1. Rob Gronkowski @ PIT
Hell yes! All of you who drafted Brady and Gronk can watch them take out their aggression on the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, Gronk was so excited, he bought a loaded Mercedes AMG S63 last week. He’s ready to deflate the balls of male fantasy owners across the country and drive around in his luxury vehicle afterwards. Tom Brady’s return will only cause Gronkowski’s numbers to platoon even higher than anticipated. Last season, Gronk missed just one game and solidified himself as the clear-cut number one target in the New England offense.
Brady threw towards Gronk on double digit occasions in eight of his fifteen appearances. Within that period, Gronkowski caught at least one touchdown in ten of those contests. Last season, the Steelers allowed six scores to opposing tight ends, three of which came over the final four weeks. The Steelers have a very young and unproven group of defensive players that are mixed with a few nursing home candidates. That’s never a good recipe for a team that is trying to stop a potent offensive squad like the New England Patriots. This has the makings of a redemption game for the Patriots and that’s great news for Gronk owners.
2. Greg Olsen @ JAC
Greg Olsen is like a smooth bottle of soda that rolls straight down your throat. It always tastes consistently good and gets the job done. In each of the last three seasons, Greg Olsen has been targeted over 100 times. Not to mention, he posted the best statistical output of his eight-year career. He corralled over 1,000 yards of receiving and notched 84 receptions last season. What’s more, Olsen has finished among the top-six fantasy tight ends in catches over the last three seasons.
With 25% of Carolina’s total red zone targets going in Greg Olsen’s direction, he is single-handedly one of the most consistent tight ends in fantasy football. The loss of Kelvin Benjamin leaves the Panthers offense with unproven weapons, which will increase the production of Olsen in the Carolina system. In 2014, the Jags allowed a tenth-most 865 yards to opposing tight ends. Jacksonville tried to bolster their defense, but Dante Fowler Jr. will miss the season after blowing out his ACL. That alone certainly won’t help them improve their ability to cover tight ends in 2015.
3. Martellus Bennett vs. GB
In 2014, only Rob Gronkowski was targeted more than Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. Bennett was extremely productive in a Chicago offense that had the third-best touchdown conversion percentage (63%) in the red zone. What’s more, five of Bennett’s six scores came inside the 20-yard line last year. Again this season, much of the same production will be expected from Martellus Bennett.
Kevin White’s iron leg surgery leaves the Bears with limited offensive weapons and forces quarterback Jay Cutler to use Bennett and Alshon Jeffery as his primary targets. John Fox and the new coaching staff are historically fond of creatively using tight ends in the offense and that will only maximize Bennett’s production. Last year, Green Bay’s defense allowed the fewest amount of tight ends scores. However, they surrendered a ninth-most 883 receiving yards. Clay Matthews hasn’t been healthy and young players like Nate Palmer and Sam Barrington will be tested early by an offense that features the tight end prominently.
4. Jimmy Graham @ STL
Jimmy Graham is like the guy who is dumped in a long-standing relationship, but hopes he can find a better woman for the future. The Saints might have been the sexy chick, but the Seahawks girl has the potential to be just as desirable. Jimmy Graham couldn’t stay healthy last season and it really left a sour taste in the mouth of many. He still managed to haul in 10 touchdowns, but his total yardage drastically decreased. After snatching six 100-yard performances in 2013, he had just one last year.
Now, Graham must find his role in Seattle’s historically run-heavy offense. The Seahawks coaches will surely adapt their system to utilize Graham’s talents, but there could be a slight decline in Graham’s total volume. His first appearance will be a test as he squares off with a St. Louis defense that allowed the third-fewest touchdowns to opposing tight ends. During his time in Seattle, Russell Wilson has never had a weapon with Graham’s pedigree. The Seahawks still completed passes for touchdowns in the red zone at a 50% clip last year. With Graham in the offense, that percentage could easily increase to a top-tier level in 2015. Until then, Jimmy Graham’s relationship status will be listed as ‘complicated.’
5. Travis Kelce @ HOU
Do you want to learn how to drop obscene gestures on your fantasy opponents every week? First off, watch last year’s video of Travis Kelce’s giving a referee the business and start him in your lineup. Sounds simple, huh? Well, I think it’s gotten much easier to love Travis Kelce this season. With Anthony Fasano now in Tennessee, Travis Kelce will no longer be splitting snaps with another tight end.
While reps were divided with Fasano, Kelce still finished in the top-15 among tight ends in both targets (87) and total touchdowns (5). Three of those five scores came inside the 20-yard line and he was primarily used in the red zone. This is the first time he will be used as an every down tight end in this system. Houston allowed the fourth-fewest tight end scores, but their opponent matchups were weak in every contest. Frankly, the Texans never saw any top-tier caliber tight ends in 2014. This could be the perfect time for Kelce to make a statement across the league.
