Looking at the fantasy landing spots for the top-drafted TEs
Every February I start building a set of rankings for the incoming class of rookies and continue to adjust it up until the draft. Once the draft hits, I start over from scratch. Athletic measurables and my original evaluations will always play a role, but all too often landing spot becomes the biggest factor. Early last season I had Leonte Carroo ahead of Michael Thomas (it feels gross just typing that), but of course, after the draft I quickly switched the two receivers.
Not only is team landing spot important, but so too is where in the draft they are selected. As our own Tyler Loechner displayed a week ago, the higher a player is drafted, the more likely they are to achieve fantasy success. It makes sense in theory too — teams have more invested in these players, and thus, are more invested in seeing them succeed.
Taking these two factors into account, here is a look at the prognoses for the draft’s notable fantasy tight ends. As most of us already know, it’s unlikely any of these tight ends make a significant fantasy impact in their rookie seasons, but each landing spot will have significant implications for dynasty leagues.
O.J. Howard (first round, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
As far as landing spots go for a tight end, I’m not sure it gets much better than it just did for Howard landing alongside Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter. I’m also not the only one excited about the selection. During Tampa Bay’s Day 1 press conference, Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said, “That’s the biggest hug I ever got from Koetter… I got a text from Jameis with like a million smiley faces.” Licht too appeared ecstatic over the selection throughout the press conference and continued giving away useful information. He mentioned, “We felt like we had a need at tight end… Coach Koetter likes to use multiple tight ends.” When asked how Howard would be used early on in his career, he replied, “[We’re] not gonna put too much pressure on him early on… He can help immediately in passing game, then develop as a blocker.”
I certainly understand the excitement from Licht, who likely never suspected Howard would fall to the team’s No. 19 pick. With regard to Winston’s enthusiasm, I’m not surprised here either. Since entering the NFL, Winston ranks fifth-best in passer rating when targeting the tight end position, but third-worst when targeting all other positions.
During his final season of college, Winston heavily targeted his top tight end Nick O’Leary 80 times, third-most at the position that year.
Howard led all tight ends (min. 30 targets, 66 qualifying both seasons) in yards per target in 2015 and ranked fourth-best last season. He also put together a tremendous combine performance, posting the best 20-yard shuttle and three-cone times in the class. His weight-adjusted 40 time, though behind Evan Engram’s, ranks top-10 at the position since 2000.
Evan Engram (first round, New York Giants)
On paper, this looked like a terrible landing spot for a player frequently panned for his ability as a blocker. Our data also support this notion – despite grading out as our third-best tight end via the pass, he graded out poorly as both a run-blocker and pass-blocker last season. The landing spot seems particularly curious considering the Giants ran 92 percent of their plays from 11 personnel last season, which was a whopping 16 percent more than the next-closest offense.
This would imply Engram would either need to drastically improve as a blocker – and quickly – or New York will have to adapt their offense to suit Engram’s unique skillset. After spending hours watching post-draft press conferences, but particularly the one from Giants VP of player personnel, Marc Ross, I’m beginning to think it will be the latter. When asked how the Giants would plan to use Engram, he said, “Yeah, he’s not gonna line up on the line and just be trying to dive block people all the time. He’s gonna be in the backfield, he’s gonna be in the slot, he’s gonna be detached, he will be down in tradition tight end position sometimes too, but the way Ole Miss used him… He can line up in three or four positions, so I would envision we will use him in a similar fashion.”
The Giants front offense frequently talked up Engram’s unique speed (he ran the eighth-best weight-adjusted 40 at the position since 2000) and his ability to shift coverage away from Odell Beckham Jr. in single-high-safety coverage. The Giants view Engram as a “matchup-nightmare” – another phrase they repeated frequently in their press conferences – and I’m confident they’ll find ways to get him the ball. Still, it’s hard to get too excited about his immediate prospects, competing for targets with star receiver Beckham Jr., the newly added veteran Brandon Marshall, and last year’s second-round draft pick Sterling Shepard.
David Njoku (first round, Cleveland Browns)
Njoku is another athletically gifted tight end (his broad jump at the combine was second-best at the position since 2006) who profiles more as a receiver than a blocker in the NFL. During his college career, he was asked to pass-block just 7.1 percent of the time, lowest of all tight ends drafted in the first five rounds. Still, he was clearly dominant as a receiver during his college career. Among all tight ends with at least 20 receptions last season, Njoku ranked second-best in missed tackles forced per reception and led the class in yards after the catch per reception with 11.2 (the next-closest tight end had 9.2).
Like with all of the other tight ends, I carefully watched Cleveland’s press conferences for glimpses of how the team might plan to use him moving forward. Unlike with Engram and Howard, Cleveland’s front office didn’t give me much to go on, but they pretty much told me all I needed to know after releasing veteran tight end Gary Barnidge the day after trading up for Njoku. Given the now clear path to playing time, on a team willing to let their young talent develop as they continue to re-build, I’m perhaps most excited about Njoku’s year one potential, despite obvious quarterback concerns. As the youngest tight end in the class, his dynasty appeal is equally enticing.
Gerald Everett (second round, Los Angeles Rams)
After posting my dynasty rookie rankings earlier this week it’s clear I’m far higher on Everett’s potential than most of my peers. Here’s why:
- Newly appointed head-coach Sean McVay hand-picked and spent significant draft capital (their first pick in the draft, No. 44 overall) on Everett.
- Tight ends play a major role in McVay’s offense, and McVay may view Everett similarly to how he utilized Jordan Reed while in Washington. McVay’s tight ends hauled in 25 percent of the team’s targets in each of the past two seasons (league average was 20 percent over this span). Reed also led the position in fantasy points per snap each of the past two years.
- Outside of, possibly, last year’s fourth-round selection Tyler Higbee in the immediate future, I don’t see much target competition for Everett moving forward. The Rams receiving corps boasts the generationally inefficient Tavon Austin as incumbent WR1, free agent acquisition Robert Woods (who has never reached 700 receiving yards despite four straight seasons with at least 75 targets), and FCS rookie Cooper Kupp.
- By pretty much every receiving metric I consider significant, Everett was an absolute monster as a receiver throughout his college career. (Note, however, that his level of competition was also much softer than the tight ends selected ahead of him.)
The concern with Everett, like with the earlier names, is that his deficiencies as a blocker might keep him off the field early in his career. However, if there really is a “Reed-role” in the McVay offense, this shouldn’t be as much of a concern. Reed was asked to pass block only 6.0 percent of the time last season.
Adam Shaheen (second round, Chicago Bears)
Shaheen quickly moved up in my rankings based simply on the fact that Chicago invested a top-50 pick on the small-school tight end. Shaheen was the largest tight end at the combine this year, measuring in at an imposing 6-foot-6 and 278 pounds. Shaheen set a Division II record last season with 16 touchdown catches, but considering PFF has never charted Shaheen, I don’t really have much else to go on to justify the perceived reach.
According to Bears beat reporter Brad Biggs, Chicago GM Ryan Pace “does not view Shaheen as a project” and “projects him to play early [in his career].” Shaheen’s immediate competition for receiving work at the position is Zach Miller, who has had significant durability issues throughout his career, missing six games last season and playing in just 29 games since 2011. I’m optimistic for Shaheen’s fantasy potential based on these reports and the high draft capital invested, but am still weary of him as a talent.
(Note: No other tight ends found their way onto my top-40 dynasty rookie rankings. No other tight ends are on my re-draft radar.)