By Sam Lane (@FFStompy)
The tight end position is a mess outside of the top four or so players. If you don’t get one of Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, or Delanie Walker, it turns into a crapshoot. Sure, year to year you will get a guy that sneaks into the top 5 like Kyle Rudolph, the oft-injured Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert, the old Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen, but who it will be this year is anyone’s guess.
This is why fantasy owners would be better served to wait on picking a tight end until late in drafts and focus on more productive and valuable running backs and wide receivers. This article is intended to give you tight ends that are going later in drafts that can be top 12 TEs in 2018.
Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft had a breakout season in 2017. In 16 games he caught 42 balls for 404 yards and 7 touchdowns on 62 targets on his way to a TE16 finish. According to PFF, Kroft had the highest passer rating when targeted among tight ends and the third among all pass catchers. Kroft was also very efficient, ranking second in playerprofiler.com’s production premium, third in target premium, 12th in dominator rating, and fourth in fantasy points per target.
Passes to Tyler Kroft resulted in the highest passer rating among tight ends in 2017 pic.twitter.com/tt4fTevtR4
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 11, 2018
Kroft’s chance to break out was due to ye another Tyler Eifert injury. Arguably one of the best tight ends in the league, Eifert can’t seem to stay on the field. He has played in 10 total games over the last two seasons. He has never played a full 16 game season in his career. In 2016, Eifert suffered two back injuries, the latter of which required surgery and ended his season.
Eifert had another back surgery to repair a bulging disk last season, the third of his career. This offseason, Eifert has missed offseason workouts and started training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. This does not bode well for his 2018 season prospects.
Enter Tyler Kroft again. Kroft’s current redraft ADP is 305, the 37th tight end. His dynasty ADP is 231, the 31st tight end. With Eifert’s injury risk and how the Bengals use tight ends, this is a huge value. Over the last three seasons, Kroft and Eifert have combined for 26 touchdowns. They have also received a total of 41 red zone targets.
You can see that the Bengals like to use their tight ends in the red zone and the Tylers have been efficient at turning those targets into touchdowns. Kroft is a low-risk, high reward option at a low price.
Former Seattle Seahawks and new Detroit Lions tight end Luke Willson is a relative unknown. He has been overshadowed his entire college and professional careers. At Rice, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald out produced Willson. With the Seahawks, Jimmy Graham dominated the tight end touches. Now with the Lions, it looks like Willson may finally get his chance to shine.
Because he has been overshadowed, Willson doesn’t really have any significant stats to speak of. Willson’s best season was in 2014 when he produced 362 yards and three touchdowns. In his five seasons, he has accumulated 89 receptions on 136 targets for 1,129 yards and 11 touchdowns. To put this into perspective, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce produced 83 receptions, 1,038 yards, and 8 touchdowns in the 2017 season alone.
However, Willson does have time on his side. Though he is 28 this season, tight ends generally have a later breakout age than other skill positions. According to a study done by Mike Tagliere (@MikeTagliereNFL) of Fantasy Pros, tight ends don’t start to peak until the age of 25 and don’t start to decline until after 30. While this may seem like bad news for Willson, we have to remember that he entered the league older than most at the age of 23.
So, if we were to put this into seasonal terms, tight ends generally peak in their third or fourth season and decline around their eighth season. This gives Willson a few seasons of potentially high productivity. Tagliere also found that top-12 finishes stay relatively consistent, regardless of age, which is all you can really ask for of a later round tight end.
Willson also has athleticism on his side. According to playerprofiler.com, Willson ranked in the 94th percentile in speed score, 91st percentile in burst score, 74th percentile in agility score, 92nd percentile in catch radius, and 93rd percentile in SPARQ-x. According to Rotoviz’s freak score, which measures a receivers mixture of size and speed, with Calvin Johnson equalling 100, Willson scored an 86. This is above the likes of all-time great wide receivers Julio Jones and Andre Johnson.
The Lions are used to athletic tight ends, having drafted now Indianapolis Colt Eric Ebron. Ebron ranks in the 87th percentile in speed score and 76th percentile in SPARQ-x. While disappointing relative to his first-round draft capital, Ebron has finished as the 13th, 14th, and 13th fantasy tight end the last three seasons. Willson is going 220th overall, the 29th tight end, in dynasty. In redraft he is going 290th overall, the 33rd tight end. If Willson steps into Ebron’s role and produces at the same rate, that is fine production for a tight end going as late as he is.
Next on the list is Willson’s former teammate, Seahawks tight end Nick Vannett. Ironically, Willson, as well as Graham, were blocking Vannett from any significant snap share in productivity in his first two seasons. Now, with Willson and Graham moving on, Vannett has a chance to take a step forward.
While not a prolific producer in college, Vannett was taken in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft. This may largely have to do with his performance at the 2016 senior bowl. Though relatively unathletic, especially compared to Willson, Vannett has the size (6’6″, 260) and sure hands to be dangerous in the red zone for the Seahawks.
There are some questions surrounding the tight end depth chart for the Seahawks this offseason. With the departure of Willson and Graham, the Seahawks added former Carolina Panther Ed Dickson. They also drafted former Washington Huskies tight end Will Dissly. While on the outside this looks like they don’t believe in Vannett, the additions of Dickson and Dissly may be for their different strengths.
Dickson was PFF’s top pass-blocking tight end, while the Seahawks ranked 29th in pass blocking efficiency. The Dickson signing seems like a move to help protect quarterback Russell Wilson, especially because Dickson has only two seasons above 300 yards and only two with more than one touchdown. Likewise, Dissly was considered the best blocking tight end in the 2018 class, excelling both in pass and run blocking. So it seems that Vannett has the chance to be the Seahawks pass-catching tight end after all.
The Seattle Seahawks add tight end Will Dissly from Washington. A blocking tight end who didn't allow a single pressure from 78 pass blocking snaps in 2017
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 28, 2018
One of the main reasons that Vannett is a late-round tight end favorite is the vacated targets. Graham, Willson, and new Washington Redskins wide receiver Paul Richardson accounted for a combined 198 targets in 2017. This includes a league-leading 26 red zone targets to Graham.
The Seahawks did sign former New York Giants and Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a one-year deal. But Marshall is 34 years old, coming off of season-ending ankle surgery, and hasn’t had a productive season since 2015. Vannett could see a significant bump in targets and could absorb a lot of Graham’s red zone targets.
Vannett is going 256th overall in dynasty, tight end 34 and 359th overall, tight end 59, in redraft. He may be the lowest risk, highest reward of the three tight ends written about. With the vacated targets in Seattle and his skillset, Vannett could easily finish inside the top-12 tight ends if things break his way.
By drafting tight end later, you can take guys at other positions that are more valuable. The tight ends written about do have their question marks. A few things need to go their way to become relevant. But there is a path to targets for all of them. And because they can be drafted very late, you aren’t taking on much risk. Consider taking the late round tight end route in your drafts this year.
Thank you for reading! Be sure to follow me on twitter (@FFStompy) and look out for more articles in the future!