Darkhorse Dynasty Destinations: Tight End
Pat Thorman examines three under-the-radar destinations for free agent tight ends.
Darkhorse Dynasty Destinations: Tight End
At this early stage of the offseason, while the upcoming scouting combine is commanding a great deal of attention, coaching turnover and impending free agent movement offer ambiguity that doubles as opportunity for sharp dynasty owners.
Now is the perfect time to dredge the tight end waters if your rosters aren’t graced by Rob Gronkowski. Although Gronk possesses about as much “grace” as he does a grasp of The Great Gatsby, he represents the only asset who singularly equates to an elite dynasty tight end stable.
Even Jimmy Graham is a clearly inferior option to the 25-year-old Patriot (26 in May). Graham is less productive than Gronk even when healthy, has been consistently hampered by performance-muting injuries, and at 28 years old (29 in November), is nearing a production cliff that affects the majority of tight ends.
Tight ends likely to be on the move are led by a pair of well-known fantasy names—Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron—and are followed by several players whose beauty is currently in the eye of the beholder. If, however, Rob Housler signs a one-year deal to fill the “Joker” role in New England, his ugly seasons in Bruce Arians’ tight end-squashing scheme will quickly become a memory.
Below we’ll take a look at three under-the-radar landing spots for tight ends, followed by a trio of relatively inexpensive free agents that are worth some speculative attention in deeper dynasty leagues.
The Bills are not the first team that jumps to mind when projecting fertile receiving ground, but the new coaching staff may make it so for their tight end. Changes need to be made beforehand, not the least of which is E.J. Manuel taking a gigantic step forward to just barely adequate. Yet, whoever winds up as the lead tight end is a strong bet to enjoy an opportunity spike.
As a group, fantasy’s top-10 scoring tight ends last season saw 0.186 targets per pass route. During Rex Ryan’s six seasons in New York, with three different coordinators running his offenses, the primary Jets tight end averaged 0.213 targets per route. Just one of 2014’s top tight end scorers received targets at a higher rate (Graham; 0.223).
Greg Roman will run Buffalo’s offense, and prior to Vernon Davis’ production falling into the San Francisco Bay last year, he ranked second in team targets for three straight seasons. Scott Chandler has a year left on his Bills contract and is merely a placeholder. The athletic Chris Gragg has a whiff of enough upside to keep dynasty owners interested, while MarQueis Gray is also on the roster.
Other than their price tags, not much about them is intriguing. However, if Buffalo drafts Maxx Williams, or even plus-sized receiver Devin Funchess, it will be worth our full attention. The Bills’ strong cap situation may result in their snatching a Charles Clay, Niles Paul, or Housler in free agency. While those moves would likely be met with yawns in Fantasyland, the opportunistic dynasty owner will be buying.
New offensive coordinator Greg Olson has a reputation for developing young quarterbacks and is now charged with Blake Bortles’ maturation. A key part of his process has included incorporating a tight end into a prominent passing game role. Derek Carr‘s reliance on Mychal Rivera—who was the seventh-most targeted tight end in 2014—is just the most recent example.
Olson oversaw Josh Freeman’s meteoric rise (and fall) in Tampa Bay, which also included Kellen Winslow’s first three seasons. Winslow ranked fourth (116 targets), ninth (88), and fifth (114) in tight end looks under Olson. Joey Harrington’s two “best” campaigns occurred when Olson became his quarterback coach and then coordinator. Tight ends Stephen Alexander and Marcus Pollard both ranked second in Lions’ targets during those seasons.
When considering the future of Jacksonville’s passing game, thoughts naturally skew toward Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, and Justin Blackmon. However, there’s evidence that a tight end will also figure prominently, and the Jaguars have the salary cap space to make it happen immediately. Marcedes Lewis’ lease is almost up, and Clay Harbor is a quaint place to visit, but Bortles’ passes are due for an upgraded destination.
Owen Daniels, Fred Davis, and Jordan Reed all produced while Kyle Shanahan was their offensive coordinator. Daniels was top 10 in fantasy points per game twice (4th and 8th) when they were together in Houston. Davis finished sixth in 2011 and Reed was ninth in 2013 when Shanahan was in Washington. Even Chris Cooley ranked a respectable 14th under Young Shanny.
While this doesn’t guarantee fantasy success in 2015, the lead tight end in Atlanta does stand a solid chance of following in their footsteps. Unless, that is, practice-squad-level talent Levine Toilolo again toils in that role. He ranked 60th out of 61 qualifying tight ends in fantasy points per opportunity (PPO), and earned PFF’s worst passing game grade at his position (-14.9; 67th).
Matt Ryan is the best quarterback that Shanahan has directed, and he obviously clicked well with Tony Gonzalez during their five seasons together. With a backfield in transition and aging pass catchers beyond Julio Jones, the Falcons offense is desperate for a receiving threat at tight end. While that weapon isn’t yet on Atlanta’s roster, chances are whoever it is will be someone you’ll want on yours.
Free Agent Tight Ends
Rob Housler – At 6’5” and 250 pounds, it’s Housler’s 4.46 speed that makes him interesting. Now that he’s escaping a tight end-unfriendly offense where he was buried behind a veteran and a highly-drafted rookie, our imaginations will soon run wild. The hope is he lands in the drool-worthy “Aaron Hernandez role” in New England—a spot that we in Fantasyland seem more interested in filling than even Bill Belichick—or a similar situation. Sure, he can’t block his way out of a wet paper bag, but that only hurts if it keeps him off the field, and whoever signs him won’t be surprised. Dynasty owners shouldn’t be surprised when his value spikes once he finds a new team.
Lance Kendricks – The former second-round pick (47th overall) only just turned 27 years old, and despite limited opportunities, has improved his pass catching in recent seasons. He’s decreased his Drop Rate from 24.3 percent in his rookie year down to 10.9 percent, then to 5.9 percent, and finally to 3.6 percent in 2014. With eight of his 13 touchdowns coming from inside the eight-yard line, he’s predominantly been a red zone threat. However it’s worth seeing if Kendricks escaping the Rams’ annual quarterback catastrophe, not to mention Jared Cook’s contract-bestowed depth chart lead, can jump-start a once promising career.
David Ausberry – It wouldn’t truly be February without a hopeful Ausberry blurb. The 6’4” former wideout is once again healthy after a lost season, and this time he’s looking for a new team. Whether his 4.48 speed remains intact after a knee procedure and a foot injury is a whole other question. Last spring, not long after shoulder surgery wiped out his 2013 season, he was ahead of Mychal Rivera during OTAs, and the two were splitting time until Ausberry’s injuries again crept up. Taking up a valuable roster spot in a shallow league would be overkill, but where he lands is more than worth watching.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman