Welcome to the last of my "overrated, underrated" positional series, following posts on quarterbacks, running backs (I’d guess Danny Woodhead isn’t quite so underrated in the wake of Kenneth Dixon’s season-ending knee surgery) and wide receivers. I mean, I sure hope it’s the last, or else I guess I’ll be trotting out an overrated/underrated kickers piece next week (but seriously, folks, Steven Hauschka at No. 8? Did you miss the memo that he moved from Seattle to Buffalo?).
As usual, I’ll be avoiding players about whom I’ve already written, in this case meaning Jimmy Graham, Jack Doyle, and O.J. Howard. That last one hurts, because, man, is Howard overrated as the No. 13 TE being drafted in points-per-reception formats.
It also hurts, because, frankly, there aren’t a ton of TEs about which to have a strong opinion, in the sense that it’s the shallowest position in fantasy, and my own rankings (find them here!) don’t differ very much from the draft sites from which Fantasy Pros aggregates. Still there, are some differences, and I’ve picked out four players I think fit the bill for this discussion.
Also, a reminder that I’ll be taking my average draft position data from Fantasy Pros, and defaulting to PPR scoring.
Hunter Henry, Chargers (ADP: 10th among TEs | My rank: 12th)
Sure, there isn’t a big gap between 10 and 12, but hey, I warned you that pickings were slim. In any event, I think it’s useful to pump the brakes a bit on Henry, who garnered a lot of buzz last season, some of which was a bit unwarranted.
Henry finished his rookie season a surprising 11th among TEs in standard scoring, but that had a lot to do with his eight touchdowns, which tied Cameron Brate for the lead at the position. That goes to an important point, which is that TE scoring in 2016 was, in general, unusually low, leading to some anomalous results.
Consider that, per Rotoworld’s Rich Hribar, the top 12 TEs in PPR scored the fewest collective points since 2010, and combined for the fewest touchdowns since 2008. In fact, the dropoff in end-zone trips is jarring: from 96 in 2013, to 89, to 86 and then to 64 last season.
Much of that had to do with extensive, injury-related absences by some of the top performers at the position, including Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert, and while it wouldn’t be a shock to see any of them get hurt again (Reed is already off to a flying start), it’s also reasonable to expect better health and increased production for the whole group of TE1s.
Getting back to Henry, while he finished 11th in standard, he was just 18th in PPR, because he caught a mere 36 passes (27th among TEs) for 478 yards (23rd) on 54 targets (27th). With a year of NFL experience under his belt, Henry can be expected to improve as a player, but how much can we expect his numbers to improve? After all, Antonio Gates, who caught 53 passes for 548 yards and seven touchdowns on 92 targets, is still around, and target-monster Keenan Allen is back for the Chargers.
Clearly, I agree that Henry is set for a good season, one in which he should bypass Gates as Los Angeles’s primary TE, but it’s worth bearing in mind that his rookie campaign comes with some caveats, and he’s no lock to dramatically increase those numbers.
Evan Engram, Giants (15 | 25)
Remember when I pointed out that Henry’s reception and yardage totals as a rookie weren’t all that great? Yeah, that’s kind of a thing for first-year TEs, and it’s why I’m not crazy about the 2016 prospects for Howard, Engram and David Njoku, who became the first trio of TEs to go in the first round of the draft since 2002.
A recent study by Rotoviz’s Ben Gretch found that only two rookie TEs in the past 17 seasons have posted 600 receiving yards, and only one (John Carlson, 2008) since Jeremy Shockey, who led that 2002 trio. In addition, just five rookie TEs in that span got at least 70 passing targets, a minimal threshold for PPR success.
So Engram already has history against him, and he could have some playing-time issues, as well. Given that Sterling Shepard’s ankle injury does not sound nearly as bad as initially feared, we can expect him to be on the field for Week 1, joining Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall in New York’s favored three-WR sets.
Those types of formations generally allow for just one TE, and that player is often called upon to help out as a blocker. That’s not at all the strong suit of the 6-foot-3, 234-pound Engram, essentially an oversized WR whose grades as a run-blocker (per Pro Football Focus) progressively declined in his three seasons at Ole Miss.
Engram ran most of his pass routes from the slot, but that’s also where Shepard usually lines up. One would imagine that the Giants had a role in mind for Engram when they made him the 23rd pick in the draft, but that role could well be more limited this year than some fantasy drafters would prefer.
Austin Hooper, Falcons (19 | 17)
Why stop the rookie-TE talk now? Hooper had just 19 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns on 27 targets last year, good for a 38th-place PPR finish in his inaugural season. However, there are several reasons to think he could make a big jump in Year 2.
For one thing, while he started just three games and received limited playing time overall, Hooper impressed while on the field. In fact, Football Outsiders gave him the highest receiving grade at his position in its value-per-play metric (Rob Gronkowski was second), and it ranked him 11th in its total-value metric, despite him getting just those 27 targets.
That receiving ability is particularly significant because Hooper came out of Stanford more highly regarded for his blocking than his pass-catching. Those blocking skills should keep him on the field in most game situations, particularly as Atlanta’s top TE last season, Jacob Tamme, is no longer on the team, paving the way for Hooper to receive major playing time.
Finally, while it’s probably too much to ask for Hooper to ascend all the way to No. 2 receiver status on the Falcons, it’s not like the team has much set in stone behind Julio Jones. Mohamed Sanu was next in line last year, but his 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns on 81 targets were just 51st-best among WRs in PPR formats, and apart from the RB tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta’s top pass-catchers also included Taylor Gabriel (35 receptions), Tamme (22) and Justin Hardy (21).
The opportunity is more than there for Hooper to make big jumps in playing time and pass targets. Given that, for all his talent, Jones has never been a major touchdown scorer, it’s not outlandish to think of Hooper leading the team in that category, all of which makes him an excellent candidate to out-perform my ranking, let alone his ADP.
Charles Clay, Bills (28 | 22)
Here are Clay’s PPR finishes among TEs since 2013: 8, 15, 18, 16. Hmmm, that kinda makes me wonder why I have him just 22nd, and it certainly has me wondering about that 28-spot.
Chalk it up to Clay being unexciting, fairly anonymous and playing in Buffalo. The Bills do employ a run-heavy scheme – okay, that’s an understatement, they were last in the league in pass attempts in 2016, and second-to-last the year before – but they have a new coaching staff, including an offensive coordinator, Rick Dennison, who has favored the pass at previous NFL stops.
In any event, when the Bills have thrown the ball over the past couple of seasons, they’ve looked for Clay, who led the team with 87 targets in 2016 (albeit with Sammy Watkins absent for half the season). Clay was third in targets in 2015, behind Watkins and Robert Woods, who is now a member of the Rams.
With Woods gone, Buffalo is looking for rookie Zay Jones to become an immediate starter, or else someone from among Andre Holmes, Rod Streater and Corey Brown will have to play that role (the team is also reportedly in discussions with Anquan Boldin, which wouldn’t be good news for Clay). The point is that there doesn’t appear to be much standing between Clay and another sizable target share, which is all we can ask of a TE2 and far more than we should expect from the 28th TE off the board.