2014 Fantasy Football Tight End Rankings… or, Tiers, Not Fears

Trying to make some Green backs kid?—-Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall

“Tiers, Not Fears” is a series on the (worth discussing) fantasy football positions. Players are in rank order, but are grouped in tiers with players who are very close in value. Whether drafting or doing an auction, having your positions organized in tiers helps you to decide during your draft/auction if you need to strike on a positional need, or if you can afford to wait a round or two before filling a position.

The tight end position is pretty much the same as it’s been the last few years: full of promising options, but only likely to yield a few real difference-makers. For that reason, it’s become something of a “Tiers, Not Fears,” tradition to spotlight the TE position, but without the depth that goes into the QB, RB, and WR posts. Oh don’t worry, you’ll still know everything you need to about this year’s crop of fantasy TEs, but rather than include a bunch of extraneous observations, we just get right down to the nitty-gritty of what the position holds for 2014.

The “League of His Own” Legend
1. Jimmy Graham
Do we really need to elaborate on why Graham is in his own goddman tier? The focal point of one of the most effective passing offenses in football, Graham is the only lock for over 1,100 yards and double-digit TDs at the TE position. And yes, he’s so damn good that he’s even worth a first round pick. Yeah, I said that shit.

The “Still Elite” Society
2. Rob Gronkowski
3. Julius Thomas
4. Jordan Cameron
5. Vernon Davis
While these dudes can’t quite hang with Graham, they are still kings at the position who sit comfortably above the rest of the fantasy options at TE.

With 42 TDs in 50 career NFL games, Rob Gronkowski is talented and involved enough in his offense to really give Jimmy Graham a run for his money… if he ever found a way to stay healthy. He at least seems ready to play Week One, but he’s obviously a risky proposition as an early third round pick. You know he’ll be great when he plays, but as the season wears on, his odds of getting hurt are likely to increase.

With Eric Decker gone, Julius Thomas is expected to be the no. 2 option in the passing game behind Demaryius Thomas. It’s an excellent position to be in. Though he only had 788 yards last year, he scored 12 times and the Broncos have said they will get more creative with how they use Thomas in 2014. If Gronk was the clear-cut no. 1 receiver on his own team, Thomas would’ve slid ahead of him. Still, Thomas is actually a safer third round pick than Gronkowski.

The Browns will go to Jordan Cameron often this year thanks to a weak receiving corps. Considering that he tallied 788 yards and seven TDs with Josh Gordon stealing targets and Brandon Weeden misfiring passes, the idea of Cameron seeing more targets and playing with a superior QB should get fantasy owners wet. He absolutely belongs in this tier as a beast of a TE who should have his finest season yet.

Though the 49ers have a deep well of receiving options to go to, Vernon Davis is still the best bet for red zone looks. He notched 13 TDs last year and has a great rapport with Colin Kaepernick. The yardage won’t be as high as the marks the other players in this tier will reach, but he should cleanly finish in the top five at TE by year’s end.

The “Cost Effective, But Effective” Effigies
6. Jason Witten
7. Dennis Pitta
8. Kyle Rudolph
9. Zach Ertz
10. Ladarius Green
These guys start to go around the sixth round, so if you don’t like to wait for a deep sleeper later in the draft and can’t force yourself to pull the trigger on a TE early, these are some comfortable options that offer intrigue at a fair price.

At 32 years old, it’s fair to wonder if Jason Witten is about to fall off. Oh he’ll see a lot of targets and that should keep him firmly in TE1 territory, but with Dallas expected to run it more and Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams working the outside, Witten will again be a short-yardage, across the middle receiver who won’t break off many big plays. Another eight TD/800-plus yard season could be in the works, but I think that’s as good as it will get for fantasy owners.

We’ll have to see how Dennis Pitta bounces back from hip surgery after a lost 2013 season, but if he truly is 100-percent, he could be a nice draft day buy in the middle rounds of drafts. An athletic TE who will line up all over the field, Pitta has the goods to be a consistent week-to-week source of points.

Another mid-rounder with serious fantasy sizzle, Kyle Rudolph could be in for his best season yet. New OC Norv Turner has a tremendous track record with getting the most out of his TEs (see: Jordan Cameron last year as his most recent case). With Minnesota destined to have shaky QB play, Rudolph should be plenty involved in the passing game. He has a nose for the red-zone as well, making him a poor-man’s Vernon Davis in terms of fantasy production (and at half the price).

With Philadelphia’s receiving corp looking intriguing, but loaded with question marks, Zach Ertz has a real shot at carving out a major role in the offense. Now in his second year in Chip Kelly’s offense, Ertz has the size, speed, and red-zone prowess to be a match made in heaven for Philly’s style of play. Sure the Eagles will likely spread the ball around and Brent Celek figures to still get a solid amount of playing time (albeit as a blocker), but because Philadelphia is so high on Ertz, you have to imagine he’ll be involved enough to warrant TE1 consideration (and if he reaches his potential, a top six finish is certainly possible).

