With free agency long over with and the draft still upcoming, we’ve had a month or so to form 2015 rankings. We’ll dive into this even further in a couple weeks following the draft when we should largely know the main players and their landing spots, but now proved to be a fine time to release some preliminary ranks. Here are my thoughts on the top-12 players — also known as the QB1s, RB1s, WR1s, and TE1s — at the skill-player positions.
Don’t forget, for everything NFL and NFL Draft, check out Rotoworld’s Player News Page, and follow @Rotoworld_FB and @NickMensio on Twitter.
1. Aaron Rodgers — The reigning NFL MVP gets the nod over Andrew Luck. He finished third in the league with his 38 touchdowns passes and only tossed five interceptions to go along with the NFL’s second-best YPA mark at 8.4. The Packers were able to lure back Randall Cobb with a four-year, $40 million contract and re-sign RT Bryan Bulaga. Green Bay fields the league’s elite passing offense, and Rodgers is still in his prime at 31 years old.
2. Andrew Luck — Luck had a “career-year” at 25 last season, finishing first in passing touchdowns (40), third in passing yards (4,761), and third in attempts (616). He also did damage as a runner, rushing for 263 yards and three touchdowns. If we weren’t counting interceptions, Luck would’ve ran away as fantasy’s No. 1 quarterback ahead of Aaron Rodgers. OC Pep Hamilton seems to realize he has the best young quarterback in the league running his offense. Luck’s arsenal got better in the offseason with the additions of Andre Johnson and Frank Gore and subtractions of Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, and Trent Richardson. He and Rodgers will duke it out for the overall QB1 spot.
3. Matt Ryan — No offensive line, no tight end, a broken-down running back, and injuries to Roddy White and Julio Jones torpedoed the Falcons offense last season. The offensive line is still a major question mark, but the hiring of OC Kyle Shanahan should do wonders for that side of the ball. Shanahan was able to coax top-five fantasy seasons out of Robert Griffin III and Matt Schaub at his previous stops. Ryan is a better passer than Schaub was and has better weapons than RGIII had in Washington during his rookie season. Second-year LT Jake Matthews needs to play a lot better for Ryan to make the leap back up from his No. 7 finish last season. But a healthier White and Jones along with improved play at running back and tight end should allow Ryan to improve.
4. Russell Wilson — Wilson had more put on his plate for the third consecutive season and was fantasy’s No. 3 quarterback after tenth- and eighth-place finishes the previous two seasons. His pass attempts should only continue to rise with the Seahawks preparing for life after Marshawn Lynch in the near future. GM John Schneider was able to go out and get Wilson a legitimate red-zone threat and No. 1 receiver in Jimmy Graham after seeing what having a big-bodied pass catcher in Chris Matthews did for Wilson in the Super Bowl. Wilson is a good bet to throw 25-plus touchdowns after tossing just 20 in 2014. He also rushed for 849 yards and six touchdowns last season.
5. Peyton Manning — It was a tale of two seasons for Manning last year; he looked like the 2013 version through the season’s first 11 games, posting an incredible 34:9 TD:INT ratio before floundering down the stretch thanks to a torn quad. He managed just five touchdowns to six interceptions the rest of the way and Denver was sent packing after a first-round playoff loss. Manning contemplated retirement, but instead chose to come back and play for new coach Gary Kubiak. It’s expected to be a more balanced offense, but Manning should be healthy and putting up top-five numbers at the position. A top-three finish is certainly doable.
6. Ben Roethlisberger — Big Ben and OC Todd Haley have butted heads at times, but the 33-year-old has been playing fantastic football the past couple years. He’s coming off his best fantasy finish since 2007 thanks to an improved receiving corps and much better offensive line play to go along with a top-two running back in Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers rewarded Roethlisberger with a big contract this offseason, and he’s still in the back end of his prime years. There’s upside with Big Ben.
7. Drew Brees — Brees’ sixth overall finish among fantasy quarterbacks last season was a big-time disappointment. His receiving corps battled injuries (Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks) and old age (Marques Colston), while the offensive line struggled to play to its talent level. GM Mickey Loomis blew up the offensive side of the ball, trading away Graham, Kenny Stills, and LG Ben Grubbs and releasing Pierre Thomas. He re-signed Mark Ingram and brought in C.J. Spiller, suggesting the Saints want to become more balanced on offense to keep their rebuilding defense off the field. Brees’ attempts are likely to come down, while his touchdown and big-play numbers will be hit with the losses of Graham and Stills. Brees is a candidate to tumble down the leaderboards again in 2015.
