Positional Battles to Look Out for This Preseason

I want to break down a few of the true positional battles this off-season at Tight End, and give you a heads-up on who’s got the upper hand at the moment. Any teams left off this list have an assumed pecking order of players that are worth drafting:

Baltimore

Competitors: Maxx Williams, Crockett Gillmore, Benjamin Watson

A year ago, in a crowded Baltimore TE field, Dennis Pitta ran away with the spoils, targeted a whopping 121 times on a throw-heavy team. Meanwhile, Watson tore his Achilles’ tendon; Gillmore was wiped out for over half the season with a thigh injury; and Williams ended up on the IR with a cartilage issue in his knee, which required surgery from which he still hasn’t recovered.

To start out 2017, Williams is now looking like a viable candidate for the PUP list. Darren Waller, a 6th-Rounder from 2015’s draft, is facing a yearlong suspension. Gillmore is recovering from surgery on both of his shoulders, and he’s dealing with a hamstring issue already. And Dennis Pitta once again dislocated his hip – the third time in his career (and likely the final time, as he has been cut and will probably never play in the NFL again).

Are you keeping track? That leaves Watson, a 36-year-old veteran, as the last man standing, at least for now. It is possible that Gillmore is ready to return in time for the season. And it is possible that the Ravens are looking to get in on the Gary Barnidge free agency kitty. But as of now, we have to assume that Watson is the guy, if for no other reason than because he’s the only guy.

Prediction: Probably what will happen, if the Ravens don’t sign Barnidge, is that Gillmore will come back in time to muddy things up. At his age, it is highly unlikely that Watson will again be super-productive tied to a sub-par QB (remember that his success two years ago came while tied to Drew Brees, a future Hall-of-Famer). He’s the guy for now, but don’t bother drafting him.

Chicago

Competitors: Zach Williams, Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen, Daniel Brown

In The Windy City, Williams was a surprise in 2015; then he was off to a decent start in 2016. But Miller gonna Miller. Since being drafted by the Jags in 2009, Miller has seriously torn his Achilles/calf, had concussions, season-ending shoulder surgery, season-ending foot surgery; and then last year, he broke his foot. He’s had one (almost) complete season in his 8 year career – a decent one where he finished as fantasy’s 15th best TE; and he effectively missed the entirety of 2012-2014 while toiling around with Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Chicago without logging a single stat – a cat’s whisker away from losing his whole career. Then 2015 changed everything, making Miller a household name among fantasy players. Last year, the Bears didn’t really protect Miller with a reliable backup, and they paid a dear price. This year, not so much.

Sims comes over to Chicago from Miami, where he’s been for the past four years. He’s a giant body, but he doesn’t make for a terribly dominant target in the passing game historically. He’s probably insurance for Miller, and nothing more.

The Bears also doubled down at TE depth by selecting Shaheen, a well-regarded Top-50 pick from this year’s draft out of Division II Ashland. He’s a massive man – a 6’6”, 278 lb. tank with fair athleticism. And Chicago brass claims Shaheen is “not a project player,” but that he should play right away.

And to add some extra friction to the pistons here, Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune reports that Daniel Brown, a converted WR who filled in for Miller in his absence late last season, could force the older veteran off the roster altogether. Reportedly, the Bears are considering whether or not it would just be easier on them to take the variable about Miller and his availability out of the equation by moving on without him. If that were to actually materialize, it is pretty difficult to believe, considering the two new TE additions the team made this offseason, that Brown would be next man up. If that were the case, Sims would probably get first crack until Shaheen can become acclimated to the NFL with the eventual goal to get Shaheen into the swing of things by season’s end.

Prediction: Miller is the incumbent, and he has played well enough to get another shot; but he has also played in just 29 games since 2011. With his extensive history with gauze and tape, Chicago may be ready to move on. Chicago hopes the long-term solution is found in Shaheen, a Jesse James type. Look for him to take over eventually. Shaheen should be looked at in dynasty formats, and if things break right, he may become a usable streaming TE by year’s end in 2017. Both he and Miller would be free in your fantasy draft, but neither is probably worth spending a pick on.

