Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jordan Reed
- Tight end is the pivotal position of 2018 fantasy football drafts.
- The talent drops off significantly after Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, so fantasy players must decide if they want to pay up at the position.
- If fantasy players bypass the big three, they are faced with three options: slow-and-steady veterans, young up-and-comers and oft-injured former stars.
Some weeks ago, I told my excellent and loyal Twitter followers that if they asked me some fantasy football draft strategy questions, I would answer them.
Here are some of the answers so far.
- The Round I’m Drafting a Fantasy Quarterback
- The 25 Best Fantasy Football Twitter Accounts to Follow
- The Best 2018 Fantasy Football Draft Position
- The Best 2018 Fantasy Football Strategy for the Turn in Rounds 2-3
Here are my thoughts on the tight end position in 2018.
When Should I Draft a Tight End?
Tight end is the key to 2018 fantasy football drafts. It’s a position of relative scarcity, so your approach to tight ends will determine what you do during the draft at other positions.
If you get the tight end position right, there’s a good chance you’ll have a winning fantasy season.
Four Tight End Strategies
I’ve seen four main approaches to the position this year.
- Pay up for a top-three producer.
- Settle for a slow-and-steady veteran.
- Speculate on an up-and-comer.
- Gamble on an oft-injured former star.
While I have my own preferences for drafting, your approach should be dictated by your analytical strengths and general team-building philosophy.
If you’re simply the type of drafter who doesn’t want to spend a premium pick on a tight end, that’s fine. You should still be able to find a strategy that works.
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Pay Up for a Top-Three Producer
Sean Koerner nicknamed the big three of Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz the “Black Hole Tier” on the tight end episode of The Action Network NFL Podcast.
With their elite 2017 performances, these three tight ends have exerted their gravitational pull on fantasy players all summer long. If you want one of them on your team, you’ll have to pay the iron price.
If you look at The Action Network Fantasy Football Rankings, you’ll see that Koerner, Chris Raybon and I all have the big three tight ends as players who should go off the board in the top 36 (before the end of Round 3) in point-per-reception leagues.
- Gronk: 20
- Kelce: 23
- Ertz: 33
If you want to have the security of a top tight end, my general advice is to wait for Ertz, if possible. It makes sense for Gronk and Kelce to be drafted in a similar range and ahead of Ertz: Over the past two years, Gronk and Kelce have averaged a near-identical 14.8 and 14.7 fantasy points per game to Ertz’s 13.8.
But even though Ertz is “only” third at the position since 2016, he might have the highest upside of the trio.
Over his two years with Doug Pederson as the Eagles’ coach, Ertz has played in exactly 16 games without former teammate Jordan Matthews, who was the team’s primary slot receiver for the first three years of his career. In Matthews’ absence, Ertz has served as a glorified big-bodied slot man, earning 141 targets for a 96-1,042-11 receiving line and absurd 16.6 points per game.
These three players are expensive for a good reason.
Settle for a Slow-and-Steady Veteran
I don’t have anything against Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Delanie Walker, Kyle Rudolph and Jack Doyle. (And even, I suppose, Charles Clay, Jared Cook and Ben Watson.)
All of them have respectable positional ranks and are likely to end up in fantasy lineups at some point this season.
- Olsen: 4
- Graham: 5-tie
- Walker: 7
- Rudolph: 9
- Doyle: 11
- Clay: 14
- Cook: 16-tie
- Watson: 18
But none of these guys excites me. All of them have been around for over a half decade. The youngest of the cohort is Doyle, who’s entering his age-28 season.
I think I have a sense of what these players are capable of doing this year. Although each of them could provide value at his average draft position (ADP), I expect none of them to have a league-altering 2018 campaign.
Each of these players offers a degree of safety. If you draft one of them, the odds are you won’t have a tight end who drastically underperforms his ADP-based expectations. And that’s something.
But that’s not likely to win your league.
If you settle for a slow-and-steady veteran tight end, you’re drafting not to lose. In my experience, that strategy hardly ever results in victory.
Speculate on an Up-and-Comer
If you’re looking to avoid the older veterans in fairly predictable situations, you could target the younger and more athletic up-and-comers in new offenses this year. I have four in mind, and all of them are ranked in the top 15.
