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Andrew Swanson | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Way Too Early Tight End Rankings
Most people view the tight end landscape in 2018 as a disappointing wasteland of mediocrity outside of the top three finishers of Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle. Owners who drafted Rob Gronkowski in the late second or early third round were devastated with three touchdowns 682 receiving yards on just 47 receptions in 13 games.

Other draft darlings like Evan Engram and Jimmy Graham failed to provide value comparable to their draft cost, and breakout candidates like Vance McDonald and Trey Burton did not pan out.

While I do agree that the 2018 season was frustrating for owners looking to find viable plays at the tight end position, compared to other seasons dating back to 2010, this past year was not as bad as it seemed. There were three players who averaged ten or more fantasy points per game for only the third time in the last eight seasons, and the 12th ranked tight end in fantasy points per game, Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers, averaged the same fantasy points per game as the final TE1 in four of the last seven seasons.

The bottom line is that tight end has always been a wasteland outside of the top performers at the position. If you can nab one of the elite players in the early part of the draft, it will give you a significant edge over your opponents. If you cannot land Kelce, Kittle, or Ertz, you might as well wait a while as there is not much to discern between the rest of the pack.

Here are my way too early rankings for 2019:

George Kittle

Kittle doubled his production from his rookie season and will easily be a top 3 fantasy TE in 2019.

1. Travis Kelce, KC - Kelce continues to ascend as the No.1 tight end in fantasy after setting career highs in targets (150), receptions (103), and receiving yards (1,336) while reaching double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career. While I do anticipate negative touchdown regression from Patrick Mahomes in 2019, any worries of a lack of rapport with Mahomes was vastly overblown. Not only does Kelce provide one of the highest floors at any position, but he also can be a weekly matchup winner in the explosive KC offense.

2. Zach Ertz, PHI - You can easily make a case for Ertz to be ranked first overall based on the fact that he has equally elite target volume to Kelce. The reason why I would not take Ertz over Kelce is the questions surrounding the pass-catching options in Philly as we approach free agency and the draft. Although they have the worst cap situation in the league, the Eagles may try to make a play for a free agent wide receiver to pair alongside Alshon Jeffrey. But don’t overthink it too much, as it is clear that Ertz is the focal point of the Eagles passing offense and should continue to be next season.

3. George Kittle, SF - As a 49er fan I was excited to see Kittle become an elite tight end option. Not only is he an exceptional route runner, but he is also deceptively fast for his size and excellent in the open field for a 250-pound man. Kittle set an NFL record for a tight end with 1,377 receiving yards in a season and game very close to setting the single-game record for receiving yards at the position. If the Niners bring in an elite pass-catching weapon like Antonio Brown, it will be more difficult for Kittle to repeat his volume from 2018, but you could argue he is in line for some positive touchdown regression after point only five TDs last year.

4. Eric Ebron, IND - Sometimes it takes a new situation and a new offense for a player to finally live up to their potential. That appears to be the case for Ebron, who led all tight ends in receiving touchdowns in 2018 after four disappointing seasons in Detroit. The former first-round pick from North Carolina posted more receiving touchdowns last year (13) that he scored in his entire time with the Lions. It may be difficult to replicate those numbers, but I do believe in the red zone connection between Ebron and Andrew Luck, and the news of an off-season hip surgery for Jack Doyle may give Ebron even more snaps to start the season.

5. O.J. Howard, TB - Bruce Arians does not have a strong track record of producing tight ends, dating back to his days with the Steelers. But he also has never had a tight end with the physical gifts that Howard possesses. I anticipate Howard will be actively used by Jameis Winston this season, especially if Cameron Brate is a cap casualty this spring.

6. Hunter Henry, LAC - A season-ending knee injury cost Henry a chance to take that next step in his third year in the league. When on the field in 2017 and 2016, Henry was a deadly red zone weapon for Philip Rivers, with 12 touchdowns in 25 games, including eight in his first 13 games as a rookie. Mike Williams could eat into Henry’s red zone targets, and the emergence of Melvin Gordon as an elite touchdown scoring running back in goal-to-go situations could also limit Henry’s ceiling.

7. Rob Gronkowski, NE - It pains me to rank Gronk this low after having the big man as the No.1 tight end for so many years. But you cannot look past his subpar fantasy production last season and the evidence on the field that injuries and age are catching up to him. It is also possible that Gronk and his Tide Pods ride off to the sunset in retirement for a career in show business.

8. Evan Engram, NYG - Engram might be the best tight end value this season if he can avoid injury and play a full 16-game slate. Although he managed just three receiving touchdowns in 11 games last season and failed to live up to his draft cost, he averaged only a tenth of a point less per game in 2018 than what he did in 2017 as a rookie. Both Engram and OBJ could be steals at their position if owners let them fall too much in drafts this year.

9. Jared Cook, OAK - Although he is not flashy and he all but disappeared from the face of the Earth in the final three games of the regular season, Cook did finish as the No.5 tight end with 896 yards and six touchdowns. If the Raiders resign him and if Jon Gruden does not bring in an elite pass-catching option, Cook will once again be a TE1 for fantasy.

10. David Njoku, CLE - I am quite bullish on the Browns for fantasy purposes in 2019, and that includes tight end David Njoku. Mayfield took off under Freddie Kitchens, and Njoku is the big body red zone threat that Mayfield likes to target in the end zone. Of the final four players ranked in my top 12, Njoku has the highest upside.

11. Jason Witten, DAL - Christmas came early for NFL fans when Jason Witten announced that he would leave the MNF booth and return to the Cowboys in 2019. Witten was a dreadful color commentator, making MNF almost impossible to watch without muting the volume. Hopefully, for Dallas fans, he still has something left in the tank and gives Dak a reliable target in the middle of the field. Witten never misses a game and should produce enough fantasy points to be fantasy relevant this year.

12. Trey Burton, CHI, - The narrative that Burton would take over the Travis Kelce role in Matt Nagy’s offense proved to be one of the worst collective calls of the fantasy industry in quite some time. I myself was high on Burton, despite the fact that he is nowhere near the physical beast like Kelce and Mitchell Trubisky is still learning the new offense. While I don’t think Burton will be as bad this year, I don’t see him becoming an elite fantasy tight end any time soon.

Just missed the cut: Greg Olsen, Austin Hooper, & Jimmy Graham