5 underrated fantasy tight ends
If you don’t get Rob Gronkowski, your best strategy might be to simply pick off a late-round tight end target. The late-round tight end strategy works because there are several undervalued targets, some that can even be had for free at the end of your drafts.
Unlike the late-round quarterback strategy, tight ends that come off the board in the 10-14 range aren’t guaranteed weekly scorers, but they carry just as much upside as the TE5 through TE9, and they can be drafted several rounds later.
Tight end value comes in the middle rounds as well in 2015, and two players stand out most as excellent values based on their ADP.
*All ADP data comes from fantasyfootballcalculator.com. We are using ADP data from the last two weeks for this exercise.
Zach Ertz – Eagles, ADP 12.01
Zach Ertz is the ideal post-hype sleeper. Before we dig into the many factors that make him an excellent bet to break out, it’s important to consider why he’s still a value. On Aug. 14, Ertz decided he would undergo groin surgery that would sideline him for the rest of the preseason. Although he hasn’t confirmed that he’ll be ready for the season opener, that’s the target date. His recent absence has caused a stoppage in the hype and an opportunity for fantasy owners to pounce as his ADP drops.
According to FantasyFootballCalcuator.com’s ADP, since Aug. 14, Ertz is coming off the board as the TE13 in the 12th round. That ADP would assume that Ertz doesn’t improve at all from 2014 when he finished as the TE13 overall. Ertz played just 50.3 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps in 2014, and it was his blocking that kept him off the field. He dedicated his offseason to improving his blocking and he met and learned from Tony Gonzalez. Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur praised his improved blocking earlier in training camp.
At different points this offseason, Darren Sproles predicted a breakout season for Ertz and Brent Celek admitted that the Eagles needed him on the field. While it’s not always wise to buy into player-speak, these two veterans don’t just toss around hyperbole. Before he opted for surgery, Ertz was making plays throughout training camp, particularly in the red zone. Beat reporters noticed a strong chemistry between Ertz and new Eagles signal caller Sam Bradford.
According to PFF’s J.J. Ziegler, Ertz didn’t allow a pressure in the second half of the season and posted a +0.5 as a pass blocker. Ziegler also pointed out that his run blocking improved in the second half of 2014. Jeremy Maclin’s lost production has to go somewhere within this Eagles offense, and if Ertz can carve out a role as Bradford’s No. 2 option in the passing game, we will be looking at a true breakout season.
Jordan Cameron – Dolphins, ADP 8.03
Just one season ago, Jordan Cameron was viewed as the only tight end worth targeting after Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski were taken. One season full of injuries and disappointment on a Browns team that struggled to utilize him without Norv Turner, and Cameron is a mid-tier tight end according to ADP. Aside from Ertz, you won’t find a tight end with a higher ceiling in relation to his ADP than Cameron. He is going off the board as the TE8.
It’s easy to forget what made Cameron a high-upside draft pick last preseason. He’s an athletic freak. At 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds, he ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine with ridiculous numbers in just about every other measurement. His combination of short and deep speed with lateral agility and jumping ability is unmatched. Take a look at these measurables in comparison to the rest of the tight ends around the league.
Cameron is not just an athletic freak; we’ve seen him dominate on the field in spite of poor quarterback play. He compiled an 80/917/7 line in 2013. He won’t be a target monster in Miami, but he does fit in nicely with his new offense. The Dolphins like to utilize the middle of the field and Cameron provides an excellent intermediate and red zone target. Cameron is the type of unique talent who can thrive without volume, and I think we’ll get a chance to see that in 2015.
Delanie Walker – Titans, ADP 10.01
Originally billed as a blocking tight end when he first entered the NFL, Walker has evolved into much more than that in his two seasons with the Titans. In that time span, Walker has racked up 123 receptions, 1,461 yards and 10 touchdowns. Only three tight ends finished with more than Walker’s 890 receiving yards in 2014.
Walker is one of the best blocking tight ends, particularly in the run game, and this keeps him on the field. Only four tight ends saw more than Walker’s 100 targets last year, and I don’t see any reason to expect a major drop off. The Titans added Dorial Green-Beckham this offseason, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt has a track record for moving rookies along slowly, and Green-Beckham didn’t take any snaps with the first team offense in the team’s third preseason game.
It’s not like Walker’s value derived solely from volume anyway. He had the eighth-most fantasy points per opportunity (both standard and PPR) and an excellent 10.1 aDOT (average depth of target). Marcus Mariota has transitioned smoothly into the starting role and he offers upside for all Titans skill position players. Although he didn’t use his tight end often in the Oregon offensive scheme, I don’t see how that argument carries over now that he’s in Whisenhunt’s offense. Walker has only played in one preseason game and Mariota targeted him two times. Walker offers an excellent floor for those willing to wait on tight end.
Eric Ebron – Lions, ADP N/A
According to FantasyFootballCalcuator.com, Ebron is not being drafted enough to even make their ADP list. Assuming you can get Ebron for free, in the final round or for $1 in an auction, it makes sense to pounce. Just one season ago, the Lions invested the 10th overall pick on Ebron. Even if you thought he was an overdrafted talent, you can’t deny his unique athleticism for the position. At 250 pounds, Ebron ran a 4.60 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Combine with an 120-inch broad jump. He has speed and explosion that are unique to the tight end position.
Ebron also inherits a potentially promising situation. After a strong offseason, aside from a few drops, Ebron has a real shot to emerge as Matthew Stafford’s No. 3 option in the passing game behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s scheme derives from a Saints scheme that heavily involves its tight ends, specifically in the red zone.
There’s reason to believe that the Lions’ offense can take a step forward in year two under Lombardi. They added talent to the offensive line and Stafford looks more comfortable. There has also been talk that they will pick up the tempo. All of these factors are excellent signs for Ebron, who makes for an excellent tight end flier.
Kyle Rudolph – Vikings, ADP 11.08
Rudolph goes off the board as the TE12, but he carries more upside than several other back-end TE1s. Rudolph has had a quiet offseason, and his checkered injury history precedes him, but you’ll be hard pressed to find many tight ends that can compete with his combination of talent and situation.
At 6-foot-6 and 259 pounds, Rudolph is elusive and excellent at getting in and out of his breaks to create separation underneath. His best asset is his ability to win in the red zone. We all remember when Rudolph reeled in nine touchdowns before his past two injury-riddled seasons. When healthy in 2014, Rudolph played on nearly 90 percent of the team’s snaps. If he can stay healthy for all 16, he is actually in a better situation than he was then.
Although Charles Johnson has flashed, he is a former undrafted free agent who has bounced around three NFL teams. Rudolph can emerge as the No. 2 option in the passing game behind Johnson or Mike Wallace. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a history of targeting tight ends. He has coached up career seasons out of Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis and Jordan Cameron, most recently. In an evolving offense with an improving quarterback, Rudolph offers excellent upside at his ADP.
Dan Schneier is a staff writer at PFF Fantasy and he covers the NFC East beat for FOX Sports. You can find him on Twitter @DanSchneierNFL. You can also add him to your network on Google+ to find all of his past material.