Words by Jonnie Carlyle; Rankings by Paul Charchian
1. Rob Gronkowski vs. Miami
He’s got more receiving yards than Odell Beckham, twice the touchdowns of AJ Green and more plays of 20+ yards than DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, TY Hilton, Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson. He likes to take his shirt off when he dances and oh yeah, leads the position in targets, yards and touchdowns despite only playing six games. He’s Rob Gronkowski and he’s here to party. Shockingly, the Dolphins have actually held the position to zero catches in three of their six games but look a bit deeper and it all makes sense. Jeff Cumberland, Marcedes Lewis and Garrett Graham have less talent combined than the shards of broken bone that had to be cleaned out of Gronkowski’s surgically repaired right arm. In Miami’s other three games, they gave up an average of 84 yards with tight ends catching a whopping 71 percent of their targets and a touchdown in two of three.
2. Tyler Eifert at Pittsburgh
Playing Dr. Frankenstein to Andy Dalton’s ‘Monster’, Tyler Eifert instilled life into what had become a hopeless situation in Cincinnati. Okay, so maybe that’s being a bit harsh on the ‘Red Rifle’, but there’s no debating the massive impact Eifert’s return has had on Dalton’s ascension into fantasy quarterback royalty. The third-year tight end has had at least 69 yards receiving and/or a touchdown in every week but one, with that lone outlier including what should have been another touchdown for Eifert without the wacky NFL catch rules. He has as many red zone targets as AJ Green, with more catches inside the 20-yard line than Green and is one of two tight ends to turn all those catches into touchdowns. Pittsburgh has been one of the NFL’s worst teams at defending the tight end, allowing the 2nd most touchdowns and catches and the 4th most yards. Facing tight ends of similar talent, the Steelers have given up a combined 19-259-5 to the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates and Travis Kelce.
3. Greg Olsen at Indianapolis
I don’t know how he’s doing it given the ragtag group of pass catchers around him, but it would appear Greg Olsen has somehow managed to don some sort invisible cloak as opposing defenses have yet to find an answer for the Panther tight end. Olsen has more receiving yards through six games than he did in his career-best (and 2nd amongst all tight ends) 2014 campaign and has at least 65 yards and/or a touchdown in five of six. Olsen has accounted for at least 21% of the targets in every game but one (at least 31% in 3 of 6) and only trails Rob Gronkowski in plays of at least 20 yards. The Colts have given up touchdowns in consecutive weeks and have given up an average of 86 yards to the position when not facing the Jets or the Texans (32nd and 31st ranked teams in receiving yards, respectively). Maybe the Colts have the answer to the Olsen riddle, but I wouldn’t hold my breath given the way they approached the fake punt conundrum.
4. Gary Barnidge vs. Arizona
Anytime I am witnessing something that makes me think, ‘This can’t be real, right’ I just remind myself not only did Hollywood green light “Weekend at Bernie’s” but they made a “Weekend at Bernie’s 2” and suddenly that thing doesn’t seemed so far fetched. Gary “Big Play” Barnidge is for real and he’s here to stay. He has at least 100 yards and/or a touchdown in five straight games, Barnidge has any many plays of at least 20 yards as Travis Benjamin and has more receiving yards in the last five weeks than any other tight end. Arizona will undoubtedly be his toughest matchup to date, but since exploding in Week 3 Barnidge has been the most productive tight end faced for his opponents in four of five games and is only one of two tight ends the Ravens have allowed to surpass 15 yards receiving. In fact, Barnidge had more yards in Week 5 against Baltimore than they’ve given up to all other tight ends combined. Owners should keep an eye on Josh McCown this week, however, and temper their Big Play expectations if his shoulder issue prevents him from playing.
5. Martellus Bennett vs. Minnesota
I know you probably can’t tell from the look on Jay Cutler’s sad, droopy face, but it’s quite evident the only thing Cutler loves more than Martellus Bennett is the insulin that keeps the quarterback (semi) alive. Bennett has collected at least 7 targets in Cutler’s five starts and has three straight of at least 11 targets (total of 35), which is the most any tight end has had in a three-game stretch all season. Not surprisingly, Bennett has produced when collecting double-digit targets, with at least 90 yards and/or a touchdown in 66% of games with at least 10 looks since 2013. The Vikings have seemingly struggled with the position all season, allowing at least 88 yards receiving and/or a touchdown in four of their last five and outright forgetting to cover Eric Ebron on more than one occasion last week.
6. Travis Kelce vs. Detroit
In this week’s “there’s no way this guy should be this far down the list based on talent” spot in the rankings we have man-beast Travis Kelce. Yeah Kelce is stuck with a neutered quarterback, but that hasn’t prevented him from posting the 2nd most catches and 3rd most yards despite only receiving the 6th most targets. Only Danny Woodhead and Mark Ingram have more yards after the catch with Kelce being one of only two tight ends inside the top-30 for all pass catchers. He leads his team in red zone targets and yet, I think we all could agree he deserves about a billion more than the 7 he currently has. The Lions just may be the cure for Kelce’s red zone blues, however, as they’ve given up the 3rd most touchdowns to the position with tight ends finding the end zone in five of seven games. Opposing tight ends have 10 targets inside Detroit’s 20-yard line, with the Lions allowing a touchdown on half of them.
7. Ladarius Green at Baltimore
Sure he’s not Antonio Gates, but given the fact Philip Rivers is throwing the ball every time his wife goes into labor with a new child I am not sure Ladarius Green owners have much to complain about. Green has played in four games without Gates on the field, and scored a touchdown in three of them, but truth be told his numbers don’t look much different even with Gates playing.