6. Jordan Cameron @ WAS
Jordan Cameron left all of Johnny’s Manziel’s dollar bills on the floor and signed with the Dolphins this offseason. Last year, he was injured frequently and played in just 10 games. He left the Browns’ burning dumpster quarterback situation and will hopefully have consistent production with Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins quietly have some nice pieces on offense and with DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry at wide receiver, Cameron won’t need to be the main threat. Coaches in Miami have made it clear they signed Cameron to improve a red zone offense that scored inside the 20-yard line at a 47% clip in 2014.
If he can stay healthy, Cameron is the perfect candidate to fill that role. The Dolphins lost Charles Clay in free agency and Cameron will be taking all those snaps. Washington was atrocious against the tight ends last year and allowed a third-most 11 touchdowns. The same theme has been reoccurring in the preseason and it appears it could be another long season for the Redskins defense.
7. Delanie Walker @ TB
Delanie Walker has played a pivotal role in the Titan’s offensive scheme in each of the last two seasons. Walker notched a fifth-most 106 targets in an unstable quarterback situation. He has never been much of a downfield threat, but hauled in double-digit catches on throws of 20 yards or more. He is making progress in this avenue and will continue to accumulate excellent yardage, along with a consistent amount of receptions. Not to mention, he doubled his total yards after the catch, from 183 to 355 last year.
What’s more, he started to make bigger plays and averaged 14.1 yards per catch in 2014. The Titans retooled their offense and added Marcus Mariota at quarterback, which should aid Walker’s performance even more. Last year, the Bucs defense allowed a fifth-most 932 yards to opposing tight ends. Tampa Bay might start two rookies at linebacker and their defense has been in flux at many key positions this preseason.
8. Tyler Eifert @ OAK
Tyler Eifert has the chance to take a nice step in the Bengals offensive scheme. The problem is, Andy Dalton will be throwing passes his way. The Ginger Hammer looked terrible in the preseason and is notorious for being extremely inconsistent at quarterback. The Bengals have plenty of weapons in the passing game, but they let Jermaine Gresham walk this offseason. That means Eifert will be seeing all of the work as the feature tight end in the Bengals offense.
The most important part of his game will be whether he can stay healthy, but we know he will be in week one. More importantly, the Raiders allowed a fifth-most ten touchdowns to opposing tight ends last season. The Bengals are extremely productive in the red zone and scored touchdowns inside the 20-yard line at a 60% clip last year. That’s good news for an athletic specimen like Tyler Eifert.
9. Larry Donnell @ DAL
I think Larry Donnell’s poor production at the end of the season with related to dumping DirecTV. That’s a damn good way to get on Eli Manning’s nerves. Larry Donnell emerged last season and hauled in the sixth-most touchdowns among tight ends. All of those scores came in the red zone and he seemed to be Eli Manning’s favorite target inside the 20-yard line. However, Donnell failed to score in each of his final six contests and cracked 50 yards receiving just once during that stretch. Donnell battled injuries near the end of the season and the Giants frankly don’t have any other options at tight end.
Dallas is notoriously poor against the tight end and only one team allowed more yardage to opposing pass catchers than the Cowboys last year. Donnell accounted for 20% of the Giants targets in the red zone and New York had the eighth-best scoring percentage in those situations.
10. Owen Daniels vs. BAL
Julius Thomas hit the road in free agency and that means there is a new man in town for Peyton Manning. Guess who came riding down Mile High on his horse? The one and only Owen Daniels. Daniels followed Gary Kubiak to Denver and will likely possess a similar role in the offensive scheme. He notched 50 yards receiving or more in six of his appearances last year. His production is sure to increase with a high caliber quarterback who is capable of throwing a significant amount of touchdowns.
Even in the lowest-producing tight end year of the last five in a Peyton Manning offense, Jacob Tamme managed to see 85 targets in 2012. That’s good news for Owen Daniels. What’s more, Baltimore allowed three touchdowns to opposing tight ends over the final six games. There simply is never a year where Peyton Manning hasn’t utilized tight ends on a frequent basis.
11. Jason Witten vs. NYG
Last year, Jason Witten posted the lowest statistical output of his 12-year career. With a heavy emphasis being placed on the running game, the Dallas offense evolved. After notching the third-highest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL in 2013, the Cowboys offense had the third-lowest pass-to-run number (48.4%) in the 2014. That really hurt Jason Witten’s involvement in the overall offensive game plan.
