As we continue to get geared up for the NFL season, we’ll continue releasing our positional rankings. We’ve already done our top-25 quarterbacks, top-60 wide receivers, and top-60 running backs, now we’ll move on to our top-30 tight ends. And just for fun, I’ve broken it the rankings into five tiers named after my top-five favorite Tom Waits albums.
Tier 1: Closing Time
1. Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots) – Do I actually have to convince you that Gronk is the best tight end in fantasy? I don’t think I do. If Gronk was guaranteed health and all 16 games, he’d win you your league, but he isn’t. That being said, if he’s available in the second round (in a 10- or 12-team league), I’m pretty comfortable taking him, as the tight end position is deep enough that you can find a suitable replacement once he gets injured. And while he’s productive, there’s just none better.
2. Jordan Reed (Washington Redskins) – If you guaranteed me 16 games of full health from both Gronk and Reed, I’d say they’d finish pretty close to each other in final points. Reed is in a pass-heavy offense with a good quarterback who obviously trusts him as a top option. Reed’s likely going to get hurt (he’s dealing with a toe injury right now actually, though it appears to be minor), and he’s going to miss games, but he’s extremely effective when he’s out there, and if you back him up with a later-round tight end, you should be pretty happy with him.
3. Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs) – With Jeremy Maclin gone, the Chiefs offense is going to run entirely through Tyreek Hill and Kelce (and whoever is at running back). There’s a good amount of targets up for grabs between Kelce and Hill, but unfortunately not many touchdowns. Hopefully the Chiefs actually have learned how to use Kelce this year, but who knows. Still, there’s no denying the talent, nor the opportunity, and if the touchdowns come, so will fantasy goodness.
Tier 2: Rain Dogs
4. Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati Bengals) – Eifert is a touchdown waiting to happen, he just needs to stay healthy. If he does, he’s going to be able to move up to that top tier of tight ends. He’s got 18 touchdowns over the past two years with only 21 games played, the opportunity and talent are there, the health just needs to be. If you’re in a league where touchdowns count for six points, I might even consider Eifert over Kelce.
5. Greg Olsen (Carolina Panthers) – Even though Cam Newton was bad last year, Olsen was still good. If you wanted to argue that he’s the most reliable tight end of the top five, I’m not sure I’d argue with you. The others may be in better situations, but Olsen stays healthy and produces year after year. Ted Ginn is gone, and so are his 95 targets from last year, which could increase Olsen’s value even more, but it’s important to remember that he has times when he’s not all that good, and the second half of the season last year, he was just barely a top-15 tight end.
6. Delanie Walker (Tennessee Titans) – Walker is talented, no doubt, but he’s also 33. That being said, the guy caught a whole bunch of touchdowns last season, and while the Titans have added plenty of weapons in Corey Davis and Eric Decker, I think Marcus Mariota could be poised to have a nice year, and I think he’ll be looking towards Decker and Walker once he gets in the red zone. Walker may not end the year with a ton of yards, but I think the touchdowns will be there.
7. Jimmy Graham (Seattle Seahawks) – Graham reminded us all why he’s such a good player last year, with 923 yards and six touchdowns. He struggled a bit towards the end of the year, even as Russell Wilson began to improve, but he’s still a very talented tight end, he’s just not the guy he once was back in New Orleans.
Tier 3: Mule Variations
8. Hunter Henry (Los Angeles Chargers) – Even though Antonio Gates is back, I believe Henry is going to be a better fantasy tight end this year. I believe that the Chargers were doing everything they could to get Gates to the record for most career touchdowns by a tight end, and now that he’s tied that record, I think they’re going to be looking Henry’s way more. Gates will hamper his value a bit, but I think ultimately he’ll be playing second fiddle to Henry, who has a lot of upside.
9. Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota Vikings) – Rudolph was steady and safe last year, mostly thanks to the fact that he lead the Vikings in targets. I don’t think the Vikings are going to go with the same “throw the ball at the line of scrimmage” passing scheme that they went with last year, but I think that, as long as Rudolph stays healthy, he’s got a chance at something similar. In PPR leagues, I think he’s even more valuable.
10. Zach Ertz (Philadelphia Eagles) – For the second straight year, Ertz ended the season playing exceptionally well, showing off his great upside, but do you trust him? Sure, it could happen, he could be a top-five tight end, he’s got that level of talent, but I don’t necessarily know that it’s going to happen this year. I do think, however, that the Eagles are going to try and throw the ball more, and that’s going to be good news for Ertz.
11. Martellus Bennett (Green Bay Packers) – The Packers haven’t had a relevant fantasy tight end in about five years, and that’s mostly because their tight end has been a lower-priority in the passing game. However, you could also argue that the Packers haven’t had a tight end of Bennett’s caliber in all that time, and having Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback certainly doesn’t hurt. That being said, Bennett will still have Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, and Ty Montgomery to compete with for targets.
12. Eric Ebron (Detroit Lions) – “Eric Ebron’s totally gonna break out” said every analyst every year since he was drafted. Look, there’s no denying Ebron’s athleticism and talent, but he’s been inconsistent. You would think that the Lions would try and make their top-10 draft pick an important member of the offense, but that hasn’t happened yet. That being said, Anquan Boldin is gone, which increases the opportunity for Ebron.
Tier 4: Swordfishtrombones
13. Jack Doyle (Indianapolis Colts) – Now that Dwayne Allen is gone, there’s more opportunity for Jack Doyle, and certainly if Andrew Luck is throwing the ball (and we all hope he is), Doyle will get catches and touchdowns. Doyle isn’t the greatest athlete in the world but he doesn’t drop passes, and if Luck is quarterbacking, Doyle is a solid play.