Antonio Gates is still around and San Diego’s pass offense likes to spread the targets around, but Ladarius Green is so good that he just has to have a larger role heading into 2014. He overtook Gates as the primary playmaking TE by season’s end, and has the size, (deceptive) speed, and red-zone chops to become a weekly fantasy TE1. If the work he put into his route-running this offseason pays off, Green might even become one of the more targeted TEs in fantasy (which would make him a steal at his current ADP).

The “Talk Yourself Into It” Ignoramuses
11. Jordan Reed
12. Greg Olsen
13. Heath Miller

14. Martellus Bennett
15. Jared Cook
These TEs are all veterans who could provide a draft day profit, but they’ll need to make a big leap in order to provide real difference-making value.

The hype on Jordan Reed continues to grow, but we can’t overlook his history of concussions. He played just nine games in 2013, and we’ve seen head injuries wreck NFL careers in the past. As far as talent is concerned, the hype is warranted. He’s a premiere route-runner who is a matchup nightmare and offers Robert Griffin III a reliable inside weapon to complement Washington’s deep threat WRs. I realize that a healthy Reed will make me look like a fool as the dude has the goods to be a top five TE in fantasy. I’m just not ready to make the type of commitment necessary (think early seventh round pick) to bring this potential headache (pun deliciously intended) to my fantasy team.

First off, Kelvin Benjamin, not Greg Olsen, will lead the Panthers in targets. Olsen, a solid player, isn’t enough of a playmaker to lead the way in the passing game. He plays the slot often, which should continue to lead to a good amount of targets. However, he offers little TD upside thanks to Cam Newton’s propensity to run it in himself when the team is close to scoring. He’s also getting drafted around the same time as Ertz, Rudolph, and Pitta, which makes him an overrated draft day commodity. He’s a solid piece, just not one that will all of a sudden have a banner year.

With Heath Miller fully healthy coming into 2014, it will be interesting to see how he gels with Pittsburgh’s burgeoning pass offense. The scheme is right up his alley, as the Steelers put an emphasis on short, high-percentage throws to move the chains. That, coupled with the fact that he’s the best red-zone target the team has in terms of size, makes Miller an interesting (and pretty cheap) TE to invest in for those who don’t want to pay for a more buzz-worthy name.

Martellus Bennett is kind of similar to Olsen. Granted he won’t see Olsen’s targets, but Bennett will finish with similar (albeit, likely smaller) yardage totals and has a touch more TD juice. He’s a solid overall player, but one who will disappear some weeks, which makes him more of a TE2 in fantasy.

Everyone knows that Jared Cook has Vernon Davis-like athleticism, but he’s never put it all together on the field on a consistent basis. There’s some reason for optimism as Sam Bradford looks healthy and the Rams WR corps is suspect. Yet after flopping last year following an amazing first week performance, you can’t get too aroused over Cook’s fantasy outlook. Draft him as a TE2 and hope that something finally clicks.

The “So You’re Telling Me There’s A Chance” Contingency
16. Travis Kelce
17. Eric Ebron
18. Charles Clay
19. Austin Seferian-Jenkins
These young TEs offer some upside, but it takes a lot of faith to picture these guys making a case for TE1 value in 2014.

Travis Kelce is arguably Kansas City’s most talented receiver, which is pretty sad. He’s an athletic TE with some play-making ability, but he’s also splitting time with Anthony Fasano and is on a run-first offense.

Eric Ebron and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are rookies who could eventually be mainstays as TE1-type fantasy options, but in Year One, it’s hard to imagine. Ebron is fifth on the target depth chart in Detroit and is still a bit of a raw product. ASJ has size and could be a red-zone option for Tampa Bay, but he appears really far behind in learning the playbook and has competition for TE snaps.

A do-it-all real life football player, Charles Clay seems like a poor bet to repeat his surprising 2013 numbers (69 catches, 759 yards, and seven TDs). The team seems intent on focusing on the run and getting Mike Wallace open more often, and the team already have a sure-handed receiver who can play the role of “catch it and fall guy” in Brian Hartline.

The “You’ve Tried All The Rest, Now Try Some Scraps” Unit
20. Tyler Eifert
21. Delanie Walker
22. Dwayne Allen
23. Garrett Graham
24. Antonio Gates
25. Andrew Quarless
26. Marcedes Lewis
27. Ryan Griffin
28. Levine Toilolo
29. Scott Chandler
30. John Carlson
31. Adrien Robinson
32. Luke Wilson
33. Jace Amaro
34. Mychal Rivera
35. Jermaine Gresham
Yuck. At least these dudes have a semi-important role in their offense. So maybe there will a bye-week scenario that allows you to use one of these TEs in a pinch. Of course, if you don’t have to start any of these dudes at any point this season, you will take that as an absolute plus (and a sign that your team isn’t terrible).

*Last updated 8/20/14.


About Starbonell

Starbonell is the co-founder of Sons of Roto and one of the most insightful and colorful fantasy analysts in the game. Mixing intelligent and well-researched advice with an entertaining style of writing that is easy to digest, Starbonell is the king of info-tainment.