Gary Barnidge, Jordan Reed, Tyler Eifert and Delanie Walker were all either late-round picks or may have even gone undrafted in shallower leagues last season. This season, those players are being drafted as top-10 options based on their 2015 finishes. So what does that tell us? Tight end is a position you can wait on without having to sacrifice a loss in production.
Last summer I wrote about five low-cost tight ends with upside to target in fantasy drafts. A few of them I hit on (Eifert, Walker) and missed on a few others. Either way, I figured I'd give it another go in hopes of hitting on a few more this season to help uncover great value at the tight end position based on situation, volume upside and what attributes they have put on tape.
Zach Miller, Chicago Bears
Zach Miller might be the best late-round tight end target of 2016 fantasy drafts given his asking price and anonymity among more casual fantasy fans. With only Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White ahead of him in terms of the pecking order for targets in Chicago's passing attack, the 31-year-old is primed for a huge year.
Miller is now the No. 1 tight end in Chicago following Martellus Bennett's departure via a trade with the New England Patriots. Even when Bennett was healthy last year Miller enjoyed some productive fantasy weeks. Naturally, he saw a nice uptick in target volume and yardage totals when Bennett was sidelined beginning in Week 14. In Weeks 9 through 15, Miller posted a 29/381/4 line and during that span he averaged six targets and 54 receiving yards per game while providing streaming value for fantasy owners struggling at the position.
It's also worth noting that from Week 9 through the end of the season, Miller was a more productive fantasy player than the Bears No. 1 wideout, Alshon Jeffery. Injuries to Jeffery played a role in that as he played in two fewer games than Miller down the stretch and was acting as a decoy in others. But on paper, the comparison is startling.
Stats on paper is one thing. Proof on game tape is another.
Miller made some incredibly athletic highlight-reel plays. Remember the one-handed touchdown catch touchdown he scored against San Diego? How about when he broke loose behind the Rams defense for an 87-yard touchdown reception? The fact that he outran a handful of secondary defenders on that play speaks to his explosiveness, long speed and versatility.
Another notch in Miller's favor as a late-round steal is his history as a quarterback in college. He has said that his prior experience as a signal-caller has helped him with the mental side of the game; reading defensive coverages with the mindset of a quarterback and establishing chemistry and timing with Jay Cutler, which never hurts.
For fantasy managers looking to wait on drafting a tight end until the latest round possible, Miller should be at the top of your list. Kevin White remains an unknown factor in Chicago's aerial attack and Jeffery's injury concerns from a season ago will likely linger into the start of the upcoming campaign. All things considered, Miller's role in Chicago's offense may end up being even more prominent than we could imagine.
Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
Despite Allen's struggles both statistically and with injuries, Indianapolis chose to re-sign him this offseason and cut ties with Coby Fleener, now with the Saints. Fleener's departure frees up a three-year average of approximately 87 targets which is amazing news for Allen. As long as he can remain healthy it's clear that ample opportunities will be available for him to contribute in a big way.
Allen's best year from a fantasy standpoint was 2014 when he posted 395 receiving yards and eight touchdowns finishing as fantasy's TE12. His touchdown rate was pretty remarkable that year, scoring on every 3.62 receptions (29 total receptions). And in the red zone Allen was virtually unstoppable with an 88 percent catch rate, hauling in seven of his eight targets for five touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. For what it's worth, Fleener also scored eight times that year. As a duo, the two tight ends combined for 16 total touchdowns and upwards of 1,000 receiving yards, with Fleener registering 774 of those yards.
The biggest concern with Allen is his injury history. The only season he has played a full 16 games was his rookie year in 2012. Since then, he has been on injured reserve twice. He missed all but one game in 2013 with a hip injury, managed to play in 13 games in 2014 despite numerous ailments including ankle and knee issues, and he missed another three games in 2015. This makes sense as to why we're hearing the offseason trope that Allen is reportedly doing everything he can to become more flexible and durable when the pads come on.
When healthy though, Allen has displayed extremely smooth route running abilities and an explosiveness that makes it easy to see why the Colts brought him back. He has the speed to get behind linebackers in coverage and the power to plow through secondary defenders for extra yardage after being contacted.
His current ADP on FantasyFootballCalculator is late in Round 13 and he's not even being drafted in standard NFL.com mocks. As a tight end who could be in line for 90-plus targets in Andrew Luck's offense, he makes for an excellent bargain for those seeking late-round value.
Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions
Even with extremely talented prospects, it usually takes a first-year tight end some time to develop and adjust to the NFL game, so Ebron's underwhelming 248-yard, one-touchdown rookie campaign wasn't much of a red flag. He saw the field more in his second year (snap count from Year 1 to Year 2 increased from 549 to 626) and he was granted more opportunities (targets increased from 47 to 70). Among tight ends who saw between 70-80 targets last season, he was the second-most productive fantasy player at his position behind only Tyler Eifert.
Ebron started hot last year. He scored in each of his first two games, and collected 53 percent of his total fantasy points for the year in his first five games played. But his role in Detroit's offense dwindled as the season went on. Some of that probably had to do with Detroit's poor offensive production during the first half of the year. When the team put offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in charge of the offense halfway through the season, Ebron was not a major benefactor of the Lions' uptick in efficiency. Following Detroit's bye in Week 9, he logged just a single game with greater than 50 receiving yards the rest of the season.
A look at his game tape was underwhelming, which came as somewhat of a surprise given his first-round draft selection and a good amount of hype surrounding his fantasy outlook for 2016. The Lions tight ends coach has worked with Ebron this offseason to refine his skills and polish some of his rough edges in the hope that he can contribute in a much bigger way this season. Ebron's upside in terms of a volume play combined with the current state of the rest of the Lions' receiving corps sans Calvin Johnson is driving the hype. Ebron's target count of 70 from a season ago should only increase with Megatron's 149 targets from last season now up for grabs. Of course Golden Tate and Marvin Jones should also benefit from those added looks, but Ebron could potentially be the go-to guy in red zone situations in the way Johnson has been for the last nine years. And with talks of a "more exciting role" for Ebron this season, he has a chance to make the leap from one of Matthew Stafford's ancillary targets to a primary one.
Ebron's upside is extreme as he tries to make a name for himself in his third pro season, but many factors will be at play in terms of how much he can contribute to a fantasy squad on a weekly basis. Still just 23-years-old, he's worth stashing in dynasty leagues, and if available at his Round 13 ADP he is a must-draft as a TE2 with breakout potential.
Jared Cook, Green Bay Packers
In his seven years in the NFL, Jared Cook has not experienced the most stable quarterback play. The unimpressive group of signal-callers he has caught passes from during his career include: Matt Hasselbeck, Vince Young, Kerry Collins, Rusty Smith, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, and Nick Foles.
It's safe to say that Cook got an upgrade at quarterback when he signed a one-year deal with Green Bay this offseason (the Rams cut him), so at least he's got that going for him.
Cook's best fantasy year was in 2013 when he caught 51 receptions for 671 yards and scored a career-high five touchdowns and finished as the season's TE10. He has been able to produce respectable numbers even with inconsistent quarterback play over the years, registering no fewer than 72 targets in five straight seasons and at least 44 receptions and 500 yards in four of those five years.
He provides the Packers with a big, athletic pass-catcher that they lacked last season, especially in the red zone. Cook isn't much of a blocking tight end, so he might not see the snap volume that fantasy owners would prefer. But because of his size and experience, he will probably trump fellow tight end Richard Rodgers in red-zone passing situations.
Cook moves swiftly for his size and creates mismatches wherever he lines up. Entering his age 29 season, he may not possess the same 4.37 forty-yard dash speed he flashed in college, but his size-speed combination ranks up there among some of the most athletically gifted tight ends in the league. It's a shame that some of his prime money-making years went to waste in an anemic St. Louis passing offense. But since he's on a one-year deal now, he'll likely attempt to capitalize on every opportunity to warrant a bigger contract heading into 2017.
Keep in mind that Cook underwent what has been called "preventative" surgery to repair a foot injury this offseason, and since it's his first year in a new system every training camp rep will count. If he does have to miss any practice time, consider it as a lost opportunity to build chemistry within his new offense. Still, learning a new system shouldn't be too much of a hurdle for the seven-year veteran. With a Round 14 ADP, Cook makes for a worthy late-round snag at tight end who, as part of a healthy and high-flying Packers' offense, could be 2016's version of Gary Barnidge.
Will Tye, New York Giants
An undrafted free agent out of Stony Brook, Will Tye made quite an impression as the Giants best tight end in 2015. In 13 games, Tye posted 42 receptions on 62 targets for 464 yards and scored three times. All three of his touchdowns came in the final four weeks of the season, so unless you were in your fantasy playoffs, you may have not noticed Tye's late-season emergence. Once Larry Donnell was knocked out with a neck injury that still seems to be lingering, Tye's production really took off. In New York's final eight games, Tye averaged six targets and 48 yards per game. In PPR formats, he posted six double-digit fantasy games in that same eight-game run to finish the year, making him an ideal streamer and low-cost DFS play.
