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Fantasy Draft Plans: How to approach TE in 2019

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Just a few years ago, tight end scoring was in its heyday. Rob Gronkowski smashed and spiked every time he was on the field, Jimmy Graham ripped up record books with the Saints, and even Jordan Reed flirted with the TE1 mantle.

As Gronk and Graham dominated, seasoned vets like Tony Gonzalez, Greg Olsen, Antonio Gates, Delanie Walker, and Jason Witten comprised the middle class of fantasy tight ends throughout the mid-2010s. Meanwhile, future league-winners Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz were waiting in the wings.

2011 to 2016 indeed marked the golden age of tight end fantasy scoring. During this span, tight ends set single-season records in touchdowns (in 2013), receptions (in 2015), and yards (in 2015). For context, here is a snapshot of tight end fantasy scoring since 2007:


The league's growing pass-heavy nature coupled with an infusion talent was more than enough to spark the scoring revolution. In the ten years between 2007 and 2017, passing attempts grew by eight percent across the NFL, providing receivers with more volume than ever. The breadcrumbs aren't hard to follow. More targets mean more opportunity for fantasy points.

However, tight end scoring has completely cratered over the past two years. While the middle class of tight ends aged, poor injury luck hit the position particularly hard in 2018. Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, Jordan Reed, and Jack Doyle all either missed time or dealt with season-ending injuries last season.

As you noticed in the chart above, TE target totals bottomed out to a 10-year low in 2018 primarily due to the avalanche of injuries. While studs missed time, it exposed the lack of depth at a position that desperately needs another talent infusion. Just nine tight ends averaged over 10 PPR points per game two seasons ago and six of those players ended up missing three or more games in 2018.

So, where does the position go from here? Is a tight end renaissance coming? Let's take a look at how this year's market is setting up, analyze ADP trends, and then dive deep into the tight end player pool for 2019.

All or Nothing Tight End Market


A brief glimpse at this year's average draft position data shows just how fragmented the tight end market has become. In 2019, you are going to have to pay for studs at fantasy football's most scarce position.

At the top of drafts, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle are selected inside of the top-30 overall picks. This marks the first time more than two tight ends go inside of the top-30 in five years. However, the most crucial element of the 2019 tight end market arises when we scale back and look at the first six rounds of drafts.

Seven tight ends are off the board by the 72nd pick of drafts, which marks the end of the sixth round in 12-team leagues. This is the first time in 10 years in which at least seven tight ends are off the board after six rounds:


After Evan Engram, O.J. Howard, Hunter Henry, and Eric Ebron are selected, the tight end market cools considerably with just four tight ends taken between Rounds 7-10. The rest of the board (ADP range TE13-TE25) are all available well into the double-digit rounds of drafts.

Drafters are willing to pay a premium for the potential studs -- but is there any value left in this front-loaded tight end market? Let's devise a draft plan for your 2019 leagues by diving deep into the tight end player pool.

Should You Draft Travis Kelce in the First Round?


As fantasy's TE1 in each of the last three seasons, Travis Kelce has quickly become the alpha of the position. Kelce led the Chiefs in targets as his 9.4 passing looks per game ranked fourth-most for any tight end since 2000. Kelce was also heavily involved when the Chiefs were close to scoring last year, as he easily recorded a new career-high in targets inside of the 10-yard line (12). Mahomes' explosion in 2018 vaulted Kelce's ceiling even higher as he had previously never seen more than 7 inside-the-ten targets in a single-season.

Last year, Kelce opened up a laughably wide 10-point gap in per game PPR output between himself and TE12, Kyle Rudolph. While Zach Ertz and George Kittle battle more competition for targets on their respective teams this year, the gap between Kelce and the field may grow further. In 2019, Kelce presents one of the rare times it's acceptable to spend a late first-round or early second-round selection on a tight end.

Are Ertz and Kittle Overpriced?


While Kelce deserves first round consideration in drafts, Zach Ertz (ADP: TE2; 27 overall) and George Kittle (ADP: TE3; 30 overall) fly off of the board just behind him.

Coming off a record-breaking season where he set the NFL record in targets (156) and receptions (116) for tight ends, Zach Ertz will face more competition for targets in 2019. The Eagles have finally added a true lid-lifter in DeSean Jackson while Dallas Goedert is in line for more usage this upcoming season. Philadelphia is one of a few teams that could support two fantasy-relevant tight ends. The Eagles used two or more tight ends on the field an NFL-high 42 percent of the time last season, and numerous beat reports indicate that their twin tight end usage could increase further.

