In a year where there aren't a lot of consensus picks at the top of each position, there's no argument that Gronk is going to be the first tight end off the board. Over the past two seasons, there hasn't been any competition for that title as the Patriots star has posted fantasy totals akin to a top 10 wide receiver. The start of this year might bring some uncertainty if Tom Brady is indeed forced to miss the first four games of the 2016 campaign. But fear not, Jimmy Garoppolo knows enough to throw the ball in the direction of No. 87. Gronk is going to come off the board in the first round in plenty of drafts for good reason. Anyone who drafts him is going to have a distinct advantage at the tight end position.
The young Washington tight end came into last season listed behind Niles Paul on the tight end depth chart. Yet, after Paul want down in the preseason, Reed enjoyed a true breakout campaign, notching 952 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. Reed was a monster in the red zone for Kirk Cousins, who also took off in 2015. Clearly the target hog and most dynamic asset in the passing game, Reed should be the lead receiver in Washington again this season. However, the specter of health does remain in the background. Reed missed another two games this year, and has only played in 34 of 48 possible career contests. Worse yet, his extended concussion history makes him just one big hit away from a long absence. Nevertheless, the upside he showed last year is just too much to ignore, and he'll fight with Tyler Eifert and others to be the second tight end off the board after Rob Gronkowski.
For much of his career, Olsen was a decent tight end option but he's kicked things up a notch in the past two seasons. The veteran from "The U" has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns and has become one of Cam Newton's main targets in the Panthers offense. There is some reason to predict a regression with Kelvin Benjamin returning from an ACL tear and Devin Funchess expected to claim a bigger role in the offense. Nonetheless, there's little reason to think Olsen won't be one of the first few tight ends off the board in most drafts and should be in line for another top five finish at the position in 2016.
After missing all but one game in 2014, we were finally treated to the Tyler Eifert breakout year in 2015. And was it ever worth the wait. While the Notre Dame product wasn't necessarily a big yardage producer, his 13 touchdowns more than made up for it. The big concern? Just offseason ankle surgery that threatens to have him missing the start of the regular season. The Bengals have a solid backup tight end in Tyler Kroft, so Eifert could eventually have some competition for tight end snaps when he returns to the field. But his past body of work is reason enough for optimism that he should once again be a solid TE1 option in 2016.
After bursting onto the scene in 2014, we were expecting big things from Kelce in 2015. So we were disappointed when his totals were nearly identical from the previous year. Maybe some of the issue is that he plays in an offense that just doesn't throw the ball very often. Only three teams threw it less than Kansas City last season. The good news for Kelce is that he owns a large share of the targets with 22 percent of the throws going in his direction last season. As long as he can maintain a similar volume of targets, the opportunity will be there for Kelce to continue along as a top tight end. Now if we could only convince Andy Reid to let Alex Smith throw it more.
Barnidge was one of the bigger surprises of the 2015 fantasy football season. In his previous six NFL seasons, Barnidge logged 44 total catches for 603 yards and three touchdowns. He blew those totals away with 79 receptions for 1,043 yards and nine scores last year. He'll enter 2016 as the top target on the Browns roster, but he'll have to adjust to some changes. With Hue Jackson taking over as head coach, there is likely to be a change in the offense. Barnidge will also have new teammates in key spots. Robert Griffin III stands to be Cleveland's newest starting quarterback while rookie Corey Coleman will challenge to take over as the Browns new No. 1 wideout. Regardless, Barnidge should be one of the first five tight ends drafted. Now it's a matter of proving that last year wasn't a fluke.
Rather quietly, Delanie Walker enjoyed a dominating season by eclipsing 1,000 yards for the first time in his NFL career. He was clearly the favorite target of rookie passer Marcus Mariota, and he led the NFL in tight end targets. In PPR leagues, Walker was the TE2 overall, thanks to his 94 catches. Walker should reclaim his spot as a top-10 tight end in all formats this season. He's still the favorite to lead the team in targets, unless second-year wideout Dorial Green-Beckham takes a massive leap forward. Most likely, he will go underrated again due to his lack of name recognition.
