Rookie Tight End Sleepers

While updating the latest tight end rankings, there were several rookies that stood out. If you’re in a dynasty league, adding unknown rookies at the end of your draft can result in the next Dennis Pitta. And while such rookies as Tyler Eifert, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and Jordan Reed have already popped up on dynasty rankings, there’s several others that haven’t. Let’s take a look at a few that you may want to become familiar with before your dynasty draft.

  • Dion Sims (MIA) – At 6′ 5″ and 262 pounds, Sims has the prototypical build of a successful tight end. Brought it primarily as a blocker and backup to newly-signed Dustin Keller, Sims has nonetheless seen a lot of the field in OTA’s. Keller only played in eight games last year due to injuries so if history repeats itself, look for Sims to play even more snaps. Long-term, if Sims can evolve as a pass catcher, he can ride the wave that Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace are creating.
  • Vance McDonald (SF) – While carrying the same size as Sims (6′ 4″ / 267), McDonald actually has the opposite profile heading into his NFL career in that he was primarily a receiving tight end and rarely lined up in the three-point stance. Drafted in the 2nd round to take Delanie Walker’s role in the offense, he’s impressed the coaches and the quarterbacks so far with his catching ability. Of course, teams have yet to start making contact and the 49ers have yet to determine if McDonald can fulfill his primary duty of blocking so they can free up Vernon Davis. McDonald has entered into an ideal dynasty fantasy situation with a young franchise quarterback, a great team foundation that should be good for years to come and a tight end playing in front of him who will turn 30 next year with an expiring contract not long after.
  • Chris Gragg (BUF) – While Gragg is a tad shorter than either Sims or McDonald (6′ 3″), he was, without a doubt, the fastest of the bunch coming out of the draft after clocking a 4.5 40-time. Thanks to Scott Chandler still recovering from his ACL tear suffered at the end of last season, Gragg has been taking the first team snaps in OTA’s. Already, Coach Doug Marrone has mentioned using him vertically to create matchup problems with his combination of size and speed. I believe Gragg will have the earliest opportunity of these sleepers to contribute early. His dynasty prospects are even better as he’s playing behind Chandler, who not only turns 28 this year but has an expiring contract as well.
  • Luke Willson (SEA) – Perhaps the most physically impressive sleeper of the bunch, Willson stands at 6′ 5″ and 251 pounds with a 4.51 40-time. He’s also the biggest question mark after making only 78 catches in his entire collegiate career at Rice. Additionally, he spent his senior season missing six games to injury while backing up Vance McDonald (see above). But with incumbent Zach Miller coming off a torn plantar fascia in the playoffs and previously thought second stringer Anthony McCoy tearing his Achilles not long ago, the door is wide open for Willson to make an impression. In fact, he already has at rookie minicamp in May. Willson was able to get behind the defense, make tough catches, and find the end zone. Willson’s performance in training camp will be the sole factor in just how much he contributes early. For dynasty, he’ll have to outperform no less than three candidates for the starting job. But with no clear-cut leader, that may not be difficult.

Who’s the third best tight end in dynasty fantasy football?

Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are the two best tight ends in football. Fantasy football, real football, dynasty football, Madden football.

After those two, however, is a considerable debate. If you average together rankings from Pro Football Focus and Dynasty Warehouse you see a group of four players that are clearly ranked ahead of the pack: Kyle Rudolph, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis and Dennis Pitta (click here to see the whole list!). Let’s look at a couple different angles:

  • Age – Since you’re in a dynasty league there is a premium on age. Rudolph (24) would win that battle as he has four years on the next tight end in the group, Dennis Pitta (28), followed by VD (29) and Witten (31). However, youth also means inexperience and there is no guarantee that Rudolph will fulfill the lofty expectations he has. Personally, I need to see results before I’m convinced. Rudolph’s line of 53/493/9 is comparable to Rob Gronkowski (55/790/11). The only difference is Gronk did it in five fewer games. The lack of production may or may not be a result of Christian Ponder’s poor play but the bottom line is Ponder is back for another year which means Rudolph’s potential is limited.
  • Targets – Dennis Pitta broke out last year (as evidenced by me taking him in round 20 or later) to the tune of 61/669/11. Offseason reports indicate it’ll only get better. With the departure of Anquan Boldin and his 112 (!) targets, Joe Flacco is going to have to spread the ball around. Even, if you were to divvy up the targets evenly among the 11 players that caught a pass from Flacco in 2012, Pitta’s in line for 10 more targets and 6-7 more catches this year. However, that’s assuming defenses don’t pay more attention to Pitta which  they most certainly will. Additionally, without another receiver to take the heat off the middle of the field like Boldin did so well, linebackers are going to zero in on Pitta. I go back to my thoughts about Rudolph and want to see more before I’m convinced.
  • QB Upgrade – While Kyle Rudolph is still a year or two away from an upgrade,  Vernon Davis finally got one last year in Colin Kaepernick. Now, you could argue that VD performed well despite the lack of arm strength from Alex Smith. In fact, he was awesome: 2009-78/965/13; 2010-56/914/7; 2011-67/792/6. However, you also see a downward trend that coincides with Michael Crabtree’s rise: 2009-48/625/2; 2010-55/741/6; 2011-72/874/4. This all led to a 2012 that saw VD with 41 catches on 61 targets compared to Crabtree’s 85 catches on 126 targets. Things looked dire (fantasy-wise) for VD with the trade of Anquan Boldin but with Crabtree’s injury, we’re still back where we were last year. As a 49er fan, I hope the trend doesn’t continue but unless they make a concerted effort to get Davis the ball,  I just don’t see him getting back to 2009-2010 level.
  • Verdict – If I had to pick one out of this group to go with it’d be Jason Witten. Since his breakout, age-25-30 seasons started in 2007, he’s averaged 92/1018/5. Looking ahead, I think a fair comparison is Tony Gonzales (76/945/6 in his 25-30 years old seasons) , who’s still chugging along at age 37. Since turning 31, Gonzales has averaged ONLY 84/877/7. Hypothetically, this gives Witten five years of 84/877/7. And the fact that Tony Romo and his gun-slinging ways aren’t going anywhere, I think you the stability needed to continue a great career.