TE1 Predictions for 2019 (Fantasy Football)
The tight end position has been one of the most difficult positions to trust in fantasy football over recent years. With Rob Gronkowski officially retired (for now?), we have lost one of the all-time greats at the position as well. There is a consensus top three that you won’t find many people argue against, but outside of that, it’s really anyone’s guess.
I’m going to break down my predictions for players to finish the season inside the top 12 this year, and some towards the back end my come as a bit of a surprise. These are my selections based on a full PPR scoring format, but you can also check out our Expert Consensus Rankings to see how the industry as a whole feels. Let’s get to my guys!
TE1 – Travis Kelce (KC)
I’m not really getting too creative inside the top five here this season, but the top three especially seems like a complete lock. Travis Kelce is the overall TE1 and worth a grab anywhere in the second round of drafts. He has finished as the overall TE1 in each of the last three seasons, though last season was actually the first year that he also finished first in points per game. He was beaten out in that respect by Jordan Reed in 2016 and Gronk in 2017.
Kelce has seen his PPG totals climb each of the last three seasons going from 13.9 in 2016 all the way up to 18.4 last year. This is a trend that has been mirrored by other top tight ends in the league such as Zach Ertz. Kelce has remained the top dog though. His combination of high volume and quality targets makes him unstoppable. He had the highest target share of any TE last season at 26.6 percent and had the second-most red zone and third most end-zone targets last season. There really isn’t much I need to sell you on here, it’s Travis Kelce.
TE2 – Zach Ertz (PHI)
I’ll shake up the ECR a little bit early here by taking Zach Ertz as the TE2 this season. While I won’t blame anyone for taking Kittle here, I like to lean more towards proven experience in redraft leagues and Ertz gives us just that. He has been just one step behind Travis Kelce each of the last three years when looking at PPG numbers:
- 2016: Kelce 13.9, Ertz 13.1
- 2017: Kelce 15.6, Ertz 14.5
- 2018: Kelce 18.4, Ertz 17.5
To be honest, I had Kittle as the TE2 for a while because it didn’t really seem like it warranted much thought. He was beastly when it came to yards after the catch and led all TEs in reception yards. But the more I dug, the more Ertz stood out to me as still the second-best option at the position. Using some of the advanced metrics over at FantasyData.com, I was surprised to see he led all TEs with 848 air yards and 27 red-zone targets. He also tied for third with Kelce recording 10 end-zone targets. Ertz also stood out with a solid 42.9 percent contested catch rate compared to Kittle’s lowly 29.4 percent.
Lastly and most obviously what keeps Ertz at TE2 for me is simply opportunity. He led all TEs with 116 receptions on 156 targets last season. I like the consistency he has brought every season in PPR leagues and the fact that you can usually get him after Kittle somewhere in the third round of drafts is a nice way to get value in the early rounds of fantasy drafts.
TE3 – George Kittle (SF)
Kittle broke out in a big way last season and it has pushed him all the way up to TE2 in most rankings. I have bounced back and forth between wanting Kittle or Ertz here all season and you could really make an argument either way. The experience Ertz brings to the table and the likelihood of the Eagles having a higher-scoring offense keeps Kittle at TE3 for me amongst other things.
While Kittle did lead all TEs with 1,377 receiving yards last season, he didn’t see quite as much work in the red zone/end zone compared to his big-three counterparts, resulting in just five TDs. Kittle’s 520 air yards were also significantly less than Ertz (848) though Kittle did lead all offensive players with an incredible 857 yards after the catch. The yards after catch total is pretty unsustainable. Kelce ranked second in that category last season and only recorded 593 yards in that category. Kelce also similarly lead the WR/TE positions in yards after the catch in 2016 but only managed 655 yards that year. Something in the high 500 to low 600-yard range seems like a more realistic number for Kittle and even that is still assuming he ranks tops at the position.
The 49ers brought in a lot of complimentary options to the passing game this offseason with the additions of Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd to name a few. They also have Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis returning and bolstered their RB depth with Tevin Coleman. This offense is going to look a lot different this season if everyone stays healthy and after one prolific season, we should see some regression all around for Kittle in 2019. He’s easily a top three guy still, but I am giving the slight edge to Ertz over him given the larger sample size of high performance.
TE4 – Evan Engram (NYG)
Now that we are outside of the big three, you start seeing a little more risk in these guys and considering the high draft capital you still have to spend on them, I have generally been opting to wait at the position altogether as opposed to taking that risk.