8. Cam Newton — This is lower than I’d like to have Newton. He was a top-five fantasy quarterback each of his first three seasons before plummeting to 17th in 2014. Newton’s health was a big factor; he was coming off offseason ankle surgery before suffering a broken rib last preseason and then getting into a car accident in December that saw him break a couple bones in his back. Newton has week-winning ability. With a full offseason to lick his wounds, a return to the top should be in order. The Panthers really need to figure out how to protect him better and surround him with better players.
9. Tom Brady — Brady and the Patriots got off to a slow start last season that had the football world up in arms wondering if we’d seen the end of their run. Things quickly turned around as New England started romping teams on the way to the playoffs and a Super Bowl title. Brady finished as fantasy’s No. 9 signal caller and compiled a 29:7 TD:INT ratio Weeks 5-16. Entering his age-38 season, Brady hasn’t been able to throw much of a deep ball for a couple years now. But he wins at the intermediate levels and doesn’t turn the ball over. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski at his disposal, Brady has mid-range QB1 upside.
10. Eli Manning — The Giants were a complete mess on offense last preseason, leading many to think Manning could be entering a make-or-break year. When the games counted, however, Manning excelled in OC Ben McAdoo’s West Coast offense. He posted the best completion percentage of his career and now has his most dominant receiver since Plaxico Burress in Odell Beckham. With Victor Cruz set to return from knee surgery, adding him to OBJ, Larry Donnell, Rueben Randle, Shane Vereen, and Rashad Jennings, the Giants have the parts to put up major points. Manning is currently the 12th quarterback coming off the board looking at recent ADP numbers.
11. Matthew Stafford — In his first season under OC Joe Lombardi, Stafford was hurt by Calvin Johnson missing considerable time with an ankle injury, first-rounder Eric Ebron being slow to develop, and Reggie Bush bottoming out due to age and injury. The Lions want to throw the ball less in 2015, but Stafford should remain in the top-10 in attempts. After setting a career-high in completion percentage, a second season under Lombardi could make Stafford a value pick. He has the arm talent to be a top-end QB1. Stafford just needs Megatron to stay healthy.
12. Ryan Tannehill — Tannehill took a big step forward under first-year OC Bill Lazor, rising from fantasy’s No. 16 quarterback in 2013 to No. 8. (Lazor was Nick Foles’ position coach in 2013.) Tannehill threw a career-high 27 touchdowns and ran for 311 yards on the ground, as Lazor designed the offense around his quarterback’s strengths. Tannehill still can’t throw the deep ball and his supporting cast has undergone a massive overhaul, though we’d say it’s improved with Kenny Stills replacing Mike Wallace as the No. 1 receiver. The Dolphins will also get stud LT Branden Albert back from a torn ACL.
1. Le’Veon Bell — Coming out of Michigan State, Bell tipped the scales at 237 pounds. He averaged just 3.5 YPC as a sluggish rookie. The Steelers now list him at 244, but Bell transformed his body and redistributed the weight in 2014 and returned as Pittsburgh’s do-it-all workhorse, finishing the season as fantasy’s No. 2 running back behind DeMarco Murray and his near-historic season. Bell averaged 4.7 YPC as a sophomore and was targeted 100 times in the passing game, second only to Matt Forte. Among running backs with 200-plus carries, Bell was also the only one not to fumble. Bell is only 23, and despite his recently-announced three-game suspension to open the 2015 season, he’d still be my No. 1 overall pick without hesitation. It’s hard to find true workhorse runners, and we’re still going to have Bell for the fantasy playoffs. Bell’s ADP has fallen from 1.01 to 1.04 since his three-game ban was announced on April 9.
