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Fantasy Football: Which TEs will rise up to top-12 status for first time in 2017?

August 8, 2017

The struggle is real. Just as actual clubs scour endlessly for the increasingly rare two-way tight end in today’s NFL, many fantasy players covet a difference-maker that won’t cost them a premium pick (Travis Kelce), sleepless nights (Tyler Eifert) or both (Gronk, Reed).

The good news is the TE1 class, though not turned over as frequently as RB1s and WR1s, has seen an average of four newcomers annually since 2007 and at least three have made their debuts in the top 12 of positional scoring in nine of the past 10 years.

The bad news: unlike Jordan Reed, Cameron Brate and Hunter Henry were fantasy mostly fantasy afterthoughts at this time last year. Two seasons ago it was similarly unpredictable that Gary Barnidge and Benjamin Watson would go from journeymen to just grown ass men in the fantasy world (spoiler: it didn’t last).

The following are our top 7 candidates to enter the TE1-sphere for the first time in 2017, ranked from most to least likely.

1. Jack Doyle, Colts — His ranking is accompanied by the same caveat as Donte Moncrief’s in our WR piece: Doyle obviously needs Luck on his side to reach his ceiling, but Moncrief’s durability issues have also helped Doyle’s fantasy production; 3 of his 5 TDs and highest yardage totals came last season with Moncrief sidelined. Doyle’s new deal, which preceded Dwayne Allen’s departure, suggests the Colts eye an expanded role after he was TE13 overall despite making just two starts and playing roughly 67 percent of the time on offense.

2. Dwayne Allen, Patriots — Allen could be poised to become the latest castoff-turned-Patriots commodity; think along the lines of Martellus Bennett, who was TE7 in 2016. Gronk is healthy — for now — but it’s expected Bill Belichick could preserve his future Hall of Famer more in the regular season by leaning on the younger Allen, assuming he can maintain the momentum of a strong camp and fresh start. Allen hasn’t played 16 games since his rookie season, when he went 45-521-3 receiving, but he’ll bring another red zone threat to the the Pats’ overcrowded table. Of course, Allen, still just 27, is one Gronk injury away from the best fantasy situation (if it isn’t already) of his career.

3. Lance Kendricks, Packers — It remains to be seen how exactly Mike McCarthy deploys Bennett and Kendricks, but he’s repeatedly referenced having a tight end who can tussle inside for the first time in years. That’s Bennett, not Kendricks, whom the Packers likely view as a more athletic seam and RAC option than Richard Rodgers, who, lest we forget, was TE9 overall two short years ago. Kendricks caught 50 balls last year in the Rams’ outdated attack. He’s durable and can add yet another dimension to the Packers. There are sleeper elements here for sure.

4. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jets — Tough to say which would be the bigger stunner: ASJ finding redemption with the Jets or a Jets tight end being relevant in fantasy for the first time this decade. ASJ consistently turned heads in the offseason, prior to Eric Decker’s release and, just Monday, No. 1 wideout Quincy Enunwa’s season-ending neck injury. The Jets’ top three wideouts currently, combined, have nine starts, 61 catches, 773 yards and two scores. None have ASJ’s size or pedigree, never mind as much to prove. Whether it’s TE-loving Josh McCown, who worked with the then-second-round rookie in Tampa, or Christian Hackenberg, they’re going to need [insert your own joke here], but also a safety valve.

5. Austin Hooper, Falcons — Hooper caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl and showed he could handle more responsibility as a rookie after Jacob Tamme’s injury. Atlanta has a lot of mouths to feed, of course, but with Tamme out of the equation and no notable adds to the tight end room, Hooper will get receive every opportunity to become another weapon for Matt Ryan and beneficiary of playing in an offense with too many studs for which to account. Combine his and Tamme’s 2016 production —41-481-6 — and it’s fringe TE1 production. Sounds easy, at least.

6. David Njoku, Browns — Our first listed rookie, Njoku should quickly benefit from his special size and explosion near the goal line, where he was dominant at Miami last season and can spend less time worrying about tight end nuances and just be an athlete. Cleveland’s lack of proven playmakers in the passing game should also help Njoku, but we’re less confident in his likelihood of consistently producing between the twenties — which he’ll obviously need to do some to truly ascend.

7. O.J. Howard, Buccaneers — If you’re even a remotely serious fantasy player (hopefully not too serious), you likely know rookie tight ends are usually fantasy fool’s gold. So why do I have two in a row listed? In part because I couldn’t rationalize having Higbee without Howard, to be honest. The latter is obviously a greater talent, prospect and lands in an immensely superior fantasy environment. He’s also going to be the clear No. 2 in the receiving game to Cameron Brate, but an injury to Brate and/or Mike Evans and Howard’s size and speed will be needed sooner than expected.

8. Tyler Higbee, Rams — If nothing else, going from Jeff Fisher and Rob Boras to Sean McVay is a huge boon for Higbee. McVay was a TE wizard in Washington,and although he and Les Snead spent their first pick on Gerald Everett, Higbee was declared the starter to begin camp. Now, McVay will use two frequently like in Washington, but a year into things, even after catching just 11 passes last season, it’s the bigger, more experienced Higbee with the more likely path to fantasy success.

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