I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never seen anything quite like this year’s race for tight ends. Up until now, prevailing wisdom dictated that you wait for a tight end if Rob Gronkowski didn’t land in your lap. Just last year, Gronkowski and Travis Kelce were typically third-round picks in point per reception formats. With people tripping over themselves trying to draft an overpriced elite tight end as early as possible, the position is a whole different animal in 2019.
Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs)
With Gronkowski officially retired, Travis Kelce is now the undisputed fantasy football TE1. But is he worth his current first-round price tag? Before I get into it let me just start by saying, “I get it.” I fully understand the hype behind Kelce and why someone might grab him in the first. The guy’s a stud, and his unreal 2018 stats have everyone salivating.
Last year Kelce put up the best numbers of his career. In PPR formats he finished the season with 294.6 fantasy points and 103 receptions. Those numbers would put him at the overall WR9 in PPR formats. I understand the appeal of taking Kelce in the first and never again having to worry about the TE position for the rest of the year but I feel that’s far too much a price to pay for a slight convenience.
In PPR formats, I’m seeing Kelce drafted at about 11th or 12th overall. That means people are taking Travis before wide receivers with higher projections and arguably safer floors such as Michael Thomas, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adam Thielen, and Antonio Brown.
Remember Kelce’s monster year in 2018? He had 103 catches. Gronkowski never had more than 82 receptions in his entire career and Kelce never had more than 85 before the 2018 season. Now, if you truly believe Kelce will keep up this production into 2019 then by all means, take him in the first round. I think it’s much more likely he regresses towards the mean, putting his value outside the top 10 wide receivers and therefore much too expensive for a first-round pick.
Zach Ertz (Philadelphia Eagles)
Zach Ertz has been hard to pin down this year. People seem to be either reaching for Ertz in the second round or drafting him well into the third. Ertz’s story isn’t all too different from Kelce’s. Both had fantastic 2018 seasons putting up career highs. In fact, Ertz broke the record for all-time tight end receptions (116) and targets (154). Similar to Kelce, Ertz is also being drafted far too high and likely due for a regression in 2019.
One could argue Ertz’s impressive stats in 2018 were mostly a result of quantity over quality. From 2015 to 2017, Ertz averaged 75.6 receptions each season. As previously mentioned, that number skyrocketed to 116 last year.
I think we can realistically expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 catches in 2019, especially considering the upgraded receiving talent in Philadelphia. Dallas Goedert is expected to take on more responsibility in his second year and DeSean Jackson is officially back in Philly. Both players should take away significant targets from Zach Ertz.
Lastly, Ertz had 1,163 yards in 2018. His next highest total was 853 in 2015. That’s a difference of 310 yards! In fairness, 2018 was the first season Ertz played all 16 games since 2015. It’s possible his numbers stay impressive so long as he stays on the field. Even so, I’m not expecting the same production as last year. Assuming he plays all 16 games, I think Ertz’s value should be somewhere in the fourth round. I want absolutely nothing to do with Ertz in the second where I’ve seen him picked far too many times.
George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers)
I only want to quickly mention George Kittle. I won’t go too in-depth because I expect his average ADP to steady as we head into August. If I’m wrong and the consensus TE3 falls a little more, Kittle could be a sneaky mid-round steal in many fantasy drafts.
Kittle (25) is three years younger than Ertz. Kittle absolutely exploded in just his second season in the NFL and could impress even more in his third. On the other hand, Ertz has a longer history of consistent production and could be the safer pick.
I rank Kittle as the overall TE2 (mainly due to his measurables and higher ceiling) in my personal rankings but he comes with his own questions. How many targets will he see with all these receivers competing in San Francisco? If Jimmy Garoppolo is indeed the starting quarterback, how often will he look to his tight end?
Something to Consider
The race for tight ends in 2019 becomes a little easier to understand when you take a look at this graph.
Seeing this may immediately inspire some to burn their first pick on Kelce but the first thing I see when I look at this graph is consistent variance. These numbers naturally go up and down each year based upon a multitude of factors from coaching changes to rule changes to the level of QB talent and anything in-between. Expecting the same production based on last year’s anomaly is a fool’s errand.
The top 3 are very good, but statistically, it’s more likely those numbers take a slight dip in 2019. If that is the case, then I believe drafting the best tight ends early is a mistake. Also important to note; the tight end position is seeing fewer targets overall as a whole, except for the major statistical outlier from the top three in 2018. Don’t believe me? Check out the TE2 graph real quick.
These graphs clearly show a substantial drop in tight end talent after the top eight or so. I recommend letting others waste those valuable early picks on the top two or three tight ends and grabbing one of the top eight if possible. I realize you may think I’m being a bit contradictory here, but there’s a difference between expensive and overpriced.
I want to be clear, the only thing I’ve got against the top three tight ends is their current ADPs. If you can grab Kelce shortly before the third round and pair him with an elite WR or RB, that’s good value. Finding Ertz in the fourth round could be a great pick but you will never see it happen. Unfortunately, the top three are being valued as if we’ve entered some sort of tight end renaissance.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter) and Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter).