by Nick Ercolano
February 15, 2019
Tbh, I'm not sure what to do about the TE position in fantasy, there's pretty much like 3 guys you can get and if you don't you're just fucked. I've heard a lot of chatter about people eliminating the TE slot in their fantasy league and turning it into a WR/TE flex. And I kind of like that a lot tbh. It doesn't force you to play fucking Austin Hooper in your lineup. But, the really good ones, like Kelce, Ertz, Kittle still absolutely have a place in fantasy. Anywho, only about 0.0043% of you are going to do that with your league, so you need my 2019 fantasy football tight end rankings, here they are:
In my eyes, the big question this year is what to do at the top of the list of TEs, between Kelce, Ertz, Kittle, who do you take, where? And what do you do at the middle of positions, ranks 4-7 or 8. Do you skip the top 3 guys, stack other positions and grab a mid-round guy with breakout potential. If you try to rely on the guys this year that are like TE9 or later, you're gonna be fucked.
TE1 is a no brainer for me in 2019, it's Travis Kelce and it's not particularly close. Ertz can touch his floor, but not his ceiling. Kittle can soar to the ceiling but doesn't have Kelce's floor. In half PPR, Kelce has finished as the overall TE1 for three straight years... Not always on a PPG, but he's top-2 in PPG in all 3, but that also goes to his durability, in 5 years he's missed just one game, out of a possible. It's a position where, you know you're drafting top guys over the past five years who have dealt with a lot of injuries, Gronk, Jordan Reed, Tyler Eifert, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Ertz missed multiple games in both 2017 and 2016, so not only are you getting Kelce who's probably the most talented TE, but puts up the most production, but is also the most durability. Idk how you can pass that up. He's posted 83+ catches and 1,000+ yards in three years and those are easily his floor numbers with Mahomes at QB now. So, the big thing here is this - Kelce averaged 15.2 FPPG last year (half ppr), that was good for a WR8 finish, if he was a WR. Right now, according to draft.com, the WR8 is being selected at pick 22 (Odell Beckham). Kelce's ADP is around pick 14-15. So, yeah you're paying a bit more for the production you can get later, but here's the thing, you have to look at it from a replacement value standpoint, by position, like what advantage are you getting over your opponent, not just raw production. If you played in a league where you don't have a TE and only flexed positions, yeah, of course, you'd look at it from a raw production angle when comparing Kelce to WRs. But, look at it this way. If you draft Kelce at TE1, the TE5 will net you 5.2 FPPG fewer each week. If you draft a WR there, and you say get the WR five rankings below whichever WR you get, you're not looking at a big decline in FPPG. From WR1 (Tyreek Hill) to WR5 (Julio Jones) last year was literally 1.3 FPPG difference. From WR6 down to WR10, was only a 0.8 FPPG difference. So, doing the math, WR1to WR10 is a 2.1 FPPG dropoff, whereas TE1 to TE10 is an 8 FPPG dropoff. So, sure you can say, yeah but you wouldn't have to draft TE5 in the next round you can wait until round 4 or 5, and draft two top WRs, each one of those WRs only gives you about a point to 2 points positional advantage each, whereas Kelce is giving you a MONSTER difference, more than both of those combined, in just one lineup slot.
He led all TEs and was 3rd in the NFL with 12 targets inside-the-10 yard line. This offense is going to score 98 ppg again. No brainer here. Kelce beast. Mahomes beast. LFG.
I truly believe this.
Ertz is great, he's been great for a minute now. He set the record for most receptions by a TE (116) in 2018. If I'm in a full PPR league, yeah I'm probably looking at Ertz at TE2, but straight up in half ppr I'm going with George Kittle over Zach Ertz.
This is one of those things where I'm like, listen, this doesn't have to be hard. Don't make it more difficult than it needs to be fam. In just his second year, Kittle set the receiving record for yards in a season, WITHOUT his starting QB. You don't need to look further than that. Don't make it difficult. With Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard as his QB. The NFL record.... of all time... in NFL history fam. Kittle finished with 21 fewer targets, almost 30 fewer receptions, three fewer touchdowns and was only 0.5 a fantasy point/game worse than Ertz. Kittle's catchable target rate (per PlayerProfiler) was 21st among the position while Ertz's was 8th. Ertz also benefited from not having Alshon for a few games, the first three games of the season, he saw 11 targets/game, compared to the rest of the season, Ertz averaged just over 9/game.
