Our final installment of dynasty rankings will cover the tight end position.
Back in 2008, 18.9 percent of league-wide targets were directed at a player listed as a tight end. This past season, the mark was up to 20.3 percent. That may not seem like a huge boost, but had that increase not occurred, a total of 530 targets would’ve been lost by tight ends during the 2013 season. Note that tight end targets were actually down in 2013 from 21.3 percent in 2012.
In fantasy circles, the increase in usage of tight ends as pass catchers over the years has added depth to the position, but there are still a handful of superstars who stand above the rest. Today we’ll take an in-depth look at those top options.
Note: Non-PPR scoring is assumed. Each player age listed is as of September 1, 2014, which will be near Week 1 of the upcoming season. The draft year and round is also shown for each player.
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Last season, Jimmy Graham saw 22 more targets, caught four more balls, had 368 more receiving yards, and scored three more touchdowns than the second place tight end in each category. Yeah, he’s the top tight end in dynasty. Powered by 16 touchdowns, Graham scored 54.5 more fantasy points than No. 2-ranked Vernon Davis in 2013. He has finished in the Top 2 at the position three years in a row. Graham is only 27 and, although he’s on a one-year deal in New Orleans, it’s hard to see them letting their top receiver get away. Currently in his prime and working out of one of the league’s top-scoring offenses with an elite quarterback, Graham should be one of the first overall players off the board on draft day.
Rob Gronkowski is nearly two and a half years younger than Graham and probably more of a dominant fantasy force when active. But constant injury woes make him in inferior dynasty asset. Gronkowski was No. 2 in fantasy points per game last season, but was active for only seven games. Over the last three seasons (including the playoffs), he has an absurd 36 touchdowns in 38 games. Gronkowski is so good that he’s worth picking in the early rounds even if you think he’ll miss a few games. Of course, he’ll need to do better than the nine games per season he’s averaging over the last two years. Gronkowski is only 24 and one of the most dominant players in the game. Savvy owners should be looking to buy low before the window closes early next season.
Our next tier is much deeper than our first. None of these seven tight ends are over the age of 25 as of today’s date. This is a testament to the depth of young, emerging receiving talent at the position. After Graham and Gronkowski, it makes sense to wait a while at the position. There’s plenty of value to be had.
Julius Thomas was a breakout sensation in 2013, vaulting his way from “intriguing athlete” to dynasty superstar. Powered by Peyton Manning and Denver’s record-setting offense, Thomas caught 12 touchdowns in 14 games en route to a No. 4 finish in fantasy points at the position. The ex-basketball player (but of course) is only 25 and has at least another year or two with Manning tossing him the ball.
Like Thomas, Jordan Cameron is an ex-basketball player who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 draft and broke out in a big way last season. Cameron is two months younger than Thomas, but is slightly inferior a dynasty prospect only because he doesn’t have Manning on his side. In 2013, Cameron was No. 5 in fantasy scoring among tight ends, racking up 80 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. Along with Josh Gordon, he’ll be one of Cleveland’s top pass-catchers going forward.
Unless injury strikes, Tyler Eifert’s dynasty value is currently the lowest it will be for a very long time. A first-round pick one year ago, it’s no surprise that Eifert’s career is off to a slow start with Jermaine Gresham still on the roster. Gresham will be back in 2014, but Eifert figures to move past him at some point in the next nine months. Eifert is only 23 and has massive upside as a pass-catcher. Don’t overlook him.
Not unlike Eifert, Zach Ertz spent his rookie season in a situational role behind a veteran. Ertz did a bit more from a fantasy perspective, however, racking up four touchdowns on 36 receptions. Although his short-term ceiling is limited a bit by the Eagles three-deep wide receiver unit and in-line usage of Brent Celek, Ertz sees enough work in a high-scoring offense to put him on the TE1 radar in 2014.
A third-round pick last season, Jordan Reed was immediately inserted as a regular contributor in the Redskins’ passing game. He racked up 45 receptions and three scores as a rookie, but did all that in only nine games due to injury. Expected to be fully recovered from the concussion that cost him the second half of the season, 23-year-old Reed will enter 2014 as a featured pass-catcher in Washington.
