The 2016 Guide to Crushing the Competition rolls on as it makes its next stop in tight end town. If you thought I was going to predictably move from quarterback to running back in back-to-back weeks, well, you really need to reevaluate your understanding of what a magical mystery ride is all about and let the ride take you instead of you taking a ride. Before it gets any more philosophical in here than it already it, let's get right into the rankings...
Group "It’s a Gronk party and only this guy is invited"
1. Rob Gronkowski
I’m not sure if his first name in full is Rob or Robert, or even if those are just like formal monikers like Mr. for his actual first name: Gronk. He sounds like a creature that crawled out of the primordial soup and was so pure in its composition organically that he was ready to be an absolute terror to all that were ready to witness; just so happened that Gronk was put on Earth to run routes that a man of his size shouldn’t be able to with the fluidity he does, or haul in the passes he does with such control and ease, or cut up the dance floor the way he does.
Gronkowski is, without a doubt, the best tight end in fantasy football. The gap in value between him and the second ranked player on this list is bigger than any two players at any other position in fantasy. If you have Rob Gronkowski on your team, and your league dictates that you must start a tight end, your team is going to have a distinct statistical advantage heading into every week. In 15 games in 2015, Gronk was sixth among tight ends in receptions with 72 catches, first among tight ends in receiving yards with 1,176 and tied for second among tight ends with 11 touchdowns. His 16.33 YPR was the best among tight ends with at least four (!) receptions and he only dropped one pass in 120 targets for a 0.8% drop rate. Gronkowski scored 12.2 FPts/G and finished in the top ten among tight ends in scoring 11 times.
Put it this way: If you’re in a ten-person, standard format league, and you find yourself at pick one of the second round with Gronkowski still on the board, you’re picking him without hesitation. If you’re in a ten-person, PPR (point per reception) league, and you find yourself in the very same scenario mentioned before, you’re drafting Rob Gronkowski without thinking twice. He really shouldn’t even make it out the first round, but he will because he’s a tight end and some conventional wisdom and a magazine might tell you that a reliable running back is a more sound and sure selection. But instead, spike conventionality into a hardwood dance floor and party with a guy who is going to be a whole fantasy point per game better than the next available option at his position.
Group "Not Rob Gronkowski, but not bad either"
2. Greg Olsen
If it wasn’t for the name ahead of him on this list, Greg Olsen would be talked about much more and regarded in a much better light than he is now. Instead, Olsen is just a consolation prize: an award for coming in second in the Gronk-sweepstakes. Don’t let that distort your perception of just how valuable Olsen is as a fantasy option. Among tight ends in 2015, Olsen was the third-most targeted (124), fourth in receptions (77), second in receiving yards (1,104), sixth in touchdowns (7) and sixth in FPts/G (9.4). He led the Panthers in targets, receptions and receiving yards in 2015, and just because Kelvin Benjamin is returning from injury, it shouldn’t prove to be a problem for the amount of opportunities Olsen will get in the Panthers’ offense. In 2014, Benjamin’s rookie season, Olsen’s 123 targets were good for second on the team, first in receptions with 84, tied for first with Benjamin in receiving yards with 1,008 and second in touchdowns with six.
If you’re at all concerned about Olsen’s amount of opportunities slipping because of the return of Benjamin, don’t be. If you’re wary of the production being the same as 2015, that’s fine, just don’t be overly-concerned and decide to choose another tight end outside of this group.
3. Jordan Reed
Injuries were the biggest thing Jordan Reed had to overcome early in his career, and in 2015 he finally stayed on the field long enough for everyone to see that he’s really good when he’s playing football. Go figure! While Washington has seemed to finally establish itself a sense of consistency at the quarterback position by moving on from the Robert Griffin III saga and on to Kirk Cousins, Reed seems to be in the best situation to start a season since he began his tenure in the nation’s capital.