This, however, is where I see the big jump coming from Kittle. In the touchdown department. It's easy to say, yeah he scored 5 touchdowns last year, he's going to increase that. But here's why, stay with me:
In 2018, SF threw the ball inside the RZ on 46% of their plays. The NFL average was 51%, Philly was at 53%. Inside the 10-yard-line, that number dipped even further. SF threw the ball on 37% of their plays, league average was 46%, Philly remained at 53%. So, when they got near the endzone, they were not throwing the ball. That could've been their scheme, OR it could've been because Shanahan did NOT trust his QB to throw it down there, which makes sense given Mullens threw 3 REDZONE interceptions last year, 3rd highest number in the NFL (behind Ben and Keenum), despite only playing 8 games....
So, we look at the previous two years, where Shanahan was running an offense. In 2017 as the HC for San Fran, and 2016 in Atlanta as the OC. 2017, the 49ers threw the ball in the RZ on 61% of their plays, NFL average was 52%. 61% and in 2018 that was 53%. And if you look at the last five weeks, when Jimmy G was their QB, aka, a QB that Shanahan trusts, the number was up at 63%.. Inside the 10zone, they threw it on 54% of plays, up from 37% this year....
2016, with Matt Ryan, 57% passing inside the RZ, 54% inside the 10zone. So, the other two years, Shanahan's offense threw the ball way more near the endzone, and didn't this year, again, because Shanahan likely didn't trust his QB, makes sense when your QB almost leads the league in RZ interceptions despite playing in only half of the games.
With Jimmy G back in 2019, expect the 49ers to:
1. get near the endzone more often
2. throw the ball way more when they're near the endzone.
Kittle's five touchdown mark in 2018 will likely double, if not more.
When I look for elite TE's I look for 3 three things: overall involvement in the offense. Are they a redzone target and can they make plays on their own, are they athletic, can they turn these targets into big plays. Kittle nails all three. 26.4% target share, 2nd highest in the NFL among TEs, the team volume wasn't there for SF in terms of throwing the ball down there, but Kittles 33.3% and 26% EZ & RZ target share, respectively were 2nd and 5th highest among TEs, so as the overall team pass volume increases down there, Kittles involvement will be huge. And Kittle is an absolute YAC machine. Kittle led all NFL TEs with 857 YAC. The next closest guy was Kelce, at 593, almost 300 yards less. And of Kittle's 12 deep targets, only 33% were catchable, 2nd lowest among all TEs w/ at least 9 deep targets. Imagine when some of those are actually accurate next year. Even if you think that YAC comes down, he'll have the yardage based on increase deep ball accuracy.
Ok, I'm done with Kittle sorry.
Okay, so once you get past the first 3, maybe 4 rounds, where I expect these top 3 TEs to go, there is a gigantic tier gap. My concern for fantasy football players is that they don't realize it. Let me explain. These next group of guys, is likely going to make or break a lot of seasons. With the top three guys, you have three absolute studs at the TE spot in your lineup. However, these next group of guys, O.J. Howard, Hunter Henry, David Njoku, Eric Ebron, I'm afraid a lot of people are just going to assume that they can pass on the top three guys, get one of these guys a few rounds later and get similar production. I personally, will do that in some of my leagues, but to not acknowledge the risk there is asinine. NONE of these guys have proven to be a top fantasy TE over the length of a season, well, ironically only Ebron has, and I'm assuming he's going to be the least favorite for most people out of these four because he's not as flashy, or he doesn't have the "unknown upside'. That's the key here guys, the "unknown upside" is FAR from a lock. TEs take a LONG time to really develop. Some guys you pick as a sleeper for like 4 years before they really produce. Other guys, like George Kittle, set the goddamn record at 23 in his second season. Of course, there are the years, like last year where you draft Kittle in Round 10 and he hits. Ertz the year before that in Round 10, and he hits. For the most part, the guys that breakout, when you hit on their breakout year, they are late-round pick. But, a lot of these mid-tier guys will have prices that are not much cheaper than the top guys. If Kittle is a 3rd or 4th round pick, do you really think O.J. Howard is going to be going much later than the 5th? It's really easy, and lazy analysis to just say, yup this is the breakout year from Njoku, Henry, Howard. They all have immense talent, great opportunities in good offenses, with good QBs, but I just want you to make sure you're not going into drafts with the mindset of "fade the top 3 guys" because these mid round guys are locks to breakout. Very many times it doesn't happen. Just keep that in mind. Diversify the revenue. I will say, though, the only reason I feel like the top 3 TEs are not locks is simply that everyone will be saying that, I like to Fade The Public. Cool. peace.
