2019 Tight End Fantasy Draft Preview: After the Big 3, a position full of question marks

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/26686/" data-ylk="slk:Travis Kelce">Travis Kelce</a> is the king of the tight end mountain. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Travis Kelce is the king of the tight end mountain. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Current Tight End Landscape

Like the aftermath of a Thanos snap, the 2019 tight end landscape is astonishingly barren. Over the past four to five years, Mega-producers like Gronk, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, and Jordan Reed have either declined drastically or exited stage-left altogether. In their stead, three legit studs have risen to new elite ranks, but the disparity between Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle is suspect at best.

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Without a doubt, Kelce stands atop this bleak mountain. Amassing nearly 23 more fantasy points on the season than the second-highest scoring player at the position (Ertz) in 2018, #BabyGronk had himself a career campaign. Elevated by the Mahomes-effect, Kelce posted a 103-1,336-10 stat line and cleared top-ten statistics in nearly every category, including Air Yards (743), Yards After the Catch (593), and Contested Catch Rate (48.3%). With his situation nearly identical heading into 2019, a fourth consecutive year of TE1 production seems likely and makes his end of first-round/beginning of second-round ADP justifiable.

Coming off of draft boards nearly a round later are Ertz and Kittle. Similarly to Kelce, both enjoyed career efforts in 2018 while also garnering over 26 percent of their teams’ target share. There’s no disputing either of these players’ talents. Ertz’s efficiency (74.4% catch rate) and Kittle’s after-the-catch ability (857) are positively first-class. However, their numbers were significantly helped by a lack of surrounding talent. That’s something neither of these studs will enjoy in 2019, as both squads have added legit weapons who figure to eat into their respective volumes.

The next tier of players is comprised mostly of young hopefuls who have demonstrated flashes of brilliance. O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, and Hunter Henry have had BIG moments that were, unfortunately, cut short due to injury. Whether it’s Howard’s outrageous Yards Per Reception average (16.6), Henry’s TD appeal, or Engram’s potential volume, all three of these mid-round options (think round six-ish in 12-team leagues) present breakout appeal.

Round seven (and maybe eight) belong to four seemingly capable, but less than consistent prospects …

After gut-punching gamers for close to a decade, Jared Cook showed out in 2018. Leading the Raiders in targets (101), Cook posted career numbers (68-896-6) and closed out his tenth season in the league as a top-five FF producer. At thirty two years old and in a new offense that seems intent on feeding two primary targets (Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas), however, his volume is sure to wane.

Similarly, David Njoku, who was heavily featured under the direction of Todd Haley, saw his opportunities decline once Freddie Kitchens took over the play-calling duties. With OBJ added to Cleveland’s arsenal, that trend figures to continue. Along those lines, Eric Ebron also enjoyed a raised profile with Jack Doyle hobbled and in an offense thin with receiving talent. He’ll have to fight for looks in 2019, however, given Doyle’s return and the depth created by Devin Funchess as well as Paris Campbell.

On the other hand, Vance McDonald — who rounds out the top-ten prospects — should see his opportunities skyrocket with 225 targets loosed up in Pittsburgh. Yet it feels as though we’ve heard this story before … because every year is supposed to be McDonald’s year.

Fantasy Football Draft Kit
Fantasy Football Draft Kit

It isn’t until the double-digit rounds that darts are thrown at the remaining ten or so stragglers. Some managers are intrigued by well-positioned rookies like T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. Others believe in the post-hype appeal of Trey Burton or the break-out potential of Austin Hooper. A few have faith that proven vets like Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Jordan Reed, Jimmy Graham, and Tyler Eifert have enough left in the tank to eschew the injury bug. The most daring (and willing to stream) like the upside presented by Mark Andrews, Mike Gesicki, and Darren Waller.

Tight End Draft Strategy

Running back thins out dramatically between rounds five through eight. As such, I recommend prioritizing a scarce position like RB over a volatile one like TE. After round eight, consider rostering a TE. If a prospect like Jared Cook falls, or if Trey Burton is available in the 10th round, then snag ‘em. Otherwise, pursuing upside like Mark Andrews or values like Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed in the 13th and 14th rounds makes good sense. Just cozy up to the notion that you’ll probably be spending plenty of time combing the waiver wire if and when their usefulness evaporates.

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Key Stat I Use to Evaluate TEs

The routes run stat is obviously helpful when evaluating tight ends, as it’s a hybrid position that requires players to both block and catch. However, I’m going to assume most folks are savvy enough to understand the roles in which different TEs are deployed, and only focus on those who have prominent roles as pass-catchers. Therefore, as basic as it may be, I think target share is an essential stat to predicting the potential bankability of a given player. As we saw in San Francisco, Oakland, and Indianapolis last year, volume catapulted relatively cheap prospects into top-end production.

Top-12 Fantasy TEs

Per the Yahoo composite expert ranks: 1) Travis Kelce, 2) George Kittle, 3) Zach Ertz, 4) O.J. Howard, 5) Evan Engram, 6) Hunter Henry, 7) Jared Cook, 8) Eric Ebron, 9) David Njoku, 10) Austin Hooper, 11) Vance McDonald, 12) Trey Burton

Liz’s Top-12:

Top fantasy tight ends
Top fantasy tight ends

Draft-day Steal

I’m leaning into all the offseason Mark Andrews hype … and hoping it doesn’t get much louder. Currently available in the 13th round of 12-team exercises, the Ravens second-year TE has been one of the buzziest camp names. Numerous beat writers have noted his rapport with Lamar Jackson as well as his playmaking prowess.

Baker Mayfield’s favorite target at Oklahoma, Andrews is a former receiver who wins in contested situations and has experience bailing out an emerging QB. Flashing at various points over his rookie effort, the Arizona native demonstrated his big-play potential with two grabs over 60 yards last year. In an epically shallow receiving corps he has the chance to work as one of Lamar Jackson’s primary security blankets and to command a solid target share ... even in a run-focused offense. FF: 53-678-5

Follow Liz: @LizLoza_FF

More Positional Previews: Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver

Fantasy Team Previews

AFC East: Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots

NFC East: Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Washington

AFC South: Colts | Texans | Jaguars | Titans

NFC South: Buccaneers | Saints | Panthers | Falcons

AFC North: Bengals | Steelers | Ravens | Browns

NFC North: Lions | Vikings | Packers | Bears

AFC West: Chiefs | Chargers | Raiders | Broncos

NFC West: Rams | Cardinals | 49ers | Seahawks

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