2. Jamaal Charles — 2014 wasn’t as kind to Charles after he finished 2013 as fantasy’s No. 1 runner. He missed two games and parts of others due to various lower-body injuries. Charles was also the victim of the Chiefs losing key offensive line members LT Branden Albert, RG Jon Asamoah, and G/T Geoff Schwartz. Additionally, coach Andy Reid scaled back Charles’ involvement in the passing game, as he saw 43 fewer targets. That’s where Charles made his bacon in 2013. He still found pay dirt 14 times last season and remains the clear focal point of the offense despite the addition of new No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin and hopeful emergence of TE Travis Kelce. Remember, the Chiefs are still quarterbacked by dink-and-dunk artist Alex Smith. Charles lost another top-flight member of his offensive line in C Rodney Hudson this offseason, but RG Jeff Allen is back healthy and LG Ben Grubbs was acquired via trade from the Saints. Charles is a top-two fantasy pick.
3. Eddie Lacy — A slow start to the season sent Lacy owners into a panic last year, as he failed to top 48 yards in any of the Packers’ first four games and found the end zone just one time. But from Week 5 on, Lacy averaged 5.1 YPC and 81.5 yards per game to go with 12 total touchdowns. There are a ton of mouths to feed in Green Bay, and it starts with Aaron Rodgers, but the return of Randall Cobb to open up the short-to-intermediate levels of the field will only aid Lacy. The re-signing of RT Bryan Bulaga is also big for Lacy and the entire offense. Expect another step forward from soon-to-be 25-year-old Lacy as veterans Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte face potential declines.
4. Marshawn Lynch — As owners were snatching up Christine Michael in the late rounds of fantasy drafts last summer, Lynch was minding his business behind the scenes readying to prove us all wrong once again on his way to a top-three fantasy finish. Now 29 (last week), Lynch has shown no signs of slowing down. Father Time will win this battle, as he always does, but Beast Mode is a different breed. Last year at this time, there was talk of Lynch possibly entering his final season in Seattle. He went on to run for the second-most yards of his career and set a career-high with 13 rushing touchdowns and 17 all-purpose scores. It landed Lynch a $5 million raise. The offense still goes through Lynch, even if it didn’t on the final play of Super Bowl 49.
5. DeMarco Murray — Murray had never played a full 16-game season before 2014. The Cowboys remade their offense, relying on Murray and a talented run-blocking offensive line. They put it on Murray’s shoulders in the final year of his contract and ran him into the ground, knowing they could move on from the 27-year-old if his body betrayed him. Murray somehow held up to the pounding of 497 total touches and finished as fantasy’s No. 1 running back. A decline is to be expected in his new home of Philadelphia where he’ll no longer he the alpha male. He’s going to a very running back-friendly offense, but will now split reps with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. Chances are greater Murray will disappoint rather than be a value pick in a second-consecutive year, though he’s still a first-round lock.
6. Arian Foster — I was a big believer in Foster heading into last season, and I’m probably a tad higher on him than most again this year. He was up there with DeMarco Murray and Le’Veon Bell in terms of weekly reliability when he was in the lineup last season. And that happened to be 13-of-16 games. Foster finished as fantasy’s No. 5 back and averaged a four-year-best 4.8 YPC on top of 13 all-purpose touchdowns. Turning 29 in August, we can only hope for 1-2 more elite years out of Foster. The Texans return a solid run-blocking offensive line. It’ll be imperative for Foster owners to pair him with Alfred Blue or whomever wins the Texans’ No. 2 running back job.
7. Jeremy Hill — Hill outplayed Giovani Bernard all summer and finally leapfrogged him on the depth chart around midseason. From Week 9 on, Hill led the league in rushing, averaged a robust 5.4 YPC, and was second to only Marshawn Lynch in yards after contact. A violent bruiser, Hill can carry a full load at 6’1/238. The Bengals were able to re-sign LG Clint Boling to bring back one of the league’s top lane-paving offensive lines. OC Hue Jackson showed signs of wanting to put more on Hill’s rookie plate, but refrained at times and it bit the offense in the butt as it relied too heavily on Andy Dalton and Mohamed Sanu. Expect more responsibility for Hill as a sophomore with Bernard playing more in a satellite, pass-catching role. Hill has top-five upside on one of the league’s better teams.