- Evan Engram: 5-tie
- Trey Burton: 10
- David Njoku: 12
- Eric Ebron: 15
On the one hand, there’s objectively more risk associated with this group than the slow-and-steady vets. On the other hand, from a roster-building perspective, I think the true risk lies in settling at the position and bypassing players with the potential for outsized production.
Engram had one of the most productive campaigns ever (64-722-6 receiving) for a rookie tight end last season, and now he’s in a Pat Shurmur offense that over the past two seasons funneled 41 red-zone targets and 15 total touchdowns to Rudolph in Minnesota.
Burton signed a hefty four-year, $32 million contract with the Bears this offseason and is slated to play the Kelce role in coach Matt Nagy’s offense. Burton is one of our preseason risers. Stuck behind Ertz in Philadelphia for the past four seasons, Burton has averaged 14 fantasy points per game in the four contests Ertz has missed since 2016.
Njoku was drafted last year in the first round after leading all draft-eligible tight ends with 11.2 yards after the catch as a Miami redshirt sophomore. In possession of great size (6-foot-4, 246 pounds) and quickness (6.97-second three-cone), Njoku led the Browns as a 21-year-old rookie with four receiving touchdowns (26.7% of team total). In NFL history, 10 tight ends before Njoku were selected in the first three rounds and played as 21-year-old rookies: Eight of them had top-five fantasy campaigns in their careers.
Ebron has seemingly been around forever, but he’s just 25 and is now ready to play as a de facto slot receiver in an Andrew Luck-led offense that has little on the pass-catching depth chart after wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and the aforementioned Doyle. Remember that historical cohort of elite 21-year-old tight ends drafted in the first three rounds? Ebron’s in that group and still searching for that top-five season. It could happen this year. For as disappointing as he’s been, he still has three top-15 positional performances already to his name.
Gamble on an Oft-Injured Former Star
I have two guys in mind, and you probably know who they are. We have them ranked outside our two highest tiers, but their upside is apparent.
- Jordan Reed: 8
- Tyler Eifert: 13
Is it risky to draft Reed and Eifert? Absolutely it is. But the potential reward is worth the risk.
Over the past three years, Reed is second at the position with 14.8 fantasy points per game. Eifert is fifth with 13.0.
Reed is still in the same offensive system that has fed him the ball for years, and now his quarterback is Alex Smith, who has supported top-tier tight ends for years, most recently Kelce in Kansas City and Vernon Davis in San Francisco before him.
Speaking of Davis: If Reed suffers an injury, then Davis will be a viable fill-in as he re-establishes his old connection with Smith. Davis is going undrafted in most leagues, but over the past two years, he has averaged 9.1 fantasy points per game in 14 Reed-less contests.
Eifert has played in just 23 games over the past three years, but he has 18 touchdowns in that time. If we remove the games in which he exited early or played limited snaps because of injury, he has 17 touchdowns in 20 games. Since 2015, he’s averaged 18.3 fantasy points per game in his 11 contests with 5+ targets. With Brandon LaFell no longer on the team and an unsettled pass-catching depth chart after wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals could easily give Eifert a career-high number of targets this year — if he stays healthy.
If Eifert once again is unable to finish the season, backup Tyler Kroft (whose ADP is nonexistent) should be a capable replacement. In 14 games without Eifert last year, Kroft averaged 4.4 targets and 8.8 fantasy points per outing.
Get Something Big for Almost Nothing
As much as I like having Gronk, Kelce and Ertz on my fantasy teams, I like something else even more: getting value later in the draft.
If I pay up for one of the big three, I have a best-case sense of what I’m getting: something approaching high-end wide receiver production. And that makes sense, because the big three have ADPs comparable to those of top wideouts.
If I draft in the Black Hole Tier, I’m paying close to fair value for my realistic desired outcome. The same is true if I draft a slow-and-steady dad-running option.
But I’m a cheap person. I’m also petty, but that’s a different matter.
I don’t like paying a fair price for upside, especially at the tight end position, where market values for high ceilings tend to be depressed.
If you speculate on an up-and-comer or gamble on an oft-injured former star, you might lose — which, statistically, you’ll probably do 11 out of 12 times anyway.
But if you hit with one of these players — and all of them have real potential to be top-five fantasy tight ends in 2018 — then you just might arbitrage your way into a championship by getting something big for almost nothing.
If I had to go with one of the up-and-comers or former stars I’ve highlighted, Njoku would be a close second, but Reed would be my option.
It’s not for nothing that they’re called the Washington Reedskins.