Position battles to watch for fantasy: TE
Granted, tight end battles do not carry the cache of the other skill positions for fantasy. Typically, these contests are not a result of multiple strong options, but rather, several flawed choices. That doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting options among these players, especially for those who have historically utilized their tight end.
Below is a look at some of the more intriguing tight end battles going on this offseason. Sorry Jacksonville Jaguars fans, your team didn’t make the cut.
Even in a year with three starting quarterbacks, the Bears threw the ball in 2016. Add in the fact that their tight end group was uninspiring and it is a minor miracle that the position saw 96 targets. However, despite all those targets, only five of them were of the deep (20-plus yards) variety.
Miller should be considered the favorite here after finishing as the ninth-highest-graded tight end by PFF last year. He had above-average grades in receiving, pass-blocking, and run-blocking. That said, his injury history and age (32) on a rebuilding team could not only see him lose the job, but Miller could be off the roster. Sims is the free agent addition, and saw the most work of his career in 2016, logging 767 snaps and 295 routes run. Unfortunately, he was largely unsuccessful, finishing 39th of 40 among qualified tight ends in yards per route run (0.87). Sims will need to have a big camp and preseason to secure a starting role and have any promise. Rookie Shaheen, a second-round pick, is another Bears tight end with size (6-foot-6, 278 pounds) but his small-school background (Ashland) will make the leap to the NFL difficult. That said, he has very positive reports coming out of camp so a good preseason could put him in the starting conversation.
Likely starter Week 1: Sims. Shaheen would be my preference, but Sims has the experience and the team will likely give their rookies a chance to slowly earn playing time. Miller has rumors around him of being cut, so he is an avoid in fantasy. Shaheen represents the dynasty pick while Sims is no better than a second or third tight end in redraft leagues.
It is not very often a strong passing game has such struggles at the tight end position. Derek Carr threw for 28 touchdown passes before injury last year, tied for seventh among quarterbacks, but also dealt with 37 drops, second-worst among qualified passers. Even with Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, the tight end position saw 79 targets, not a bad number considering the options last year.
Cook represents something the Raiders didn’t have at the position, a deep threat. He had more deep targets (10) than the Raiders tight end group had last year in total (eight) on 26 fewer total targets. Cook finished 12th with 1.85 yards per route run, which furthers the idea that he could be a playmaker for the Raiders. Meanwhile, incumbent Walford split time with blocking tight end Lee Smith, limiting him to just 51 targets despite seeing nearly 300 more snaps. Walford could be the odd man out if he doesn’t show improvement in the preseason.
Likely starter Week 1: Cook. Walford has had a few years to establish himself, but has largely been a mediocre tight end option. With Cook, the Raiders get a well-rounded option who has never excelled but will be an improvement. Carr gets another good receiving option and Cook could threaten the top 12 at the position in fantasy.
To call the 2016 tight end situation in Denver a disaster would be generous. Four different players had at least 150 snaps last year but no one had more than 34 pass targets and only Green had over 200 routes run. The overall pass game was just outside the top half in attempts (17th) so there is opportunity in this Denver offense.
Green is clearly a strong run-blocking tight end, finishing in the top 15 in two of the last three years. Unfortunately, his receiving is not as potent, as Green’s yards per route run ranked 34th among 40 qualified tight ends. Heuerman had some success in very limited time, averaging 0.5 yards per route run more (1.57) than Green (1.07). He is having a strong offseason and is another season removed from his ACL surgery in 2015. Heuerman could be the seam-stretching option the Broncos were missing last year. Derby is the wild card of the group, a former quarterback the Broncos traded for last year. He had four or more receptions in three of his first four games before a concussion ended the year. A full offseason learning the playbook could help Derby. As for Butt, he is the rookie of the group, but is recovering from his own knee injury suffered at the end of the college season. He could be the most talented, but recovery time means he hasn’t been practicing with the team.
Likely starter Week 1: Heuerman. It is just as likely the team uses a committee that included Green, but Heuerman is the best bet to own the job outright. This could also be a full-blown committee with Green handling running situations and a combination of Heuerman and Derby on passing downs. Don’t bet highly on any of these players, but be ready to pounce given offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s affinity for tight ends.
There isn’t much positive to say about the 2016 Los Angeles Rams offense. They finished last in passing touchdowns (14), second-worst in passing yards (2951), and sixth lowest in pass attempts (536). The change from Case Keenum to Jared Goff didn’t help either; Goff averaged about 65 fewer passing yards per game. Given the lack of receiving options, the Rams did manage 100 targets to the tight end position, with 74 of those going to the since-departed Lance Kendricks.
The Rams liked Everett enough to spend a second-round pick on him this year. The Jordan Reed comps are numerous, a result of Everett’s smaller tight end frame (6-foot-3, 239 pounds) as well as his versatile receiving skills. He led college tight ends in missed tackles forced (24), nine more than second place David Njoku, showing off Everett’s playmaking ability. Higbee is a playmaker in his own right, finishing fifth in 2015 with 10 missed tackles on receptions (Everett was also first that year with 22). Higbee showed in Los Angeles that he can be a well-rounded tight end albeit in limited time. However, there is a reason he fell in the draft, and that came to a head last month as Higbee plead guilty to assault, not his first off-the-field issue.
Likely starter Week 1: Both. This is slightly cheating, but Sean McVay’s offense is friendly to multiple tight end sets. Considering Everett has similarities to Jordan Reed while Higbee can play a role similar to Vernon Davis, McVay will be tempted to keep both on the field regularly. Add in a limited wide receiver group that is largely unproven, expect the team to be more creative than 2016. Neither tight end is worth a fantasy draft investment, but these are the waiver-wire options who can help on bye weeks or down the stretch if one can command the larger target share.
Arguably the best was saved for last. While Brate was the bright spot of the position, keep in mind that the team allocated over 700 snaps to Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker last year. This is a team willing to give their tight ends time on the field, although the emergence of Chris Godwin in training camp could curtail some of those opportunities. With Jameis Winston at quarterback and improved receiving options, the team should continue to grow its passing attempts (from 536 in 2015 to 567 last year).
Brate was a revelation for the team, catching 57 passes on 78 targets (73 percent) including eight touchdowns in 2016. Part of his success was a result of heavy slot usage, finishing first among tight ends with 64.4 percent of his routes run in the slot, which resulted in 37 of his receptions and six touchdowns. Brate’s receiving work overshadows his subpar blocking, a key reason why the other tight ends saw so many snaps. Rookie Howard comes in highly regarded as a complete tight end — PFF graded him first among 2016 college tight ends. Not only was Howard the highest-graded run-blocker, but he finished 18th in yards per route run (1.80). The team clearly drafted Howard to be a complete tight end, but playing time does not always lead to fantasy numbers.
Likely starter Week 1: Brate. For dynasty owners and those in keeper leagues, Howard is the better choice, but Brate is proven and has the receiving ability to limit Howard to a secondary target and a blocking tight end. Brate is capable of playing outside, in the slot, and in-line; giving him the versatility to be on the field consistently. With Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson on the outside, Brate should remain the intermediary threat and an option for Winston in the red zone when Evans is double covered. Expect a good season from Brate with him threatening top-12 status for a second consecutive year.