Tight end is as top-heavy as ever with Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce leading the charge. Each of those three surpassed the 200-point mark in PPR formats in 2017, while no other tight ends scored more than 175 points. In fact, outside of that trio, only five other tight ends totaled more than 150 PPR points (Delanie Walker, Evan Engram, Jimmy Graham, Jack Doyle and Kyle Rudolph).
Unless you have one of the aforementioned guys, you probably don’t feel completely at ease with your tight end situation on a weekly basis. Even then, players like Walker and Graham have muddled outlooks for the future, so hopefully, this article will come in handy for a large chunk of you.
For the sake of clarity, all average draft position (ADP) data in this piece is pulled from our January 2018 ADP.
Let’s get going.
Vance McDonald, TE PIT
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McDonald was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers right before the start of the 2017 season, and he didn’t make much of an impact early, struggling with an ankle injury and splitting time with incumbent tight end Jesse James. But McDonald picked up his play as the season progressed, and he closed out the year as an up-and-coming piece in one of the league’s best offenses.
Prior to Week 14, McDonald had totaled five catches, 79 yards and one score in seven games. From that point on, he amassed 19 catches for 216 yards and no touchdowns in four games, one of which was a meaningless Week 17 contest where the Steelers didn’t play many of their starters. If you take McDonald’s Week 17 affair out of the equation — an outing of one grab for five yards — his end-of-year run looks pretty nice. (McDonald exited early with a shoulder ailment in Week 14 and didn’t make it back for Week 15.)
Obviously, the 16 targets versus Jacksonville in the Divisional Round is a little flukey. The negative game script in that contest led to inflated volume, and Jacksonville’s elite corners funnel targets to tight ends. Still, it’s a good sign that the Steelers leaned on McDonald so heavily in a crucial game.
Down the stretch, McDonald leapfrogged James for the role of Pittsburgh’s top pass-catching tight end as James combined for a mere two targets, one catch and 12 yards against the Texans and Jaguars.
All that is good, and it could get even better.
Do-it-all running back Le’Veon Bell is due to be a free agent — although he could be franchise tagged again — and if Bell hits the open market, there’s a real possibility he isn’t back in the Steel City, with early reports saying he’ll go to the highest bidder if he gets to free agency. Time will tell how that situation plays out, but Bell leaving Pittsburgh would drastically alter the Steelers’ offense. Bell accounted for 406 touches, including 85 catches (on 106 targets), so if he’s out of town, there will be a lot of volume up for grabs.
If Bell leaves, it would give McDonald more upside, but even if Bell stays, McDonald is a low-cost asset who could produce at a thin position. Signed through 2021 and with Ben Roethlisberger coming back, McDonald is a cheap gamble at the price of the 235th overall player and TE30.
Nick Vannett, TE SEA
A third-round pick in 2016, Vannett has played sparingly behind Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson in Seattle. That could change in 2018 as both Graham and Willson are set to become free agents. Graham’s departure is the key here, and early chatter has him moving on from the Seahawks. If that happens, it could thrust Vannett into an every-down role as the starting tight end in an offense led by Russell Wilson, one of the game’s best quarterbacks.
Wilson has relied heavily on his tight ends in the red zone over the past two years. He tossed 34 touchdowns in 2017, and 15 of them went to his tight ends (10 to Graham, four to Willson and one to Vannett). Graham and Willson — confused yet with Wilson and Willson? — teamed up for eight scores in 2016, accounting for nearly 40 percent of Wilson’s 21 passing touchdowns that season.
If the path clears for Vannett to step into a starting role, he could be a solid producer. While Vannett didn’t have great college numbers at Ohio State, he displayed good speed and agility at the combine. In limited action this past season, he hauled in 12 of 15 targets for 124 yards and a score.
The Seahawks have a good offense, ranking in the top 11 in points scored in five of the past six years, and they’re not exactly overflowing with playmakers outside of Doug Baldwin. There’s opportunity for someone — a pass-game back, tight end or wideout — to see a bump in volume if Graham bolts, and Vannett could be that guy. He couldn’t be much cheaper, either, as he doesn’t check in among the 297 players or 43 tight ends in our January ADP, so if things don’t work out, it won’t burn you too much.