Ladarius Green is primed for a breakout third season following some impressive flashes in 2013. A fourth-round pick in 2012, Green had a pair of 80-yard receiving games and scored four touchdowns in 18 games last season. Primed to play a much bigger role at the expense of 34-year-old Antonio Gates, 6’6”/240 Green is the top candidate to be this year’s version of Thomas and Cameron.
The Minnesota offense is going the right direction, which makes Kyle Rudolph an intriguing redraft and dynasty tight end. The talented Cordarrelle Patterson/Greg Jennings duo will open up the seam for Rudolph, and the hiring of Norv Turner will guarantee plenty of involvement in the passing game. Rudolph is only 24, but already has three NFL seasons under his belt. That includes a nine-touchdown effort in 2012. He’s a decent dynasty TE1 option.
Vernon Davis was No. 2 in fantasy scoring at tight end last season. Of course, he accomplished the feat despite catching only 52 passes, which ranked 15th at the position. Davis was carried by a whopping 13 touchdowns. Although he’s heavily-used near the goal line, that touchdown rate is certain to regress in 2014 and beyond. It’s also worth noting that his targets dropped quite a bit once Michael Crabtree returned to action. Now 30, Davis is fading to a back-end TE1 option in dynasty.
Dennis Pitta re-upped with the Ravens this offseason. Already a strong short-term TE1, the team’s hiring of Gary Kubiak only increases his value. Pitta missed 12 games last season due to a hip injury, but he racked up 20 catches in the four games he played. The No. 7-scoring fantasy tight end of 2012, Pitta is probably a little older than you realize at 28, but he’ll be one of Joe Flacco’s primary targets over the next few seasons.
The iron man that is Jason Witten has now failed to miss a single game each of the last 10 seasons. The veteran has four 1,000-yard seasons and 51 touchdowns during that span. Of course, Witten put up his lowest catch (73) and yardage (851) totals since 2006 this past season. From a fantasy perspective, he covered that up a bit with eight touchdowns, but the soon-to-be 32-year-old is past his prime. He’s no longer a strong dynasty option.
Coby Fleener was forced into a larger role than anticipated last season after Dwayne Allen went down for the year with a hip injury. Fleener played well and ended up No. 14 in fantasy points at the position. He will remain heavily-involved in the Colts’ offensive gameplan, but the returns of Reggie Wayne and Allen – a quality blocker and capable receiver – will cost him targets. Fleener is only 25 and a quality dynasty hold, but his short-term ceiling is low.
One of the league’s top blocking tight ends, Martellus Bennett has now put back-to-back Top 15 fantasy seasons together. A year after shining in New York - his first campaign as a full-time starter – Bennett finished No. 10 in fantasy points among tight ends as a member of the Bears. Bennett hauled in 65 balls for 759 yards. He scored five touchdowns, but was heavily utilized near the goal line. Still only 27, Bennett has several TE1 seasons left in the tank.
Greg Olsen went through a bizarre stretch of under-use last season, but bounced back to finish as fantasy’s No. 8 tight end. Following a five-week stretch of no more than five targets, he averaged 8.1 per game the rest of the way and was never below six in a single game. With Carolina transitioning at wide receiver, it’s fair to expect, at least, another 100-plus target season out of Olsen. He’s 29, but remains a decent short-term starting option.
A third-round pick in 2012, aforementioned Allen caught 45 balls as a rookie before a hip injury cost him all but one game in 2013. There’s massive upside here, but the presence of Fleener will cost him targets in the short-term…Jared Cook has never quite exploded into the superstar fantasy tight end we all expected, but he was No. 11 in points at the position last year – his first with St. Louis. Cook has all the tools, is in his prime at 27, and the Rams’ offensive is improving around him.
A knee injury ended Travis Kelce’s rookie season before it started, but the 2013 third-round pick is Kansas City’s long-term answer at the tight end position. It’s possible the 24 year old will be the team’s starter by Week 1, but it’s more likely he’ll spend some time backing up Anthony Fasano…Jermichael Finley is a free agent and still recovering from last season’s neck injury. Expected to be cleared in plenty of time for Week 1, Finley has the skills to push for TE1 consideration if he lands a prominent offensive role. Finley turns 27 this spring.
