved for the passing situations. Watch Ertz in the red zone this preseason.
- Cincinnati Bengals: Here's yet another second-year tight end, Tyler Eifert, playing behind an in-line blocking man, Jermaine Gresham in a run-heavy offense. They will play double-tight a lot, but Eifert in the game is a signal the Bengals are eschewing the run.
- San Diego Chargers: Antonio Gates might be going to the Hall of Fame, but Ladarius Green is gaining steam as this year's Thomas/Jordan Cameron breakthrough player of the year. Watch out for Green in the latter rounds, especially if he steadily cuts into Gates' snaps or Gates' eventual injury comes before camp lets out.
- Detroit Lions: Ebron, a first-rounder, was exciting, but he has struggled with drops in camp and was listed fourth on the first depth chart of the preseason. Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria have some value, but Ebron should suck up all of it by season's end.
- Indianapolis Colts: They boast a pair of third-year receiver breakthroughs in Fleener and Dwayne Allen. This is yet another "move" end versus in-line end situation. Andrew Luck has an embarrassment of riches in his emerging offensive monster.
- Baltimore Ravens: Dennis Pitta is the starter in NFL and fantasy terms, but Owen Daniels deserves more love, and snaps, than he is getting going into things. Also, Pitta is not a picture of health.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They drafted a towering rookie tight end (the 6'5" Seferian-Jenkins), added a veteran pass-catcher in Brandon Myers and already had second-year man Tim Wright looking like a potential impact player. Wright is even getting some looks as a slot receiver for the Bucs, according to Ira Kaufman and Roy Cummings of The Tampa Tribune.
There isn't a position battle in training camp that is going to truly change the tight end landscape for fantasy draft purposes, but we do have some to watch that might alter the round you pick your guy in.
Here are the places to watch the exhibition targets and snaps the closest:
Injury Risks: Rob Gronkowski Headlines Fantasy's Biggest Question Marks
You can make Gronkowski the poster child for injury risk at tight end, but the truth is everyone is suspect at this position. See, the NFL requires these freakishly big and fast athletes to split secondaries like wide receivers and block the big studs in the trenches alongside the well-paid offensive tackles.
Tight end is a close second to running back in terms of players who put their bodies on the line every week for the good of the team. Ask Gronk. He looked like a bionic man in training camp with an arm brace covering his multiple surgeries from 2013 and his knee brace covering his latest repair.
Age-Related Injury Risks
Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Heath Miller, Owen Daniels
Jason Witten an injury risk? How in the world can we label a player who hasn't missed a game due to injury in his 11-year career an injury risk? Simple. He is 32, and he is due. Father Time is undefeated.
The injury risks of these other guys have all become apparent over the years, too, and their advanced ages make them more susceptible to injury and more likely to need more time to recover. All of these guys are going to need to take snaps off, if not entire games, this season. Downgrade them for those reasons on your draft boards.
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
He is the No. 1 injury concern in fantasy football, and the title is well earned over the years. He has been an annual risk since his collegiate days. We have to be resigned to the fact that once—no, if—he gets into game action this summer he is extremely likely to injure something on his big body. He plays with a reckless disregard for his own safety, and it shows on his medical sheets.
We are shocked Jake Davidow's mathematical algorithm at SportsInjuryPredictor.com has Gronk as only the third-most-likely tight end to be injured in 2014. He is only eight months removed from a major knee reconstruction and is being brought along slowly in training camp.
The fact that the back surgery he had last year was to relieve symptoms of a similar injury that laid him out in college is a red flag. Any time a player has plates and screws in his body, it increases risk of injury as well—especially in a body part like the forearm that is used by tight ends for blocking and swatting off 300-pound defenders. ACL injuries very rarely reoccur; however, his ACL tear happened right at the end of 2013, which means he is in the early part of the 6-9 month recovery window that most athletes need to rehab before getting back on the field.
Precisely. His chances are far higher than third-most likely to be injured again at this position.
Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
This is one we needed Davidow to warn us on. We loved what we got from Thomas so much as a breakout performer last season, we might have overlooked the fact that he wasn't 100 percent the entire year. First, there was a reason he didn't do a thing until his third season; second, he struggled with an ankle issue that limited him to 14 games.
Thomas is Davidow's No. 1 most likely tight end to be injured by his mathematical model. Davidow told Bleacher Report this week:
Thomas is very inexperienced with only three seasons of football in his life to his name. [He was a basketball player at Portland State]. Our studies have shown over and over again inexperience is a major signal for future injury. Two, ankle injuries are very difficult to overcome, especially of the severity that Thomas suffered in 2011. Three, he missed two games in 2013 to aggravating the same ankle he hurt in 2011.
Don't let Thomas' huge 2013 numbers cloud the risk involved with picking him second to Graham. He is just as risky as Gronk—even more so if you refer to Davidow's math.
Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
If the Vikings' shaky quarterback situation isn't enough to scare you off Kyle Rudolph in the middle rounds, his injury woes should. Rudolph was limited to eight games last year due to a foot fracture. You don't need to be a doctor to know how bad foot issues are for football players, especially ones standing 6'6" and 260 pounds.
There is no bone in your body that bears more weight than those in your foot. Rudolph's fractured foot is bearing more weight than most. Davidow reported to B/R this week that the first year returning from a broken bone in the foot has a high mathematical correlation with re-injury.
The quarterback and injury are the reasons we merely rank Rudolph as a backup (No. 13) in standard leagues.
Breakouts: Ladarius Green Emerging from Future Hall of Famer's Shadow
- Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers: He is Newton's No. 1 returning target.
- Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins: His hype is higher than Green's, but so is his draft position. His top-eight status is justified, though.
- Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles: See sleepers section.
- Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts: Ditto.
- Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals: Ditto, ditto.
Everyone wants to know the next big thing. After Thomas and Cameron led countless fantasy teams to championships, tight end is a popular place to look.
Look no further than a basketball-skilled tight end from San Diego. No, it is not the future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates we are talking about. It is Green, his seldom-used backup.
Green's snaps and targets are limited behind Gates, who has made a quite a career for himself with Rivers, but Green's 22.1 yards per catch are a tantalizing tease for the possibilities. Eventually the oozing potential will take over and lead the Chargers to give more and more play to the emerging 24-year-old.
Green is in that glorious third-year receiver category we already discussed in the wide receiver blueprint at Bleacher Report earlier this week. Historically, it can be that third season where we see everything come together for a fantasy prospect.
In case you need more reasons to love Green in the late rounds, Gates is past his prime at the age of 34 and has had more seasons in which he didn't make it through 16 games (six) than he did stay healthy for the full year (five). Gates has always tended to need plays off due to chronic foot woes. He has had games off, too.
Those games and snaps are going to go to Green this season, so make sure you get a piece of the next Thomas-like breakthrough by the middle rounds. Green is roughly a 12th- to 14th-round pick in FantasyPros.com's analyst consensus rankings (No. 134 overall), and he is going even later in that website's cumulative average draft position.
This might be the most significant single piece of fantasy advice we give this summer: Keep your tight end position open until Round 10 and pull the trigger on Green.
Here are some other middle-round tight ends who could emerge as fantasy game-changers this year:
Busts: Eventually the Wheels Have to Come off for Jason Witten, Right?
- Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos (aforementioned injury risk)
- Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns (quarterback questions, new offense and drawing the attention that used to be reserved for the suspended Josh Gordon)
- Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers (age-related statistical decline)
- Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers (ditto)
- Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings (injury risk and quarterback questions)
Fantasy football folks are a loyal bunch. They love what they have seen in past performances, especially in the most recent season and if it has been steady over the course of a number of years.
That is Witten in a nutshell. He is the steadiest thing there has been next to the retired Tony Gonzalez in the history of the position.
Frankly, he has spoiled us. He is an outlier at the physical-freak position of tight end.
