Rob Gronkowski is a yearly injury risk. Jimmy Graham was a first round pick in 2014 and finished as fantasy football’s third tight end. Antonio Gates was drafted in the 12th round and finished the year #2 behind The Gronk. Vernon Davis, Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Jordan Reed, Kyle Rudolph and Dennis Pitta were all inside the top-10 for tight ends when you look at 2014 ADP. Only Jason Witten (10th) actually lived up to his draft value.
The point? The elite tight end options aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Travis Kelce was a popular streaming pick at the position and averaged out as a 13th round pick. He was fantasy’s 8th best tight end in 2014 and the Chiefs ended up admitting they were intentionally holding him back.
Paying up for Gronkowski and Graham can be worth it. In 2014 you got Gronkowski at an insane value (third or fourth round) due to major injury concerns, but if you took that risk you got value and the game’s top fantasy scorer at the tight end position. If you sold the farm and spent your first round pick on Graham, you reached and missed out on the top spot by 40 points.
No one could really see that coming. Graham was projected to be the top fantasy tight end even if Gronkowski was healthy. But that didn’t end up happening, Gates careered out of nowhere, other streamers like LaDarius Green and Eric Ebron were mitigated disasters and most of the guys that filled out the top-10 in ADP were utter failures.
Last year isn’t always this year, though, and that’s one of the first rules of fantasy football. We also need to take major change into consideration, so let’s break a few of these guys down as we try to figure out a pretty key question: is it worth going after tight end early or should we just sit back, relax and stream the position all year?
My biggest beef about tight end last year was that you had to spend a first round pick usually if you wanted Jimmy Graham. A lot of fantasy experts said this was still a good idea because by taking Graham, you’re giving yourself a likely win at a pretty volatile position on a weekly basis. As it turns out, Gronkowski was the better value play and Antonio Gates was the value play to end all value plays. Ultimately, spending that first round pick on Graham may have still paid off if you drafted well, but overall it’s very likely it burned you in the end.
This year, at least so far, you don’t have to cut off all of your limbs to afford any of these guys. Gates wasn’t going to be a top-three pick no matter what, but a 4-game ban assures you needn’t give two shits about him as a TE1 right now. Gronkowski is now a 2nd round pick on average and if you get a stud wide receiver or running back before you get him, that can work out beautifully. He is still an injury risk, though, and he is likely to be without Tom Brady for the first four weeks of the year (Deflategate, and all). Graham is suddenly the value buy at the position in a sense, as he’s now sliding down to the third round because he got traded from a pass-happy Saints offense to a run-first Seahawks offense.
There is definitely some uncertainty with Graham this year, but he’s a red-zone fiend and the ‘Hawks really lacked someone of his caliber for both the red-zone and the intermediate passing game. They’ll continue to run the ball a lot and their division is a real son of a bitch, but he’s going to get his. And getting his should make for 60+ receptions, 650+ yards and 10-12 touchdowns. That should have a good shot at netting #3 overall value when it’s all said and done, and we’re arguably being conservative here. In other words, if you’re sold on drafting Gronkowski or Graham, I don’t hate their ADP. Just like last year, though, I won’t be spending a first round pick to get either of them.
Middle of the Road
If you don’t think you need the elite guys to win (and you really don’t) and you think you have an intermediate or late-round guy that is sure to pay off, then you can bypass spending an early pick on tight end. If your strategy works out, it’s clearly the smarter path, as running backs are much more valuable and so is getting a stud wide receiver. If you’re aiming for your tight end in the middle rounds, though, you may want to choose wisely.
Last year, as previously mentioned, five of the first 10 tight ends taken in fantasy drafts were complete busts. Graham, Gronkowski, Julius Thomas and Witten were the only guys to crack the top-10 rankings at the end of the year. Thomas, who went into 2014 as an elite option (3rd round on average), still finished 7th overall and by comparison ended up returning solid value. He’s now dropped down to the 6th round on average for 2015 drafts, thanks to relocating to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Blake Bortles and an awful Jaguars offense will do that to you. Of course, Thomas is actually a really nice value pick despite being a huge risk, and it’s because everyone is bracing for a major drop-off. That drop-off very well could happen, but now that you’re drafting him in round six, you’re aiming high and you can afford the miss.