It's plausible that Ertz's volume normalizes closer to his career figures in 2019. Before earning 9.8 targets per game last year, Ertz averaged between 7.5 and 7.9 targets per contest in each of his three previous seasons. Ertz will undoubtedly possess week tilting upside once again, but Alshon Jeffery is fully healthy, DeSean Jackson will command his share of looks, and Dallas Goedert is too talented to take off the field. Paying a top-30 overall pick in fantasy for consistency certainly has merit -- Ertz has been the TE2 or TE3 in PPR points per game in each of the last three seasons -- but there are a lot of mouths to feed in Philadelphia.

No tight end has seen their value skyrocket more over the past calendar year than George Kittle. A separated shoulder in the preseason kept Kittle's average draft position at bay last year as the 49er became one of the most valuable picks in 2018 leagues. Kittle's 1,377 yards set a new NFL record as his vertical speed and unmatched ability after the catch left defenses in shambles. Kittle's absurd 9.9 yards after the catch in 2018 is the best figure for any receiver or tight end since the statistic started being tracked in 2006.

Even though Kittle looks like the closest thing we've seen to Gronk as both a receiver and blocker talent-wise, a perfect storm helped kickstart his 2018 breakout. San Francisco was bitten badly by the injury bug last year, as their top three receivers entering the year -- Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, and Dante Pettis -- combined to miss 17 total games. Now, not only are Pettis and Goodwin fully healthy, the 49ers just used their second and third round picks in the NFL Draft on two rookie wideouts, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd.

As late-second or early-third round selections, the opportunity cost of taking Ertz or Kittle over a running back or receiver is palpable. Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Adam Thielen, Keenan Allen, Stefon Diggs, Amari Cooper, A.J. Green, Nick Chubb, Damien Williams, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Devonta Freeman, Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, and Marlon Mack are all taken in a similar range as Ertz and Kittle.

Don't get it wrong: Zach Ertz and George Kittle are both attached to good-to-great offenses and they are each likely to lead their team's in targets once again. However, both tight ends reached their record-breaking seasons due in part to a lack of competition for targets, and neither Ertz or Kittle are coming in nowhere close to the discounts we could draft them at just a year ago.

Tight end isn't deep in fantasy football, but three potential breakout candidates looming in Rounds 5-6 make a positional revival likely. At cost, Evan Engram, O.J. Howard, and Hunter Henry provide mouth-watering alternatives to the elite trio of Kelce, Ertz, and Kittle.

Mid-Round Breakout Candidates


Taking a pass-catcher attached to Eli Manning and Daniel Jones requires some mental gymnastics, but there is plenty of opportunity to be had in New York. With Beckham now a Brown, the Giants target share is wide open and Evan Engram has proven he's an elite producer with OBJ off the field. Over the last two years, Engram has averaged 13.8 PPR points per game in games OBJ has missed while only Kelce (17.0) and Ertz (16.1) have averaged more PPG over the last two years. Engram has seen five or more targets in 14-of-14 games without Beckham while his 8.2 passing looks per contest without Beckham would, once again, trail only Kelce (8.9) and Ertz (8.8) in this span. Golden Tate's addition mucks up Engram's ceiling a bit without Beckham, but there should be plenty of volume to go around on a Giants team that should be forced to the air as they are expected trail a ton in 2019. Vegas is calling for the G-Men to win six games this season.

It has come in relatively small samples, but both Hunter Henry and O.J. Howard have been dominant when healthy early in their careers. Over the past three seasons, Howard (2.07) and Henry (1.88) trail only Gronkowski (2.17), Kittle (2.15), and Kelce (2.13) in yards gained per route run among tight ends. More impressively, Howard and Henry lead the position in PPR points per target in this span as both tight ends have been vital cogs in their teams' vertical passing games when they are on the field. Injuries have crushed the breakout party for these two in past seasons, but both the Chargers (110 open targets) and Buccaneers (229 open targets) are among the top-16 teams in available target share based on last year's usage.

I'm actively targeting Engram, Howard, and Henry in all of my leagues and won't argue with the order in which you prefer the trio. Engram's potentially voluminous role without OBJ may give him the slight edge in PPR formats but both Howard and Henry have undeniable touchdown upside attached to high-flying aerial attacks. Regardless, I'm always happy to land one of these three in the fifth or sixth round while my leaguemates overdraft Ertz and Kittle early.

Potential Middle Class TEs


Jared Cook is 32-years-old now, but once he joined the Saints in free agency, he instantly became the easy favorite to finish third on the team in targets in 2019. Tre'Quan Smith and Ted Ginn offer splash play appeal, but beyond Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, New Orleans' target totem pole is wide open.

