New England Patriots superstar Rob Gronkowski is without question the best tight end in the NFL, and when fantasy football drafts take place soon he’s a lock to be a first or second-round pick in every league format. At 6-foot-6 and 265 lbs., Gronkowski’s built to catch touchdowns and throw off would-be tacklers for extra yards after the catch.
The 26-year-old came off a nasty knee injury in 2013 and returned last year to pull down 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns over 15 games. Only three players scored more touchdowns than Gronkowski last season, and he led all tight ends with 475 yards after the catch.
As a testament to Gronkowski’s abilities and sure-fire status as the best at his position, he’s still far and away the highest-rated quarterback by experts even with quarterback Tom Brady possibly suspended for the first four-games of the season.
But even if fantasy owners fail to snag Gronkowski this year, there’s a slew of tight ends available in the middle to late rounds that could provide solid to excellent production throughout the 2015 season.
Based off their average draft position (ADP) compiled by FantasyPros from Yahoo, ESPN, and CBS rankings, here are five sleeper tight ends who represent excellent value this season.
Julius Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: No. 75 overall)
Thomas makes the unfathomable transition of catching passes from future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to acting as second-year passer Blake Bortles’ security blanket. The change in quarterbacks is really the only reason Thomas is projected to go somewhere in the seventh or eighth round this season, otherwise he’s right beside Gronkowski with 12 touchdowns last season. The transition won’t be easy, but with Bortles improving and the Jags lacking a true No. 1 receiving threat, Thomas should excel this season. Owners won’t get much volume in terms of yards or catches from Thomas, based off his 43 receptions off 489 yards last year, so in PPR leagues he might not be the best option.
Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: No. 84)
The 33-year-old lifetime Cowboy might be ranked correctly as an eighth or ninth round selection, but there’s potential for Witten to garner more than 70 receptions for 800 yards and a handful of touchdowns this year. Dallas has to account for the loss of running back DeMarco Murray, and with defenses focusing on receiver Dez Bryant, Witten can once again be Tony Romo’s go-to guy on short to intermediate plays on third down. Witten’s never scored more than nine touchdowns in a single season, but in PPR leagues he and Dallas TE2 Gavin Escobar are worth a risk.
Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans (ADP: No. 147)
After Gronkowski, Kansas City's Travis Kelce, and Carolina's Greg Olsen, Walker was the only other tight end in the league last season to lead his team in receiving with 890 yards and four touchdowns. Rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota is now under center, which might raise some red flags, but we’ve seen before how much first-year passers rely on their tight ends because they’ve yet figure out how to dissect defenses down field. The Titans do have two solid young receivers in Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter, but with such a poor running game Mariota will be throwing a ton this year. Walker’s essentially a TE1 that can be had in the ninth to 10th round and he’s likely to outperform that draft position.
Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions (ADP: No. 196)
Ebron put up an underwhelming rookie campaign with 25 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown over 13 games last season, but he has the physical makeup of a Gronkowski to be a dominate player this season. At 6-foot-4 and 250 lbs., YAC should be easy to come by assuming Ebron can catch the attention of Pro Bowl quarterback Matthew Stafford. To Ebron’s benefit he has Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to pull secondarys away from the middle of the field, where he can best utilize his speed and power. Considering Ebron might not even be drafted in most leagues, he’s worth a waiver pick up and bench spot to see how he pans out.
Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: No. 223)
Last season Eifert was looking to build on a solid rookie year of 39 receptions for 445 yards and two scores, but a severe elbow injury limited him to one game in 2014. Now he’s back and healthy and doesn’t have to contend with veteran Jermaine Grisham for snaps. Eifert’s the Bengals TE1 and part of one of the NFL’s most talented offenses with A.J. Green zipping down field and running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard always big play threats. Eifert has the length and speed to break off big chunks of yards, and to act as a red zone target to Andy Dalton. At No. 223 overall, it would be hard to find a better TE1 that low in any draft.