Sleeper tight ends probably seem sort of personal. Taste is going to play a pretty big role. When I give you Jeff Cumberland instead of Luke Stocker, your first thought’s going to be, well, that’s just your opinion, man. (Actually, your first thought was probably that the Jets and Bucs need to get better tight ends.)
Then again, taste is sometimes overrated. Take Saving Private Ryan, for example. In kind of a reverse Crash/Brokeback scenario, SPR lost the Oscar in a massive upset to a far superior film. Obviously, that incensed the powers that be, so they snuck it onto the AFI Top 100 list and Fargo had to go.
The whole SPR/Fargo thing is a situation where taste isn’t a legitimate factor. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a war movie buff and think dark comedy is a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t matter if you think Steven Spielberg is proof of the existence of God because he is god Himself.
If you think Saving Private Ryan is a better movie than Fargo, you’re wrong. It doesn’t make you a bad person, in the same way it doesn’t make you a bad person if you think Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the NFL. It just makes you wrong.
Here are a few things that are a matter of taste but probably shouldn’t be:
Deadwood over The Sopranos.
Anything with zombies (even The Walking Dead) over anything with vampires (including and especially True Blood).
The great underground band you’ve never heard of over the great underground band you have.
You know what’s definitely a matter of taste? Banana peppers and sriracha sauce.
Your approach to the tight end position in 2013 shouldn’t be a matter of taste. If you don’t select Jimmy Graham early, you can’t afford to waste a pick on Jason Witten or Tony Gonzalez. Hitting on a breakout player becomes a crucial part of winning your league championship.
What follows is your 100 percent objective list of sleeper tight ends.
10. Vance McDonald – San Francisco 49ers (Undrafted)
In the wake of Michael Crabtree’s injury, the hype train on Vernon Davis is blowing through derailleurs at a rate not even Captain Kirk can stop. That’s a little strange since we know what Davis is. He’s a spectacular athlete, a great blocker, and a guy who gets overdrafted every season based on potential. You may not realize this, but Vernon Davis is 29 years old.
After the 49ers turned to Colin Kaepernick last season, Davis and Delanie Walker each received 25 targets. Kaepernick averaged 12.0 adjusted yards per attempt when throwing to Walker and only 8.5 AYA to Davis. Walker moved on to Tennessee, leaving plenty of targets available.
Vance McDonald’s progress in offseason work has remained under the radar, but he supposedly performed well in OTAs. Rookie tight ends almost never have value in redraft formats, but this could be the rare exception. Don’t be surprised if the final gap in fantasy points between Davis and McDonald is far less than most believe.
9. Tony Moeaki – Kansas City Chiefs (Undrafted)
Tony Moeaki goes on Scott Pioli’s resume as one of a myriad draft blunders. The former Chiefs GM was like your buddy who always shows up to your fantasy draft even though you’ve repeatedly suggested autopick as a suitable option. It’s not that you don’t like your buddy. You do. And that’s why you wish somebody else would choose his team for him.
Bill Belichick and company are currently being connected to every tight end spare part in the NFL. Their best bet might be a guy the Chiefs actually traded up to select two spots before Jimmy Graham. It’s easy to forget now, but the former Iowa Hawkeye was a revelation as a rookie, grading out extremely well as both a blocker and receiver. Early that year he made a touchdown catch so stunningly sensational it dwarfed all 76 scores Tony Gonzalez put up as a Chief.
Moeaki’s career then dissolved under an avalanche of injuries, but – and these are two huge “ifs” stacked on top of each other – if he gets traded to New England and stays healthy, he would have Top 10 potential.
8. Zach Miller – Seattle Seahawks (Undrafted)
Zach Miller profiles more as a solid bye week fill-in than effective fantasy starter because his elite blocking works against his route potential. Miller wasn’t heavily targeted in 2012 until the playoff loss to Atlanta where he caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
Pete Carroll claims the Seahawks offense will remain smashmouth, but that’s the type of macho statement you expect NFL head coaches to make in the offseason. Russell Wilson’s ridiculous arm talent will prove too tempting in the end. Miller’s playoff performance is obviously an outlier, but it shows the type of game you can occasionally expect from him this season.
7. Rob Housler – Arizona Cardinals (TE24)
A few of the mainstream media guys still resist the idea of “fantasy” football, but you know fantasy is the tail that wags the dog when it’s early July and we have a host of guys to choose from for the title of “most overvalued sleeper tight end.”