8. Adrian Peterson — A.D. is a hard to figure out at the moment. If everything was rosy and bridges weren’t burned between he and the Vikings, Peterson would be higher in the rankings. But as things stand now, we really don’t know what’s going to happen with Peterson. He wants out of Minnesota, while the Vikings want him to stick around. They’ve dug their feet in in hopes on waiting out the star running back. If Peterson isn’t dealt this week, he’s likely to play for Minnesota or no one in 2015. If the sides can clear the air, Peterson and his fresh 30-year-old legs would have top-three upside in this sneaky offense.
9. Jonathan Stewart — Only DeMarco Murray rushed for more yards over the final five weeks of the season. During that same span, Stewart led the league with his 5.4 YPC mark. This is the Jonathan Stewart we all knew, but he was never able to realize his potential because of injuries. Stewart was able to hold up down the stretch and into the playoffs, giving the Panthers confidence to make the move to release DeAngelo Williams this offseason and hand the keys to Stewart. As long as he’s healthy, Stewart is one of the best runners in the league. He was the main reason the Panthers were able to go 4-1 after their Week 12 bye and sneak into the playoffs. Stewart turned 28 in March and should be a focal point in a balanced offense that would prefer to run the ball more. The concern in Carolina remains a questionable offensive line.
10. C.J. Anderson — Following injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, Anderson took off as Denver’s featured running back. After taking over in Week 10, Anderson averaged 4.7 YPC and 95.8 yards per games the final eight contests. He totaled 10 touchdowns over that span. He’d be higher on the list if not for major changes in Denver. New coach Gary Kubiak is ushering in a revised offense. While it’s expected to feature the running game more, we just don’t know if Anderson will be Kubiak’s guy. (Ball is viewed as a good fit for the zone scheme.) On top of the new offense, the Broncos are undergoing major changes with their offensive line. They could be looking for up to three new starters. Anderson is a dual-threat runner with above-average pass-game skills. If he wins the job, there’s top-five upside here.
11. Matt Forte — Forte was the most consistent player in the Bears’ wrecked offense last season, as he finished as fantasy’s No. 4 running back. There are reasons for concern, however. Forte’s YPC dipped from 4.6 to 3.9 and he’s entering his age-30 season. The loss of coach Marc Trestman can’t be understated for Forte, either. His receiving numbers will take a big hit, and the Bears are likely to look for a big back in the draft to pair with Forte as the offense tries to become more balanced under new coach John Fox. While he’s likely to see more carries under Fox, Forte’s lost production in the passing game can’t be understated. Where he was a top-end RB1 the previous two seasons, Forte is more of a low-end RB1 to possible high-end RB2.
12. LeSean McCoy — Shady followed up his dominant 2013 season where he finished as fantasy’s No. 2 running back with a disappointing 2014. His YPC dipped by nearly a full yard from 5.1 to 4.2. McCoy was caught dancing behind the line too often and was one of the main victims of an injury-riddled offensive line. He also didn’t hammer home his goal-line carries at the same rate as he did in 2013. Coach Chip Kelly deemed east-west-runner McCoy a poor fit for the offense and shipped him up to Buffalo. While the Eagles had Pro Football Focus’ No. 1-ranked run-blocking offensive line last season, the Bills came in dead last at No. 32. They’ve replaced Erik Pears with Richie Incognito, but the line largely remains the same. And the Bills don’t have a first-round pick in this week’s draft. Working in McCoy’s favor is his pairing with run-minded coach Rex Ryan and OC Greg Roman, who annually had one of the league’s top rushing attacks in San Francisco with Frank Gore.
1. Dez Bryant — Bryant saw his targets dip in 2014 with the Cowboys leaning more on their run game. That led to fewer catches for Bryant, though he proved to be even more dominant than he’d been in previous years. Dez averaged 15.0 YPR and led the league with his 16 receiving touchdowns. He was also a monster after the catch, finishing top-five in broken tackles. With DeMarco Murray now gone, Bryant should be the focal point of Dallas’ offense after being a close 1B to Murray’s 1A. Just 26 and playing on the franchise tag, Bryant is out to make a statement that he should be the league’s highest-paid receiver. A year after finishing as fantasy’s No. 4 wideout, Bryant’s my top dog. His ADP has steadily been on the rise for the past month.
