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Rob Gronkowski leads must-own fantasy tight ends

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When it comes to tight ends in fantasy football, predictability goes out the window. That's why many analysts advocate waiting until the later rounds of a fantasy draft to consider picking a tight end. There are really only a handful of must-owns at the position, and a few of them will cost you an early-round pick. Some are worth it, some not so much. Since I've already drilled down on the late-round values at the position for this coming fantasy season, now it's time to look at some of the top options at the position and when you might want to think about targeting them on draft day. Take a look at the list and breakdowns below, and feel free to slander my takes on Twitter dot com @MattFranchise. It's cool, I'm used to it.

The Price Is Right:


Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: Last year, Rob Gronkowski was on my list of players to avoid because he was being drafted too early given his injury risk. Now, for the first time in a couple of years, Gronk is reasonably affordable in redraft formats with a 2.10 ADP according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. His ADP in 2015 was late first round, and last season he was an early second round selection on average. Finally, fantasy owners can feel confident taking him at his late-second round price, and not feel like they're missing out on value elsewhere.

Coming off back surgery, he's done things this offseason like drop a professional wrestler at WrestleMania, so I think it's safe to assume he's healthy and will be ready to rock for the season opener. He only played in eight games last year because of the back injury that ended his season, but he managed to produce at such a high level that he ranked No. 1 among all tight ends in fantasy points per game (9.0) and yards per reception (22).

But you didn't come here because you needed reassurance that Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in fantasy football.

Second-Tier Rock Stars


Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs: A season ago, Kelce led all tight ends in receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,125) and added four touchdowns, finishing as fantasy football's TE1. You might remember him going on a streak of four straight games with at least 100 receiving yards, and he totaled six such games for the entire season. He helped propel fantasy owners to a championship win in Week 16 when he obliterated Denver's defense for 160 yards and a score on 11 receptions.

Due to their lack of wide receiver depth, the Chiefs use Kelce as an oversized receiver, and he has the perfect skill set for it. When the curtain dropped on the 2016 regular season, Kelce was a leader in numerous Next Gen Stats categories at his position, displaying his versatility, speed, ability to separate from defenders and his status as the keystone of the Chiefs' passing game. For more statistical proof of just how valuable Kelce is to his team's passing production, check out this Twitter thread:

Adding to Kelce's fantasy value this season is the departure of Jeremy Maclin from the receiving corps. Maclin saw 76 targets in 12 games last season, and the Chiefs didn't make any moves to replace him, leaving Tyreek Hill and Kelce as the top two options for Alex Smith in the passing game. There's too much volume there to ignore. Kelce was drafted in the second round of our most recent expert mock draft. He likely won't go that high in a more standard format, but after finishing as the TE1 last season, his arrow is pointing even higher.

Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins: It's almost unfair how much of a game-changer Jordan Reed is when he's on the field. In just 12 games last year he absorbed 89 targets or 7.4 per game. He scored six touchdowns and collected 686 receiving yards finishing as fantasy's TE9 with a fantasy point per game average of 8.6, more than any tight end who finished in the top 10 in overall fantasy points other than Kelce. In a similar fashion to Kelce, Reed finished in the top five at his position in several NextGenStats metrics including receptions when lined up wide and in the slot, yards of separation at target and when pressed at the line of scrimmage. This further proves his status as one of the best in the league.

The biggest hesitation when drafting Reed in fantasy is his injury history. He's had a significant number of concussions during his four seasons in the NFL and has yet to play all 16 games in a season. Reed is still the third tight end coming off draft boards, early in Round 5 on average. There's no way to predict injuries, so this one comes down to whether you're willing to risk an earlier pick on an injury prone player who is literally a matchup-winning tight end on a weekly basis knowing you may only get 10 or so games out of him.

Target Hogs


Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers: One of just two tight ends to record 1,000 receiving yards last year, Olsen remains the focus of Carolina's passing game. The savvy 32-year-old veteran hasn't missed a regular season football game since his rookie year in 2007, so reliability is not an issue. He's received over 100 targets in each of his last five seasons and has recorded five top 10 fantasy finishes and three top five fantasy finishes in that span. (Finishes dating back to 2012: TE6, TE8, TE4, TE4, TE2.) The dude is as consistent as they come, especially when we're talking tight ends. If you want to lock up a guy who is a near guarantee to deliver top 10 fantasy production and stay healthy the entire year, get yourself some Greg Olsen at his very reasonable late Round 5 ADP.

Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks: Not many were optimistic about Jimmy Graham's outlook last year. He was returning from a severe knee injury that few players have had successful returns from, so he was being drafted at a major value. But following a top-five finish in fantasy with 923 yards and six touchdowns, Graham is back on the map as an elite option at the position. Back to his old ways, Graham absorbed 95 targets in Seattle, second most on the team and seventh most among all tight ends. The Seahawks haven't done much shuffling in the offseason in terms of pass-catchers so that kind of volume should continue, if not increase. If Russell Wilson can bounce back from what was a career-worst campaign in terms of passer rating, Graham may find himself in the top five among tight ends for the second year in a row. He's being drafted in Round 7 on average, so the risk is minimal.

Red Zone Magnets


Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals: As is the case with many of the top fantasy tight ends, Tyler Eifert's injury woes have kept him off the field frequently. His game totals over the last three seasons are one in 2014, 13 in 2015 and eight in 2016. But when he's healthy, he is no doubt the top option in the red zone for Andy Dalton. In 2015, Eifert converted 15 red zone targets into 11 touchdown receptions in just 13 games. It's difficult to forecast an outlook for the coming season based on last year because he missed the first six games recovering from ankle surgery. Plus, the team became depleted by injuries to A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard later in the year. For what it's worth, in eight games last season Eifert saw 10 red zone targets for five receptions and all of them were touchdowns.

Heading into the 2017 season, the Bengals have a healthy Green returning and have added speedy rookie John Ross to ideally open things up downfield. That might make it sound like there will be fewer targets to go Eifert's way, but if everything falls into place, and Eifert can remain healthy, he should have a bounce-back year in fantasy.

Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings: If I told you that Kyle Rudolph led all tight ends with 25 red zone targets, you'd probably Google it and realize I was telling the truth. He also led all tight ends (and Vikings receivers) in targets, period, with 132. He tied with three other players for the second most touchdowns (seven) at the position and ranked third with 840 receiving yards. He saw double-digit targets in 11 regular season games and his lowest mark in a game was three targets. This productive trend should continue in 2017. Why, you ask? Well, Minnesota had a tumultuous season last year. Their starting quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, suffered a severe injury that knocked him out for the entire season before it even started. The team traded for Sam Bradford, who literally had a few weeks to get up to speed with the playbook. Then, halfway through the year, their offensive coordinator resigned. With a full offseason to iron out the kinks, the Vikings should be full-steam ahead, and Rudolph is poised to remain a huge part of the passing game. You can lock him up as your TE1 somewhere in Round 9, if you so desire.

Best of the Rest


Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans: Over the past three seasons, Delanie Walker has averaged 113.6 targets per season with 17 total touchdowns and top 10 fantasy finishes at his position in each of those three years. For that reason alone, he's a must-own tight end in fantasy football. But just a word of caution in terms of his outlook. The Titans made significant changes to their pass-catching corps this offseason. They selected two rookie wideouts in the draft in top prospect Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, and got themselves some Eric Decker action in free agency. When you factor in Rishard Matthews and DeMarco Murray as additional threats for targets, the market share for Walker might take a significant dip. Just something to remember before pulling the trigger on the veteran tight end at his late Round 7 asking price (69 overall).

Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers: As evidenced by his rookie season, Hunter Henry's future in the NFL and as a fantasy asset is a bright one. You've probably heard fantasy analysts say repeatedly that rookie tight ends rarely make an impact in their first pro season, but Henry was an exception to the rule last year. He ended up tying for the lead in receiving touchdowns at his position (eight). All those scores came from red zone targets, a sign that quarterback Philip Rivers was quick to trust the young tight end in high-value situations.

With rumors that veteran Antonio Gates may finally begin seeing a downtick in terms of his involvement in the offense, this could be a breakout season for Henry. There is some concern that there are so many mouths to feed in the Chargers' offense that the volume won't be enough to warrant top 10 fantasy production. But Gates saw 93 targets last year compared to Henry's 53. If we see that market share balance out to more of a 50-50 split, that puts Henry in a range of about 75 targets. The guy could do some major damage, especially in scoring situations if that's the case. You can draft Henry near the end of Round 10 according to his current ADP.

Sleeper in the North


Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers: In New England last year, Martellus Bennett put up a strong statistical season. Gronk's season ending early probably had a lot to do with that, but alas, we move on. Marty B played in all 16 games and picked up 701 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. When Tom Brady's your quarterback you're going to eat. Now, Bennett is with Green Bay. Rough life going from GOAT Brady to GOAT Aaron Rodgers, right? Anyway, Bennett's being drafted as a top-10 fantasy tight end with the Packers. Our very own James Koh actually wrote a deep dive into Bennett's outlook for the upcoming season, which I'll defer to here. Spoiler alert: He's all in.

-- Follow Matt on Twitter @MattFranchise, on Instagram @mattfranchise and like his page on Facebook

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