Jordan Reed, TE WAS
These next two — Reed and Tyler Eifert — could be lumped into the same section, because there are so many similarities between the two. Both tight ends have flashed big-time upside at various points, but they’ve been sidelined far too often with injuries, especially over the past two seasons.
Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece that listed some possible sell-high options for the 2016 off-season. The two tight ends on the list were — you guessed it — Reed and Eifert, both of whom were fresh off top-six tight end PPR finishes in 2015. Not every suggestion in that article looks so rosy 24 months later, but the 2015 off-season ended up being the perfect time to sell Reed and Eifert.
Fast forward to this off-season, and both player check some boxes as good buy-low options.
Since his breakout 2015 campaign, Reed has played a mere 13 games as injuries have derailed his past two seasons. Reed’s 2017 year was particularly concerning because he didn’t produce well when he was healthy, logging just 35.2 receiving yards per game and a 27-211-2 line in six contests.
Buying Reed now is rolling the dice on him being able to both stay healthy and rebound to his old form. As we know, both of those things are far from locks, but the price isn’t too bad as he’s 103rd overall player and TE9 in our January ADP. With the Terrelle Pryor flopping on his one-year deal and Josh Doctson still coming along somewhat slowly, Washington is in need of playmakers in the passing game. We know Reed is a mismatch nightmare when he’s right, and Washington has him signed through 2021 with $5.4 million in dead cap money if they cut him this off-season. He should be there in 2018.
This is only a hunch, but Washington’s brass may not have much patience left when it comes to Reed. The dead cap money drops to $3.6 million if they cut Reed after next season, so 2018 could wind up being a pivotal year for his future. Buying low on a talented player — a tight end who had 17 touchdowns in 26 games across 2015 and 2016 — is never a bad idea, and while the price isn’t dirt cheap, maybe longtime owners who have been let down by Reed are ready to cut bait.
Tyler Eifert, TE CIN
As for Eifert, the overarching story is similar to Reed’s, but there are a lot more variables at play as Eifert is set to hit free agency. Obviously, that could go any number of ways, but early reports from Bengals beat writers think Eifert is done in Cincy, giving him a 10 percent chance of staying with the Bengals.
Just two years ago, Eifert was valued as a top-30 overall player and the TE2, according to our January 2016 ADP, but his valued has tanked in the past 24 months due to injuries, most notably a recurring back issue.
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Eifert has been even more snake-bitten than Reed, playing a mere 10 games since his 52-catch, 13-touchdown season in 2015. He scored those 13 touchdowns in just 13 games, and over 2015 and 2016, he totaled 18 scores in 23 games. While that touchdown rate may be tough to sustain, Eifert has proven he can be an elite red-zone weapon, and it’s not like those Bengals’ offenses were the Greatest Show on Turf. So if Eifert lands with a bad offense in free agency, it shouldn’t be too big of a blow.
Admittedly, there’s very little to go off of when projecting any kind of sustained health for Eifert, and he is heavily touchdown dependent, never averaging per-game clips of more than 4.0 catches or 50.0 yards in a season. But he was a first-round pick for a reason, and he’s played only 39 games in his career, just over three full seasons, so he’s probably not a finished product.
Looking at the ADP numbers, this past season, Eifert’s second straight injury-riddled campaign, is when most dynasty owners jumped ship since he was still the TE5 at this time a year ago after an eight-game, 29-catch season in 2016. As I’ve said before in various trade pieces, my motto is “buy at funerals and sell at birthdays.”
Well, it sure feels like the dirt is being tossed on Eifert’s casket, so to speak, and while there’s a very real chance we never again see him do what he did in 2015, it won’t cost you much to purchase this lottery ticket as he’s just barely a top-150 overall player and top-20 tight end. Maybe Eifert’s Keenan Allen year is coming.