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Tight End Draft Strategy (Fantasy Football)

by Eric Moody | @EricNMoody | Featured Writer
Aug 27, 2016

Delanie Walker

Delanie Walker led all tight ends in targets in 2015

Eric Moody provides an overview of tight end draft strategy for 2016 fantasy football drafts.

Delanie Walker lead all tight end in targets (133) and receptions (94) last season. Only Rob Gronkowski (183.6), Gary Barnidge (158.3), and Jordan Reed (157.2) finished with more fantasy points than Walker (150.4) in standard scoring formats. Reed, Walker, and Barnidge were either selected late in drafts or picked up on waivers. Gronkowski has been a consistent and elite tight end selected at the top of fantasy drafts year in and year out, but who will emerge in 2016? This article will show you three ways to approach the tight end position in your upcoming fantasy draft.

The “Stud” Methodology

2015 Statistical Production

Player Team Gms Targets Rec Pct Yds TD Long Yds/Target Yds/Rec
Rob Gronkowski NE 15 120 72 60 1,176 11 76 10 16
Jordan Reed WAS 14 114 87 76 952 11 32 8 11
Greg Olsen CAR 16 124 77 62 1,104 7 52 9 14

Source: FantasyData

These tight ends can be selected anywhere from the first to the sixth round in fantasy drafts. Gronkowski produced 2.55 fantasy points per reception last season. He played the seventh highest number of offensive snaps (950) among tight ends and was targeted on 13 percent of them. Gronkowski received 19 targets inside the 20-yard line and owned a target share of 21.1 percent in this part of the field. Reed’s statistical production propelled a number of fantasy owners to a championship in 2015. He continues to be a high injury risk (81 percent) according to Sports Injury Predictor. He produced 1.80 fantasy points per reception. He was targeted 23 times inside the 20-yard line and owned a target share of 24.7 percent in this part of the field. Olsen produced 1.95 fantasy points per reception in 2015. He does not provide fantasy owners with the touchdown potential of Gronkowski or Reed. Olsen did own a 30.6 percent share of targets inside the 20-yard line.

Gronkowski will continue to be a high statistical performer in the Patriots’ offense and an elite TE1. The presence of Martellus Bennett will open things up even more for the team’s offense. He is a great target if you are drafting late in the first round near the turn. Reed can typically be drafted in the fourth round. He is a tight end that I prefer to target in this group. Reed is the No. 1 option in the Redskins passing game. Volatility goes both ways. Fantasy owners enjoy it when production is trending up, but Reed’s injury history presents downward volatility. He is a risk worth taking in fantasy drafts in 2016. The best approach with Reed is to draft another tight end late as a contingency plan. I view Olsen as the safer option because his floor is limited by the Panthers’ offense. If you are looking for the stability of 1,000 yards and six touchdowns then he is worth investing in. I prefer to draft Olsen if he falls a round or two from his ADP (average draft position).

The “Meeting In The Middle” Methodology

2015 Statistical Production

Player Team Gms Targets Rec Pct Yds TD Long Yds/Target Yds/Rec
Delanie Walker TEN 15 133 94 71 1,088 6 61 8 12
Travis Kelce KC 16 103 72 70 875 5 42 9 12
Coby Fleener IND 16 84 54 64 491 3 57 6 9
Zach Ertz PHI 15 112 75 67 853 2 60 8 11
Gary Barnidge CLE 16 125 79 63 1,043 9 40 8 13
Julius Thomas JAX 12 80 46 58 455 5 34 6 10
Antonio Gates SD 11 85 56 66 630 5 40 7 11
Tyler Eifert CIN 13 74 52 70 615 13 31 8 12

Source: FantasyData

These tight ends can generally be drafted anywhere from the fifth to ninth round. One of my favorite targets out of this group is Delanie Walker. Many are concerned about his target volume due to the Titans transition to an “exotic smashmouth” (head coach Mike Mularkey’s words) running attack. Walker had a target share of 20.2 last season receiving 16 targets inside the 20-yard line. I see him producing enough statistically to justify his ADP.

Kelce’s athletic upside is restricted by the Chiefs’ offense. He is a candidate for another season with 70 receptions, 850 receiving yards, and six touchdowns. This is not the type of statistical line fantasy dreams are made of. Fleener is tied to a tight-end friendly scheme in New Orleans. The position was targeted 143 times in 2015.