I mentioned earlier that as long as you didn’t venture outside of this group to grab a tight end after Gronk comes off the board, you should be good. As a matter of fact, Reed scored 11.2 FPts/G in 2015, good for second to Gronk’s 12.2 FPts/G, and that is reason alone to be optimistic about the prospects of Reed going forward, even though the durability is still somewhat of a red-flag. Reed was the biggest receiving threat in Washington last year, leading the team in targets, receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and pretty much every other receiving metric you can conjure up that isn’t yards per reception because DeSean Jackson does still play for that team. And while Jackson only played in 10 games last season, I don’t expect Reed’s receiving numbers to take any sort of dip. If anything, Reed’s totals, outside of his 11 touchdown receptions, should stand to see an uptick with the potential to play in more than 14 games in 2016.
4. Delanie Walker
If you listened to the tight end edition of the Listcast on the PODcast, you know my affinity for Delanie Walker. I get giddy thinking of his year last year in Tennessee, but I’m trying to temper my expectations somewhat for the tight end in 2016. There’s still a few reasons to be optimistic about Walker heading into this season: he signed a new contract this offseason that assures he’ll be the number one receiver for the Titans for the foreseeable future, he’ll have a more-seasoned Marcus Mariota at quarterback, and, along with Mariota, hopefully a much healthier team all the way around him. Now, the offense did add a couple of high-profile running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry which should figure to eat into the amount of times Mariota drops back and sends the ball downfield. The Titans also recently made a move to add another receiving threat outside of Walker in veteran receiver Andre Johnson. I hear all of that, but in the end, all that noise doesn’t matter all that much to me.
Walker finished 2015 with 133 targets, the most of any tight end — yes, even including Gronk — and it was good for 14th among all pass-catchers. He had the most receptions (94) of any tight end in 2015 and he had the third-most receiving yards with 1,088. But the stat that shouldn’t stand to be negatively impacted by the Titans’ recent acquisitions is Walker’s touchdown numbers from last year (six). If anything, I think the Titans might take notice of Walker’s efficiency and effectiveness in the red zone; he had 14 receptions on 17 targets, good for a 82.4% completion rate which placed him first among tight ends with at least six receptions. Then again, who knows, maybe that’s why the Titans went out and got Andre Johnson, I never claimed to say they knew what they were doing in Tennessee.
Group "Outside of the number one receiver, these guys are their team’s best receiving threat"
5. Travis Kelce
Get over the fact that the Chiefs attempted the third fewest passes in the NFL in 2015. Get over the narrative that Alex Smith is a "check-down" quarterback who doesn’t gain yards through the air — he was tenth in the NFL in adjusted yards gained per pass attempt (7.6 AY/A). Get over all of that because Travis Kelce is an absolute yards-after-the-catch monster like no other tight end… Well, like no other tight end besides Gronk. Still, Kelce ranked ninth not just among receivers, but all players in the NFL with 536 of his 875 yards coming on the run after the catch. 61.3% of his yards were gained on the run after the catch. No other qualifying tight end was really even close to this percentage.
6. Zach Ertz
This is the year that Ertz breaks out in Philadelphia because, well, it’s now or never. He’s got a new head coach in Doug Pederson who, I think we can all agree, is much different than his predecessor Chip Kelly. One of the ways in which he’s different is that he might actually utilize Zach Ertz as a viable component in the red zone offense. Ertz ranked 25th among tight ends in red zone targets in 2015, getting only nine passes thrown his was within the prime scoring range for tight ends. Outside of being grossly under-utilized in the most important area of scoring for tight ends, Ertz was relatively productive in 2015. He had 75 receptions for 853 yards, both totals that ranked him in the top seven among tight ends, but his 6.4 FPts/G placed him at 15th among tight ends, behind the likes of Crockett Gillmore. Bottom line, expect the touchdown total to increase and expect more from Ertz in 2016.
Group "Old faces in new places"
7. Coby Fleener
Fleener is a prime candidate to breakout in 2016. The Saints spent a nice chunk of change acquiring Fleener's services — 5 years for $36 million — considering his rather average production during his time in Indianapolis. But when a tight end plays in New Orleans, an angel gets its wings. Or something like that.
