The Year of the Rookie Tight End

Jason Beck @TheyCallMeDad_3

The Year of the Rookie Tight End

The 2019 NFL Draft has concluded, and the next wave of rookie tight ends have arrived. Typically, there is a learning curve for first-year guys at this position, but this isn’t always the case. In 2017, Evan Engram overcame this stigma and posted impressive numbers that made him the #5 TE in half-point PPR for the year. Engram posted 141.6 points, 64 receptions, 722 yards, and 6 touchdowns in his first season causing the fantasy community to think twice before doubting rookie tight ends. One reason for his success was that his red zone target percentage was 18.87%. Engram converted 6 out of his 7 red zone receptions into touchdowns. His smaller frame at 6’3 240 lbs., his athleticism, and opportunity in the red zone allowed him to become a valuable fantasy asset.

Two stats that stand out for tight end success are red zone target percentage and a player’s amount of 3rd down conversion receptions in which tight ends are used as a “safety net” check down for most teams.  Top tight ends around the NFL have made their money in the red zone similar as to how Engram was able to do so his rookie season. In 2018, Travis Kelce dominated the red zone while having a red zone target percentage of 31.58% while converting 9 of his 19 red zone receptions into touchdowns. George Kittle had a red zone target percentage of 17.98% while converting 2 of his 9 red zone receptions into touchdowns. Zach Ertz posted a 31.82% red zone target percentage converting 7 of his 16 red zone receptions into touchdowns. Eric Ebron was able to convert 11 of his 12 red zone receptions into a touchdown with a target percentage of 22.22%. Kelce (191.6 pts), Kittle (170.7 pts), Ertz (164.3 pts), and Ebron (156.2 pts) finished 2018 as fantasy tight ends 1-4 in that order. Furthermore, 3rd down conversion receptions for these four tight ends are important to note as well. The league leader for 2018 was Julio Jones with 24 conversion receptions amongst all pass catchers. Travis Kelce tallied 21 conversions, Ertz had 17 conversions, Kittle had 15 conversions, and Ebron ended up with 1conversions. These four tight ends finished within the top six at their position in this category as well. The only other players to rank near them was Jared Cook (17) and Vance McDonald (15).

With all of these statistics factored together, this year’s class of rookie tight ends look promising. No other tight end class has near the potential that this group will have over the next couple of years. We will look back to this being the class that changed the tight end position, and helped fill the void left behind now that Rob Gronkowski has retired. When filling out your dynasty and redraft leagues in 2019, be sure to get one of these rookies on your team; they have the ability to be something special

T.J. Hockenson: The eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft could see some opportunity in Darrell Bevell’s offense. The Lions will use a run-heavy attack by leaning on Kerryon Johnson and newly acquired CJ Anderson leading the way. This tandem should open up some play action targets directed in the short to intermediate passing game particularly to TJ Hockenson who has proven not only to be a great blocker but has also shown good hands that will allow him to become a weapon for Stafford. This combination makes TJ profile similarly to Greg Olsen.  The addition of Hockenson will increase Detroit’s red zone efficiency that only had a touchdown percentage of 53.06% (24th Overall) in 2018. Hockenson’s size will allow him to use his frame to box out smaller defenders to create mismatches on the field. In addition, Hockenson will help increase Detroit’s third-down conversion percentage that was only 36.06% (25th Overall). With all that said, I do not see him as being a sure thing either though. Many people were scratching their heads in the first year under Patricia, and there is uncertainty with Stafford because of his wife’s health. Hockenson is a talented young TE that will see the field a lot, but Golladay and a healthy Marvin Jones will get the bulk of the targets on passing downs. In 2019, Hockenson has TE1/TE2 ability in redraft leagues, and he will be a high-end streaming option.

Noah Fant: Trading back to the twentieth overall pick, the Broncos selected tight end Noah Fant out of Iowa. Fant has all the tools to be successful in 2019. He posted eye-opening numbers at the combine this year and ran a 4.50 40, this is impressive for a player who is 6’4 249 lbs. His combination of size, speed, and the game film makes his profile similar to another former Iowa tight end, George Kittle. Fant will add to the young group of playmakers that Denver now has, but Fant has a secret weapon that others do not have in Rich Scangarello. Over the last two seasons, Scangarello was the QB’s Coach for the 49ers and played a role in helping George Kittle develop into the player he is now. In addition, the acquisition of Joe Flacco this offseason will help Fant have early success. Flacco targets the TE position often in check down situations and helped Mark Andrews have an impressive rookie campaign before Baltimore benched him for Lamar Jackson. Fant will help Denver in red zone efficiency that was 56.82% (18th Overall) in 2018. Fant’s athleticism will give him the edge in 50/50 balls and will be able to high point the ball over smaller defenders. With Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders, and DaeSean Hamilton’s ability to stretch the field, Fant will see many favorable matchups. With his size and speed, he will become a YAC/Redzone machine. Denver’s third-down conversion percentage of 36.06% (25th Overall) will increase in 2019 with Fant being a major target in short to intermediate passing situations as well. Fant will overcome the rookie TE stigma and become an immediate TE1 in redraft this year and projects to be the TE#6 in half-point leagues for 2019.

Jace Sternberger: Sternberger is an interesting prospect, to say the least. He blossomed into a terrific pass catcher under his lone season with Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and became the 75th overall pick to the Green Bay Packers. Jace will have the luxury of playing with a future HOF quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and he is in the position to learn from a veteran tight end in Jimmy Graham. Sternberger has the size and athleticism to become a safety blanket across the middle of the field for Rodgers over the next few seasons. Jace’s size and speed draw him the player comparison of Zach Ertz. Both players have similar athletic intangibles and great hands. Given the opportunity, Sternberger has the potential to put up decent numbers in 2019. However, a healthy Jimmy Graham will get the edge over him and Sternberger’s time on the field may be limited. However, Sternberger is a great dynasty stash that will increase Green Bay’s third-down conversion rate of only 36.76% (22nd) in 2018 and will be a red zone target opposite of Adams in the passing game that was 14th in the league at 61.70% in 2018. A crowded receiving group will limit Sternberger’s production this season that will make him a week-to-week flier and depth piece at most in redraft, but he is a good dynasty stash if you have space.


Irv Smith Jr: At 50th overall, the Minnesota Vikings selected Irv Smith Jr. The Alabama product has the athletic ability to display his skills nicely as a compliment to the elite pass-catching due in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Kyle Rudolph is will turn thirty in November and will make $7 million in 2019. This could present the situation where Rudolph could be traded in the near future which would then move Irv Smith Jr to the top of the depth chart. As it stands now, Smith will compete with Thielen, Diggs, and Rudolph for targets in a Gary Kubiak zone run offense led by Dalvin Cook. Smith is smaller compared to this year’s class of rookie tight ends but profiles similar to Jordan Reed. Both have similar size and are able to stretch the field. If given the opportunity, Smith has the ability to be a flyer in 2019 if given targets in the red zone in which the Vikings ranked 21st in the league at 54.00% in 2018. However, Smith’s size could limit his role in the red zone. Irv could see targets and be used in critical third-down situations as well where the Vikings ranked at 35.78% conversion rate (26th Overall). Smith is an intriguing prospect that could serve as a stash in dynasty, but have streaming capabilities in 2019 if given the chance for a larger role in the offense.

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