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2016 tight end fantasy preview: Rob Gronkowski and everyone else

Rob Gronkowski has finished first or second among tight ends in fantasy points per game each of the past five seasons. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The challenge of fantasy football is never just about picking who you think are the right players, but also picking the right players at the right positions at the right times. After all, last year, you could have drafted Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Blake Bortles, but if you can start only one quarterback, what good do all those passers do for you?

When tasked with previewing the tight end position, I'd feel irresponsible if I didn't focus on the approach to tight ends in fantasy football rather than the players themselves. That's because, with one exception, the players are difficult to predict and nearly impossible to rely upon, and that helps fuel the strategy I employ in my leagues every year.

So let's get to that exception right away ...

The one you want

The position almost begins and ends with Rob Gronkowski, so allow me to share a mind-blowing stat about him.

Since 2001, there are 22 players with 60 or more receiving touchdowns. Of those 22, everyone on that list caught those touchdowns in 114 or more games, many in the neighborhood of 200 games. ... Everyone, but Gronk, that is. He has played in only 80 games.

I could go on all day, but there are better statistics that not only reveal how good Gronkowski is, but how much better he is than his peers.

Here's a look back over the past five years at how the position has turned out at the end of the season in terms of points per game, separating elite options (11-plus points per game) from the rest of the pack:

In other words, getting the best "non-Gronk" option means giving up at least two points per game, if not more. Further compounding the problem is the issue of actually figuring out the best "non-Gronk" tight end to draft, as it has varied from year to year. Eight different players have finished in the top three, along with Gronk, during the past five seasons, with only two repeating the feat.

Since 2011, Gronkowski has averaged 12.59 fantasy points per game. Other than Jimmy Graham, no other tight end who is still active in 2016 has averaged better than 7.63 during that span. In fact, the 12th-best tight end during this time frame, Jermichael Finley, has an average that's less than half of what Gronk possesses.

So while there are players who could possibly do something close to what Gronk does, no one has done it reliably, and picking that player in the neighborhood of his likely ADP is a risk you shouldn't be willing to take.

If Gronkowski is available for you late in the first round, he's a solid option as a WR1 you can start at TE. Otherwise, you should just wait and avoid chasing the "next Gronk." Because there is no "next Gronk."

The overpriced tier

I almost called this section "the ones you don't want," but clearly these players are talented and it's more about the price you'll have to pay to draft them. It's simply not worth it.

So who are the players others will view as the next Rob Gronkowski who are unlikely to take that throne this season?

Jordan Reed is candidate No. 1, and he's the only one I would even consider as a threat to Gronk's reign over the position. Reed is a special blend of size and speed that makes him a matchup nightmare, and he really broke out last season. After finishing his first two seasons with three touchdowns in 20 games, he found the end zone 11 times in 14 outings in 2015.

Reed was the beneficiary of a crazy spike in production from Kirk Cousins. If you believe that Cousins can continue to produce at a very high level, Reed could hang in there with Gronkowski if he remains healthy. That's a few more "ifs" than I'm willing to gamble on with such a high pick.

Greg Olsen entered this past season as the only veteran receiving threat of note for the Panthers, and delivered a season many would have expected given the lack of other options on that offense. He saw a career high in targets and found the end zone seven times, but most notably increased his yards per catch to just above 14, when it was previously hovering between 10 and 12. He's a consistent player, but the Panthers are due to regress a bit on offense and he's only getting older. There's no Gronk-like upside here.

Tyler Eifert was already a popular "buyer beware" player for fantasy analysts before his injury, and now that he could miss some of the regular season, he's even tougher to recommend in fantasy. He was always unlikely to catch touchdowns at the same rate in the season ahead, but now there are more reasons to worry. If his ailment causes him to drop out of this tier completely and become available in the late rounds, he has plenty of upside as a talented red zone target. Otherwise, he's another player you can't count on to keep up the pace and challenge Gronk for a mid-round price tag.

Delanie Walker, Travis Kelce, Gary Barnidge, Coby Fleener and Ladarius Green round out this tier of tight ends to avoid overpaying for; they all lack the upside to match Gronkowski but will likely find themselves among the middle rounds in fantasy drafts. These players are all likely to be drafted in the first eight rounds of ESPN standard leagues, and I'll be loading up on wideouts and running backs instead.

The best of the rest

So you didn't get Gronkowski. Maybe you picked second and rightly passed on Gronk for an elite wideout or running back, or you drafted 10th and he didn't fall to you. That's fine! You didn't lose just because you failed to get the best tight end in the world. Fantasy baseballers who missed out on Clayton Kershaw didn't automatically lose their leagues, either.

Zach Ertz, Antonio Gates and Zach Miller all represent solid options you might able to snag in the ninth round or later of fantasy drafts, and they come with varying reasons for optimism.

Ertz has always been a consistent player lacking in touchdown upside, but he'll play for a head coach who loves to feature the tight end.

Gates might be old and boring, but he's still the starter with a quarterback who knows him as well as anyone could from a football perspective. The Rivers-to-Gates touchdown connection isn't done yet.

Miller will assume starting duties in Chicago with Martellus Bennett gone, and he showed last season that he's capable of producing at a high level. If you're looking for the player most likely to break out like Barnidge did in 2015, it's Miller. You'll just have to pay a higher price.

Once you've passed on all of the players above, you've entered the realm of the streamer tight ends. This is the area of the draft in which you grab the player with a good set of matchups during the first few weeks of the season and prepare to drop him and pick up other players with excellent matchups as the season goes along.

Eric Ebron, Jason Witten, Dwayne Allen and Charles Clay are some of the notable names to watch this late in the draft. (See, it's not that bad to wait! Those are some good names!) Clive Walford, Hunter Henry and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are three youngsters who could break out and become household names at the position, making them worth a late pick just in case that breakout starts Week 1.