No matter what your fantasy football draft strategy is, a key part of building a solid roster is finding gems at every position in the later rounds that have the potential to outproduce their asking price. Last season, you might have been able to draft Jimmy Graham in Round 11, and he cracked top five at his position with six touchdowns and just under 1,000 yards. Well, it's about time we start identifying some tight ends for 2017 who could return the same kind of results, but at a discounted rate in drafts. All ADP data in this article is taken from FantasyFootballCalculator.com's 12-team, standard mock draft leagues.
When the Colts decided to part ways with Dwayne Allen and re-up Jack Doyle's contract this offseason, the fifth-year tight end's fantasy stock immediately shot up. Doyle is Indy's clear-cut TE1, a status solidified by his new three-year, $19 million contract on the heels of his 59 receptions on 75 targets for 584 yards and five touchdowns in 2016.
Doyle actually led all NFL tight ends with a 78.7 percent catch rate last season, so it makes sense that the team, under new GM Chris Ballard, decided to re-sign the rising, homegrown talent. He was one of just six tight ends with double-digit red zone receptions (10) last year, and it was clear that Andrew Luck's trust in him grew throughout the season.
It feels like the Colts have been hunting for a solid No. 3 wideout for a few seasons, and they added Kamar Aiken to the mix in free agency. But without a reliable third option for Luck to target, Doyle's opportunity in the Indianapolis offense is seemingly unlimited. Per NextGenStats, Doyle ranked fourth among tight ends last year in yards of separation at target (3.4), providing his quarterback with a sizable window in which to deliver the ball.
The biggest red flag when considering Doyle's value for the upcoming season, is the health of Luck, which is still a question mark as camp approaches. Still, given the personnel changes and current ADP, Doyle could return massive value to fantasy owners willing to wait on the position.
A first round draft selection by the Lions back in 2014, Eric Ebron has seemingly been on fantasy breakout lists each of the last three seasons. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to remain healthy for a full season, which has clearly affected his overall production. Still, his stats have consistently improved with each passing year. He set career highs in targets (85), receptions (61) and yards (711) last season but only managed one touchdown in 13 games.
That's because just six of his 85 targets came in the red zone. We can thank veteran receiver Anquan Boldin for that; he led the Lions with 22 red zone targets and eight receiving touchdowns last season. Well guess what, kids?! HE GONE. Boldin isn't on the team anymore, and his 95 total targets from last season are up for grabs.
We've already heard whispers that Ebron's role in the offense has expanded this offseason, and the tight end has expressed excitement regarding his outlook. It'd make sense for the Lions to plan on using him more out of the slot, which would be a huge boon to his fantasy value. Detroit primarily ran three-receiver sets last season, 79 percent of their offensive plays to be exact, but now lack a solid No. 3 option at the position.
Detroit added some depth at tight end in the offseason: Veteran Darren Fells comes from Arizona and the team selected 270-pound Toledo product Michael Roberts in the NFL Draft, which should help free up Ebron for more opportunities to line up in the slot. Per NextGenStats, Ebron ranked second among all tight ends in receptions out of the slot last year with 43 catches for 503 yards, taking 56 percent of his pass plays lined up in the slot. If Ebron's pass-catching role does expand, he stays healthy, and sees more looks in and around the end zone, there's no question that he'll produce elite numbers in fantasy.
Well, Brate went on to tie for the lead in touchdowns (eight) at his position and his 114 standard fantasy points landed him as the TE6 for the season. Of Brate's 81 targets on the season, 20 percent were of the red zone variety, and he saw just two fewer looks (17) in the high-value area of the field than Mike Evans did (19).
Per NextGenStats, Brate ranked among the top five tight ends with a 9.9 air yards per target average. This tells us that Winston was looking for Brate downfield more often than you might expect, using him as more of an oversized wideout than a true tight end. For context, the other names in the top five include Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker and Jimmy Graham - some of the premiere tight ends in the NFL. Much of that had to do with the lack of depth in terms of pass-catchers in Tampa Bay last year, which they tried to correct this offseason. The team added veteran DeSean Jackson, drafted rookie wideout Chris Godwin and freakish tight end prospect O.J. Howard. You might be thinking that all this depth could be detrimental to Brate's value in 2017, but guess again.
