The tight end position has had its ups and downs in recent NFL season, with little parity for fantasy owners. Unlike wide receivers, there’s only one tight end in a class all his own entering the 2015 season: the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. Based off FantasyPro.com’s rankings, Gronkowski is the ninth player overall off the board in most drafts and the next is new Seattle Seahawk Jimmy Graham at No. 26 overall. Then there’s the Panthers’ Greg Olsen and the Chiefs Travis Kelce trailing behind.
Still, there’s lots of value after those first few tiers, especially for players entering contract years. As part of a massive 2016 free agent class, several tight ends will be gunning for similar dollars the Jacksonville Jaguars gave to Julius Thomas ($46 million, $24 million guaranteed) or the $24.5 million guaranteed the Buffalo Bills handed to Charles Clay.
Clearly, there is a great deal of money on the line, and we’ve seen players perform their best when a new contract is in their sights.
Here are five tight ends who are fighting for new deals and could represent value late in fantasy drafts as undervalued assets.
Larry Donnell, New York Giants
Half of Donnell’s six touchdowns came in that 45-14 blowout victory over the Redskins, a breakout game that made him the Giants No. 1 tight end for the rest of the season. But with 92 total targets throughout the 2014 season, Donnell was quarterback Eli Manning’s third-best option.
New York’s top receivers are Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle, with Victor Cruz’s return from a torn patellar tendon leaving his fantasy value unclear. Donnell, an undrafted free agent, figures to get a lot of check-down passes his way with opposing cornerbacks focused on stopping Beckham Jr. from going over the top. He’s listed as the 19th tight end off the board, and No. 203 overall, so Donnell could be snagged in the early teen rounds or possibly be a waiver wire pick up early in the season.
Josh Hill, New Orleans Saints
With the aforementioned Graham now gone, the Saints No. 1 tight end job will come down to Hill and veteran Benjamin Watson. At age 34, Watson doesn’t have the same long-term upside for the Saints as the 25-year-old Hill, who caught five touchdowns and totaled 14 receptions for a mere 176 yards off 20 targets last season.
Given the Saints’ salary-cap situation (only $1.4 million in space right now, and over by $1.9 million in 2016), it’s very possible both Hill and Watson are playing for new deals with new teams. The younger Hill has the edge, and as the 15th tight end off the board he could be a steal in the late teen rounds or off the waiver wire. Last year, Graham caught 10 of Brees' 33 touchdown passes, and now someone will need to fill the void.
Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
Green failed to build off his solid 2013, with only 226 yards off 19 receptions last season, but that had more to do with veteran Antonio Gates busting out the best season of his career in quite some time. Gates pulled down 12 touchdowns last season, and he also enters the season seeking a new contract, but at age 34.
Green has similar size and can block at the position while rolling out for huge chunks of yardage on third down. Most owners will wait to pick Green up if Gates gets hurt or meanders for the first few weeks of the season, which makes complete sense. But if you have an extra roster spot, store Green for a potentially big payoff later in 2015.
Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
We’ll pair these two together because fantasy owners know that last season as soon as you dropped Allen for Fleener or vice versa, the one you let go would score a touchdown that week. Last year, Allen exploded with seven of his eight touchdowns coming in the first nine games, and Fleener came on strong late to snag four scores in the last five weeks.
Both enter the 2015 season in need of a new deal, and the Colts face some difficult decisions. They’ll of course pay quarterback Andrew Luck, but how much he gets will determine what Allen, Fleener, and young receiver T.Y. Hilton can garner from Indianapolis, if anything at all.
Nevertheless, Allen is currently ranked higher as the 12th tight end drafted, and Fleener’s right behind as the 14th. Allen’s shown more athleticism and speed for making big plays, so owners will target him in the first eight or nine rounds. But Fleener should be considered a consolation prize. Both will help fantasy squads next season.