In the two seasons since Ben McAdoo took over offensive play calling for the Giants in 2014, the team's tight ends have combined for 119 targets (2014) and 129 targets (2015). As New York looks ahead to its third campaign under McAdoo (now the head coach), Tye is expected to be a "big piece" of the plan. He's not the tallest tight end out there at 6-foot-2, but he presents a threat underneath while wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Sterling Shepard spread the field.
Vance McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
In Week 1 through Week 8 McDonald reeled in just eight receptions for 45 yards and averaged 1.6 targets per game. From Week 9 through the end of the season, he averaged five targets per game, hauling in 23 of his 35 targets for 281 yards and three touchdowns. In that same span, McDonald ranked second on the team to Anquan Boldin in targets, third to Boldin and Shaun Draughn in receptions and led the 49ers in receiving scores. He was the go-to receiver in red zone situations too, ranking first in targets (six), receptions (four) and touchdowns (three) as the team approached the end zone.
It's clear that McDonald built a rapport with quarterback Blaine Gabbert as the season wore on. Without much movement on the pass-catching front during San Francisco's offseason, McDonald projects to play an even bigger role in Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense in 2016. He's also taller than nearly every wideout on the 49ers current roster which helps his cause.
A study of his game film revealed a few weaknesses. McDonald had trouble when stretching out for passes that were beyond his general wingspan, and let a few catchable balls get away from him. His worst outing in terms of drops that cost his team came in Week 15 against the Bengals. On two consecutive passes that went his way, he bobbled the ball in an effort to make a catch, and ended up bobbling it into the hands of Cincinnati defenders for interceptions. He was also targeted on some deep balls, but not too many of them were connected on.
His limited production throughout his three years in the league is what's keeping him under the fantasy radar so far this summer but with only Torrey Smith ahead of him in terms of target opportunities, McDonald could be a breakout star at tight end who will cost virtually nothing in drafts.
Charles Clay, Buffalo Bills
In his first season in Buffalo, Clay was underwhelming from a fantasy perspective. He finished the year as fantasy's TE17 with 51 receptions on 77 targets (third on the team) for 528 yards and three touchdowns. He missed the final three games of the season with a back injury, but few fantasy owners were relying on him by that point anyway. He logged three single-catch games on the year and two of his three touchdowns came in the Bills' first three games. Other than that, he was a total bust.
Looking ahead, Clay's role in Buffalo's offense doesn't seem like it will change too much. He is the clear-cut No. 1 tight end and has the athleticism to make big plays. But since Buffalo's offensive is focused around the run, his ceiling may not be as high as some of the other late-round tight end targets on this list.
On the plus side, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has a history of making stars out of his tight ends (think Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker in San Francisco) and frequently employs multiple tight ends to help in his power-run schemes. Roman's scheme has even been referred to as a "tight end heaven" in the past. Clay is versatile enough to be used both as a blocker and a pass-catcher as opposed to being more specialized in one aspect of the offense, so that should keep him on the field and open the door for additional looks.
As Buffalo enters its second year under Roman's tutelage, all of the major pieces on offense remain: Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, LeSean McCoy is the primary running back, Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods as the No. 1 and No. 2 wideouts. Clay projects the primary pass-catching tight end and since he doesn't even crack the top 20 tight ends being drafted on FantasyFootballCalculator, he makes for a solid late-round target with bounce-back potential.
Clive Walford, Oakland Raiders
Walford recorded 28 receptions for 329 yards and scored three times in his rookie season. Those three touchdowns came between Weeks 7 and 10 and up until Week 13, he saw no more than two receptions in a single game. So even though he was scoring, his ceiling for the year was 10.20 fantasy points in Week 7 -- his only double-digit outing on the year. In order for Walford to be a viable fantasy asset this year, that will have to change. But the outlook is bright for the second-year tight end.
Rivera has fallen out of favor in Oakland according to several reports that the team was shopping him ahead of the NFL draft this past spring. If the Raiders are as high on Walford as they claim to be and actually do want to expand his role as he continues to develop, he will add a dynamic piece to the team's already skilled receiving corps headlined by Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
At this point, Walford is a late-round dart throw for those who play in deep leagues, but his upside is big in the Raiders offense, especially considering how his role increased later last year. He injured his knee in an offseason ATV accident, but is expected to be a go for training camp. Walford is a name to monitor this preseason as a deep sleeper.