Having said that, a finish at TE4 is a realistic expectation for the likes of Evan Engram. He finished as the TE5 his rookie year in 2017 averaging 11.6 PPG and kept consistent averaging 11.5 PPG in 2018. His final rank wasn’t as great (TE13) due to some missed time, but his PPG rank was still good enough for a TE7 mark.
The Giants are a consensus hot mess coming into 2019, but honestly, they have been for the last few years and Engram has been fine. With Odell Beckham Jr. now gone and the WR corps littered with pint-sized slot receivers, Engram will be a friendly target for whichever QB calls the shots. He hasn’t had to rely on quality QB play so far in his career as he ranked third amongst TEs with 377 yards after the catch last season and fifth the year before with 273 yards. (Side note: Realize how much lower these yards after catch totals are compared to Kittle’s 857 number we were talking about earlier, yet these are still top five ranks.)
Engram has shown a consistent, reliable source of production on an offense that has offered everything but that. However, unless he takes a big step like we saw Kittle make last season, it’s hard to justify such a high draft pick when you can get guys later in the draft who have the potential to offer similar or marginally lower numbers.
TE5 – O.J. Howard (TB)
The TE4/TE5 spots are awfully close for me just as TE2/TE3 are. At the end of the day, I feel a little more comfortable in knowing that Engram will probably be able to finish a season healthy whereas O.J. Howard has yet to do that. When on the field though, Howard has shown he is one of the best downfield tight ends in the league. He led all TEs with 11.8 yards per target and 16.6 yards per reception last season which resulted in him also leading with the most points per pass route and 2.51 fantasy points per target according to Player Profiler.
Now with Bruce Arians as the head coach, the early thought was that of some concern with Arians’ history of not utilizing a TE heavily since back in the day when Heath Miller roamed the earth for the Steelers. I think most of that worry was put to bed though and especially so after we have seen fellow Bucs TE Tanner Hudson blow up in the preseason. This offense can support a top tight end no matter how bad Jameis Winston might perform.
Howard ranked sixth at the position with 12 PPG last season and he had five top-five weekly finishes in the 10 games he played last season. It really all comes down to staying healthy for Howard. If he can do that, he seems like a lock to finish inside the top eight at worst with a top-five finish entirely possible.
TE6 – Hunter Henry (LAC)
There is a bit of a trend with the guys in the heart of the top 12 as all offer high ceilings “if they can stay healthy.” Hunter Henry certainly fits that mold as a guy who didn’t even make it into training camp last season before getting hurt. Henry showed a lot of potential in small bunches to start his career, unfortunately, he was in the shadows of the winding-down career of the legendary Antonio Gates then. That didn’t stop Henry though for tying with Cameron Brate for the most TDs amongst TEs in Henry’s 2016 rookie season which helped him rank third in fantasy points per target.
Now as the only legitimate option on the team at TE and his health intact, we can finally (hopefully) get to see what he is really made of. His calling card as a TD threat may be slightly hedged by the emergence of Mike Williams, but like O.J. Howard, Henry proved a solid downfield threat as well ranking top five in yards per target and air yards back in 2017. This is more impressive when you factor in the fact that he had the highest catchable target rate at TE in 2017 as well, which signifies deep, accurate targets. That’s the kind of quality that can help push him into a top-five spot if he can stay healthy and either Engram or Howard cannot.
TE7 – David Njoku (CLE)
I’m going a little against the ECR here by taking Njoku two spots higher than his consensus ranking of TE9. Njoku entered the league as a first-round draft pick whose athleticism ranked off the charts. His best comparable talent on Player Profiler is none other than Travis Kelce.
We haven’t completely seen Njoku put it all together yet on the field, but with the Browns offense expected to take a monumental leap this season with their new coaching staff and Baker Mayfield under center, Njoku should have a solid opportunity to progress. We saw flashes from him last season as he recorded three top-five finishes and I think they will look to find more creative ways to use him downfield this season. He should also see more favorable coverage with the addition of OBJ. Jarvis Landry will also get his share of attention and a solid running game led by Nick Chubb will all help leave defenses vulnerable to Njoku in the middle of the field. Even in solid coverage though, Njoku was dominant recording a 66.7 percent contested catch rate last season which tied for fourth amongst TEs. This is more of a gut call than one backed up with a ton of data, but it’s a call I like this season.
TE8 – Jared Cook (NO)
It only took a decade, but I think Jared Cook finally had what we can feel comfortable calling a breakout last season. The 31-year-old tight end became the do it all receiving option for a decimated Raiders receiver corps as he recorded career highs with 101 targets, 68 receptions, 896 receiving yards, and six TDs. He ranked top five in pretty much all major receiving categories at the position including red zone and end-zone target share.