At age 32 and with his body breaking down at the precise age of breakdown, Witten is at risk for something catastrophic. Sure, one can argue Witten shouldn't be a risk due to age or injury because he has never missed a game due to injury in his career. It hasn't been because he wasn't hurt. He just wasn't ever injured enough to miss a game.
He just has played through injury. That gets tougher to do as the years pile up on you.
Again, Father Time eventually always wins. If you are eschewing our advice and picking a tight end before you have suitable depth at running back, wide receiver and your starting quarterback, don't say we didn't warn you.
Here are the other five top tight ends whose draft position and situations look simultaneously dangerous:
Sleepers: Thin Position Has Mass of Humanity Capable of Helping Late
- Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
- Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears
- Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens
- Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
- Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
- Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts
- Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions
- Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins
- Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
- Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
We will beat a dead horse, if only to hammer an important fantasy-draft-strategy point home: After the top few tight ends, there isn't much to choose from between next 15 or so options. This makes for a lot of sleepers one can fall back on in the late rounds, which pushes a lot of tight end value down in drafts.
Here are 10 favorite tight end sleeper candidates who can provide mid-round production at the affordable cost of a mere late-round pick (our apologies for some repetition in this slideshow):
You should feel comfortable with any one of these guys as your starter at times this season. You might even consider just rotating these guys in your lineup and through the waiver wire, riding the hot hand as you go.
Since we just suggested you pick a player whom you will eventually send to the waiver wire, don't bother picking most of these fallback tight ends until the very late rounds.
Contract Years: It Looks Like It Is Going to Get Crowded at the Top
- Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
- Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns
- Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins
- Owen Daniels, Baltimore Ravens
- Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals
- Rob Housler, Arizona Cardinals
- Lance Kendricks, St. Louis Rams
- Ed Dickson, Carolina Panthers
- Larry Donnell, New York Giants
- Demetrius Harris, Kansas City Chiefs
Thank goodness Graham was paid this July. This was going to be one of the toughest winters on NFL pockets from the tight end perspective.
Graham might be locked up long term now, but there are some other elite youngsters motivated to have huge seasons before they hit free agency in 2015.
We break down the top 10 tight ends we can see outperforming their draft position in a contract year, with the help of Spotrac.com's 2015 free-agent list:
The first four names have established themselves in fantasy circles, but those two at the top are the ones who blew the top off defenses and fantasy a year ago. They stand to become very rich men if they can repeat their numbers—or even come close. Their age and career trajectory put the odds heavily in their favor.
Draft-Day Strategies: Best Things Can Come to Those Who Wait
Are there advanced strategies to attacking the sometimes meaningless tight end position, you ask? Absolutely.
We conclude our slideshow by breaking down four of the top draft-day tips for selecting your risky seam-splitters:
Pick Your TE Like Your QB
Fantasy is well-versed on waiting on their passer, the highest-scoring position in fantasy, but they haven't yet fully bought into waiting on their tight end, the lowest-scoring skill position in fantasy. After the few exclusive tiers, there is nothing to choose from among the remaining options. Take the best of the leftovers.
Pick Just One TE
This strategy is lost on some, particularly those new to fantasy. You think you need to have a balanced roster with backups everywhere. You don't—unless your league's rules implore you to. Use the waiver wire as your backup tight end. That strategy might have afforded you the chance to pick up the Week 1 star Thomas off waivers en route to his fantasy breakthrough of the year.
Watch Injury News Closely
As stated in the injury-risk slide, this can be a dangerous position. Injury can also drag down fantasy value. If people are worried about Gronk's slow recovery and injury history, you can lock up a monster—even if he winds up being a partial-year guy—at a thin position.
Pick Your TE Last
This is a radical suggestion, especially because everyone saves those late picks for defense/special teams and kickers. We will point back to the notion there isn't much to choose between among the tight ends after the top few stars. This is the most top-heavy position in fantasy. It is arguably the most balanced in the middle and later tiers.
You can be resigned to the leftovers and just roll with the hot hand at the lowest-scoring skill position in the game.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.
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