However, Demarco Murray left for Philadelphia and the Cowboys running game is more unstable this year. Only ten other tight ends were targeted more than Witten last year and that number is sure to increase when the Cowboys offense becomes more evenly distributed this season. Three of his five scores came inside the red zone and that poses more opportunities for him in an offense that posted the second-highest red zone scoring percentage in the league last season. What’s more, the Giants allowed a fifth-most nine touchdowns to opposing tight ends last year.
12. Josh Hill @ ARZ
Last year, Josh Hill was the red zone whisperer for Drew Brees. He was targeted just 20 times, but managed to score five touchdowns. When Jimmy Graham was injured, Hill took the majority of the snaps. In just seven career receptions within the opponent's 10-yard line, five have ended with touchdowns for Hill. The Saints offense is slowly evolving to a more balanced attack, which means the passing game will open significantly.
In 2014, New Orleans ran the ball more than any of the last three seasons. With that being said, the total amount of tight end receptions rose from 22% to 26%. Someone needs to handle the 77 receptions and 119 targets per season the Saints will lose from Graham. It’s hard to imagine that at least part of these won’t be thrown in Josh Hill’s direction. Not to mention, no team allowed more yardage (1,051) to opposing tight ends than the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona has been notoriously poor against the tight ends in each of the last three seasons, while being worst in nearly every possible category.
13. Kyle Rudolph @ SF
Kyle Rudolph is like an expensive piece of china that fell off a display at the museum. It was so valuable, but the damn thing shattered into a million pieces. Out of the 64 games in his career, Rudolph has been active for just 48 of them. He claims these durability concerns are behind him, and if they are, he has the chance to be special in Norv Turner’s offensive system.
This seems like a broken record, but this year has to be the one where Rudolph earns the contract he was awarded. In the training camp and preseason Rudolph was heavily involved in the offensive plans. Last year, he cracked 50 receiving yards or more in three of his seven total contests. Teddy Bridgewater has been raving about how much Kyle has improved this offseason and has frequently indicated this will be the year he plays a big role in the offense. The 49ers linebacker room is depleted and Ahmad Brooks hasn’t been with the team very much. They are starting unproven players at this position and Norv Turner will definitely be looking to exploit this weakness.
14. Dwayne Allen @ BUF
The Colts offense has the chance to be very explosive this season. I think a return to the Air Coryell offensive scheme will have a distinct impact not only on the Colts offense, but the tight ends specifically. When Dwayne Allen was healthy, he managed to put up some pretty respectable numbers. Despite missing five games in the middle of the season, he managed to finish the year with a fourth-most eight touchdowns.
He is the best overall tight end on the Colts roster and Andrew Luck will be using him frequently as a safety valve when he stretches the field. The Bills have a rather stout defense and surrendered the fewest opposing tight end touchdowns in the league last season. However, they will have their hands full with a plethora of weapons on the Colts offense. That opens the door for Allen to be targeted frequently.
15. Ladarius Green vs DET
Sometimes you are unable to mask your pee and you must except the consequences. Damn, I hate it when that happens. The Chargers will be without Antonio Gates for the start of the season, which means Ladarius Green will be seeing all of his snaps. Gates shared the league lead with tight end touchdowns (12) and was an integral part of the Chargers offense. Now, Green will need to fill the void until he returns from his four game suspension.
Green is very capable and actually shined during Gates’ injury absence in 2013. He averaged 22.1 yard per-catch and was helping the San Diego offense stretch the field. Green battled injuries last year, but has been dropping jaws at Chargers camp with his speed and playmaking abilities. Detroit allowed 50+ yard performances from tight ends in each of the final two of the final four games last season. They specifically have struggled with tight ends who have good size and speed.
Richard Rodgers @ CHI
DAMNNNN, look at these pretty streamers that Charch and I have presented to Richard Rodgers! Every week, I really want to send a case of Grain Belt to the winner of this award and I’m sure we can arrange that. With Jordy Nelson out, much of the workload will be shifted towards other playmakers on the Packers offense. All the attention is being fixated towards Davante Adams and Jeff Janis, but Richard Rodgers should be garnering more interest. Rodgers seen more targets than Andrew Quarless over the final seven games of 2014 and it’s been clear he will see the vast majority of snaps in 2015. Richard Rodgers' catch rate was 75% last year and he was more sure-handed than Quarless in the passing game.
Nonetheless, no Packers tight end has had over 60 targets in a season since Jermichael Finley in 2012. However, Rodgers will be one of A-Rod’s favorites targets in the red zone. Just one team surrendered more tight end touchdowns than the Chicago Bears defense and they did nothing in the offseason to improve this statistic.