Denver

Competitors: Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman, A.J. Derby, Jake Butt

As has been the case since Julius Thomas left his orange jersey for Florida oranges, there is presently no TE on the Denver roster that should be much of a threat this upcoming season in fantasy. To begin the year, things will likely be status quo with Virgil Green, an uninspiring blocking specialist, atop the depth chart with just 34 career catches in 2 seasons since taking over as Denver’s starter.

Behind him are the usual set of backups – A.J. Derby who came over a year ago in a trade from New England. Derby is a young former college QB, and he is the most athletic TE on the roster. As he continues to learn the position, there is hope that he may become a niche passing specialist. And then there is also Jeff Heuerman, a 2015 3rd-Rounder who has yet to really get going but is thought to be a more complete TE than Green or Derby.

Add in Jake Butt, the Broncos’ 5th-Round selection – once thought of as a potential 1st-Rounder – who tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl this winter and will begin the season on the PUP list at best. Butt is a 2-time First Team All-American – a well-rounded competitor with both blocking and receiving acumen. He may never return in 2017, but when he does, he figures to be the most talented and complete TE on the roster.

Even if Butt can return this season, he won’t have a complete training camp, OTAs, pre-season action, or any NFL game action under his belt. TEs typically take a while to get acclimated to the NFL to begin with, so Butt could very well start slowly whenever he does get on the field. That pretty much leaves the same combination Denver had in 2016 coming back for an encore.

Prediction: Green probably starts, and the others fight for time, and none of the three are able to put up usable fantasy statistics. When or if Butt returns, he probably makes the roster and forces one of these guys off the team, but Butt returns no value this season either. There is nothing to see here, so whistle on by.

Indianapolis

Competitors: Jack Doyle, Eric Swoope

Doyle is being looked at by the fantasy community with newly renovated curiosity this offseason as longtime Colts’ big body Dwayne Allen ran off to join the Patriots, leaving Doyle in the catbird seat as Andrew Luck’s primary TE. Both were involved a year ago – Allen drawing 52 targets en route to a 35-406-6, and Doyle pulling in 75 targets for a surprising 59-584-5.

But Doyle came out of nowhere last year, and having trust issues about a suddenly relevant 27-year-old aligned with utterly no expectations even as recently as one year ago today is totally understandable. And the assumption that Doyle will rake in almost all of the targets vacated by the departing Allen is probably at least an unproven presumption.

Swoope is another converted basketball player, and entering his fourth season, he has steadily progressed each year thus far. Now 25, Swoope is poised to take on a larger role as Indy’s 2nd TE behind Doyle. Based on his background in hoops, the general hypothesis one might make is that Swoope is a pass catching specialist while Doyle is more complete and all-around; but while the sample size on Swoope is pretty small, thus far it has actually materialized the other way around. Swoope has been a far more efficient as a blocker than he has as a receiver; and Doyle, whose body of work is larger, has demonstrated almost no ability as a blocker, and is almost exclusively a pass catching TE.

But can Swoope step up and challenge for the lion’s share of the targets over an assumed incumbent the way Doyle did to Allen a year ago? Indy inked Doyle to a brand new contract – 3 years for $19 million. CBS Sports reports Doyle is the “unquestioned Number 1 TE in Indy,” and HC Chuck Pagano says of Doyle, “The quarterback has a ton of faith and trust in that guy. He’s always where he’s supposed to be, and that makes a huge difference.” Meanwhile Stephen Holder of Indystar.com reports that Swoope should hold down the 2nd-string spot behind Doyle. All signs, as of now, don’t point to a mutiny in Indy.

Prediction: Swoope pulls in the 2nd TE spot, as expected, and he improves on his 15 catches from a year ago, but he can’t cut into the workload that Doyle established in 2016, and he isn’t worth owning, barring any injury to the starter. Doyle is the guy to own, and he’s probably worth a shot at his current 11th-Round ADP.

Jacksonville

Competitors: Marcedes Lewis, Mychal Rivera

Jacksonville technically has an opening at the TE position, as Julius Thomas departs for Miami and takes with him an unquestioned, unchallenged role as a starter in the Jacksonville offense. But Thomas drew only 76 targets in 2 seasons with Jacksonville; and the two players he leaves in his stead – longtime Jag Lewis, and free agent acquisition Rivera – are painfully less dynamic and less stimulating.