Rob Housler currently battles Jared Cook for that dubious distinction, and, although I consider myself an incorrigible optimist, even I’m not willing to take the plunge on Cook again. I’ve decided to leave Arizona’s oversized wideout on the real sleeper list because you can always use a placeholder for your Week 1 waiver selection.
Bruce Arians talked up his new toy after minicamp, saying, “I don’t use tight ends in my offense, but if I did . . .”
6. Dwayne Allen – Indianapolis Colts (Undrafted)
Lost in the irrational exuberance surrounding the next Marvin Harrison, Indy’s young tight end will be the biggest beneficiary of the change in offensive philosophies. According to Pro Football Focus, Dwayne Allen was the next closest thing to Rob Gronkowski at the tight end position a year ago. An adept blocker and extremely efficient receiver, the Clemson product easily distanced himself from Coby Fleener. Expect the emerging star to establish himself as a TE1 in Pep Hamilton’s favorable scheme.
5. Jermaine Gresham - Cincinnati Bengals (TE21)
Early mocks show Dennis Pitta coming off the board in the seventh round while Jermaine Gresham is selected late or not at all. I’ll give you a few stats, and you can decide if this is based on reality or psychology.
Andy Dalton averaged 8.9 adjusted yards per attempt when throwing to Gresham in 2012. Joe Flacco only managed 7.2 AYA on targets intended for Pitta. Over the past two seasons, Gresham has put up 1,333 yards and 11 touchdowns. Pitta’s 1,074 and 10 line pales in comparison.
The Bengals used another first round pick on Tyler Eifert this offseason, but the rookie is probably not a legitimate threat to Gresham’s role in 2013. If the Bengals are trying to emulate New England’s offensive approach, Eifert’s presence might even help. Cincinnati is an ascending offense with plenty of non-A.J. Green targets to go around.
4. Dustin Keller – Miami Dolphins (TE25)
Finally paroled from fantasy purgatory, Dustin Keller emerged as an unlikely star of the positional feature I penned for the PFF Draft Guide. Despite catching passes from Mark Sanchez, he somehow finished third in TE Receiving Efficiency Score. He now joins a Miami receiving group that could be effective between the 20s but lacks a red zone target. If you like Ryan Tannehill as 2013’s breakout quarterback, Keller should be your fantasy tight end.
3. Fred Davis – Washington Redskins (TE20)
With a generational talent at the helm, almost everybody on the Racial Slurs becomes a sleeper. Well, not everybody. The incumbent talent at the wide receiver position is so uninspiring the Shanahans just went out and signed Donte Stallworth and Devery Henderson. During the draft, Washington added a potentially dynamic rookie to the fold in Jordan Reed, but RG3 needs help now.
Fred Davis finds himself relegated to the fantasy scrap heap due to his rehab from an Achilles’ injury and the perception of Washington’s offense as run-heavy. He could be a key to fantasy titles if he just stays healthy. Griffin averaged nearly 11 yards per attempt on passes earmarked for Davis last year. That’s one year after Davis missed four contests but averaged more fantasy points per game than Jason Witten.
2. Jordan Cameron – Cleveland Browns (TE17)
This is the computer-generated, autofill portion of the column. In binary, “tight end plus sleeper” always links to “guru plus Chudzinski/Turner” and spits out “intriguing breakout candidate.”
I’m going to recommend caution on this one and leave you to your own devices. Cameron may look like a sleeper now, but his ADP is going to skyrocket once serious drafts start. To get Cameron, you’re going to have to reach, and then you’ll be left with a guy who’s already spent two years in the NFL incognito, will be 25 this season, and plays for the Cleveland Browns.
1. Jermichael Finley – Green Bay Packers (TE10)
All the way back in 2009, Jermichael Finley gave us a glimpse of what Jimmy Graham eventually became. That was before he started playing defensive back on his own targets and calling out Aaron Rodgers in the media. Finley’s schizophrenic attitude toward his craft makes him toxic in the eyes of many fantasy owners. Luckily for you, that also moves him to the top of the sleeper board.
The Packers post-hype all-star still has a lot going for him. Finley played the leading role in my RotoViz series on surprising player ages (well, Maeby Funke was the real star). He’s a positive touchdown regression candidate. He’s almost impossible to cover one-on-one and should receive single coverage frequently this season.
A dark horse candidate to finish as the No. 2 overall tight end, Finley is available in the double digit rounds. I’ll take a guy who plays with Aaron Rodgers at that price any day. After all, look at what James Jones did last year.
Shawn Siegele owns three Main Event titles in the National Fantasy Football Championship. Creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand, he acts as Lead Redraft Writer for PFF Fantasy and contributes to RotoViz.
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