I rank tight ends for a living. I pick tight ends, for my seasonal and DFS teams. I grade these guys, I project these guys.
And on more than one occasion, I’ve looked at the board and muttered a salty word or two. Some of them can’t be printed. Sometimes it boils down to a simple observation: This position is gross.
But has tight end really been that bad in 2019? Were our expectations too high? I decided to audit the top of the tight end board, off ADP order, and try to get a sense of what happened here. At the conclusion of the exercise, I felt a little bit better about this group.
You tell me how you feel.
State of the Big Three
• Travis Kelce has been worth the dough. He’s been TE13 or better in every start, with five appearances in the Top 5. He’s going to sail past 1,000 yards again, and the low touchdown count is partly tied to Patrick Mahomes being dinged up. You can’t count Kelce as a birdie, but he’s at least been a par — and in 2019, pars feel like birdies.
• It was never realistic for Zach Ertz to match last year’s outlier usage, and he’s slipped outside the Top 40 among the VBD leaders. But when you consider how injured and ineffective the Philly wideouts are, you can project a fast finish. Ertz collected 22 targets, 18 catches, and 197 yards over the last two weeks, and he spiked against Chicago. You’ve taken a mild loss to this point, but that might reverse down the stretch.
• Injuries and overturned touchdowns have been the story of George Kittle’s season. He’s also seen fewer chunk gains but a higher catch rate. He’ll go back to a bankable eight targets per week as soon as he’s healthy again. The file has red ink, but a strong December could erase that.
What happened to the young breakouts?
• I’m still not sure who we blame for O.J. Howard’s washout year. Bruce Arians? Byron Leftwich? Jameis Winston? Howard himself? Howard had one half of relevance against Arizona, but you can throw the rest of his season in the shredder. A painful brick. Cameron Brate has occasionally stepped into the breach, but he hasn’t been consistent either.
• The Giants basically use Evan Engram as a jumbo wide receiver, and he’s had his moments, in-between injuries. But Engram’s catch rate and YPC have both dropped, and his foot strain might be a problem for the rest of the year. In the meantime, Golden Tate is having a Renaissance year, and rookie Darius Slayton looks like a keeper.
• I don’t blame anyone who muttered “here we go again” when Hunter Henry injured his knee Week 1. But score a rare hit for Injury Optimism — Henry returned in Week 6 and has been LAC’s most consistent receiver since. An erratic Phillip Rivers hasn’t helped the cause, but this is one area where you’re turning a profit.
Secondary options and unexpected heroes
• Jon Gruden and Derek Carr pushed the right buttons for Jared Cook last year, but it’s going into the history books as a career year and an outlier season. And don’t blame Teddy Bridgewater’s midseason run for Cook’s mediocrity — Michael Thomas did just fine while Drew Brees was out. In between injuries, Cook does have three touchdowns in his last three games. But he can throw up a 2-17-0 against anyone. I don’t trust Cook, simple as that.
• If you drafted Vance McDonald as a sleeper pick, you were counting on the health of two players — McDonald himself, and Ben Roethlisberger. Once Big Ben exited in September, this stock was as good as cooked. The Steelers have skimmed 21 targets to McDonald in the last three games, but they haven’t added too much (11-74-1). An ordinary talent in a below-average context.
• David Njoku busted his wrist in Week 2 and that was that, although he might return for the final quarter of the year. Although Njoku did score a touchdown in the season opener, I can’t assume he would have succeeded in a passing game that’s sunk everyone else this year.
• Nobody was going to pay for Eric Ebron’s 14 touchdowns, but he’s almost made his ADP price back anyway. Six drops haven’t helped — you know what you’re getting with Ebron’s hands — or the splintering of Indianapolis’ usage tree. Jacoby Brissett’s touchdown rate is above what the component stats suggest, so we can’t blame Ebron’s line on that. We’re into the “he is what he is” phase of Ebron’s career.
• Austin Hooper always had latent upside in the red area, and this year it’s come to fruition — other than Travis Kelce, Hooper is the league’s busiest tight end inside the red zone. If not for an unfortunate midseason injury, Hooper would go down as the biggest tight end hit of draft season. He can still push for that mantle if he returns next week.
• Jason Witten was a low-floor, low-upside tight end at the end of his first run, and he’s that again. There’s no shame, Witten hasn’t embarrassed himself. But Dallas has three excellent wideouts and a franchise running back; those guys, justly, are commanding the ball. You need higher upside on a weekly basis.
• Delanie Walker had a surprising two-touchdown game at Cleveland but otherwise, it’s been an inconsistent, injury-riddled year. And the Titans collect tight ends like a fourth-grader collects baseball cards.
• Mark Andrews had outstanding per-snap metrics as a rookie; it was just a question of how soon the Ravens could expand his role. Andrews still doesn’t have a bloated amount of opportunity, but when the Ravens look his way, exciting things happen. Andrews leads the position in chunk plays (11 catches of 20-plus yards) and is one of four tight ends to clear 100 yards in two separate games. He’ll probably be a Top 5 tight-end pick next year and goes down as the hit of the draft season.
Best of the Rest
The Ravens had so many tight ends in their basket, the Raiders were able to steal Darren Waller off waivers before the 2018 season. His production has cratered a bit after a hot start, but he’s still sitting at TE4 for the year — and this is the same offense that buoyed Jared Cook last year . . . Gerald Everett was in the middle of a usage spike before a limited role in Week 11’s win over Chicago. The Rams need more downfield options, given how disappointing Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Robert Woods have been . . . Whenever a rookie tight end isn’t overwhelmed during his first lap around the league, I get excited. Noah Fant looks like a future superstar, and Dawson Knox and T.J. Hockenson have also shown flashes . . . Add Jimmy Graham to the list of Green Bay tight ends who haven’t clicked with Aaron Rodgers.
The Patriots wish they still had Jacob Hollister, who has quickly connected with Russell Wilson. Before Hollister’s emergence, Will Dissly was playing at a Pro-Bowl level . . . Greg Olsen hasn’t been a red-zone guy for the Panthers, but he’s played all year and been reasonably consistent, adding a little more juice to a possible Pro Bowl career. Olsen will be a dynamite announcer someday when he decides to shift to the next phase of his life . . . Chris Herndon’s season was derailed by a number of things, but Ryan Griffin has turned into a circle-of-trust option over the last month . . . Darren Fells has no weekly yardage upside, but Deshaun Watson likes him in the red zone and that’s a currency. Touchdown deodorant is a beautiful thing, and with so many of the secondary tight ends, it comes down to whether or not they latch onto a cheap score at the goal line.