The early word out of camp is that Rivera, who is 6 years younger than the veteran Lewis, has got a leg up on the pass catching duties. At OTAs it was reported by the Florida Times Union that Rivera was seeing “starter-level snaps.” Rivera had a fair little breakout in 2014, hauling in 58-534-4 with Oakland; but in the two seasons that followed, Rivera fell flat, raking in only 50-472-2 in both seasons combined while playing a full 16 games each year.

As for Lewis, the long-time vet is thought to be held in the league, as veteran TEs sometimes are, by his blocking ability. As a pass catcher, he isn’t perceived to be better than his counterpart. The reality, however, is that a year ago Lewis was actually pretty bad as a blocker, particularly in the run game. It probably doesn’t bode well for a now 33-year-old that’s been uninspiring in Jacksonville since 2006; and he has no more than 20 catches or 2 TDs in each of his past 3 seasons. The last time there was a Jaguars’ team without Lewis on it, George W. Bush was in the white house; but it is actually conceivable he could find himself on the roster bubble this summer.

Prediction: Rivera offers more upside and more consistency both as a receiver and a blocker at this point in his career. Rivera easily holds off Lewis for the job; but neither guy should ever be drafted in anything short of some kind of weird, tricked-out 2-TE league. Nobody here offers anything – not even as a streamer, likely; and there is a chance somebody deeper on this roster – someone like Neal Sterling or Brad Koyack – ends up taking over by year’s end.

LA Chargers

Competitors: Hunter Henry, Antonio Gates

There was a time when Gates was his generation’s Rob Gronkowski. A converted basketball player, Gates was a perennial Top-5 TE from 2004-2010. If there were a fantasy football Hall of Fame, Gates would be on the first ballot, much like he will be in Canton 5 years after he does eventually retire. Gates is now 37 years old; and the presumption is the will be retiring this year after breaking his tie with Tony Gonzalez for the most career TDs by a TE in NFL history, currently set at 111. That may or may not be, but one thing is for certain: Gates’ days are indeed numbered.

As for Henry, often compared to longtime Cowboys’ staple Jason Witten, himself a future Hall of Famer, the former 2nd Round pick out of Arkansas  has already shown the ability to score TDs. His remarkable 22% TD rate on 36 catches is likely not sustainable, but the pace is alarming – particularly considering the way Henry plays the ball like an elite WR, not content to wait on what comes but aggressive and acrobatic with a wide catch radius. It absolutely appears that, in Gates and now Henry, the Chargers may seamlessly transition from one elite superstar to another at the position.

Prediction: Unlike most of these battles at TE, there is actually a pretty decent chance that each of these players has some fantasy juice in 2017. Both have shown incredible TD-scoring aptitude, so scores make them both usable, at least as occasional streamers. But for the Chargers, it time to move on. Gates can still play a little, but he’s not going anywhere but down the hill he’s over. Henry can also play – probably a little bit better at this point in time – and he’s got nothing but time ahead of him as he is only 22 years old. Even if both players are involved, Henry should get the lion’s share of the work as the Chargers transition to life after Gates; and he could be in the TE1 mix.

LA Rams

Competitors: Gerald Everett, Tyler Higbee

For the Rams, a pair of young small school TEs will battle for the chance to take over for the departing Lance Kendricks in new HC Sean McVay’s new look Rams. McVay was the OC in the nation’s capital each of the past two seasons – seasons which featured Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis prominently. Before that, he was the Washington TE coach, working with Reed, Vernon Davis, Fred Davis, Chris Cooley, Logan Paulsen, and Niles Paul in Washington since 2010 – all of whom have returned usable fantasy production when given the opportunity. While it is not necessary that past success translates into big TE production from McVay’s Rams (remember how Brian Billick led a record breaking wide open offense in Minnesota only to pilot the defensive-minded Ravens to a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer under center?), it can at least be said that McVay does know how to teach and maximize the position.

Many are excited about Everett, a rookie out of South Alabama, who the Rams took with a 2nd Round selection this April. Some liken Everett, a former basketball star, to Antonio Gates or Jordan Reed; and the thought is that he will be able to move all over the field, perplexing linebackers with his speed while outmuscling safeties and corners alike. His athleticism is marvelous, but he is making a jump from a school that is barely in Div. I FBS all the way to the big leagues. It is going to take a massive leap for Everett to make an immediate impact.