But, regardless, we must proceed.
I put O.J. Howard at the four spot. But I'd be lying if I said I'm confident he'll finish as a top-4 fantasy TE. He certainly has the upside. 2018 was the second straight year he's finished the season on the I.R. which starts to get me a bit nervous.
SPI doesn't look at him as a huge injury concern which is relieving.
Howard, when on the field was really, really good last year. He finished the year catching 34 passes on 47 targets for 565 yards and five touchdowns. He led all TEs in YPR, 3rd highest PFF receiving grades among TEs behind only Kittle and Kelce, 4th in YAC.
He appeared in a total of 10 games. One of those was Week 4 against Chicago when he sprained his MCL in the second quarter, only played on 24% of the teams' snaps, so we'll get that out of the analysis. If you look at his the other 9 games Howard played in, he averaged 3.8 receptions, 63 yards and 0.55 touchdowns, that's 11.5 (half ppr) FPPG, which would have been right underneath Eric Ebron last year for TE5. But he was farrrrr more consistent than Ebron was. Howard went over 50 receiving yards in 8-of-9 games and scored 9+ FPs in 7-of-9 games, 14+ in 4-of-9.
Like I said, when I look for TEs who can become elite, I look for involvment in the offense, athleticy ability and involvement in the RZ. Howard was clearly apart of their offense, and showed consistency in doing so. His athletic ability is insane,
like I said, 4th in YAC, so he doesn't just look and test athletic, he's translated it onto the field. He has an 83.3% catchable target rate, 9th highest among TEs and his aDOT ws 3rd highest in the NFL. He can make plays, he gets targets, and catches them, and they are deep/valuable targets. My only concern is his involvement in the redzone. His RZ target share (11.9%), ranked 22nd among TEs, his 6.9% EZ target share was 31st. 4-of-his-5 TDs last year came from Fitzpatrick not Winston, and 3-of-5 came from 10 yards out or further, so he might be a guy who needs to make big plays to get in the endzone, which aren't reliable.
The huge piece here is Cameron Brate. Who just won't go away. Brate signed that big contract last offseason, however, all of the guaranteed money was in 2018. He has no guaranteed money left. They can cut him this offseason for no penalty, his $7M contract becomes fully guaranteed on March 17th, so that's a big date for Howard. If Brate is let go, Howard is in line for a huge breakout.
There is going to be people saying, oh but Bruce Arians never uses his TEs. And this is nothing like the GB/Aaron Rodgers/TE situation. Look back at the TEs Bruce Arians had. Arizona from 2013-2017 = Jermaine Gresham all for three years (mini-breakout from RSJ in 2017), John Carlson for the other two. In Indy, Dwayne Allen, and guess what, in Pittsburgh, when he had Heath Miller, who's nowhere near as athletic as OJ, Miller had at least 3 top-12 seasons. Winston loves using his TEs, I would love this fake news storyline to push OJ's ADP down.
