2018 fantasy tight end preview: George Kittle up, Jimmy Graham down

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How badly will touchdown regression hit <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24070/" data-ylk="slk:Jimmy Graham">Jimmy Graham</a> next year? (AP/John Froschauer)
How badly will touchdown regression hit Jimmy Graham next year? (AP/John Froschauer)

Whether you’re basking in glory or wallowing in defeat, the 2017 fantasy season is officially in the books. Because owner minds never rest, the Yahoo Fantasy crew looks ahead to what the New Year may hold. Today’s position under the microscope: Tight Ends.

Among tight ends that finished inside the position’s top-12, who do you believe could experience a decline in 2018?

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Dalton – JIMMY GRAHAM was a top-five tight end this year when he scored 10 touchdowns, but he managed just 520 yards on 96 targets and was relegated to essentially a specialist role over the second half of the season. Another year removed from major surgery, Graham mysteriously looked slower in 2017, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. It was nice to see Seattle involve Graham so much in the red zone (where he led all receivers with 27 targets this season), but touchdowns can often be fluky and are tough to count on, and the Seahawks’ run game can only improve next year. Graham struggled to separate and suffered the second-most drops in the NFL, so I won’t be paying a TE1 price for someone clearly entering his decline phase.

AndyCAMERON BRATE snuck into the top-12, thanks to six receiving scores, but he only caught 14 balls over his final eight games. Brate was actually held to two receptions or less in six straight weeks. O.J. Howard is an ascending talent who should enter the 2018 season on everyone’s list of breakout candidates. He’s the Tampa Bay tight end you’ll want moving forward.

Scott – I’ve had plenty of good fantasy times with DELANIE WALKER, but he’s headed to a dangerous part of his career. He turns 34 next August, and the Titans want to continue the transition to younger targets, like sophomore WR Corey Davis. And with Tennessee making the playoffs, that means the awkward marriage of Mike Mularkey and Marcus Mariota is likely to continue. Nobody wants that.

Walker still had a solid year in 2017, but there were mild signs of slippage. His yards per game dipped to a four-year low, he had his worst touchdown season in five years, and his yards per catch was a five-year cratering. He still did enough to check out as the TE7, but I want to bet on players on the up escalator, not the down escalator. This position is overflowing with young talent and upside gambits; Walker is mostly a floor veteran, with more downside than upside, when we look to 2018.

[Early position previews for 2018: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

Conversely, what plus-sized target outside the 2017 TE1 ranks do you think jumps in value next season?

Andy – There was never any doubt I’d go with GEORGE KITTLE, right? Of course not. The former Hawkeye closed his season with a six-target, 100-yard performance against the Rams, and he displayed legit after-catch ability all season. Durability could be an issue for Kittle in the years ahead, but his talent is obvious. As a featured receiver in a Garoppolo/Shanahan offense, Kittle has a shot at TE1 status in 2018.

Dalton – GEORGE KITTLE got 515 yards while missing time with injury, having a terrible QB situation for most of the year and playing one of the tougher positions for rookies to transition. He had more 20+ yard catches (eight) than Zach Ertz, got 8.2 YPT and had crazy good workout metrics.  Most importantly, Kittle will be the No. 1 tight end in a good system with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing to him. Jimmy G and the 49ers are going to score a lot of points in 2018. Kittle has the upside to easily finish as a top-five TE yet won’t get drafted nearly as such.

Scott – I have been commissioned to NOT write about George Kittle. I’ll leave that to the Iowa Grad and the 49ers homer. Will Jimmy G focus on the playbook or his Hall of Fame speech this offseason? (Yeah, I like Garoppolo too. But settle down a little bit. It’s been seven starts. And his five San Francisco starts came against three patsies and two playoff teams with little incentive — the Jags were fresh off their division clinch with no upward mobility left, and the Rams made it clear, they wanted to lose in Week 17.)

It’s not that I don’t see the case for Kittle, but you’ve heard it by now. Instead I’ll try a shot on an unpopular fantasy name, ERIC EBRON. Everyone in your league probably has a story about past Ebron faith gone awry, but here’s the thing — he hasn’t been that bad. Ebron grades out as the TE13, TE15, and TE12 over the last three years, and if you had the guts or recognition to play him in Weeks 10-16 this year, the money weeks, you were rewarded with the No. 5 tight end (34-370-3). Those numbers were almost identical to what Delanie Walker and Travis Kelce did over that span, and Ebron did it on just 44 targets — that’s a ridiculous 77-percent catch rate.

Ebron was the tenth overall pick in his 2014 draft class. Tight end is a position that often takes years to master (albeit some TE rookies did very well in 2017). Ebron needed time to get his sea legs, that doesn’t bother me. I guess this is growing up.

The Lions don’t have an obvious red-zone target for their offense, so it’s conceivable that Ebron might develop into a featured option around that area. Easy E should spike in The D next fall. (I could have also written about O.J. Howard, but Andy basically covered that in his Cameron Brate fade, so I won’t rehash. I agree with AB’s take, as I expect most people will.)

Listomania. Scribble down your initial top-10 tight end ranks for next season.

Scott – 1) Rob Gronkowski, 2) Travis Kelce, 3) Zach Ertz, 4) Evan Engram, 5) Hunter Henry, 6) Greg Olsen, 7) Jack Doyle, 8) O.J. Howard, 9) Eric Ebron, 10) Kyle Rudolph

Andy – 1) Rob Gronkowski, 2) Zach Ertz, 3) Travis Kelce, 4) Evan Engram, 5) Jimmy Graham, 6) Delanie Walker, 7) Greg Olsen, 8) O.J. Howard, 9) Kyle Rudolph, 10) George Kittle

Dalton – 1) Rob Gronkowski , 2) Travis Kelce, 3) Zach Ertz, 4) Evan Engram, 5) Greg Olsen, 6) Hunter Henry, 7) George Kittle, 8) Jack Doyle, 9) O.J. Howard, 10) Kyle Rudolph

Bring the blitz. Follow Andy (@AndyBehrens), Scott (@Scott_Pianowski) and Dalton (@DaltonDelDon) on Twitter.

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