When the Buccaneers drafted Howard back in April, some predicted the demise of Brate as a reliable fantasy tight end. But through spring workouts, everything coming out of Tampa Bay points to Brate remaining the Bucs tight end to own in fantasy. Scott Reynolds of PewterReport.com gushed about Brate's chemistry in OTAs with Jameis Winston, saying it would be "tough to dethrone" and that Howard may not be a first-team player out of the gate.
So, given Brate's Round 13 asking price, you can see why he made this list of late-round tight end values. Barring injury, he should be a lock for top 10 production at his position and if the mind meld between Brate and Winston continues to develop, we could be talking about a top five fantasy tight end in 2017.
Trying to make a case for Julius Thomas as a viable fantasy tight end heading into 2017 is not an easy task. But I'll give it a shot, because I like you.
We saw Thomas at his best in 2013 and 2014 when he was catching passes from Peyton Manning in Denver; he scored double-digit touchdowns both of those seasons. And his offensive coordinator during those two monster campaigns was none other than Miami's current head coach, Adam Gase. Now that Thomas has reunited with Gase in Miami, there's reason for optimism in terms of what he can offer fantasy owners. Thomas knows the system from his time in Denver, so he won't need additional practice reps to get up to speed on the playbook.
Because Miami lacked solid options at the position last season, the team's tight ends combined for just 13 total red zone targets. Thomas had seven red zone targets himself in just nine games with Jacksonville in 2016. And at 6-foot-6, Thomas is the tallest fantasy-relevant pass-catcher on the Dolphins' roster and will definitely be a mis-match nightmare in scoring situations.
The 29-year-old tight end is coming off two miserable seasons in Jacksonville in which he managed a combined nine touchdowns, 736 yards, 76 receptions and missed 11 total games. For what it's worth, I can understand how it might be difficult for a player to be completely motivated playing in Jacksonville, because, you know, they lose all the time.
If you've ever owned Thomas in fantasy before, you know that he's not exactly the definition of durable. Right off the bat, there's inherent risk given his injury history, so that's already baked into his Round 13 ADP.
We know what he's capable of, and some (not all) of his mediocre production the past two seasons can be attributed to poor quarterback play and a lack of offensive identity in Jacksonville. We're hoping that he'll be rejuvenated in a new situation, on a team with some playoff hopes. He's well worth the risk at his current asking price.
I already hate myself for including Fleener in this space. He was on my list of players to avoid last season despite the egregious hype surrounding his potential in his first season with Drew Brees in New Orleans. Fleener was the seventh tight end off the board last season on average because some thought he'd effortlessly slide into the same role that we saw Benjamin Watson thrive in during the 2015 season as fantasy's TE7.
That didn't happen.
From the start, Fleener had issues picking up the new offense which the Saints were not shy to reveal publicly, per plenty of preseason reports. Despite his struggles, Fleener still managed 18 red zone targets which tied him for fourth-most among tight ends. Even with the high red zone usage, he only scored three touchdowns in 16 games. With a bevy of additional options for Brees to target, it makes sense that Fleener's production didn't live up to expectations, and that was part of why he was viewed as a bust. He actually finished the year as fantasy's TE12, which made him a low-end TE1 in a 12-team league but 41.8 percent of his 87.3 fantasy points were amassed in just two games: Week 3 (16.9) and Week 6 (19.6). This is yet another example of just how horrific the tight end position was a season ago.
Given Fleener's Round 14 ADP in redrafts, it's clear his expectations are much lower which creates a great opportunity for value. If you're desperate in the very late rounds, why not target a guy who plays in one of the higher-scoring offenses in the league with a quarterback who's been top three in pass attempts since 2010? Get yourself some Fleener, and pray to the fantasy gods!