Early, middle, late. These are your options for when you'll draft your tight end, presuming you're in a typical Fantasy league that starts only one.
And these straightforward options come with straightforward players. You're going to know who you're going to get based on how soon (or how late) you take one.
If you go early then the marquee name is Jimmy Graham, who is not just an early-round pick but more of a Top 10 (Top 5 in PPR?) pick. The reasons are obvious: He dominates at his position and is truly a difference maker compared to his peers. As the top tight end last season he averaged 2.8 more points per week than second-best tight end Vernon Davis. That difference isn't as much as Jamaal Charles had over LeSean McCoy or Peyton Manning over Drew Brees, but you get the idea. Graham would have also finished as the fourth-best receiver in Fantasy had he counted as a wideout and sixth if he were a running back. Plus he's consistent -- Graham had 10-plus Fantasy points in 12 of 16 games last season, a big improvement from last year's injury-plagued session.
If you miss him you can still spend an early pick (albeit not a first-round pick) on Vernon Davis, Julius Thomas or Rob Gronkowski. Davis and Thomas finished second and third, respectively, at the tight end spot last season. Both were quite consistent and both should be in a position to keep thriving. Gronkowski was awfully consistent in the time he actually played last year -- injury concerns keep him grounded as a potential value steal around 30th overall.
After the first four
Once you get past the above players you'll have to make a decision about just how important the tight end position is to you. Is it so important that you'll want to find a reputable player at what will turn out to be a good value? Or, since you passed on the first four, is the position so watered down with good-to-mediocre talent that basically anyone you get will do?
Before you decide, know this: The average Fantasy point total per week of the tight ends ranked fifth through 10th last season was 6.6 Fantasy points per game. The average Fantasy point total per week of the tight ends ranked 11th through 16th last season was 4.8 Fantasy points per game. So effectively the difference between the two groups was roughly 1.8 Fantasy points per week.
I don't know about you, but if all I am losing is 1.8 points per game then I might as well wait and pick up quality players at other positions before grabbing a tight end.
If you wait until, say, Rounds 7 through 9 to target a tight end, then you'll be happy. This is around the time when you should see Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Dennis Pitta, Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen start to come off the draft board. True, none of these guys are of the caliber of Graham/Davis/Thomas/Gronk, but they're the next best thing. They'll disappoint more often than the first four names but they can also get beyond eight Fantasy points. They also have the potential to finish the year as a borderline top-tier tight end. So there's that appeal.
But the drop off from those tight ends to the rest of the group is volatile. Not necessarily bad, but something that can cause headaches. You're basically committing to playing tight end roulette until you find a tight end you're comfortable starting.
What you'll see available is a list of names with all sorts of potential and upside -- and doubt and downside. So if you're at this point, aim young. That's where there's a lot of intrigue.
Kyle Rudolph is a perfect example. A big-bodied tight end who has played a ton, Rudolph's consistency hasn't been horrible (eight- plus points in 11 of 24 career games), and that's with him catching passes from inferior quarterbacks in offenses that ask him to block a lot. The arrival of tight end developer Norv Turner to run the offense should put him in prime position to finally break out. Coming back from a broken foot could be problematic, or he could have had enough time to heal up.
Another pair of tight ends I like a lot are Dwayne Allen of the Colts and Zach Ertz of the Eagles. Assume both will play plenty while working in a number of two-tight end formations, but with Coby Fleener flaming out for the second year in a row with Indianapolis and Brent Celek a potential cap casualty and older player for Philadelphia, both players could see extended looks with the offense.
Other young tight ends like Ladarius Green, Joseph Fauria and Timothy Wright share space with long-standing veterans like Martellus Bennett, Delanie Walker and Antonio Gates. A rookie named Eric Ebron, from North Carolina, could also catch some attention in drafts this summer. In deeper leagues you might need to pick from this crew for a starting tight end. It also might mean you'll begin the season with one of these guys and go through five more before the year's over without the promise of hitting it big more than, say, three times over the first 13 weeks of the year.
Because the position is so thin it is recommended to aim for one of the first tier tight ends. Graham is the premium choice but it will mean a premium pick -- assume no lower than a first-round pick. If you're into running backs you understandably won't take him over one of the elite choices. And that means you won't get him on your team. That leaves Thomas, Davis and Gronkowski as potential fits and they all will go around the same time in drafts -- between 30th and 45th overall. The later you can get one of them, the better it helps you out. While getting Graham would be nice, these guys aren't considered too far off and you can get a couple of difference makers at other positions first.
In the event I do not take one of these four tight ends then I buy a one-way ticket to Valuetown. I won't take a tight end unless it's at an incredibly good value. In a recent mock I picked Jason Witten in early Round 7. That seemed like a solid pick. The last tight end in my rankings I feel good about drafting for value is Rudolph -- everyone after him is basically a late-round flier who I won't have any long-term commitment to.
Say you get toward the end of your draft and there's nothing left at running back and receiver but there's a sleeper at tight end. Is it worth it to get two tight ends on your roster? Assuming we're talking about getting a real sleeper and not a veteran with modest expectations, I'm all for it. Had you done that last season you might have taken Julius Thomas, who was the hot breakout in the early going. Owners were trading Thomas for a quality starter at another position as soon as the Sunday of Week 1 -- that kind of return on your late pick tight end investment is rare but obviously possible. There isn't an argument against taking two tight ends, so long as you don't cost yourself a running back or receiver with great potential in the process.
Rankings in tier form
I'm able to lay out the basic example of what to expect from tight ends on Draft Day pretty easily, but even so, listing the players in tiers should be helpful. Remember that the point of making tiers in the first place is to recognize when a certain level of expectation is getting thin within a position, then reacting accordingly in the draft.
|Elite Tier||Second Tier||Third Tier||Fourth Tier|
|1,000+ yards, 9+ TDs||850+ yards, 6+ TDs||700+ yards, 6+ TDs|
|Jimmy Graham||Jason Witten||Kyle Rudolph||Delanie Walker|
|Julius Thomas||Jordan Cameron||Dwayne Allen||Ladarius Green|
|Vernon Davis||Dennis Pitta||Zach Ertz||Joseph Fauria|
|Rob Gronkowski||Jordan Reed||Martellus Bennett||Timothy Wright|
|Greg Olsen||Antonio Gates|