More and more fantasy owners are opting for an early-round tight end approach, snatching up a Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski with one of their first two picks. Even Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron and Vernon Davis are seeing the love early in fantasy drafts.
But what about the other guys? What about the usable ones who you can draft late given the position brings little demand - since you're starting just one in a typical fantasy lineup - to fantasy football?
We asked that same question to a group of numberFire football writers, and they've provided their answers. Let's get at it.
Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers
By Tony DelSignore
Steelers tight end Heath Miller is seemingly a forgotten man in fantasy football circles. No doubt, the 31-year-old veteran is coming off a very rough season in Pittsburgh. And with only one touchdown in 14 games during the 2013 season, Miller has slipped to pick 13.09 according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
If you believe Miller is done based on his performance last year, this data is not for you. But, if you're like me and give Miller a pass for clearly being hobbled by a knee injury, you could find yourself with a late-round gem at tight end.
Before his knee injury at the tail-end of the 2012 season, Miller was among the lead leaders in fantasy scoring at his position. It was the first year under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and Miller caught 71 passes for 816 yards and 8 touchdowns. According to our Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) metric – which measures the number of expected points added by a player on catches only – Miller’s 81.43 score ranked fourth among all tight ends in the league that year.
Clearly we can’t totally discount the 2013 season, and in terms of Reception NEP per target, Miller’s 0.46 score was by far the lowest he’s ever seen in his career. It was also far from his 0.81 rating during his 2012 campaign. In one year, he went from being a top five tight end to one of the least efficient in the league.
But with Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders both gone, look for a healthy Heath Miller to bounce back in a big way in 2014. Cotchery and Sanders departure have vacated 38 red zone targets and a whopping 15 touchdowns in the Steelers offense. Smaller receivers Lance Moore and Markus Wheaton don't figure to be the main beneficiaries of Cotchery’s red zone absence (22 targets), and it makes sense for Miller, who dominated the red zone in 2012 (8 touchdowns on 20 targets), to be Big Ben's go-to close to the end zone this year.
Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
By Billy Hepfinger
If there's one tight end this year who defines upside, it's San Diego's Ladarius Green. At 6'6", 237 pounds, the heir apparent to Antonio Gates looks ready to seize the throne by season's end. Green is entering his third year in the NFL, but you may as well disregard his rookie campaign, in which he caught four balls on four targets for 56 yards in very limited action.
Last year, though, Green played in all 16 games for the Chargers, starting eight. He finished with just 17 receptions, a paltry sum compared to Gates's 77, but he also caught 3 touchdowns - just one fewer than Gates. He also racked up 376 yards, which is no small feat for a second-year player serving as understudy to one of the most dominant tight ends of his generation.
What's more, Green's advanced numbers bear out his success in a small sample size last year. He finished 2013 with a Reception NEP of 31.94, more than Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, and Rob Housler (all of whom were targeted about twice as often). Among tight ends with fewer than 50 targets last year, only the Jets' Jeff Cumberland contributed more points for his team. Green's 1.10 Reception NEP per target was tops among tight ends with more than 25 targets though, and his reception Success Rate of 88.24% put him a tick ahead of Greg Olsen and Tony Gonzalez.
The one caveat with Ladarius Green, obviously, is his limited role thus far in the Chargers' offense, but that's exceedingly likely to change in 2014. Antonio Gates is a creaky 34 years old this year, and the last two seasons have easily been his worst; he posted a meager 538 yards in 15 games in 2012, and he managed only 4 touchdowns in 2013, his lowest numbers in both categories since his 2003 rookie season.
Given Gates's advanced age and diminished play, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the stage is set for Green to take the reins.
Garrett Graham, Houston Texans
By JJ Zachariason
I'll dig a little deeper here and go with Garrett Graham, who's in a perfect position to succeed this year in Houston. The most obvious reason is new head coach Bill O'Brien, who helped the New England Patriots change the way they viewed their receivers by implementing consistent two-tight end sets with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. As a result, the tight end position saw over 40% of quarterback targets just a year after O'Brien became offensive coordinator for the Pats, racking up roughly 45% of the team's receiving production. And, clearly, both Hernandez and Gronk were fantasy football studs.
This off-season, the Texans opted to sign Garrett Graham, letting veteran Owen Daniels leave for Baltimore. He's now the man at tight end for the team, with Ryan Griffin more than likely playing the other tight end role in the offense.
And that's great news, because another angle that's going relatively unnoticed is the fact that his quarterback is Ryan Fitzpatrick. Remember Delanie Walker's emergence down the stretch last year? That was Ryan Fitzpatrick's doing. With Fitzpatrick under center, Walker saw nearly two more targets and two more receptions per game versus what he saw with Jake Locker throwing him the rock. Over the second half of the season - Ryan Fitzpatrick's time - Walker was fantasy football's eighth-best tight end in PPR leagues.
Graham is basically free in normal fantasy drafts, and is worth the flier. Will he become the next Aaron Hernandez? Off the field, let's hope not. On the field, that wouldn't be a bad thing at all.
Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins
By Matt Goodwin
Charles Clay just might have been the most understated top 10 tight end we've ever seen in fantasy football. After posting 69 receptions for 759 yards and 7 total touchdowns in 2013, you’d think Clay would be getting some more fantasy love. Our metrics had Clay as seventh in Reception NEP last year, and he ranked seventh among tight ends with a whopping 102 targets. That's a higher target total than what current top-five tight ends, according to ADP data, Julius Thomas and Vernon Davis saw last year.
