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TIGHT END DRAFTING: Finding The Next George Kittle

Fantasy football drafts are a mix of drafting the best player at your current draft position and finding value in the later rounds. The first rounds of drafts commonly include pass-catching bellcow running backs followed by top-tier wide receivers in the back end of the first round that leak into the second. Top tight ends this year are typically taken in the mid-second to late-third round. Evan Engram and O.J. Howard are being taken as early as Round 6 this year and provide good value but are still huge drop-offs in terms of fantasy production from the top tier tight ends. Chris Herndon and Mike Gesicki round it out as deep sleepers in prime positions for 2019.

It’s a Steep Slope

This position group has the largest drop-off in production. Besides the obvious Rob Gronkowski flop of last year, drafting a top-tier tight end last year proved to be sound strategy. Players understand that the Big-3 being drafted this year in fantasy drafts are Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle. Kelce, as the first tight end off the board last year, did everything to justify his draft position last year and will again this year; Kelce put up a league leading 294 fantasy points in 2018. Ertz, who had a similar average draft position and was drafted as the second tight end overall, scored 280 fantasy points in 2018. These two are again being drafted as second and third highest in 2019 — and with good reason.

Kittle put up 258 fantasy points in 2018 and rounded out the elite group of tight ends from last year. Many listed Kittle as a 10th rounder in fantasy drafts last year, with some having him lower. After the Big-3 having 294, 280 and 258 points respectively, the drop-off starts with 222 points for Eric Ebron and then 193 points for Jared Cook. It is unbelievable to have a 100-point drop off (6.25 points per week) from the best to the fifth-best tight end. After Cook, the best option was Austin Hooper at 163 points, which shows another 30-point drop-off in one player. Kyle Rudolph and Trey Burton were next with 151 and 147 points, respectively, and they make up seventh and eighth on the list.

David Njoku and Vance McDonald had 143 and 133 fantasy points last year to round out the Top-10; both had about half of Kelce’s and Ertz’s fantasy production. The heavily injured O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and Jordan Reed make up 12-14 on the list but ultimately were efficient week-to-week.

If we want to look lower and assume a deeper league, No. 15 Chris Herndon had 113 fantasy points and No. 20 Gerald Everett had 86 fantasy points. Both of these represent close to, if not 1/3 of, Kelce’s fantasy production. Some professionals such as Sean Koerner are even selecting Kelce in the back of the first round in fantasy drafts because the drop-off is so large. Finding a bargain for 2019 could save your draft.

The Next Kittle

Finding a bargain like George Kittle again this year will be difficult but the saying is, that it takes tight ends at least two, if not three years to be fantasy relevant. This was George Kittle’s second year as a professional with his third coming up in 2019. Kittle was known as a freak athlete coming out of college but was still drafted in the fifth round out of Iowa. We should not forget his combine numbers of: 4.52 40 yard dash, 11 foot broad jump, and 35 inch vertical at 247 pounds. Kittle put up 515 yards and two touchdowns the year before his breakout season. Let us look at some others who could be in similar situations to Kittle that could break out this year:

There are a few candidates with similar numbers who are entering their second and third seasons and are also in good situations. We could look at the obvious O.J. Howard or Evan Engram situations as they are great athletes and both were first-round picks in 2017. As written before, Kittle has some major questions heading into 2019; Howard and Engram are both positioned to upset Kittle if they can stay healthy as they head into their third seasons.

Evan Engram performed nobly at the end of 2018 when Odell Beckham was not on the field, similar to what the situation will be in 2019 for the New York Giants. Engram put up 22 catches, 320 yards and one touchdown in the last four games without Beckham. He could be making up the lower part of the elite-tier of tight ends in 2019 and at the very least, makes a stable option. He will also be with the same starting quarterback as last year, unlike Howard. Then there’s the fact that young quarterbacks have a tendency to favor the tight end (as shown by Kittle last year) should Daniel Jones takes over. Engram provides a safer bet when on the field than Howard but is being drafted as the fifth tight end.

O.J. Howard is more of a projection to his No. 4 tight end average draft position this year than many understand. Although two Tampa Bay wide receivers left in free agency this year (leaving more targets for everyone else), Howard has not produced much with Jameis Winston on the field. Ryan Fitzpatrick was his main fantasy contributor in 2018. Howard only caught one of his five touchdowns last year with Winston on the field as a full-time starter. Also, Howard had no games of over 80-yards with Winston passing the ball. In the games where Howard caught two touchdowns and another in which he caught three balls for 96 yards, Fitzpatrick was the starter. He could ascend to the top-tier with more projected targets but the truth of it is that he is a risk this year.

Kittle Sleepers

If we really want to project players who could break out that check the boxes that Kittle checked, we must look at combine numbers, player situations and production from last year. Chris Herndon is the most obvious choice here due to his age, numbers and freak athleticism. Although he is not quite the athlete Kittle is, he still checks the boxes of good situation, age and numbers. Herndon is entering his second season altogether and with Sam Darnold, Herndon put up 502 yards and four touchdowns, which is very similar to Kittle’s first year. Like Kittle, Herndon has little competition on the roster and has other field stretchers to take away the safeties over the top. Robby Anderson provides the deep speed that requires extra attention from the safety similar to Marquise Goodwin does. With Le’Veon Bell requiring extra attention from the linebackers also, Herndon will be free to roam the middle of the field. Optimists could also point to his five games with over 50 yards and a Week 16 game with a stat line of six catches, 82 yards and a touchdown line with Robby Anderson back in the lineup. He does have four games with under 20 yards but these decreased as the year went on. At least for Dynasty drafts, Herndon is a good option and will be a good stash late as he is going undrafted in some Yahoo drafts.

For the sake of a super sleeper in tight end or for those in very large leagues, Mike Gesicki is a risky player with tons of upside. If we rewind to earlier in the article, tight ends such as Kittle have proven to be benefited by young quarterbacks with inexperience, along with poor talent but possessing speed at other positions. These criteria were met with San Francisco last year and will be by Miami this year. Let us not also forget, tight ends benefit heavily from playing with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his arm strength declines, as shown by O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate last year. Gesicki is the freakiest athlete at tight end next to Kittle as shown by his 4.54 40 yard dash, 41 inch vertical, 10’9’’ broad, 22 bench press reps, 34 inch arms and 10 inch hands. He was also chosen in the second round, indicating more opportunity in 2019. Miami has the speediest bunch of receivers in the NFL and Kenyan Drake as a pass catcher to take away linebacker attention. On top of all that, Fitzpatrick has come out and called Gesicki a “special” player. If he can click with his quarterbacks, he could do serious damage.

For deep sleepers for deep leagues, keep some of these players in mind as they similarly meet the criteria but don’t currently have the opportunity to break out: both Baltimore tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, Gerald Everett, Dallas Goedert and C.J. Uzomah.

About Justin Weigal

Justin is one of our summer guest writers. We hope that you enjoy his perspective.