Draft Day Debate: Early Round TE (Fantasy Football)

By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson

As people, we’re programmed to hate change. When things are good, why disrupt the flow? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes change is good, but there’s something to be said for the comfort in, well, not changing. In fantasy football, league managers love it when the top guys at their respective positions are good year in and year out. It’s less work they have to do, and they can just “set it and forget it.”

Every year, we see breakouts and upstarts unseat our favorite players. Injuries, age, scheme — so many variables go into it, but one that some people like to forget is that good players come into the league every single year, so it’s only a matter of time before they become your new favorites.

The Tight End position is one where turnover is less frequent. Our resident “Stream Master General,” Ryan Weisse, is a proponent for streaming his tight ends. I don’t hate the idea, I just like my idea better — get one of the top three tight ends and you won’t have to worry about the position all season long.

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Chiefs TE Travis Kelce has been the TE1 in PPR scoring for four straight years. Tied to HC Andy Reid and former MVP Patrick Mahomes for the next four years, are we certain that’s going to change? (Photo by PEDRO PARDO / AFP) (Photo by PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)

Per Fantasy Football Calculator, the average draft position (ADP) of the top three tight ends landed them in the first three rounds in 2019. Travis Kelce (2.05), George Kittle (3.03), and Zach Ertz (3.09) all scored 200 or more fantasy points last year, returning the value on the pick you spent on them. Some running backs and wide receivers that were taken around the same area were Odell Beckham (2.03), Damien Williams (3.01), Kerryon Johnson (3.04), Devonta Freeman (3.06), and David Montgomery (3.07). Kinda gross, right? Adding depth at wide receiver and running back is important, but so is scoring points.

How about in 2018? The top three drafted tight ends were Rob Gronkowski (2.09), Travis Kelce (3.04), and Zach Ertz (4.03). It’s no secret that Gronk had a rough year (which likely read to his desire to retire heading into 2019), but he still finished as a top 10 tight end, so there’s a silver lining, at best. Kelce and Ertz finished 1-2 that year and both topped 275 fantasy points. Some players you likely took instead of Kelce or Ertz in the third/fourth round include A.J. Green (2.10), Royce Freeman (3.05), LeSean McCoy (3.06), Alex Collins (3.07), Doug Baldwin (4.01), and Chris Hogan (4.06).

In 2017, Gronk (2.06) and Kelce (4.03) were the only two tight ends to be selected within the first four rounds. Guess where they finished? Yep, 1-2 at the position, both topping 225 fantasy points.

Injuries are a part of football and they are, sadly, unpredictable. We tell fantasy players every year to stock up on running backs and wide receivers in the later rounds for that exact reason. Unless you’re deciding to deal with an Evan Engram or a Jordan Reed or a Tyler Eifert-type tight end, injuries likely won’t be a huge worry for you. So what does the tight end position look like as we head into 2020?

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Evan Engram hasn’t played a full 16 games during his first three seasons in the league, despite being one of the better TEs in the league. Do you want to spend draft capital on uncertainty? (Photo from https://dknation.draftkings.com)

Travis Kelce is still king. He has finished the last four seasons as THE TE1 and he just signed a four-year extension keeping him with the Chiefs (and by proxy, QB Patrick Mahomes and HC Andy Reid) for the foreseeable future. No scheme change, familiarity with his coach, QB, and system — Kelce should remain a top option going forward. The lone worry? He’s now 30 and we saw how that derailed both Greg Olsen and Jimmy Graham in recent years.

George Kittle is another consensus top two option. He broke out on the scene in 2018 and remained there in 2019, leading the 49ers to recently sign him to a five-year extension. He has back-to-back seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards and is really the only receiving option in San Francisco that can be trusted.

Zach Ertz is a seemingly forgotten about top tight end who has had less than 700 yards receiving only once in his career. He’s the most consistent piece in the Eagles’ offense, but people are scared of his teammate, Dallas Goedert — a top 10 tight end last year. But when you look at their consistency rankings, Ertz is still king in Philly and you’re getting him for a discount (5.04) in drafts this year.

Mark Andrews and Darren Waller are the question marks. Will they be one-hit wonders or are they here to stay? Andrews will be 24 this September and has the reigning MVP as his quarterback. If you believe Lamar Jackson can again throw for anything close to 36 touchdowns, Andrews will be fine. But the likelihood is Jackson probably won’t, putting Andrews at greater risk of keeping his high volume of touchdowns on a run-first team. Waller will be 28 this September and took a while to get to where he is now. The Raiders brought in a lot of young pieces on offense, so maybe he will be the relied-upon veteran that keeps the Raiders afloat. Or one of those rookies emerges and Waller gets relegated to a complimentary role. Their current ADPs are the 4.10 (Andrews) and 5.12 (Waller). That may be too high for some baked in uncertainty.

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Mark Andrews’ second year breakout has everyone talking like he’s the next big thing heading into Year Three. Can he keep it going or will TD regression rear its ugly head? (Photo from https://onedrop.today)

Both Kelce (2.08) and Kittle’s (2.12) ADP currently sits in the second round. Is that a steep price for a TE? Absolutely. But sometimes you have to pay up for certainty. Let’s look at some of the guys going around them:

  • DeAndre Hopkins (2.05) is a great receiver with a great track record but he just changed teams in an offseason that has limited player-coach interactions. As much as I love him, he represents a lot of risk.
  • Aaron Jones (2.07) led the league in touchdowns last year (19) so the Packers felt a need to draft a running back in the Second round who is 250 pounds. Jones will likely lose many of those touchdowns and with the way Matt LaFleur rotates his running backs, Jones could see a decrease in overall touches as well, putting a cap on any upside we think he could have.
  • Todd Gurley (2.12) and James Conner (3.02) have injury concerns, despite the upside they bring with being their respective team’s lead back. Sure, if they’re healthy, they both have top five upside. But we KNOW about Gurley’s arthritic knee and we KNOW Conner has a history of missing games.

The goal of this is to reiterate one of my biggest credos when drafting — minimize risk early. A top tight end historically is much less risky than a second or third running back or wide receiver — the middle to late rounds have always given us breakout candidates at those positions. Even at tight end, someone will inevitably surface. Evan Engram surfaced in 2017, Kittle surfaced in 2018, and Mark Andrews and Darren Waller surfaced in 2019. The search will inevitably continue because people don’t want to pay the premium price for a premium tight end. But look at Engram — he’s dealt with injuries every year and the jury is still out on Andrews and Waller being able to repeat their 2019 success.

If you miss on one of the top 2-3 tight ends, then yes, take Ryan’s advice and wait as long as possible to stream the position throughout the year. It’s a lot of work, but it can pay huge dividends at year’s end. But if you have to work that hard at one position, there’s a chance you’re probably working just as hard at others. Ever heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder”?

Here’s your chance to work smarter and enjoy your change-free lineup construction.