Is Evan Engram worthy of inclusion in top tier at tight end?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Engram is consistently the fourth tight end off the board in fantasy drafts, but there's a big gap between him and the top tier of Travis Kelce (14.8 ADP, $40.7 average auction value), Zach Ertz (27.0 ADP, $27.7 AAV) and George Kittle (29.1 ADP, $26.7 AAV). Engram's ADP of 53.4 and AAV of $7.9 lag well into the next tier, which includes O.J. Howard (65.7 ADP, $6.2 AAV) and Hunter Henry (68.5 ADP, $5.8 AAV). The general draft strategy for this season, with regard to tight ends, has been to either pick one of the top-three tight ends early or wait and draft a tight end much later on.

Is this an accurate valuation of Engram? Is he merely the best of the draft-me-later tight ends? Or should he, instead, be the fourth member of the top tier and thus a big value as a midround pick? Let's explore.

Engram was a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, and only four tight ends during the past decade produced more receiving yards during their first two NFL seasons than Engram's 1,299 (Kittle, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Aaron Hernandez). And this is despite Engram missing six full games during that stretch because of injury.

A closer look at the first two seasons of those four tight ends shows a distinct pattern of a solid rookie season (average 15 games played, 40.3 receptions, 495 yards) followed by a monster sophomore campaign (average 15.5 games played, 89 receptions, 1,231 yards). Engram's rookie season actually compared very favorably, as he grabbed 64 receptions for 722 yards in 15 games. However, his numbers regressed as a sophomore, as he notched only 45 catches for 577 yards in 11 games. What happened?

Two major factors: injuries and Odell Beckham Jr.

Engram fought injuries for much of the 2018 season, finally getting healthy for the final month. That month happened to coincide with Beckham sitting out. Here are Engram's splits from the first three months of the season with Beckham versus from the final month of the season without him:

First three months: 7 games, 23 receptions, 257 yards (3.3 receptions, 36.7 yards per game)
Final month: 4 games, 22 receptions, 320 yards (5.5 receptions, 80.0 yards per game)

While a month is a small sample size, it is worth nothing that Engram's healthy sophomore month sans Beckham had him on a 15.5-game pace of 85 receptions for 1,240 yards, much more in line with the 89 receptions and 1,231 yards over 15.5 games averaged by Kittle, Gronk, Graham and Hernandez as sophomores.

And I don't know if you heard, but the Giants traded Beckham to the Browns this offseason. This would have already been reason for optimism that Engram might be in line for a breakout, but then, immediately after camp opened, Corey Coleman tore his ACL, Sterling Shepard broke his thumb and Golden Tate was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's banned substance policy. The Giants responded to that sudden lack of wide receiver experience by signing unheralded free agents T.J. Jones and Amba Etta-Tawo instead of more-accomplished available options.

Suddenly, the Giants could possibly start the season with only one player on the roster besides Engram who produced more than 25 receptions last season. While Saquon Barkley is a good bet to build on his 91-reception rookie season, the Giants will absolutely have to rely on Engram as a primary receiver.

Even after Shepard and Tate return, the Giants will need a No. 1 downfield threat. Shepard and Tate have had most of their success in the slot and utilizing shiftiness to work underneath. The Giants used Engram primarily underneath last season as well, as his average target came 4.9 yards down the field per NFL Next Gen Stats (24th among tight ends with at least 30 targets).

However, Engram has freakish 4.42 speed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds that makes him either too fast or too big for most defenders to stay with on deeper routes. Giants coach Pat Shurmur has hinted that Engram could see more action on the outside, saying this week, "I think he's got wide receiver traits," and "we actually use him in a detached role, or what would appear to be a wide receiver role."

The biggest question mark for Engram entering this season seems to be his ability to stay healthy. As ESPN NFL Nation Giants reporter Jordan Raanan noted, the Giants were already managing Engram's workload on the second day of training camp. This after he sat out all 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills during June minicamp. Of course, while this does speak to Engram's injury risk, it also could be taken as a positive for Engram's potential that the team is doing all that it can to ensure that he remains healthy and primed for the upcoming season.

Engram's 2019 value

The Giants will enter the season with major receiving holes. The best person to fill those holes is already on the roster, a first-round pick from two years ago whose unique blend of size and speed make him an ideal downfield threat. Engram's production during his first two seasons compares favorably with the most productive tight ends in the NFL over the past decade, and he has demonstrated the ability to put up monster numbers when healthy and playing without the since-departed Beckham. Add in injuries and suspensions that have the Giants currently facing the start of the regular season without their top three wide receivers, and Engram looks poised for an explosive season if he can stay healthy.

While Kelce, Ertz and Kittle have the proven track record to support their status as an elite tier of their own, Engram absolutely has the upside to join that tier this season. And while I would take those big three tight ends over Engram straight up, in terms of draft value I'd rather have Engram in the sixth round than one of those others in the second. In fact, Engram might just be the best combination of value and upside at the tight end position in fantasy drafts this season.