Charles Clay took major advantage of Dustin Keller’s season-ending injury last season. Expected to carve out an NFL role as a situational H-Back, Clay busted onto the fantasy scene with 69 receptions, 759 yards and six touchdowns. He was No. 7 in fantasy points at tight end. Only 25, he’ll eventually face competition from Dion Sims, but Clay has earned himself a full-time role in Miami.
Joseph Fauria is currently a top the Lions’ depth chart and has a shot at the Lions’ long-term starting gig if he shows well this season. A monster near the goal line at 6’7”/255, he scored on seven of his 18 receptions last season…The Cardinals’ addition of John Carlson means Rob Housler is off scholarship in Arizona. He’s destined for a situational, receiving role, but is only 26…Gresham’s days in Cincinnati are numbered with Eifert in the picture. He’s only 26 but hasn’t lived up to his first-round draft selection and figures to be headed elsewhere in 2015.
Gavin Escobar, Vance McDonald, Luke Willson, Ryan Griffin, Levine Toilolo, and Sims were all selected in the 2013 draft. Escobar is being groomed as a potential in-house replacement for Witten. McDonald is backing up Davis in San Francisco. Willson is a potential long-term replacement for Zach Miller in Seattle. Griffin and Toilolo are both currently atop their respective team’s depth chart and are already on the 2014 TE2 radar. Sims is stuck behind Clay in Miami. All six tight ends have size and/or pass-catching ability on their side. Escobar and McDonald have the biggest upside, but it may take time for them to earn a full-time role.
Injuries above him on the depth chart allowed Tim Wright to put up a Top 20 fantasy campaign as an undrafted rookie. A skilled pass catcher, Wright is only 24, but will return to a situational role for the time being…Garrett Graham is a free agent, but has a history of borderline TE1 production when in an every-down role. His ranking will move once we find out where he signs, but note that it won’t be much considering that he’ll be 28 come Week 1…Heath Miller just extended his deal with the Steelers through 2016. Now fully-recovered from a torn ACL late in the 2012 season, Miller will look to return to TE1 territory. He’ll turn 32 during the 2014 season, however, which significantly hampers his upside.
The Titans appear dedicated to keeping Delanie Walker heavily-involved in its offensive gameplan. Of course, Tennessee is a bit weak at quarterback and is expected to focus on the run. Walker is 29, so there’s not a ton to get excited about here…Antonio Gates is one of the game’s top tight ends of the last decade, but his days as a TE1 are over. He turns 34 this summer and Green is about to take his job. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a repeat of his 77-catch 2013 campaign…Owen Daniels was cut by Houston and, at age 31 and with serious durability concerns, is unlikely to land a full-time gig elsewhere.
Lance Kendricks plays quite a bit, but is stuck behind Cook in St. Louis for the near future…Adrien Robinson enters his third year eyeing the Giants’ starting gig…Brandon Bostick is atop the depth chart in Green Bay, but competition is likely coming…Mychal Rivera is expected to start for Oakland, but offers limited upside…Taylor Thompson is a massive target, but remains stuck behind Walker in Tennessee.
Brandon Pettigrew, Scott Chandler, and Andrew Quarless are free agents. All three have a good shot to return to starting gigs on their incumbent squads. Pettigrew and Chandler are closing in on 30 and unlikely to push for TE1 value again. Quarless has never turned regular snaps into fantasy relevance.
Brandon Myers signed with the Bucs and is the favorite to start. An underwhelming blocker, he’ll immediately be pushed by Wright, Luke Stocker, and Tom Crabtree…Brent Celek, Marcedes Lewis, and Zach Miller remain atop their respective team’s depth chart, but all three are approaching age 30. Their days as fantasy assets are all but over. Lewis has the best shot at TE2 numbers in 2014…Converted wide receiver David Ausberry missed the 2013 season due to injury, but will be in the mix to start for Oakland if they don’t make a major upgrade.