2. Demaryius Thomas — D.T. was another slow starter last season only to catch fire following the Broncos’ Week 4 bye. From that point on, Thomas led the league in receiving yards and was second only to Antonio Brown in catches. Slapped with the franchise tag by Denver, Thomas has irked GM John Elway by not showing up to voluntary workouts. It’ll be a non-issue come training camp. Playing for his next contract in his prime at 27 years old, Thomas will be in the overall WR1 mix this season. New coach Gary Kubiak loves to feed his No. 1 receiver. Thomas dominates post-catch, so Peyton Manning’s declining arm won’t be much of a hindrance. And Demaryius should also see a spike in red-zone usage with Julius Thomas out of the picture. I still prefer Dez Bryant as the first receiver off the board, but the case can easily be made for the Broncos’ top wideout.
3. Antonio Brown — Brown doesn’t have elite size or speed, but he’s simply un-coverable thanks to his quick feet and sharp route-running. Among receivers with at least 100 targets, Brown had the fifth-highest catch rate at 72.5 percent. He led the league in receptions (129) and yards (1,698) and was second in touchdowns (13) on his way to being fantasy’s No. 1 wideout. A model of consistency, Brown has caught at least five passes for 50 yards in every game each of the past two seasons. With Le’Veon Bell suspended the first three games of the 2015 season, Brown’s usage rate will be through the roof. Give him a bump in PPR leagues where Brown is arguably WR1 overall.
4. Julio Jones — Jones quietly finished 2014 as fantasy’s No. 8 receiver. There was a stretch of the season where owners were trying to unload Jones after the Atlanta offensive line was decimated by injuries. It forced Matt Ryan to get rid of the ball quickly and lean on Jones and Roddy White in the short passing game, leading to up-and-down weeks. Julio battled some injuries of his own with his hip and oblique, causing him to miss one game and be limited in others. But he ended up finishing sixth in yards after catch and fifth in broken tackles. New OC Kyle Shanahan has always funneled the offense through his X receiver, which bodes well for Jones, who’s also playing for his next contract. And White is another year older. Jones has the talent to be fantasy’s No. 1 overall receiver. With a likely uptick in targets, he just needs his body to cooperate. If he can stay healthy, 2015 could easily be Jones’ best year yet.
5. Calvin Johnson — Megatron wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent health for much of the first half of last season thanks to an ankle injury that he tried to play on for multiple weeks before finally sitting down and missing three games. He was mostly a decoy Weeks 4 and 5 before resting the next four weeks, including the bye. Johnson still posted a 71-1,077-8 line and dominated at times. While injuries are a real concern, Megatron is still just 30 years old and can dominate at 6’5/236. With many owners chalking Johnson’s 2014 up as the start of a decline, he’s shaping up as a fantasy value pick in the early-to-mid second round.
6. Odell Beckham — OBJ won owners a lot of best-ball leagues last season as a late-round flier who ended the year as fantasy’s No. 5 receiver. He missed all of last summer with a hamstring injury and didn’t play in a single preseason game before finally seeing his first action of the season in Week 5. Beckham took the league by storm, finishing eighth in catches, tenth in yards, and fourth in touchdowns among receivers. It was truly a dominating performance. With OBJ, we tend to come back to his size (5’11/198) and want to dock him. But much like Antonio Brown, Beckham wins with his suddenness and route-running chops to go along with insane ball skills. Victor Cruz’s return from a torn patellar tendon may eat into Beckham’s numbers, but he’s assuredly the No. 1 option in the Giants’ passing game.
7. Jordy Nelson — Nelson is coming off a team-record 1,519 receiving yards in a season where he either topped 80 yards or scored a touchdown in 12-of-16 regular-season games. He was fantasy’s No. 2 wideout to Antonio Brown. If not for being 30 years old (next month) and coming off offseason hip surgery, Nelson might be higher in the ranks. Still, he’s Aaron Rodgers’ No. 1 target in one of the game’s elite passing offenses. He’s a borderline first-round pick.
8. Mike Evans — Evans doesn’t get the attention he deserves after being overshadowed by Odell Beckham in their respective rookie seasons. He’s already an elite jump-ball winner in the red zone and should only get better as a route runner. While playing with a rookie quarterback (likely Jameis Winston) is a concern, things can’t get much worse than they were last year with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. Evans has already overtaken Vincent Jackson as the Bucs’ No. 1 receiver after scoring 12 touchdowns and finishing as fantasy’s No. 10 receiver in year one.