Another big time breakout candidate comes in at TE5, David Njoku. His raw talent is so extreme, we just weren't sure if we'd see it come to fruition as a 3-down NFL TE, or at least we weren't sure when we'd see it. He took the sophomore step, now we're ready for the junior breakout. 89-56-639-4 was his 2018 final line. It was far from perfect. Inconsistent, started off extremely slow, he scored fewer than 5.0 FPs in 8-of-16 (50%) games. Good news is that Njoku became a full-time player in 2018, playing on 80% of the teams snaps, 9th highest rate among NFL TE's last year. The better news is that the team and the offense itself is extremely encouraging for Njoku. Freddie Kitchens will stay on as HC, and call plays. He took over in Week 9 to call plays, and from that point forward, TEs were targeted on 25% of CLV's passes, only 6 teams had a higher rate. Todd Monken, who's aerial style of offense joins the Browns as the OC and I expect Njoku's freakish athleticism to be put to great use in his mind. If you've followed me, you know I'm a huge believer in Baker. I think he's primed for a major 4500, 35-touchdown season in 2019. Njoku will obviously benefit from that, maybe the most. Landry, too, but he's not a true alpha, and they have no one on the outside right now. I expect them to add someone through FA or the draft on the outside to compliment Callaway/Higgins, which will make Njoku's weekly games a little bit more volatile, but even a decent step forward will propel Njoku into the top-6 or so fantasy TEs which is where you'll be drafting him. Imagine Todd Monken's system, two slots, two out wide, N'Keal Harry, and Callaway on the outside, Njoku and Landry running a muck over the middle, Chubb in the bykefield with the ball in Baker's hands. Sheesh.
I'll be honest, Eric Ebron is a really tough one for me to get excited about for 2019. I loved Jack Doyle coming into 2018. And I still think he would've had a big year if he stayed healthy, but he didn't an Ebron went off, to the tune of 110-66-750-13 (t-2nd in the NFL). 4th most targets, 6th most catches, 5th most yards, most TDs among TEs. A huge part of me wants to just say regression. No way he touches 13 touchdowns, he's a sucker pick at TE5 or 6 or whatever. Him and Doyle are both signed through 2019. When Doyle was on the field last year, he was running far more routes than Ebron was.
Doyle was the guy weeks 1-2. But by the time he returned in Week 8, their routes run were about even. And while Doyle was out, obviously Ebron benefited. I do think they want to use Doyle as an in b/w the 20s weapon, but I don't want to think about this too hard. Ebron just had a monster year, tethered to an elite QB, who loves throwing to the TEs, especially near the EZ, it's an offensive line that's one of the best in the league so they won't need him to stay in and block too often. We'll see what happens with Doyle this summer, and what they do in the draft and FA, but for right now, Ebron earned himself this rankings for next year.
Number seven on this list is Hunter Henry. He would've been by far and away my most owned TE last year in fantasy before his injury. I was devastated. I put up a video, which you guys somehow got a lot of enjoyment from
Well, he's byke. Off the torn ACL, he returned to play in the playoff game against the Pats this January, he only played on 14 snaps and didn't catch any passes, but he's in an absolutely prime spot with Philip Rivers to breakout. Going back to 2017, Henry played in 12 games but finished with 45 catches on 62 targets for 579 yards and four touchdowns. He had 50 yards and/or a touchdown in He was TE6 in PPG that year, while fully splitting snaps with Antonio Gates, and Gates taking up 52 targets, 10 OF THEM INSIDE THE 10-YARD LINE. That's TE primo position baby.
The one concern I do have with Henry, though, is that maybe he doesn't just step into Gates' shoes? Going into 2018, we knew how much Rivers threw to the TE, but maybe it was a chicken or the egg thing. When Henry got hurt last year, the Chargers had nothing at TE between Gates and Virgil Green. Rivers and the Chargers targeted the TE position last year on 15% of his throws. Detroit, Miami and New Orleans were the only teams in the NFL to target their TEs at a lower rate. That number was at 20% in 2017. As Gates dwindled down. It was at 26% in 2016. So, as the talent winded down, so did the looks that way. They have Mike Williams now, their former 1st round pick, 6'4-220, coming off of a 10-TD season, who should be heavily utilized down by the endzone. They also used their RBs in the passing game very effectively, particularly near the endzone.
Henry's a guy I like, but there are some red flags here. He doesn't have the same athleticism, burst, agility, YAC, that the top tier guys do, but he's a very good all-around TE, in a good position, good QB, good offense, that should get a lot of scoring opps. His season will come down to whether or not they get thrown his way.
