Not so long ago, there was a time where most tight ends were considered pseudo offensive lineman that could occasionally make plays on offense. Essentially, the value of a tight end on the field or in fantasy football was only marginally better than that of a fullback.
However, this could not be farther from the truth in the NFL today.
While tight ends are still capable of making key blocks to protect the quarterback or open up a lane for a running back, their worth on offense has skyrocketed in the last ten to fifteen years. Now, teams such as the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers covet their gifted big bodied receivers as they can utilize them in a variety of offensive schemes.
In terms of where they should go in a given fantasy draft, that ultimately will be predicated on how they fit to a respective teams offensive identity. Simply put, tight ends can go anywhere from the first few rounds to being un-drafted entirely depending on their reliability and development (the latter is especially important as these athletes attempt to make the transition to becoming much more versatile offensive weapons).
10. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
For whatever reason, Zach Ertz is usually a vastly underrated tight end prospect in fantasy every season. While Ertz has struggled as a red zone threat in the last few years (13 touchdown catches since 2013, 17th at the position), he has some of the best hands amongst tight ends as he has dropped just ten passes in his entire career. Although the Eagles have heavily targeted tight ends since Doug Pederson took over head coaching duties (27% target share), the addition of wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffrey could decrease the number of targets Ertz is able to accrue this season. Still, Ertz should still reliable and productive in his own right this season.
9. Hunter Henrey, Los Angeles Chargers
Despite being on the field for just 54% of the Chargers’ offensive snaps, Hunter Henrey still managed to garner eight touchdown receptions while averaging 13.3 yards per reception. As veteran tight end Antonio Gates continues to age and regress, Henrey will undoubtedly earn more opportunities to become a much more prominent asset in the Chargers offense than he was last season. However, similar to the situation of Zach Ertz, Henrey could receive less than his fair share of targets given the plethora of receiving options the Chargers have on their team. Still, the fact that he is an effective and consistent red zone threat should allow him to still be valuable in fantasy.
8. Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts
One of the big time breakout fantasy weapons from last year, Jack Doyle is being criminally sold short by fantasy football pundits this year. Despite having to compete with former teammate Dwayne Allen for targets last season, Doyle still caught five touchdown passes for nearly ten yards per reception. With the departure of Allen to the Patriots combined with the fact that head coach Chuck Pagano loves to incorporate tight ends into his offense (23% target share to tight ends) and Doyle is favorably set up to be even more vital to the Colts this season as an offensive asset.
7. Delanie Walkers, Tennessee Titans
A top-five fantasy tight end the past two years, veteran Delanie Walker has been a steady force on the Titans offense for years. Despite a drop-off in yardage, reception and targets, he set a career high with seven touchdown catches. While some may be concerned with Walker’s age (turns 33 this year) and decrease in production in certain statistical areas, the fact still remains that Walker is on a team that has been particularly proficient when it comes to scoring in the red-zone under the leadership of quarterback Marcus Mariota.
6. Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
Although Jimmy Graham has suffered his fair share of serious injuries, his value when he has been on the field cannot be ignored. While he was limited to just six touchdown catches last year, he was targeted 13 times in the end zone. Not only do I believe that Graham will convert more of those targets into scores, I am also confident that Graham will live up to his impressive consistency as a fantasy asset (posted five top four season in the last six years).
5. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
Productive in nearly every way that mattered last season (ranked in the top four in receptions, yards, touchdowns and end zone targets amongst tight ends), Kyle Rudolph quickly became a favorable target for quarterback Sam Bradford. Finishing second in fantasy points at the position, Rudolph was the fortunate beneficiary of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmer’s desire to utilize the tight end consistently (22% target share last season). Considering both Bradford and Shurmer will be around in 2017, expect Rudolph to have an even bigger impact in fantasy than he did in 2016.
4. Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
The only thing that has prevented Jordan Reed from being considered a top-3 tight end is his wavering health. While Reed has never played more than 14 games in a single season, he has usually made up for his limited presence on the field by catching at least 75% of his targets. As a result, he was able to garner six touchdown catches for 686 yards, allowing him to be a solid fantasy asset when he was healthy. If Reed can stay healthy throughout an entire season, he could easily elevate his position to being the best tight end in the NFL.
3. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
If you want to see how far tight-ends have come as viable receiving threat, you don’t need to look any further than Kelce’s total receiving yards in 2016 (1125 yards, highest amongst tight ends). The top-scoring tight end from last year, Kelce was fantastic at keeping his hands on the ball (74% catch rate) and was adept at working his way down the field to become a more versatile target (average depth of target of 6.7). When you realize that Jeremy Maclin is no longer with the Chiefs, the prospect of Kelce being even more productive in 2017 is both realistic and exciting.
2. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
While many consider Rob Gronkowski a shoe-in as the best fantasy tight end, there is one glaring issue that has prevented him from fulfilling that proclamation consistently: health issues. Gronkowski has missed 24 games in the past five season and only played in eight games last season (although he led tight ends in fantasy scoring in weeks 6-10). When you put the injury issues aside though, Gronkowski is still a top-five fantasy tight end and is easily the best in the NFL when completely healthy. Ultimately, your view of Gronkowski as the best tight end is predicated on if you believe Gronkowski can finally weather a 16-game season and put up the eye-popping numbers that are expected of him every year.
1. Greg Olsen
While Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had one of his worst seasons to date last year, veteran tight end Greg Olsen still finished in the top three at his position in fantasy. Although Olsen only caught three touchdown passes in 2016, he was targeted ten times in the red zone and most likely would have had the majority of those if Cam Newton was not constantly being abused by opposing defenses. Wisely, the Panthers picked up running back Christian McCaffrey in the NFL Draft and he should alleviate some of the pressure off of both Newton and Olsen. Top it off with the fact that Olsen has led tight ends in average depth of target during the last two seasons and it becomes clear that Olsen will be the best tight end in fantasy football this year.