9. T.Y. Hilton — In 2014, Hilton caught the same amount of balls as he did the previous season, but averaged 16.4 YPR compared to 13.2 the year before. OC Pep Hamilton’s willingness to put more on Andrew Luck’s shoulders contributed greatly to Hilton’s improved numbers. Now that Hamilton realizes he has the game’s elite young quarterback, this passing game can grow even more. The additions of Frank Gore and Andre Johnson should only open up more room for Hilton, with Johnson and youngster Donte Moncrief drawing more of the defense’s attention than run-down veterans Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks did last season.
10. Alshon Jeffery — The entire Chicago offense was a mess last season, and Jeffery was just one of many victims. He still finished as fantasy’s No. 11 receiver and scored ten touchdowns, taking over as the Bears’ No. 1 wideout. With Brandon Marshall now gone, Jeffery is cemented atop the depth chart. It’ll be hard for Jay Cutler to be worse than he was in 2014 again this season. The Bears will likely try to run it more under new coach John Fox, but OC Adam Gase is a creative mind who will have no problem finding ways to get the ball to Jeffery. He’s an elite downfield threat with a gunslinger as his quarterback. Jeffery’s going to be peppered with targets on a weekly basis.
11. A.J. Green — Soon-to-be 27-year-old Green’s 2014 season was blemished by toe and bicep injuries that led to a 23rd-place finish among receivers. He missed three games and parts of others. I’m probably a lot lower on Green than most, but I see the impending returns of Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert from injuries, as well as the Bengals’ likely desire to put more on Jeremy Hill’s plate and take it off Andy Dalton’s. Prior to last season, Green had missed just one game in his career.
12. DeAndre Hopkins — Hopkins took major strides as a sophomore, finishing 12th in the league with his 1,210 receiving yards and averaging an impressive 15.9 YPR. He won’t turn 23 until this summer and gone is veteran Andre Johnson, freeing up 142 targets to be distributed between Hopkins and newcomers Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington. The Texans are also likely to add a receiver early in the draft. But Hopkins is coach Bill O’Brien’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver and he’s only getting better. Hopkins should see close to 10 targets per game after sitting at 7.9 in 2014. He has top-10 upside.
1. Rob Gronkowski — Those that were able to secure Gronkowski at his third-round ADP last season likely collected cash at the end of the year as their league’s fantasy champion. Gronkowski was coming off a 2013 torn ACL and a 2012 forearm injury that resulted in a couple setbacks and relaxed ADP. The Patriots brought Gronkowski along slowly at the start of last season snaps-wise, but he was still visiting the end zone on near-weekly basis, finishing with a total of 12 scores in the regular season. All he did in the playoffs was post a 16-204-3 line and catch a touchdown in every game. He outscored No. 2 fantasy tight end Antonio Gates by more than two fantasy points per game. A red-zone dominator and Tom Brady hands-down No. 1 target, Gronkowski is in the conversation for fantasy’s top pick and locked in as a first-rounder.
2. Jimmy Graham — Trying to play through a shoulder injury, Graham was not the same player in 2014. He finished third in scoring among tight ends and posted his fewest receiving yards since his 2010 rookie season. Going from the Saints’ pass-heavy offense to the Seahawks’ run-centric one doesn’t help, but improved health, more red-zone chances, and top-end box-out ability keep Graham in the No. 2 spot, even if he’s no longer in the conversation with Rob Gronkowski as overall TE1.
3. Travis Kelce — Kelce was a popular breakout candidate last year but never was able to realize his potential with the Chiefs limiting his snaps and Alex Smith throwing him the football. He was still able to finish as fantasy’s No. 8 tight end despite all the roadblocks. With Anthony Fasano now in Tennessee, Kelce should be locked in as an every-down player. Still, Kelce will be no higher than the No. 2 or 3 option in the passing game behind Jeremy Maclin and possibly Jamaal Charles. Overcoming Smith’s deficiencies will be an even bigger task. Kelce has a Rob Gronkowski-level skill set and caught a tight end-best 82.7 percent of his targets in 2014 all while knocking the rust off from offseason microfracture surgery.