But when you look at Clay’s average draft position on features deep throws and a heavy dose of the ground game, which may make Clay’s 2013 numbers look unattainable and explain his current ADP. However, even if the offense changes his role a bit, Clay’s talent and versatility should shine through and enable him to contend to be back as a top-10 tight end in 2014, definitely ahead of his current 13th round draft status.
Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans
By Joth Bhullar
Delanie Walker came out of Central Missouri weighing 249 pounds and running a 4.49 40-yard dash. He possesses elite speed for a guy his size, and his versatility allows him to play out wide as a receiver, or even in the backfield as a receiving option.
Yet, Walker currently isn't being drafted according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. And our metrics think he has top-12 tight end potential.
Last year, Walker was 13th in Reception NEP, 9th in Target NEP, and had an elite catch rate of 69.77 percent, which ranked 5th among tight ends with more than 30 catches.
In addition to all the metrics, the Titans new offensive system will also be beneficial for Walker. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt is known to employ a pass-heavy system, and particularly excels in calling short and intermediate pass plays. He's fresh off reviving Antonio Gates’ career, whose receptions and yards were the highest they’ve been since 2009 last season, and will likely look to feed the versatile Walker.
Last year, Walker was often removed for blocking tight ends Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson, and ended up playing only 71 percent of the Titans offensive snaps. According to reports out of Titans camp, Walker has been a standout at practices, and seems to have improved his blocking ability. With Whisenhunt’s presence allowing for more targets, and his blocking allowing for a larger number of snaps played, expect Walker’s numbers to spike. He's essentially free in fantasy drafts this year, and if you’re looking to wait on a tight end, Walker could provide great value.
Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears
By Dan Pizzuta
The Black Unicorn has come a long way since being Jason Witten’s backup in Dallas three years ago. Hints of a breakout started when it became his turn in the yearly revolving door at tight end for the New York Giants in 2012. His receptions jumped from 17 to 55, his receiving yards from 144 to 626 and his touchdowns from zero to five.
Bennett then moved on to Chicago, becoming the top tight end in Marc Trestman’s offense. While his raw numbers went up (65 receptions and 759 yards), he improved less than a point in Reception NEP from 54.81 in 2012 to 55.31 in 2013. That, however, would have been much higher had Jay Cutler been the quarterback for the whole season. With Josh McCown at quarterback, Bennett had more than four receptions in a game just once. In Cutler’s first two games after returning from the injury, Bennett had six receptions for 71 yards, and five receptions for 85 yards.
He’s currently getting snagged in drafts in the 12th round, behind Ladarius Green and Eric Ebron, both of whom have a strong possibility of not being the number one tight end target on their own teams. Bennett is in one of the most favorable offensive systems for both a real and fantasy tight end, and should thrive with a full year of Cutler, producing much more than what should be expected of a 12th-round pick.
Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
By Jordan Hoover
If you find yourself waiting until the later rounds to take a tight end, you should certainly consider Colts tight end Dwayne Allen.
As a rookie in 2012, Allen had 45 catches for 521 yards and 3 scores. If it weren’t for Allen missing the entire 2013 season due to injury, it’s conceivable he would have seen an increased role in the Pep Hamilton, tight-end-friendly offense.
Allen does have to compete with fellow tight end Coby Fleener for targets, but as our own Leo Howell noted, Allen was the better option in terms of both cumulative Reception Net Expected Points and on a per-target basis in 2012 when both players were healthy.
Allen is currently being selected as the TE19 in 12-team, PPR drafts according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. If any of the other Colts offensive weapons would succumb to injury, Allen could see a bit uptick in targets. And as a current 14th-round pick, he could provide great fantasy value.
While he probably won’t challenge the likes of Graham and Gronkowski, ending the season as a TE1 (top 12) is certainly in the realm of possibility.
Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
By Sam Hauss
In the 2012 Stanford versus Oregon game, Zach Ertz torched Chip Kelly’s Ducks’ squad for 11 catches, 106 yards and a touchdown. Coach Kelly took notice of Ertz’s talent, and when he made the leap from the Pac-12 to the NFL, he drafted the former Stanford star with the 35th overall pick.
Ertz struggled to pick up Kelly’s system as a rookie. Through eight games, he didn’t have a single performance where he posted more than three catches, and he didn’t catch a single touchdown. Though he was a bit inconsistent, the Eagles’ tight end showed tremendous improvement and flashes of brilliance in the second half of the season, catching 22 balls for 268 yards and four scores.
Last season, Ertz lost a ton of snaps to Brent Celek because he struggled with in-line blocking. The former Stanford star has packed on muscle this off-season and reportedly improved his blocking. Celek played twice as many snaps as Ertz last year, but with Celek aging and Ertz flourishing in all aspects of the game this off-season, all signs point to the second year star to play a much more significant role in what is arguably the league’s most innovative and effective offense.
We've heard this story before – a second-year tight end getting a bigger opportunity. Just take a look at where some tight ends who posted similar rookie seasons improved from their rookie to sophomore seasons from a Reception NEP perspective: Jason Witten (32.19 to 75.94), Antonio Gates (30.72 to 107.67), Jimmy Graham (36.73 to 108.87), Rob Gronkowski (56.71 to 133.52).
Ertz is as physically talented as any tight end in the league, and is a prime candidate to greatly improve last season's 36.73 Reception NEP. He's definitely someone to target in the middle of your draft.