Green spent his first four seasons playing in the considerable shadow of Antonio Gates. But last season we finally got a glimpse of what the athletic tight end could do. In three games without Gates, Green racked up 174 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 18 targets. Now he'll head to Pittsburgh to replace the retired Heath Miller. It comes at an interesting time as the Steelers face a season without dynamic receiver Martavis Bryant (suspension). That opens up a number of targets. Green has a chance to jump into the top 10 among tight ends playing in one of the NFL's most high-powered offenses.
Some things just feel timeless -- rock and roll, classic cars ... and Antonio Gates. But the sun might be starting to set on the venerable tight end. Last season, he missed the start of the season after being suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing drugs then had scattered production once he returned. With just two years remaining on his current contract, we could be seeing the last of a player who was perennially one of the top at his position. It also appears that the Chargers drafted their tight end of the future by spending a high second round pick on Hunter Henry. Gates could still land a large share of San Diego's targets, but that number could be diminished from past seasons.
It took Thomas some time to get going with a new team in 2015. The tight end suffered a finger injury in preseason that kept him out of action until Week 5. Even then, it was obvious that Thomas was still working into the flow of things on a squad that was starting to establish its passing game. This year he'll hopefully have a full training camp and preseason to build a rapport with Blake Bortles. But Thomas will still need to battle with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns for targets. The tight end position appears to be a little deeper in 2016 than in past seasons, but there is still a chance for Thomas to rank as a top 10 option by season's end.
During his four-year stay in Indianapolis, Fleener was in a constant competition with Dwayne Allen for snaps and targets. While Fleener usually got the bulk of the tight end opportunities, those chances were still less than if he were the lone tight end option on his team. He'll now have that chance in New Orleans. With Benjamin Watson having moved on to Baltimore, Fleener can prove that he's worthy of being a top tier fantasy tight end. The targets will definitely be there, especially in the red zone. Fleener could end up as a later round steal for some fantasy managers.
Zach Ertz signed a five-year extension before the NFL playoffs even concluded, so you know the Eagles prioritize him. He closed out the season on a hot streak with 30 catches and 39.2 fantasy points scored over the last three games of 2015. That was a stark contrast to what was a truly disappointing season where he did not score a touchdown until Week 13. You'll hear plenty of talk about how Travis Kelce was not a feature in new head coach Doug Pederson's offense in Kansas City, but for many reasons that is just noise. Ertz should compete for, at worst, the second spot in the target pecking order. He'll be a popular pick at tight end.
Jason Witten was the TE10 on the season, but don't let that fool you about his performance. For the most part, Witten was unusable. He scored three touchdowns on the year, but all of them came in either Weeks 1 or 17. Outside of those two games, Witten averaged 4.1 fantasy points per game. While Romo, theoretically, being back in action should help Witten, he is more of a name value than someone you should look to draft in fantasy. Perhaps you get some fine floor play weeks out of him, but that's about all.
Mention Ebron's name in fantasy draft circles and you're not likely to get a lot of enthusiastic responses. But his totals in 2015 were probably better than you imagine. The Lions tight end finished 13th at the position in just his second season. The retirement of Calvin Johnson frees up a large number of targets in 2016 and hopefully Jim Bob Cooter sees fit to devote some of them to the tight end. It's a stretch to think Ebron is going to suddenly jump into the range of elite tight ends, but it's not out of the question to consider him a fringe TE1 candidate this year.
Allen has struggled to live up to his potential all throughout his four-year NFL career, but 2015 was particularly vexing. The Clemson product was targeted just 29 times in 13 games and scored just 17 fantasy points. Part of the issue was certainly a lack of (Andrew) Luck in the offense, but that doesn't fully explain it. This year, however, Allen will have his chance to prove his value as he's now the Colts undisputed top tight end. The team made the decision to keep Allen while letting Coby Fleener (Saints) leave via free agency. After disappointing fantasy managers time and time again, Allen will likely be available on the waiver wire in plenty of leagues but could provide decent production if he finally (!!!) comes around.