As quickly as things took off for Cook in Oakland, they ended. But that isn’t exactly bad news as the veteran found himself a new home in New Orleans catching passes from an all-time great in Drew Brees. The Saints depth chart at receiver doesn’t offer much to get excited about with the aging Ted Ginn and questionable Tre’Quan Smith rounding out the WR2/3 roles. This could lead to some solid opportunity on one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league for Cook to take advantage of. Brees doesn’t put out the volume that he used to back in the day when Jimmy Graham was an elite TE there, but I can still see Cook having success. After finishing as the overall TE5 last season, selecting Cook around TE8 has regression built into his draft price.
TE9 – Kyle Rudolph (MIN)
This one might raise some eyebrows, but hear me out. Kyle Rudolph has been the most unappreciated and unheralded TE in fantasy football over the last few years. I did some heavy research this season comparing past ADPs and final ranks and Rudolph scored off the charts at the TE position. Using a three-year sample size, Rudolph’s average final rank of 5.7 was third behind only Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. He also carries a solid average PPG rank of TE8 during that span.
Rudolph has beaten out his ADP in each of the last three seasons and shown us a ceiling of finishing as the overall TE2 as recent as 2016. He hasn’t finished outside the top eight in the last three years, yet his current ADP has him all the way down at TE15! It would take a colossal fail or injury for him to perform that poorly.
He has offered reliability at a position that can be riddled with injury having played in all 16 games in each of the last four seasons and been one of the biggest TD threats at the position. Last year, he finished second in end zone targets (11) behind only Eric Ebron (16). Ranking Rudolph as the TE9, believe it or not, has regression built into it based on his final ranks over the last three years. And I know a lot of people moan about “Oh, Kirk Cousins can’t do it, he’s a bust.” Whether that’s true or not, Cousins was still able to support three top 10 receiving options last season with Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph. He’s good enough and so is Rudolph. It’s plays like him that keep me from grabbing the Engram and Howard types earlier in drafts.
TE10 – Austin Hooper (ATL)
I’ll wander back closer to the ECR with my selection of Austin Hooper here at TE10. Hooper is a player who has trended up each of the last three seasons, culminating in a quiet TE6 final rank last season. He recorded six finishes inside the top 10 last season as a reliable target for Matt Ryan whose 80.7% catch rate ranked first amongst all TEs. Outside of that though, Hooper wasn’t really flashy with his performances. They were just steady and consistent enough to keep him inside the top 10.
Despite his positive trend over the last three years, I think we might see him take a slight step back this year. I just don’t see Hooper developing into a next-level talent that becomes a constant threat for borderline top-five production at the position. His health and role on what should be a high scoring offense with a favorable schedule are enough to keep him in the top 10 for me.
TE11 – Jason Witten (DAL)
This is another pick that might make people chuckle, but I think we are all entirely underestimating the potential Jason Witten can bring back to fantasy owners this season. Witten has been one of the most reliable TEs in the history of fantasy. He has only fallen out of the top 12 (TE1) range once dating all the way back to 2004 according to Pro Football Reference.
Before retiring to botch play calling from the booth, Witten finished as the TE11 and TE9 in 2016 and 2017 respectively recording 9.5 and 9.2 PPG. He had six games inside the top 10 in 2017, his last season played. When we go back to health being an important factor as well for the position, no one had a better track record than Witten there. He hasn’t missed a regular-season game since 2006. He saw no less than 87 targets in each season since his rookie year in 2003 and has nine seasons with over 100 targets in his prolific career.
If the Cowboys can get Zeke on the field sooner rather than later this could be the most potent Cowboys offense we have seen in a long time and Witten should be right there contributing in the passing game as a reliable target for Dak Prescott. Everyone’s favorite Dad runner is back in action and I for one will not be surprised to see him finish as a TE1 one more time.
TE12 – Delanie Walker (TEN)
Last but not least, another player I am targeting late in drafts that I think can return TE1 value is Delanie Walker. He was knocked out of action in Week 1 of last season and it seems as though everyone has just cast him aside. This is recency bias at its finest as Walker was one of the top TEs to own before last season. He finished as a top-five option in both 2016 and 2017 registering 12.5 and 10.9 PPG respectively. Walker saw over 100 targets in each of the last four seasons before last year and finished with no less than 800 yards in each season as well.
I don’t know if people are scared by the additions of WRs to the Titans or that the offense will be especially bad this season, but it hasn’t been great there for a while and Walker was able to put up these numbers and act as the leading receiver for the team in three of the last five seasons. Getting Walker as a backend TE1 is a great value considering he should still have the upside for top-five production.