On the other hand, Higbee was a 4th-Rounder, but only after he plunged from likely the 2nd Round because of an assault charge stemming from an incident just days before the draft where Higbee allegedly beat a man of Middle Eastern descent while shouting racially insensitive obscenities at him and then fleeing the scene and evading police. Coming out of Western Kentucky, Higbee was comped to Jordan Cameron – injuries and all – which means, if he can pull it all together for a season, he could have TE1 upside, although likely not with young Jared Goff tossing him passes this year.

Prediction: With Goff under center and a pretty dicey offensive situation, it is not easy to tie oneself to any Rams’ offensive fantasy player right now, especially not an unproven 1st or 2nd year TE. The smart money here is on Higbee taking the job first, if only because he has more experience on his side; but the battle will go on until the opener and possibly beyond. Dynasty players may ponder either option, especially while they are tied to a young QB looking for a favorite pet he can lock on for years and years, but redraft players shouldn’t be fishing in this pond.

NY Giants

Competitors: Evan Engram, Will Tye, Jerell Adams

There was a time when the popular narrative told us that being QB Eli Manning’s TE was a good thing (remember Kevin Boss?). The reality is probably that being Jeremy Shockey was a good thing. Or being Martellus Bennett. But being Tye hasn’t been quite as lucrative. With a respectable 94 catches for a palatable 925 yards in 2 seasons, Tye has only managed 4 TDs. Not only that, but Tye has been a terrible blocker.

Enter Evan Engram, a smallish TE out of Mississippi who plays almost more like a big WR than a small TE. There is already a fair amount of hype around Engram to go around, as Lance Meadow of Giants.com has him slated for 45-50 catches. To be fair, that is right in line with Tye’s 2016 outcome; but Engram is a rookie, and he joins an even more crowded field as Brandon Marshall, one of the past decade’s great TD scorers, joins Odell Beckham, Jr. and Sterling Shepard. The idea that Engram’s target share should remain in line with Tye’s is probably presumptuous, although not entirely unrealistic.

As much as writers are quick to elevate Engram’s status, they are seemingly just as willing to write off Tye as old hat. NJ.com’s James Kratch left Tye off the roster all together, preferring 2016 6th-Rounder Adams and Matt LaCosse.

Adams is largely unproven out of South Carolina, though he managed 16-122-1 as a rookie last year. He is a big athletic player who can post up much like Larry Donnell once could, but as is status quo with Giants’ TEs of the recent half decade, blocking isn’t much of a priority for Adams.

Prediction: Since none of the three are particularly good at blocking, there is no reason not to run with the best receiver. Engram is new to the professional level, but coming from the SEC, where he faced off against talented and tough pro-style defenses weekly, he should translate to the NFL quicker than most. Engram probably will play in the slot as much as he plays off-tackle, and as a tweener, he represents a mismatch for linebackers and safeties alike. Though Engram isn’t tall in the way Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski are, he still presents a size and physicality mismatch. He may comp more to an Eric Decker than he does to Graham; and if that can at all materialize, he can still be a big-time TD-maker. Practically free in redraft, Engram is worth a last-round stab; because if he’s listed as a TE but used as a big slot WR (WRs typically scoring far more fantasy points than TEs in general), he very well could outplay his cost.

NY Jets

Competitors: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jordan Leggett

There doesn’t really appear to be a TE competition with the Jets right now. We only know Leggett, a rookie out of Clemson who some have already pegged as a potential bust, should have a leg up on starting the first two games of the season because of Seferian-Jenkins’ pending suspension for violating the NFL substance abuse policy.

Leggett became somewhat famous this past winter when he yanked down 7 catches for 95 yards, including several key catches in the game’s climactic moments, in Clemson’s exhilarating down-to-the-wire National Championship win against Alabama. Leggett showed a propensity for saving his biggest games for his biggest stages at Clemson, as he also had 5-78-1 against the Tide in the National Championship loss to cap off the 2015 season as well. But with 86 catches, 1,261 yards, and 15 TDs in the past two seasons, Leggett drew comparisons to NFL TEs like Richard Rodgers and Kellen Davis. In the NFL he doesn’t project to be a superstar, but he may evolve into a pretty usable commodity; but even so, no one expects Leggett to do much on a bad team in the first 2 games of his career. He shouldn’t be on anyone’s radar.

