Photo via Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure if I’ve ever taken a tight end before the sixth round. But as I’ve said before, there are many ways to win a fantasy football title, so don’t listen to me if you truly believe the best player available comes from the list below. Here is how I’d rank the top 24 tight ends going into the 2017 fantasy football season:

Tier 1

1. Rob Gronkowski
2. Travis Kielce
3. Jordan Reed
4. Greg Olsen

Gronkowski is obviously the No. 1 tight end in fantasy when healthy, but he’s missed 30 percent of his games the last five seasons. He’s like the single dad who’s SUPER FUN to hang out with, but is totally unreliable. Like, when he does pick you up, you know you’re going to have an AWESOME time. But one out of every four times, he doesn’t show, leaving you wondering how someone SO COOL could leave you feeling so disappointed. Do you want the dad? I don’t want that dad.

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

I honestly considered putting Kelce with the top spot here. Kelce is the kind of dad who is super fun AND RELIABLE! He hasn’t missed a game in three NFL seasons and posted 85 catches for 1,125 yards and four TDs last year. The only knock on him is the lack of TDs, as he’s never scored more than five in a given year. But at 6’5”/260, Kelce is a matchup nightmare who is bound to break out for at least eight scores eventually. I think this is the year that happens.

Reed is like Gronk. Great player, bad dad. He’s missed 18 of a possible 64 games in his four-year NFL career. His 14.1 PPR points-per-game were best among TEs last season, but I’m not sure if he can be trusted.

Olsen is as reliable as they come. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2007, and is clearly one of Cam Newton’s favorite targets with an average of 80 catches for 1,062 yards and five TDs the last three years. He may not be as flashy as the guys above him, but I’m not sure there’s a better dad in the NFL than Olsen.

Tier 2

5. Zach Ertz
6. Jimmy Graham
7. Kyle Rudolph
8. Delanie Walker
9. Tyler Eifert
10. Zach Miller

Ertz had another second-half surge in 2016, but can he put it together for a full season? Two years ago, he finished the season with 35 catches for 450 yards over the last four games, suggesting that he was heading toward a breakout year in 2016. But an early-season rib injury caused another slow start. Once he got healthy, however, it happened again. Ertz had 55 catches for 569 yards and four TDs during the second half of last season. Project those number over a full 16 games, and Ertz would have been far and away the best TE in fantasy.

Graham was a great story last year. Coming off a ruptured patella tendon that can sometimes ruin careers, Graham posted 65 catches for 923 yards and six scores. I don’t think he’s ever going to go back to being the TE he was for the Saints, but for a mid-round guy, you could do a lot worse.  Rudolph had been a solid, yet unspectacular TE through his first five years in the league before exploding for 83 catches, 840 yards and seven TDs last season. His 132 targets were 39 more than he had received in any previous season, which suggests the Vikings will continue to feature him in the passing game going forward.

Cincinnati Bengals TE Tyler Eifert (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

Walker’s usage rate fell off a bit last year, as he received 31 fewer targets than the year before. He still posted solid numbers: 65 reception, 800 yards, 7 TDs. But with the Titans’ WR core getting more crowded thanks to the additions of first-round pick Corey Davis and three-time 1,000-yard WR Eric Decker, Walker (age 33) could be headed toward another slippage.

Eifert is in the same boat as both Gronkowski and Reed, but he’s not nearly as lethal and possibly even more injury-prone. Eifert has missed 27 of a possible 64 games during his NFL career (and 26 of his last 48). He’s caught 18 TDs in his last 21 games, however, which is definitely worth noting. But during that same time, he’s averaging just 4.5 catches and 56 yards per game. Catches and yards seem to be a more consistent barometer of fantasy success while TDs can fluctuate greatly. I’d pass on him this year.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Miller is going so late in drafts this year. Yes, he has an injury history. Yes, he’s an old man in football terms at age 33. But in his last 18 games, Miller is averaging 12.3 PPR points-per-game, which puts him solidly among the top 10 TEs. Yet, here is how he ranks at his position on the four most popular fantasy football draft sites:

Yahoo! 29th
ESPN 42nd
CBS Sports 23rd
NFL.com– 22nd
In an ESPN experts 12-team PPR mock draft done the other day, Miller went UNDRAFTED, even though he was a clear-cut starter in fantasy leagues just a year ago. So basically what I’m saying is, you can get Miller for practically nothing, and I would suggest you do so.

Tier 3

11. Martellus Bennett (Alief Taylor High School, Houston, TX)
12. Hunter Henry
13. Eric Ebron
14. Cameron Brate

Here are four TEs who finished outside the top 10 last year, but absolutely have the potential to play their way into it this time around. I originally had Ebron at the top of this tier, but moved him down once I realized he’s basically missed all of training camp with a pulled hamstring. The former first-round pick registered 61 catches for 711 yards in just 13 games last year (that’d be 75 catches for 875 yards over a full season), but finished with just 1 TD. If he’s healthy, I’m sure he adds at least a few scores to his final numbers and becomes a viable starter, but since the guy isn’t practicing, I have a hard time projecting him as such.

Green Bay TE Martellus Bennett (Green Bay Press-Gazette-USA TODAY Sports)

Bennett is a popular breakout pick among pundits now that he’s the #1 TE for Aaron Rodgers, and while I agree with that sentiment, it’s interesting to note that TEs have never fared well playing with Rodgers. If you take the most catches (61), yards (767) and TDs (8) a TE has ever accumulated in a single season during Rodger’s nine-year tenure as Green Bay’s starter, you STILL don’t get a top 10 TE. But Bennett could very well be the exception. His 75 percent catch rate is a HUGE upgrade over what Jared Cook (59 percent) put up a season ago, and with 16 catches on 29 targets inside the 10-yard line the last four years (including 12 TDs and a couple of two-point conversions), Rodgers might trust Bennett in a way he hasn’t trusted his TEs in the past.

Henry averaged 10 PPR points-per-game despite receiving 40 less targets than teammate Antonio Gates last year. All reports suggest that the coaching staff plans to use them differently this time around, with Henry being the lead dog and the aging Gates being more of a sidekick. It that’s true, the 2015 John Mackey award winner (for college football’s best TE) is a prime candidate to bust out in 2017.

I know the Bucs spent a first-round pick on Alabama’s O.J. Howard during the offseason, but reports suggest he’ll be primarily used as a blocker this season. That means Brate, who developed a nice rapport with Jameis Winston last year, finishing as the No. 12 TE in PPR leagues on a points-per-game basis with 57 catches for 660 yards and 8 TDs, could be a solid sleeper candidate.

Tier 4

15. Jack Doyle
16. Jason Witten
17. Coby Fleener
18. Julius Thomas
19. C.J. Fiedorowicz
20. Charles Clay
21. Antonio Gates
22. Jared Cook
23. Evan Engram
24. Austin Hooper

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I feel the same way about backup TEs that I feel about backup QBs. They’re not all that necessary.

In fact, in Matthew Berry’s Draft Day Manifesto, Berry proves that one could’ve plucked TEs off the waiver wire on a week-to-week basis based on matchups and gotten enough production out of the position to not need a real starter.

If you theoretically don’t even need a starting TE, you DEFINITELY don’t need a backup. I’d spend the later rounds loading up on depth at the RB and WR positions rather than wasting a pick on one of these guys.

 

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