Last year, it was Benjamin Watson that earned nearly all of the targets that the artist formerly known as Jimmy Graham used to get in New Orleans and he ended up finishing seventh among tight ends. Seventh. Benjamin Watson. Seventh. I'm not trying to discredit Watson's talent, but he was thrown to 110 times in 2015, so you have to imagine that if Fleener came to New Orleans on the contract he did, those are the kind of opportunities he's going to get. Fleener's totals from last year — 491 yards receiving on 54 catches and three touchdowns — weren't anything to write home about. But with an increase in looks from fantasy football hall-of-famer Drew Brees, Fleener should have his most productive fantasy season to date.
8. Ladarius Green
I like Green, maybe more than Fleener, but not enough to rank him higher than someone who gets to play half of their games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and has Drew Brees throwing him the ball downfield.
With Green, we're hoping that a change of scenery, and maybe some smaller shoes to fill, is going to cause him to be the productive tight end that people were projecting him to be as a the successor to Antonio Gates. He struggled with staying on the field last year, much like the rest of the Chargers, missing three games. He finished the season with 63 targets, 36 receptions, 429 receiving yards and four touchdowns. This production earned Green 5.1 FPts/G and resulted in him finishing 23rd among tight ends. You've gotta be wondering why he's at eight on this list, so let me convince you why Green should be owned by a team in every league.
In Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are suddenly thin on receiving after the suspension of Martavis Bryant for the season and the impending four-game suspension of Le'Veon Bell, Green is going to get targets early and often. Essentially, if you choose Ladarius Green, you're giving him a four-game tryout while Bell is suspended; if he proves to be a part of the offense that they go back to with a certain sense of consistency — let's say six to seven targets a game — he's going to be worth keeping on board. If he doesn't, so be it, another tight end should emerge as a viable option moving forward. I think Green will end up proving valuable to the Steelers, earning somewhere between 85-95 targets for the season and placing him in the top ten in scoring among tight ends.
Group "Ol’ reliable"
9. Antonio Gates
The Ladarius Green experiment is over in San Diego, but the Chargers went out and spent their second-round draft pick on the best available tight end in the draft, Hunter Henry. So, the Chargers have their contingency plan in case the veteran Gates starts to show signs of wear, but I think he's prime for one last hurrah in 2016.
Without a suspension looming, and Gates being healthy to start the season, he's going to be more productive from the jump. Two years ago, Gates had 12 touchdowns and a 70.4% catch rate. Ken Whisenhunt is back in town as the offensive coordinator and should find plenty of ways to utilize Gates in situations to help the offense score points. Stevie Johnson recently went down with an injury that will require surgery and cause him to miss time, so Gates should figure to still see a fair share of targets this season. In 11 games last season, and Ladarius Green still situated as the successor to Gates, the 35 year old still averaged 7.7 targets per game. Add a healthy Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin to stretch the space outside the hash marks and Gates could find himself plenty of opportunities, especially in the red zone.
Group "Wait, I thought Tyler Eifert was really good…"
10. Tyler Eifert
Well, the thing is, Eifert is a top five tight end... If he was healthy. Eifert underwent extensive surgery to a ligament in his ankle back in May and is expected to miss three months of time. That would put him on schedule to return Week 1 of the regular season at the absolute earliest, but most expect Eifert to miss some time to start 2016.
When Eifert was on the field last season and wasn't missing time due to injury, he was a force in fantasy, but his fantasy-worth relied heavily on his ability to get into the end zone: Eifert lead tight ends with 13 touchdowns, all of them coming from 22 yards and in. So, in other words, Eifert might be the most dangerous receiving threat in the NFL, right? Probably, but his 8.1% drop rate is a bit concerning. Still, Eifert is a tight end whose health you should monitor and keep an eye on for the first couple of weeks if he isn't selected in your draft because, if healthy, he could end up being a top five tight end in fantasy. In 2015, he finished third in FPts/G with 10.7, so if health isn't an issue for Eifert, a top fantasy finish is definitely in play.