As for Seferian-Jenkins, he comes into the 2017 season with a totally different profile and gobs and gobs of hope on his side. A humongous a man – 2nd-Round pick in 2014 – Seferian-Jenkins came out of Washington as the reigning Mackey award winner and the 2nd TE off the board. He was off to a decent enough start in his first 16 games, as he compiled 42-559-6 in his first two years, when he missed almost half of each season due to injury. Seferian-Jenkins has been plagued by injury and a lifetime of trouble. He has two DUIs – one of which stems back to his days in college, and the other of which motivated Tampa Bay to cut him prior to the 2016 season. He’s been criticized for lacking discipline and being insubordinate, and now he’s been suspended to start the upcoming football year. But the rumor mill is swirling that ASJ has finally got his wheels on, is focused on football, and is ready to take on a larger role in the young, raked-over New York Jets’ offense.

Prediction: ASJ has the job; Leggett just gets to fill in for a couple of frames. Leggett will be completely overwhelmed in his first two games and have no business being on anyone’s redraft roster this season. Seferian-Jenkins should be seen as a higher upside late-round TE2 that could actually yield mid-to-back-level TE1 numbers if he’s really gotten his act together, especially in an offense that is lacking in good TD scoring options. He’s worth a shot very late in your draft if you don’t mind having to carry a replacement for the first couple of games.

Tampa Bay

Competitors: Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard

Here’s the thing about Cameron Brate: he just gets no respect. There wasn’t much expected of Brate, a slender-bodied 235-lb. receiving TE, when he was dug up as a UDFA out of Harvard; but in his 3rd season Brate was thrust into action when the Bucs decided to part ways with troubled Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

In his first season as a full-time starter Brate was sensational, drawing 57 catches for 660 yards and a remarkable 8 TDs. Of qualified TEs, Brate’s 16 red zone targets were 4th in the NFL behind only Kyle Rudolph, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham; and his 8 TDs were tied with Hunter Henry as the best in the NFL at the position. PFF graded Brate as the 7th-best TE, and the 6th-best receiving TE, in the league. Then to reward him, the Bucs spent a 1st-Round pick on electric rookie O.J. Howard, the first TE off the board in April.

And here’s the thing about O.J. Howard: he is an absolute freak of nature. Out of high school, he was a bona fide 5-star blue chip – the best TE in the nation; and so of course, he went to Alabama. From there, he was a cog in a remarkable machine; and with the Tide, it was hard to pile up big statistical outputs while having to share the load with so many other world class talents. Despite that, he passed the eyeball test time and time again, as he moved like a WR trapped in the body of a 6’6”, 250 lb. monster. On the biggest stages Howard had his biggest moments, and in the 2016/17 National Championship game against Clemson, he had a blazing 4-106-1; but in the 2015/17 National Championship game, also against Clemson, Howard had an eye-popping 5-208-2 to win the game’s offensive MVP award. Most recently, according to NFL.com, Howard was heavily complimented by his new QB, former 1st-Round draft pick Jameis Winston who said, “This is the fastest, most athletic 6’6, 255 guy I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s unreal.”

For fantasy players this represents a difficult mess. Add in the acquisition of DeSean Jackson, a speedy outside deep threat receiver, and the already rock-solid presence of dominant high-point wideout Mike Evans, and how does Tampa Bay distribute the wealth? That is the question. The most likely scenario is that Brate and Howard can’t help but step on each other’s potential. Brate is already a good candidate for negative TD regression, but with Howard in town, his totals could fall all the way below 5, which would make him unusable most weeks in fantasy. For Howard, he’s a super dynasty prospect; but considering it usually takes a while for TEs to get up to speed in the NFL, mixed with the fact that there is a proven veteran on the roster, it’s hard to predict an overly grand entrance to the league.

Prediction: Howard will flash moments of greatness, much as we saw at Alabama, but he won’t yield reliable statistical harvests, much as we saw at Alabama. Meanwhile, Howard will be just present enough to ensure Brate’s already almost inevitable fall in TD production. It will be frustrating all year, and both guys probably figure better as redraft streamers than every week starters.