The NFL’s perception of the tight end position has changed over the last few years. The emergence of the big, athletic prototype tight end has made them much more viable for fantasy football and brought an increased attention to them early in fantasy football drafts.
Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have been the poster children for the transformation and have become key elements in their team’s effective passing games. The size and speed combo of these “freak” athletes causes mismatch nightmares for opposing defenses.
As a result of their popularity and effectiveness, Graham and Gronk typically go off the board in the first few rounds even with Gronkowski battling through injury concerns. The next few tight end picks fly off the board as owners panic that they’ll be stuck with the dregs. Usually, Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez go third and fourth off the board. At this point in the preseason, it’s pretty clear that those are the top options, but they will cost you an early draft pick to get them.
What if you miss on the elites and wait to closer to the end of the draft?
Don’t worry, there are some solid options going later in drafts that I think will have solid seasons and maybe even come close to matching those top options’ production. In my mock drafts so far this year, if I miss Graham/Gronk I’ve been waiting and grabbing a couple of these players and using my higher-round picks to fortify my other skill positions.
If you find yourself looking for a TE near the mid-to-late rounds of your draft, these are players I think could break out. Even if you get a top option stashing a second good player can be useful as backup or trade bait if they break out.
Check out our sleepers on the following pages and sound off in the comments with any other options you think could emerge or who you like the most from our list.
Martellus Bennett-Chicago Bears
One of the best tight end options that is sliding in many drafts is Martellus Bennett. Bennett is a big, athletic target that broke out last season while playing on a one-year deal in New York. This offseason he parlayed his success into a four-year deal with the Bears as he joins Marc Trestman’s offensive makeover.
Bennett dealt with a knee issue for part of last season, but has reportedly looked recovered in camp and is earning a bigger roll in the Bears offense. Chicago is expected to throw the ball a lot, and the Bears don’t really have a second WR meaning Bennett could be the second most targeted Bear behind Brandon Marshall. Jay Cutler does need to be protected much better to make that possible, but Bennett should be a nice release valve if teams are able to get continuous pressure like they did last year.
Jay Cutler has shown a propensity to get the tight end involved when there is talent at the position. Greg Olsen had a nice season in 2010, and Cutler hasn’t had much skill at the position lately.
If you can’t get an elite, target Bennett since he is the low-end TE1 with the most upside. For one of my bold predictions of the season: I think he’ll finish in the top four tight ends this year.
Brandon Myers-New York Giants
Myers had a breakout year last year in Oakland after three fairly non-descript years out of Iowa. He finished the season with 79 catches for 806 yards and four TDs. Most of that production came turing a stellar stretch in the middle of the season which included a 14-catch, 130-yard game against the Browns. Last season, his 78% catch rate was tops in the NFL among tight ends with at least 50 passes thrown his way.
This offseason he upgraded his offense and switched coasts signing with the Giants as a free agent. The G-men offense allows for the tight end to be a down-the-field threat, so Myers could emerge as a low-end TE1 as long as passes come his way.
Transiting to a new offense and new QB always brings some risk. However, if you go tight end late in your draft, Myers is one of the options that I think will put together a solid year. The Giants passing offense is among the best in the NFC, and Myers should have value as long as he carves out a role in it.
Fred Davis-Washington Redskins
Davis has huge potential but has struggled to realize it the last two seasons after both were abbreviated due to suspension (2011) or injury (2012). Before he ruptured his Achilles last year, he was developing into a solid part of the RGIII fueled offense with four targets or more in every game and over 45 yards in his last four before getting injured.
If you draft Davis, you are banking on him and Griffin returning from injury. If they do, he could be a top target and top ten tight end. Reports from camp at that he has his explosion and acceleration from pre-injury, but don’t expect too much this preseason as Mike Shanahan limits his reps.
Davis has upside and potential, but don’t overreach for him either. He makes a nice second TE or if you grab two or three of these options and hope one sticks.
Ed Dickson-Baltimore Ravens
Dickson has been thrust into the top tight end role in Baltimore after Dennis Pitta was lost for the year due to a dislocated hip. Dickson is in a contract year which could mean he comes out highly motivated to boost his value with a big season.
He’s been inconsistent in the past flashing big-time potential but struggling with drops and missed routes as well. His best game last year was the final game of the regular season when he converted six of his season-high eight targets into 64 yards. He didn’t find the end zone last year, but did hit paydirt five times in 2011.
Last year he struggled with injuries and didn’t get the looks, and already he’s gotten off to a less-than-awesome start to this opportunity by slightly tearing his hamstring. He’ll miss a couple weeks of valuable time and may not play in any preseason games. With no preseason action, he will definitely stay a sleeper and should be around as your draft winds down and you’re looking for a second TE.
The reason Dickson may pay off this year is pretty easy to summarize. Joe Flacco has to throw the ball to someone. Pitta is out, Anquan Boldin is in San Francisco, and aside from Torrey Smith there isn’t much experience in the Ravens receiving corps. Flacco had a great season last year and needs targets to sustain that success. In the first half of 2011, Dickson was targeted five times or more in seven of Baltimore’s first nine games and had a decent showing culminating with a 10-catch, two-touchdown performance against the Seahawks week 10.
Dickson has potential to be a TE1, but draft him as a TE2 an see if he and Flacco connect early. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him as my top option in ten-team leagues, but I do think he has potential to have value this season.
Rob Housler-Arizona Cardinals
Housler is the best end-of-the draft option out there at the tight end spot. Coach Bruce Arians has raved about his ability throughout the preseason. He showed some flashes of potential last year, but bad QB play and a limited role in the gameplan kept him from developing any kind of consistency.
If Arians and Carson Palmer work to get him the ball, Housler could quickly emerge as a TE1 and according to Larry Fitzgerald (who knows a thing or two about catching the ball) could be among the best in the league by season’s end.
If Housler is on the board in the last few rounds and you need a second TE, he’s a great grab.
Jordan Cameron-Cleveland Browns
Jordan Cameron is getting high praise from Browns camp and is a favorite of new OC Norv Turner. Turner has made Antonio Gates a fantasy football darling in SD and is known for having a very tight end-friendly scheme.
Cameron is a great sleeper pick at the end of drafts and is still going undrafted in many early mocks. Cameron is a great option as Gronk-insurance since he should be targeted even more early in the season as the Browns top WR Josh Gordon serves a two-game suspension.
If Housler is off the table or you need extra insurance, get Cameron towards the closing rounds of your draft.
Travis Kelce-Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid’s offense has usually produced solid tight end numbers which could go to Kelce if he can improve enough on his blocking to stay on the field. Kelce tumbled into the third round due to “character concerns,” but he’s been putting on a show in training camp for the Chiefs.
Alex Smith made Vernon Davis a top-five TE in his time with San Francisco and if Kelce seizes the starting job he could be a TE1 several weeks this year. Watch Kelce in the preseason and be ready to grab him if he’s given the top TE job in KC.
Zach Sudfeld-New England Patriots
Sudfeld is an uber-deep sleeper that’s starting to emerge as a name to know out of Patriots camp. If Gronk misses time, Sudfeld could get some looks and is showing off his “freak” athletic skills at Pats camp. Sudfeld was an undrafted rookie out of Nevada that most expected was a few years away, but the Patriots need receiving options and know how to put talent in the places to succeed.
At this point, he’s just a name to know not to necessarily draft except in extremely deep leagues. Watch him in preseason and follow the Gronk recovery closely. If things go his way, he could have fantasy value at some point this season.