After running back, wide receiver, and quarterback, the next position fantasy football owners switch their focus to is tight end -- one of the thinnest positions every season no matter league trends. Based off stats from FantasyData.com, over the last five seasons an average of 10 tight ends have put up 100 or more fantasy points throughout a 16-game slate in a standard league. That's compared to 32 running backs and 45 receivers eclipsing the century mark last season alone.
Essentially, every season there are roughly 10 tight ends who will rise to the top and average better than seven points per week on the low end, or as much as 10 to 12 points on the high end.
Owners could go for New England’s Rob Gronkowski or Seattle’s Jimmy Graham, the top two tight ends selected in early drafts prior to the 2015 season, according to FantasyPros.com. They averaged roughly 11 points a week for owners last season, and while they have some incredible outlier games, overall they don’t have the same kind of value as a running back or wide receiver. Both will assuredly be gone by the end of the second round and burning one of your top two picks for a player who can bring in roughly 12 points a week is bordering on a waste of a pick.
Instead, owners should take advantage of the steep drop-offs in fantasy drafts when it comes to tight ends this year. According to FantasyPros, after Gronkowski is taken at No. 13 overall and Graham at No. 25, the next tight end to go is Carolina’s Greg Olsen at No. 47 and then Kansas City’s Travis Kelce at No. 50. Ten spots further down is Chicago’s Martellus Bennett, and then Jacksonville’s Julius Thomas at No. 73 and Dallas’ Jason Witten at No. 78.
From there, a number of high-profile tight ends litter the ninth, 10th and 11th rounds, assuming you’re in a 10-team league, but there’s incredible value tight ends much later in drafts who could allow you to pad your running back and receiver rotations as late as the middle to early teen rounds.
Using FantasyPros average draft positions (ADP), we’ve identified this year’s "top sleeper tight end candidates." Once again, let’s make the “sleeper” definition clear. For our purposes, a "sleeper" doesn’t necessarily mean "an unheralded or underrated player." Instead, it can be a player whose potential production next season, for whatever reason or bias, is overlooked or underestimated.
Here are nine sleeper tight ends for the 2015 fantasy football season.
Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, St. Louis Rams (No. 208 and N/A ADP overall)
Over the last four seasons Cook’s been one of the most reliable second or third tier tight ends in fantasy. He’s averaged 84.5 targets, 49 receptions, 646.8 yards, and 3.8 touchdowns with Tennessee and St. Louis, and last year racked up a career-high 99 targets as the Rams passing game lacked any significant weapons and their quarterbacks were forced to throw underneath to Cook a ton because the offensive line let up 47 sacks, tied for the eighth-worst in the league.
Kendricks’ production slipped when Cook arrived, but last season he was still very efficient with 259 yards and five scores off 38 targets.
St. Louis has tried to improve the offensive line, with four rookies currently on the roster and by using three of their first five picks in this year’s draft on tackles, so that could lead to better protection for new quarterback Nick Foles and its bevy of running backs. But Cook also stands to keep up his steady production, even if Kendricks was promised a larger role in the offense before signing a new four-year deal in the offseason.
Both serve as reasonable TE2s or flex spot starters if you remember during Foles breakout year with Philadelphia, 2013, he relied heavily on tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek.
Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings (No. 158)
Owners have forgotten about Rudolph’s incredible play in 2012 after his last two injury plagued years. That year he tallied 53 receptions for 493 yards and nine touchdowns even with up-and-down quarterback Christian Ponder under center. That was also the same and last season Rudolph was healthy and played with running back Adrian Peterson, who went on to gather more than 2,000 yards and the league MVP. Rudolph’s looked sharp in the preseason and as a 15th round pick in a 10-team league or 12th or 13th rounder in a 12-team league he’s a solid pick that could grow into a stud by season’s end.
Richard Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (No. 305)
Receiver Jordy Nelson’s unfortunate ACL tear offers more targets to the likes of Davante Adams and even rookie Ty Montgomery, but Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could still rely on his tight ends like Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless. Richard Rodgers is coming off a solid rookie season, with 225 yards and two touchdowns off 30 targets, and he’s currently No. 1 on the depth chart and is likely to stay there after picking up a touchdown against Pittsburgh in the Packers latest preseason matchup.
As NFL.com points out, don’t overpay for Richard Rodgers in the draft but rather keep with his ADP and wait for him on waivers.
Jeff Cumberland and Jace Amaro, New York Jets (No. 321 and No. 337)
Veteran Kellen Davis is nestled between these two on the depth chart, with Cumberland currently No. 1 after Amaro sustained some sort of shoulder injury in the preseason opener against Detroit. But the job figures to go to Cumberland or Amaro based off their familiarity with the offense from last season, and in Cumberland’s case the last five seasons. Last year Amaro topped out with 53 targets compared to 46 for Cumberland, and he totaled 345 yards to Cumberland’s 247. Cumberland did make more of his opportunities with 10.7 yards per catch to Amaro’s 9.1, but Amaro also totaled 148 yards after the catch, 40 more than Cumberland.
They appear very equally matched in terms of production, with Amaro having the edge due to his age, 23, but his shoulder injury should be worrisome to owners with Cumberland missing only two games the last two seasons combined.
As of now, based off their ADP, either is worth the risk very late in drafts or as a waiver pick up.
Maxx Williams and Crockett Gillmore, Baltimore Ravens (No. 275 and No. 339)
It was no coincidence that quarterback Joe Flacco returned to top form last season by having tight end Owen Daniels underneath for 79 targets, resulting in 48 receptions for 527 yards and four touchdowns. Daniels is now gone, and Dennis Pitta is on the PUP list, leaving a huge hole for the rookie Williams and Gillmore to fill. Gillmore has the edge in terms of experience, but Williams made his name at the University of Minnesota with incredible diving and one-handed grabs and has the athleticism to fly. Williams is powerfully built and should earn more targets if he can block well, making him the top choice out of these two for now.
Jacob Tamme, Atlanta Falcons (No. 335)
Tamme, whose ADP averages out to a waiver or free agent pick up, could represent the most value without even burning a draft pick. Formerly one of Peyton Manning’s more reliable pass catchers, Tamme’s now on the other end of Matt Ryan’s passes and he’s already Atlanta’s No. 1 tight end. To be fair, Tamme’s two seasons removed from his 52-reception, 555-yard, four-touchdown run with Denver in 2012 but he doesn’t have the likes of Julius Thomas to compete with. Tamme’s proven that given the targets he can excel. He only received 43 targets total his last two years in Denver, but when he earned 85 targets in 2012 and 93 in 2010 Tamme came up with excellent yardage and receptions numbers. And as ESPN reports new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s sets almost always employ one or two tight ends, leaving lots of opportunities for Tamme.
He’s not worthy of a pick at the moment, but as a backup tight end to start the season Tamme represents minimal risk.