4. Greg Olsen — Olsen has reeled in at least 69 balls each of the past three seasons and is coming off a career-year in which he caught 84 passes for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, finishing as fantasy’s No. 4 tight end. To this point, the Panthers still have yet to address their hole at No. 2 receiver, leaving Olsen to fend with Kelvin Benjamin for Cam Newton’s targets. 30-year-old Olsen should have a couple above-average seasons left in him.
5. Martellus Bennett — The “Black Unicorn” quietly led all tight ends with his 125 targets last season. It’s worth noting, however, that those targets were a bit ballooned by Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery missing time with injuries. But with Marshall now out of town, Bennett sits in as the No. 2 option in the passing game behind Jeffery and ahead of Matt Forte and Eddie Royal. Bennett is still just 28 and has proven to be a reliable red-zone threat.
6. Julius Thomas — Orange Julius came out of the gates hot in his contract year, scoring 12 touchdowns over the first nine games. He cooled off considerably the remainder of the year, as he was hit by an ankle injury that severely limited his snaps. Thomas didn’t score again and wasn’t re-signed by the Broncos. Thomas was a big “loser” of free agency, leaving Peyton Manning for Blake Bortles. He’ll remain a top option in the red area, but the Jaguars need to get there for him to score. Six-to-eight touchdowns seem more likely for Thomas in Jacksonville.
7. Antonio Gates — Only Rob Gronkowski outscored Gates among tight ends last season. The 34-year-old finished fifth in catches, seventh in receiving yards, and tied for first in touchdowns. Gates has been undervalued each of the past couple seasons, and his age is bound to catch up to him, but mid-range TE1 numbers should be achievable. Even if Gates’ snaps are reduced a bit, he’s going to be a fixture in the red zone and should score 8-10 touchdowns.
8. Zach Ertz — Ertz played just over 50 percent of the snaps as a sophomore after being in on around 40 percent of the plays as a rookie. One encouraging sign, however, was that he played 122-of-169 snaps (72.1 percent) Weeks 16 and 17. The Eagles lost Jeremy Maclin in free agency, freeing up 140 targets and a ton of pass-game opportunities. More receiver than blocker, Ertz and Jordan Matthews are prime breakout candidates. Ertz could easily post top-three numbers at his position.
9. Jordan Cameron — Cameron was a summer darling last year before injuries and horrid quarterback play derailed yet another of his seasons. He just hasn’t been able to stay off the trainer’s table for a full season and has a concerning concussion history. Cameron landing in Miami has piqued our interest. He’ll run most of his routes down the seams and over the middle of the field, and that’s where Ryan Tannehill throws his best balls. If Cameron’s health cooperates — a big “if” — he’s a potential value pick currently being taken in the eighth round of drafts.
10. Coby Fleener — Fleener finally flashed some of the ability that made him a second-round pick. He still plays softer than you’d like out of a tight end, but Fleener can run and catch the ball down the seams, even if he’s prone to a bad drop here and there. Whereas teammate Dwayne Allen made all of his hay as a touchdown-catcher in the red zone, Fleener is targeted heavily in all areas of the field, making him the preferred fantasy option. With the Colts’ base offense featuring one running back and two tight ends, Fleener is basically a full-time player.
11. Kyle Rudolph — We’ve long been fond of Rudolph. But to this point, health hasn’t been on his side. Rudolph battled groin, knee, and ankle problems last season under first-year OC Norv Turner. He’s still just 25 and Turner’s scheme has historically been tight end-friendly. Teddy Bridgewater excels in the middle parts of the field where Rudolph operates. If Rudolph can just stay healthy, there’s a ton of upside here. Like much of the back-end TE1 group, owners can’t rely solely on Rudolph, but he does make for a fine mid-to-late-round pick who has upside.
12. Delanie Walker — Walker led the Titans in targets last season, and Tennessee has done little-to-nothing to improve its pass-game weapons, adding only Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks while subtracting Nate Washington. Walker is a highly-athletic do-it-all tight end who excels in the middle of the field. Coach Ken Whisenhunt runs a tight end-friendly offense, making Walker a fine TE1. If Zach Mettenberger remains the quarterback, improved accuracy would go a long way for Walker.