However, the Saints starting tight end gig may come with less upside than you may expect. As Drew Brees has aged, New Orleans has favored the run more often over the last two seasons. In fact, the Saints were 46 percent run-heavy in the 2017-18 seasons -- tying the Cowboys for the sixth-highest run rate in this span. New Orleans has been short on tight end talent on their depth chart since Jimmy Graham left, and it shouldn't be a surprise that Saints TEs have finished 22nd and 32nd in cumulative PPR points scored in each of the past two years. While prime Jimmy Graham is not in his range of outcomes, Cook has plenty of TE1 appeal attached to a Saints offense that can provide layup scoring opportunities in spades.

Vance McDonald usually comes off of the board a few picks after Cook, but he arguably has more tangible upside if you are chasing targets at the position. Without Antonio Brown and Jesse James, the Steelers have a whopping 225 targets available (fifth-most in NFL). Entering his age-29 season, McDonald has yet to play a full 16 game schedule in his career -- but he has flashed when he's been on the field in Pittsburgh. Over the last two years with the Steelers, McDonald (7.7) trails only George Kittle (8.3) among tight ends in yards after the catch per reception. McDonald now has plenty of opportunity to capitalize on his talent.

Eric Ebron and David Njoku are attached to two offenses we want plenty of exposure to in fantasy football, but neither tight end is a draft-day value.

Ebron scored a position-leading 14 TDs in 2018 due in large part to Jack Doyle missing 10-of-16 possible games. In fact, in the six games Jack Doyle appeared in last year, Ebron played under 50 percent of Colts' snaps in each contest and only averaged 3.7 targets per game. In 10 games without Doyle in the lineup, Ebron's 8.8 targets per game trailed only Ertz, Kelce, and Kittle for the league lead. Not only does Ebron have sharply negative splits with Doyle in the lineup, but the Colts were also busy adding pass catchers in free agency (Devin Funchess) and the NFL Draft (Parris Campbell) to dampen Ebron's outlook further. Meanwhile, Doyle (hip) is on track to return by training camp.

Njoku's projected target share is equally precarious. Once Freddie Kitchens took over as the Browns play-caller in Week 9 last year, Njoku saw just 4.6 targets per game after previously seeing 6.4 T/G with Todd Haley calling plays in Weeks 1-8. For context, Njoku's 20 percent target share in Weeks 1-8 tied Jordan Reed for the fourth-highest rate among TEs in this span; but, with Kitchens, Njoku's target share fell to a paltry 14 percent (tying him for 14th). Now, Njoku has to compete with Odell Beckham Jr. for targets in addition to Jarvis Landry. Eric Ebron (sixth/seventh round ADP) and David Njoku (eighth round) share the mantle for the most overvalued fantasy tight ends entering 2019.

Coming off a bizarre 2018 season in which he earned 40 percent of his 77 receptions in just three games against the Steelers (9 receptions), Buccaneers (9), and Browns (10) leaky tight end coverage -- Austin Hooper is another tough sell in the 9th and 10th rounds of drafts. Hooper saw just 14 percent of the Falcons' 2018 targets in a season where Devonta Freeman essentially did not play and Calvin Ridley was a rookie. Now, Freeman is back healthy and Ridley is firmly on the Year Two Breakout radar. It doesn't help that Atlanta has the seventh-fewest targets available based on last year's usage, either.

Best of the Rest


While the tight end market is incredibly top-heavy in 2019, the bottom of the market may be chock full of value. An absurd 11 tight ends are selected between Rounds 11-14 this year and there are even a few additional stragglers that merit consideration late.

Let's start with a look at the veterans.

Trey Burton deserves post-hype sleeper consideration this season. This is largely an indictment of the position as a whole, but Burton finished as a TE1 (top-12) eight times last season, trailing only Kelce, Ertz, Kittle, and Ebron among TEs. Burton's target ceiling isn't as high as others in this tier, but we always want cheap pieces of offenses we expect to score often. Chicago quietly finished 11th in points scored per drive in Matt Nagy's first year as HC.

If you're strictly chasing opportunity in the late rounds, Delanie Walker and Jordan Reed are massive values. Walker turns 35-years-old in August, but he finished as the TE11, TE8, TE3, TE5, and TE4 in PPR points in each of his previous five seasons while seeing over 100 targets every year in this span. Reed is in a slightly worse QB situation compared to Walker but he is equally undervalued in the double-digit rounds. Prior to missing the final three games with a toe injury, Reed easily led Washington in targets, receptions, and yards last season.