Needless to say, Julius Thomas leads the way for middle of the road tight end picks. If you’re swinging and not afraid of missing, he’s the first mid-round guy you want to target. Pretty much everyone in this area is either unproven or has some type of negative baggage (new system, injury history, etc). You’re only getting the guy two rounds ahead of Owen freaking Daniels, for crying out loud. Thomas is just behind Travis Kelce and Greg Olsen this year and he could still easily top them both with an expanded role on a team that probably will throw the ball a ton. Of the three, he has the makings of being the better value considering you can take the chance two rounds later.
Those aren’t the only guys you want to keep an eye on or even target in the middle rounds, either. Zach Ertz could be ascending in year three, Josh Hill could have a huge role with Graham out of New Orleans and Martellus Bennett still figures to produce in Chicago. These three still offer plenty of value and also offer some upside, making the middle rounds a perfectly fine draft range for your starting TE1.
Late Round Sleepers
The elites are what we think they are and the middle of the road guys are appealing. But what is more appealing than getting similar value for a dirt cheap price? Last year Greg Olsen, Zach Ertz, Martellus Bennett, Antonio Gates, Heath Miller and Travis Kelce were all taken in the 8th round or later. All finished inside the top-15 by the end of the year. Ertz had an inflated final stat-line due to a ridiculous game late in the year, but you get the point. There is value in the second half of the draft and tight end streaming makes a good amount of sense.
It was much the same in 2013, when Julius Thomas went undrafted, Martellus Bennett went in round 13 and Jordan Cameron, Antonio Gates and Greg Olsen lasted until at least round eight. All five ended up inside the top-15 and were even joined by Charles Clay (undrafted).
The point is there is a ton of value at the tight end position late in drafts. One big reason why is because fantasy leagues usually only ask you to roster one tight end for your starting lineup. How you go about drafting the tight end position ultimately isn’t decided by rankings or ADP. That plays into it, but your own value placement for positions and players is what needs to come first. If you are big on having an elite tight end to win that one position each week, then maybe Gronk/Graham are worth the risk early. Keep in mind, though, that spending that early pick on a tight end can severely hurt your depth at running back and wide receiver – two key positions that require 2+ spots in your lineup each week.
You could always opt to wait and pick 2 sleeper tight ends you like, while stocking up on the RB/WR talent you know you can trust in the earlier rounds. I’m personally leaning toward that strategy more this year, but the only glaring issue in tight end streaming is that in 2015 you don’t have to pay so much for that potential elite option. The second round isn’t too big of a price to pay for what Rob Gronkowski can get you (his 184 fantasy points were 30 more than any other TE and would have made him the 10th best WR).
In reality, there isn’t a wrong move at tight end this year in terms of where you go with value. That’s important to note, considering that wasn’t really the case a year ago. If Gronkowski is there in round two, I’m considering it. The same goes for Graham in round three and Thomas in round six. I’m even high on Jordan Cameron. But waiting until the late rounds could pay off more than ever in 2015. One look at the current ADP says it all, with sleepers like Eric Ebron and Tyler Eifert making it past round 13 and even stable veterans like Delanie Walker, Vernon Davis, Larry Donnell and Charles Clay lasting just as long, if not longer.
If you’re looking for a clear-cut answer on whether or not to stream, it may simply lie in the flow of your draft. I’m all about value, so if one of the tight ends you like that are projected to go through rounds 2-9 slips a round or two, perhaps that has you ditching the streaming notion. If not, there are plenty of capable bodies to consider in the latter stages of your draft.
Got a favorite TE you’re targeting? Prefer one strategy over the other? Let us know in the comments below!