Evan Engram is my TE8 he's literally the last tight end that I have any semblance of confidence having in my fantasy lineup next year. After a breakout rookie year, Engram battled hamstring, concussion and MCL injuries in 2018, limiting him to 11 games in 2018. Engram was quietly good, though. He finished the season with 45 catches on 64 targets for 577 yards and three touchdowns. If you exclude his Week 3 game where he played just 21% of snaps before exiting with a concussion, Engram's per game numbers look very good, and were even better than his rookie season. By taking those 10 games (excluding Week 3), Engram's 16-game pace:
70.4 receptions, 893 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those numbers would've been good for TE6 overall, TE7 PPG.
What I'm most optimistic about is just how strong he finished the season once he was fully healthy. He came back in Week 14, played 14, 15, 16, 17, he saw 31 targets over those 4 games, caught 22 passes and went over 75 receiving yards in every one of them. The offense improved dramatically down the stretch, and if they can get another piece to block for Eli, they should be alright in 2019. I think Engram is a player that's going to drop in drafts because of his injuries last year, but if he can stay on the field, I think he's a super safe floor guy.
TE9 and further is just an absolute shit show. I have Gronk here, but he's probably going to retire in two weeks. You can talk about Austin Hooper, who had a semi-big year, but he stinks. I'm telling you. Hooper had more games of 0 yards this year then he did 80 yards. That's because he doesn't touch 80 yards. It's been 33 games since Hooper has hit that number. Week 1 of 2017, when some asshole safety on Chicago blew his coverage and let up an 80-yard TD to him. Hooper had three decent games this year thanks to TDs that propelled him up TE rankings. Otherwise, the guy scored fewer than 7 FPs in 10-of-16 games. I'm good. I'm a Falcons fan, I know what Hooper is, there's no upside here. There's no breakout coming.
Trey Burton clearly ain't it in Chicago. He's 28, we pretty much know what we have in him. It's a Chicago with a lot of mouths to feed, getting fed by a QB that doesn't put up enough statistics passing wise to make this intriguing. You also have to remember that Adam Sheehan missed nearly the entire season with the summer injury, and in the three games Sheehan played in, Burton's numbers somehow dipped even further down.
Then you have a few vets coming back off major injuries. Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker and Tyler Eifert. We don't know where Eifert is going to land, and he has like a 4% chance of staying healthy anyways. a 100% chance of seeing a report in July that this is the healthy's he's ever felt, but a 4% chance of making a fantasy impact. Delanie fractured his ankle, along with suffering some ligament damage. As of January he hasn't resumed running yet.. so.... his goal is to return for OTAs but not even he sounded confident about it. He'll be 35 in August. Hard to return from an injury like that, at that age. I have little to no faith Olsen's foot will hold up. He said he was fully healthy going into 2018, fucked it up immediately week 1. Just naw.
Jared Cook had a very big year, but he's a FA and I highly doubt anywhere he lands will let him see anywhere near the target share he saw in Oakland. His target share (18%) was 4th highest in the NFL behind, guess who, Kelce, Ertz and Kittle. He was the only thing close to athletic Derek Carr had to throw the ball too. In his 10th NFL season, on the wrong side of 30, Cook set career-highs. Also he scored like 5 FPs in half of their games so, he was ridiculously boom or bust. If he went to like NE to replace Gronk, or NO, then maybe he'd get back in here.
I'll tell you one guy that does intrigue me, Vance McDonald. Vance McDonald finished as TE10 last year in fantasy football, despite missing a game. So, a legit TE1. He caught 50-of-73 targets for 610 yards and a touchdown. His problem has never been production, or athleticism, it was always staying healthy. Those 15 games in 2018 were a career-high and this was Vance's 6th NFL season. And he wasn't hurt, they just didn't use him in Week 1. He was extremely mediocre for long stretches last year, and he literally had one game (Week 2: 4-112-1) that crazy ass stiff arm he had that accounted for 18% of his FPs on the year, but there is going to be a lot of opportunity up for grabs in PIT. AB has officially requested the trade out of PIT so he's gone. And for whatever reason, the Steelers insisted on playing McDonald with Jesse James on a near 50/50 snap split in 2018. James is a FA this year.
So, he's my TE10, because he did it last year, and now there's far more opportunity available for him to improve upon those numbers in 2019.
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