14. Cameron Brate (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – I don’t see O.J. Howard eating into Brate’s value that much, I’m not expecting much from Howard this year (rookie tight ends don’t typically do much). Brate is a bit touchdown dependent, but he’s also a major part of the Bucs offense, and I think that will continue this year.
15. Austin Hooper (Atlanta Falcons) – I don’t think the Falcons offense is going to be as ridiculously good as they were last season now that Kyle Shanahan is gone, but I still think they will be a solid offense, and Howard is a very talented player. Sure, he’s going to have to compete for targets and touchdowns as the Falcons have a lot of weapons, but he’s got the ability and now he has the opportunity, and he’s one of my favorite breakout candidates at the tight end position.
16. Zach Miller (Chicago Bears) – Miller puts up great numbers when he’s healthy. I think the Bears adding Dion Sims might hurt Miller’s value a bit, but as long as he’s on the field, he can score some serious fantasy points, as he outscored both Eric Ebron and Martellus Bennett last season on a points per game basis. Health is going to be the key factor here though.
17. C.J. Fiedorowicz (Houston Texans) – If you want to know where Fiedorowicz’s value is, it’s in his targets. Specifically, his red zone targets, which he lead the Texans in last season. Now, the Texans have a semi-competent quarterback in Deshaun Watson (or in Tom Savage if that’s the route the Texans decide to go), and I think that that opportunity will help bolster his value. Remember, the guy had more red zone targets than both Julio Jones and A.J. Green last year.
18. Julius Thomas (Miami Dolphins) – Julius Thomas is back with Adam Gase, but does that mean he’ll finally stop being a mediocre-to-bad tight end? Possibly. He’s got a halfway-decent quarterback in Jay Cutler, and he’s the number one option at the position, but I believe the Dolphins are going to be a more run-heavy offense, which limits his upside somewhat.
19. Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys) – Jason Witten’s still kicking and he’ll be good to catch a bunch of passes, but don’t expect much in the way of touchdowns. Still, he’s likely not going to be hurt much, if at all, and in a PPR league, his receptions could be fairly valuable.
Tier 5: Bone Machine
20. Antonio Gates (Los Angeles Chargers) – I think Gates will be behind Henry in this year’s Chargers offense, but Gates is still alive and he can still catch the football. The Chargers will still look to him in the red zone and that’s where his value will lie. However, I believe that once he breaks the tight end touchdown record, he’ll probably slowly fade away.
21. O.J. Howard (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – There’s no denying that Howard is an impressive athlete, and I think he has a very bright future in the NFL, but the fact remains that rookie tight ends rarely ever do anything impressive. Even the great tight ends like Gronk and Reed were pretty pedestrian their rookie years (and Howard is not Gronk nor Reed). Still, Howard will be out there, and there’s no denying the talent if you’re interested in throwing a dart and seeing what lands.
22. Coby Fleener (New Orleans Saints) – Look, is Coby Fleener a good football player? No, not really. But he’s the number one tight end option on the New Orleans Saints and he’s got Drew Brees throwing him the ball, and that means something. You could put a drifter off the street in the middle of a Drew Brees offense and he’d probably find some fantasy value. Now with Brandin Cooks gone, some more targets may open up for Fleener, but the fact remains, he’s just not that good at catching the football.
23. Evan Engram (New York Giants) – I know, rookie tight ends never do anything, but Engram is more of a receiver than he is a tight end, which means there’s a chance he could do something. He’s got the athleticism to be relevant, so he’s worth a dart throw in the later rounds.
24. Jared Cook (Oakland Raiders) – If Cook sees the red zone targets that Seth Roberts saw last year, he could have some value, but Cook hasn’t exactly had a great track record of being fantasy relevant. Still though, the opportunity is there, and Derek Carr is far from a bad quarterback.
25. Tyler Higbee (Los Angeles Rams) – Talent and opportunity. This late in the draft, that’s what you’re looking for in a lottery ticket and Tyler Higbee has both of those. Unfortunately, he’s in a pitiful offense and could easily do absolutely nothing. But he’s basically going to be free in your draft, so there’s no harm in betting on his ability.
26. Dwayne Allen (New England Patriots) – If you draft Gronk, drafting Allen might not be a bad idea. Allen will be Gronk’s primary backup, and given Gronk’s injury history, he’ll likely be a very valuable player once Gronk is out. Until then, he’ll be a decent tight end option with obvious touchdown upside being in the New England offense.
27. David Njoku (Cleveland Browns) – Njoku is athletic for sure, but he’s had some ball security issues and the people in Cleveland seem to really like Seth DeValve. Still, Njoku should be the number one tight end for the Browns and there’s something to be said for that.
28. Charles Clay (Buffalo Bills) – Clay has upside, he’s done it before, and he’s in a decent offense with a solid quarterback in Tyrod Taylor. Don’t forget, Clay had over 200 yards in his final three games last year. As long as he stays healthy, he could be a decent sleeper.
29. Jesse James (Pittsburgh Steelers) – With LaDarius Green gone, James could see an uptick in targets (and hopefully red zone targets). Having Ben Roethlisberger throwing to you certainly doesn’t hurt, but James is going to be a low-priority option in this highly-talented offense.
30. Larry Donnell (Baltimore Ravens) – The Ravens lost Dennis Pitta to injury (again) and as a result, signed Larry Donnell who has shown to be a solid pass-catching tight end during his time with the Giants. Donnell will have Benjamin Watson and Maxx Williams to compete with for the top tight end spot in Baltimore, but I have no doubt that he’ll get it, as he’s a better offensive tight end than any of those options. The Ravens love to throw the ball to the tight end, Joe Flacco gets nervous and he throws it short often. Sure, a lot of that will go to Danny Woodhead, but Baltimore has been able to support a fantasy-relevant tight end in the past, and I think Donnell could be a decent sleeper this year.