Fleener, given his contract in free agency, should be in the position to own a high percentage of those targets. Ertz is a candidate for positive regression in the area of touchdowns. He could become a TE1 if the number of touchdowns increases to anywhere from five to seven in addition to maintaining the reception and receiving yard volume.

Gary Barnidge continues to be a forgotten man in Cleveland. He owned 46.2 percent of the targets in the red zone last season. The narrative surrounding Barnidge is that Robert Griffin III does not target the tight end and the number of receiving weapons the Browns have in 2016. If Griffin is truly more mature and embracing new head coach Hue Jackson’s offensive philosophy it is no reason he would not leverage Barnidge. Jackson has a history of heavily targeting the tight end in the red zone (Tyler Eifert scored 13 touchdowns with Jackson in 2015 with the Bengals). If Griffin implodes then Josh McCown will step in and continue where he left off with Barnidge in 2015. All of these tight ends bring opportunity to the table for fantasy owners.

Julius Thomas continues to be undervalued after a hand injury derailed his 2015 season causing him to miss the first four weeks of the season. He is looking to show everyone that he is one of the best tight ends in the league in 2016. Thomas should be leaned upon in the red zone. The Jaguars led the NFL with 88 targets inside the 20-yard line.

Antonio Gates continues to defy age entering his age 36 season. He was used strategically in passing situations in 2015 only playing 510 snaps, but he was targeted on 17 percent of them. Gates’ success or failure in fantasy this season will be defined by red zone usage.

Tyler Eifert is the wild card. He was a monster last season, but he will be returning from a serious ankle injury. The best strategy to embrace if you intend on drafting Eifert is to pair him with another tight end late in your fantasy draft.

The “Late Round TE Committee” Methodology

2015 Statistical Production

Player Team Gms Targets Rec Pct Yds TD Long Yds/Target Yds/Rec
Martellus Bennett CHI 11 80 53 66 439 3 24 6 8
Jason Witten DAL 16 104 77 74 713 3 35 7 9
Dwayne Allen IND 13 29 16 55 109 1 21 4 7
Zach Miller CHI 15 46 34 74 439 5 87 10 13
Austin Seferian-Jenkins TB 7 39 21 54 338 4 43 9 16
Vance McDonald SF 14 46 30 65 326 3 36 7 11

Source: FantasyData

These tight ends can generally be drafted in the 10th round or later. All signs point to Martellus Bennett having a huge role in the Patriots’ offense. He should have the potential to score eight to nine touchdowns even with Gronkowski in the lineup. If Gronkowski were to miss an extended period due to an injury Bennett could be a season changer. Witten is boring, but he is a sneaky bet to finish as a top 10 fantasy tight end. He has finished in the top 10 like clockwork from 2007 to 2014. His touchdown production has dropped off significantly with Tony Romo out, so that should be considered.

Allen stands to benefit from the departure of Coby Fleener and a revitalized Colts’ offense. Success or failure for him comes down to target volume in the red zone. Miller was excellent in relief of Bennett late last season in Chicago. He now has a full-time role in the Bears’ offense as their starting tight end which provides Miller with fantasy upside. Seferian-Jenkins is in the driver’s seat to be the Buccaneers’ starting tight end. It remains to be seen what upside he could bring, but he profiles as more of a boom or bust option at the position. McDonald’s situation boils down to talent finally meeting opportunity in new head coach Chip Kelly’s scheme.

The best approach is to draft two of these tight ends and play the matchups.

Conclusion

This is a season where I sense the “Meeting in the Middle” methodology is the one to leverage. I do find myself drafting Reed in mocks and actual drafts. Walker, Thomas, Ertz, and Gates are also on a high number of my teams. Bennett, Miller, and McDonald are my go to tight ends late in fantasy drafts.

Each fantasy draft will throw you curve balls and you have to display the ability to pivot. This is where your draft preparation can take over. Trust your preparation and your instincts. Fear and doubt can infect your decision making like a virus. Have conviction and own the tight end position in your drafts.

What is your favorite methodology after reading this article? Can you see yourself executing it? Please leave a comment below or better yet reach out to me on Twitter @EricNMoody.

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