Both Jack Doyle (TE21 ADP) and Greg Olsen (TE22 ADP) offer steep injury-based discounts off their redraft price a year ago. Doyle re-joins the Colts in a far more crowded situation in 2019, though. Eric Ebron broke out last season when Doyle was sidelined and Indy spent this offseason adding WRs Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell in the draft and free agency. Still, the Colts have finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in cumulative PPR points scored in each of Andrew Luck's last three full seasons -- certainly leaving the light on for Doyle to flirt with weekly relevance. A balky foot has harpooned Greg Olsen's career, but the veteran has somehow been able to gut out 11.3 PPR PPG across his last 12 healthy games. That output would have been good enough for the TE7 finish in 2018.

Jimmy Graham (TE18 ADP) is another deeply discounted veteran, but he'll be 33-years-old this upcoming season and it doesn't bode well that Graham could only muster a TE12 finish in his first year with the Packers. Green Bay's receiver room behind Davante Adams was in flux last season, but Graham just wasn't a key member of the pass offense. Graham caught 3 or fewer balls in 10-of-16 games last year while his 5 targets inside-the-ten was well below his career average (9.1 in eight full seasons). Graham is a good bet to improve his TD total in 2019 but I'd rather spend my late-round dart elsewhere instead of chasing Graham's past production and the Packers tight end role -- especially with Geronimo Allison back healthy. Since Aaron Rodgers became the Packers starter in 2008, his tight ends have produced just four top-12 fantasy seasons with no finish being higher than Jermichael Finley's TE9 campaign in 2011.

The Vikings used the 50th overall pick on Irv Smith in the NFL Draft and not-so-quietly fielded trade offers for Kyle Rudolph all offseason. Rudolph got a new extension this summer, but his new contract is a glorified two-year deal that allowed Minnesota extra cap flexibility. It's hard to feel comfortable taking Rudolph as your TE1 in fantasy this season, but he's plodded his way to TE10 and TE12 finishes in PPR points per game in each of the past two years while Kirk Cousins has supported a top-12 tight end in every season he's started. Rudolph is usually off the board between TE14-TE17.

Chris Herndon, Mark Andrews, and Dallas Goedert each enter their second season as rare rookie producers at the position. Goedert is road blocked by Zach Ertz, but the Eagles shifted even more 2-TE heavy in their personnel schemes over the final few games of 2018, perhaps foreshadowing a near full-time role for Goedert this season. Both Chris Herndon and Mark Andrews each became one of 18 tight ends to post over 500 receiving yards in their rookie season in the last 30 years. Unfortunately, both Herndon and Andrews have target volume concerns on their respective teams. Herndon has to compete for looks with Anderson, Bell, Crowder, and Enunwa while Andrews may struggle to see weekly volume on the run-heavy Ravens. Even though each of these three tight ends may be tied down opportunity-wise, their talent and double-digit round ADPs keeps the door for investment wide open. Andrews and Goedert can be a part of any team build as upside No. 2 tight ends or as a part of a late-round tight end stable if you punt the position early in your drafts. Chris Herndon's four-game suspension will make him ineligible for fantasy until Week 6 (the Jets bye is in Week 4).

T.J. Hockenson should immediately become an every-down player in Detroit, but the Lions project to be more run-heavy this season with Bevell/Patricia controlling the game-plan. Bevell's offenses have ranked inside of the top-10 teams in rush play percentage in 8-of-12 seasons in his career as Minnesota and Seattle's OC. It's possible that after Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones get their usual share of looks, there won't be enough volume for Hockenson to sustain a weekly floor. On the flip side, Noah Fant joins Denver's wide open pass-catcher corps at an opportune time. Joe Flacco is a limited signal-caller at this point in his career, but his tendency to hone in on his tight ends will bode well for Fant. Over the last three years, Flacco has targeted his tight ends on 23 percent of his pass attempts -- the fifth-highest rate among QBs in this span. Fant needs more polish than Hockenson, but he arguably has a better fantasy situation as a rookie.

The bottom of the barrel includes Tyler Eifert, Mike Gesicki, Darren Waller, Ricky Seals-Jones, Gerald Everett, and Ben Watson. Each of these tight ends have an ADP of 180 overall or higher. Gesicki and Waller are my favorite targets of this group as their teams' respective target trees are far from sorted. Eifert is a swing-for-the-fences play -- he's missed 34 games over the last three years -- while Ben Watson is the favorite to be the Patriots No. 1 tight end when he returns in Week 5 from his four-game suspension.

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