Rob Gronkowski, TE (NE)
Every fantasy analyst will tell you that Gronk is the best tight end in the game and that he will likely put together another season that will build his pathway to Canton. They’ll also tell you that his injury history looks bleak. For instance, he has not played a full season of games since 2011. Gronkowski has actually missed 26 games over his eight-year NFL career, and he’s played just 21 games combined over the last two seasons.
Gronk has also been a dominant offensive force, scoring double-digit touchdowns in five of his eight seasons and more than 1,000 receiving yards in four of them. There is no doubt that Gronk can single-handedly garner a win for your fantasy team in any given week, but there is always a price to pay for that kind of production. First of all, to draft Gronk for your fantasy team you will need to spend, on average, an early second round pick. That easily makes him the most expensive tight end on the board with Travis Kelce (KC) the next highest, followed by Zach Ertz (PHI). Second, you will need to draft a second player who has the upside to replace Gronkowski’s production in the event he suffers an injury.
In the end, it comes down to a risk vs. reward assessment that measures your willingness to accept the risks inherent with drafting Gronkowski against the scoring potential he brings to your fantasy team. For me, it all comes down to a drafting philosophy for the early rounds of any draft. The first five or six rounds of any fantasy football draft are where you’re going to draft the core of your team. To win at fantasy football, one needs to maximize potential and minimize risk. While Gronk represents the peak at which one might expect TE production, he also carries much higher risk than other top tight ends. In other words, while the ceiling is incredibly high, the floor could also be intolerably low.
Jordan Reed, TE (WAS)
If there is any tight end in the NFL whose injury history is scarier than Rob Gronkowski’s, it has to be Jordan Reed. During his six years in the NFL, Reed has never played more than 14 games in a season, and he’s only played 52 out of a possible 80 games. Reed has only compiled more than 500 reception yards in a season twice and scored more than three touchdowns in a season twice.
Granted, the draft cost for Reed isn’t nearly as high as Gronk; you’ll generally find his Average Draft Position in the ninth round. However, while his ceiling appears fairly high, he’s produced closer to his floor over most of his six-year career. There are plenty of other tight ends with a similar or lower draft cost who will produce far better results.
Inside Injuries’ algorithm assigns Reed an Elevated Injury Risk because of his injury history, which includes at least five documented concussions and multiple hamstring injuries. Reed also had toe surgery during the offseason. So, despite Reed’s talent for pass-catching, his injury history and draft cost make him an unattractive draft target for 2018.
Tyler Eifert, TE (CIN)
If it feels like we’re singing the same song again, well, we are. Eifert is yet another TE with production concerns that are tied to a sketchy injury history. Eifert has undergone three back surgeries and he’s not expected to be at 100 percent health entering this season. During his five-year NFL career, Eifert has never played a full slate, and he’s only played 39 of a possible 60 games over that span. Eifert has one season in which he caught 13 TD passes, but he only caught a total of 7 TDs over the other four years, including two seasons with zero touchdowns. Finally, the presence of TE Tyler Kroft, who filled in quite well last year when Eifert’s season ended after just two games, makes it unwise to rely on Eifert as anything but a late-round flier.
Travis Kelce, TE (KC)
Kelce is arguably the best tight end in the game not named Gronk. His last two seasons have been excellent from a production and fantasy standpoint. Just a few highlights include 168 receptions for a total of 2,163 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even better, Kelce has been one of the more durable players in the NFL; he’s missed just one game during his four-year career. Right now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “how can Travis Kelce possibly be a TE to avoid?”
Kelce will be looking for his third consecutive season with 1,000-plus receiving yards, which would make him just the second tight end to do so. (The first was Greg Olsen. Gronk has not done three in a row.) However, he will have to accomplish this without Alex Smith, the quarterback who tossed Kelce his first two 1,000-yard seasons. Instead, second-year quarterback Pat Mahomes, who has thrown just 35 passes for 22 completions and 225 yards in the NFL, will be tossing the pigskin. In addition, the Chiefs added wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a good fit with Mahomes’ strong downfield arm. So, to put up the kind of season he has in the past and justify his late second round/early third round draft cost, Kelce will have to either reach that 1,000-yard plateau or put together a high touchdown total with a new QB in a revamped offense.
Offensive concerns aside, the one important injury Kelce suffered last season was a concussion. He didn’t lose consciousness, but it was bad enough that he had to sit out the final game of the season. Ultimately, we have a player with some injury concerns, but enough concern about statistical regression that I wouldn’t want to spend a high draft pick to acquire him. Let someone else get burned.
Charles Clay, TE (BUF)
To sell you on the idea of drafting Clay, fantasy analysts will jump all over the notion that rookie/young quarterbacks tend to rely on veteran tight ends as their safety net. Don’t buy into this false narrative; there is little or no statistical data to support it. The fact is, Clay will be catching passes from either fourth-year pro A.J. McCarron or rookie Josh Allen – and one of these two quarterbacks will be throwing to a shaky-at-best group of receivers.
In addition, the offense is now being led by new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. In his four years as an OC in the NFL, Daboll’s teams ranked 30th, 28th, 28th, and 29th in pass attempts. Last season the Bills ranked 31st in pass attempts. It should be fairly obvious that the passing game is not going to be a strength for the boys from Buffalo this year. But let’s keep piling on anyway. At least three-fifths of the Bills’ offensive line from last season are gone for one reason or another, so an almost all new group of linemen will be protecting their young, inexperienced quarterback. On top of all that, the team’s starting running back, LeSean McCoy, is facing a potential suspension for off-field legal problems, and the Bill’s depth at RB leaves plenty to be desired. I think it’s very safe to say that the entire Bills offense is beginning the 2018 campaign in disarray, and the skill players of this offense are going to be at a significant disadvantage.
Once again, though, Clay is a tight end who hasn’t played a full slate of games since 2013. He’s missed a total of nine games over the last four seasons. Admittedly, that’s not anywhere near as awful as some of the other players on this list. However, at age 29, Clay is older than most of them and he did have knee surgery during last season. Let’s check the boxes together: inexperienced QBs, check; shaky receiver group, check; dubious offensive coordinator, check; inexperienced offensive line, check; best RB facing suspension, check; older TE with injury history, check. Run away quickly and draft someone else. Check!
*By Tim McCullough