Draft Prep: Four Tight End Sleepers in 2019
As we get revved up for the 2019 fantasy football season, we’ve been taking a look at some of the sleepers and busts at each position. Here, I’ll take a look at four sleepers at the tight end position (and if you feel inspired, check out my tight end rankings).
Now you and I both know you’re not actually interested in reading an intro and you’ve probably already skipped it by now, so let’s just get to it.
Mark Andrews (Baltimore Ravens)
I actually really like the potential that Mark Andrews has as a receiving tight end this season with the Ravens. Nick Boyle looks likely to move to the fullback position, which leaves the tight end position open for either Andrews or Hayden Hurst. It’s pretty clear that the Ravens are not particularly interested in making Hurst their primary receiving tight end, and I kind of get that, because Andrews showed some serious skill as a tight end last year.
Now, yes, it’s a small sample size. The guy only had 34 catches on 48 targets for 552 yards and three touchdowns last year, but when you dive into the advanced metrics, Andrews looks really nice.
Last year, Andrews ranked fourth among all tight ends in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) with 159, behind only George Kittle, Travis Kelce, and O.J. Howard. He also ranked second among tight ends in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), behind only Howard. Now, that’s a great group of guys to be in.
Not only that, but Andrews ranked 14th among tight ends in ProFootballFocus’ receiving grade at 75.5, just below Evan Engram and just above Jordan Reed. Clearly, the guy can catch the ball well and he’s not there for his blocking (which makes sense given his pretty terrible 39.2 PFF pass-blocking grade).
Andrews outperformed Hurst in just about every way, which leads me to believe that the top tight end job is his. Now, here’s where the risk comes in—we have absolutely no idea what this Ravens offense is going to look like.
Last year, under Lamar Jackson (for a good bit of the season), the Ravens led the NFL in rushing attempts at 33.5 per game. That makes sense given how dynamic of a runner Jackson is and how okay of a passer he is. That being said, Jackson and the Ravens have specifically said they’re focusing on passing the ball more, and given how they targeted Andrews last year, that could mean good fantasy production.
Last year, Andrews had the third-highest average depth of target at 11.2 yards and also had the fifth-highest yards per route run at 2.01. He also lined up in the slot a lot—56% of the time actually. Obviously the Ravens want to use him as a receiver, and if they start throwing the ball more and their offense is as dynamic as it seems like it could be with Jackson, Andrews could provide some solid production. That’s a lot of ifs, but that’s the nature of sleepers.
Chris Herndon (New York Jets)
Chris Herndon is mostly getting ignored for two reasons in my opinion: 1. he’s on the Jets, and 2. he’s suspended for the first four games of the season. However, I think Herndon has a ton of talent, and even with the four-game suspension, I think he could provide some really interesting fantasy value.
Last year, Herndon finished the season with 39 catches on 54 targets for 502 yards and four touchdowns. He had the ninth-best PFF receiving score among tight ends at 78.7, and ended up with four top-10 fantasy finishes last year. He was also top 20 among tight ends in DVOA last year, finishing 17th with 6.3%. And similar to Andrews, Herndon gets targeted deep, as he had the seventh-highest average depth of target last year at 10.6.
With any luck, the Jets offense will be significantly better this year. They’ve got Sam Darnold in his sophomore season, a quarterback who showed some flashes of real talent last year, and of course they have the addition of Le’Veon Bell, Jamison Crowder, and new coach Adam Gase.
Speaking of Gase, he clearly likes Herndon’s talent, calling him a “unicorn” this offseason. Once Herndon comes back, it would not shock me at all if Darnold targets him a lot, given Herndon’s athleticism and his already-established chemistry with Darnold.
Here’s the thing though—I’m not sure you can really justify drafting Herndon given his four-game suspension. I mean, if you really want to, go for it, and if you’re in a deeper league or especially a two-tight end league, absolutely do it. But it’s hard to justify burning a bench spot for four games on the hope that this guy turns into something. My advice: if you don’t draft him, keep an eye on Herndon on the waiver wire, and by Week 3 or so, grab him, because I think he absolutely has the talent to be a top-10 tight end. He just needs the opportunity.
Noah Fant (Denver Broncos)
Rookie tight ends don’t often end up producing from a fantasy perspective, but I kind of like the chances Noah Fant has at becoming a useful fantasy tight end. Why? For a couple of reasons. First off, Fant is absurdly athletic, posting a 4.50 40-yard dash time at the combine, the fastest among tight ends. He’s got speed, he’s got burst, and he can catch the ball well. He’s also a big dude, at 6’4″, 249 pounds. That kind of speed and size make for a dangerous combination.
However, perhaps one of the main reasons I’m kind of excited about Fant’s potential is the quarterback he has—Joe Flacco. Now, look, Flacco isn’t that great of a quarterback. I’ve been a Ravens fan all my life, I’ve watched him a ton, he’s not great and has gotten worse with age.
But there is one thing I know about Flacco—he loves to throw the ball to his tight ends. Like, he really loves to throw the ball to his tight ends. Over the past three years, Flacco has thrown the ball to tight ends 23% of the time, which ranks as the fifth-highest rate in the league.
So if Fant going to get those targets? I have to think he does. He was the 20th overall pick in the draft, clearly the Broncos want him as their tight end, otherwise they wouldn’t have spent a first-round pick on him, and John Elway has even said as much.
Speaking on Fant being available to the Broncos in the draft, Elway said, “We obviously want to get [Flacco] as many weapons as we can. With weapons sitting like that on the board, we felt fortunate that he was there. Joe likes the tight ends and stretching the field and especially with what we’re going to do offensively, it’s a good fit all around.”
So yea, I think Fant is getting those targets from Flacco. I don’t expect the Broncos’ offense to exactly light up the league, but as long as Fant is getting targets, I think he can do something with them. It’s never a terrible idea to rely on a guy’s raw talent, and Fant has a ton of that.
T.J. Hockenson (Detroit Lions)
Noah Fant’s fellow Iowa tight end, T.J. Hockenson, certainly has plenty of potential just like his teammate. He is also an exceptionally athletic guy, posting a 4.70 40-yard dash at the combine, and showed very good burst and catching ability during his time in college, averaging 15.5 yards per catch in his final season at Iowa, which is absurd. He’s also a good size, similar to Fant, coming in at 6’5″, 251 pounds.
Now, the big question here is opportunity. A talented tight end on the Lions is a song we’ve all heard before, and it’s called “The Disappointment of Eric Ebron, a Movement in Four Parts.” However, the Lions offense is different this year under Matt Patricia, as former offensive coordinator and holder of the greatest name in football, Jim Bob Cooter, is no longer with the Lions.
So what does that mean? Well, it’s not entirely clear at this point. The Lions hired Darrell Bevell as their new offensive coordinator. Bevell spent seven years with the Seattle Seahawks as their offensive coordinator, and while the team has had a good offense during that time, they’ve never really been known for their tight ends (with Jimmy Graham‘s 2016 season as a minor exception).
We don’t know what the Lions’ offense will look like, nor do we know how much of an opportunity Hockenson will get over newly-acquired Jesse James. That being said, I personally have a difficult time believing the Lions would mostly bench their eighth-overall pick who has shown himself to be a very capable receiver in favor of Jesse James, who has proven to be an alright receiver (he had a pretty mediocre 67.3 PFF receiving score last year).
There’s plenty of risk here with Hockenson, as there is with just about any sleeper. But sleepers are about potential, and Hockenson certainly has plenty of it given his size and talent. Would it shock me if he becomes a favorite red zone and dump-off target of Matthew Stafford‘s? Not at all. And if he does, the potential is pretty tantalizing.