With Gates: 4-42.5-.5 on an average of 4.5 targets per game
Without Gates: 4.5-54.5-.75 on an average of 6.75 targets per game
Green only has one less red zone target than team-leader Keenan Allen, but has played in one less game and is still the team leader in touchdowns. Baltimore has been brutal to opposing tight ends, but of the three they’ve faced that have received five or more targets, two have at least 62 yards receiving. Without Gates on the field, Green has yet to receive fewer than six targets and that’s likely to be the case (no Gates) on Sunday.
8. Eric Ebron at Kansas City
Probably the only Lion bummed to see a chunk of the offensive coaching staff receive their walking papers, Eric Ebron has been arguably the most consistent player production-wise not named Calvin Johnson in Detroit. He has had at least five targets and at least 61 yards receiving and/or a touchdown in every game he’s been able to finish and turned all three red zone looks into touchdowns. Expectations should be tempered, however, as Ebron draws a Kansas City defense that’s held 11 of 13 tight ends faced in 2015 below 20 yards, the fewest catches despite playing seven games and allowed just two touchdowns since Week 12 of 2014.
9. Ben Watson vs. New York Giants
Apparently Jimmy Graham’s not the only tight with New Orleans ties as to think it’s 2010 as Ben Watson is suddenly a semi (and I use that term quite loosely) useful tight end. In the last three weeks he has more yards than Travis Kelce, more catches than Ladarius Green and as many touchdowns than Rob Gronkowski. And oh yeah, more yards, catches and touchdowns than the aforementioned Graham. Though Watson amassed the majority of those in a giant Thursday night matchup against the Falcons two weeks ago, he still had at least 59 yards receiving and/or a touchdown sandwiched around that game. Watson also has four times the red zone targets Marques Colston does (yikes, how far has that guy fallen?) and more plays of 20+ yards than Brandin Cooks. HA! The Giants have been forced to roll out the terrible Brandon Meriweather at safety, which has likely been a large part as to why New York is one of the worst defenses against the position. No team has allowed more catches, only two have allowed more yards and they are the only team in the history of the league to surrender a touchdown to some guy named Garrett Celek.
10. Heath Miller vs. Cincinnati
It’s been a tough go for pass catchers in the Steel City since Big Ben went down, but such is the life when you have Mike Vick not throwing the ball in anyone’s general vicinity for weeks at a time. Thankfully, the doughboy is back slinging balls all over the place and though the line at the soup kitchen is long, Miller is sure to get his. Going back to Week 11 of the 2014 season, Heeeeaaaaattttthhhhh has had at least 68 yards and/or a touchdown in eight of nine games (with Roethlisberger at quarterback), averaging over 7 targets a game and a hair under 5 catches. Miller dominated the red zone looks in all three of Roethlisberger’s starts in 2015 too, gathering 10 targets to Antonio Brown’s 3. The Bengals are one of two teams yet to allow a touchdown to the position, but are giving up an average of 9-74 in their last five and have yet to face anything remotely as prolific through the air as the Steelers.
11. Jimmy Graham at Dallas
So maybe all that talk over the summer about Jimmy Graham staying in to block 75% of the time had a ring of truth to it. That’d certainly help explain some things; like why Graham has been abysmal in four of seven and why the blocking for Russell Wilson has been part turnstile, part Swiss cheese. Graham looks and moves like a wide receiver, and he tends to block like one too. He’s on pace for his worst statistical performance since his rookie season, in which he only started five games and faces a Dallas defense that has held every tight end not named Rob Gronkowski to no more than four catches and 33 yards. Coincidentally, one of the guys pegged to replace Graham in New Orleans (Josh Hill) is the only tight end to reach the end zone against the Cowboys. That doesn’t bode well for Graham, who’s yet to receive more one target in the red zone since opening weekend and twice has received none.
12. Delanie Walker at Houston
I know there is plenty of hubbub about the potential return of Marcus Mariota, but I am sure if you ask Delanie Walker he couldn’t care less who’s throwing him the ball. He’s played with four different quarterbacks since the beginning of 2014 and he’s been the preferred target of all of them. Despite missing Week 2, Walker leads the team in catches, red zone catches and is second in targets with one fewer than Kendall Wright. He hasn’t reached the end zone since Week 1, but that’s likely the byproduct of an offense that only has three total touchdowns in their last three games. If there is any cure for an ailing offense, it may be the surprisingly sieve-like Texans. They’ve surrendered at least 27 points in four games and given up league-high 16 touchdowns through the air with competent tight ends Travis Kelce and Greg Olsen combining for 12-176-2.
13. Jason Witten vs. Seattle
Do tight ends that move like a tortoise with four bad legs and have an incredibly predictable stat line interest you? Well, then I have just the guy for you. Jason Witten doesn’t so much as run his routes as he briskly walks them and to the tune of 4-8 catches on 6-9 targets. That’s been the Witten spectrum in his last 10 games, with only one game of more than 73 receiving yards and one less than 33. Touchdowns seem completely out of the question too, as he’s only caught one red zone pass on three targets since Tony Romo went down in Week 2. Seattle has been downright putrid against tight ends all year, but without the red zone looks or the athleticism of a Greg Olsen and Tyler Eifert (who’ve accounted for 40% of the Seattle yards allowed); Witten in Week 8 is likely to look very similar to Witten in any other week. There’s also the possibility Dez Bryant returns on Sunday and if you’re Matt Cassell who are you more likely to repeatedly throw the ball to?
14. Larry Donnell at New Orleans
Some might call him the David Tyree of tight ends. Others have been known to refer to him as the Rashad Jennings/Andre Williams of tight ends. Either way, it ain’t good. Though he’s received at least four targets in every game and at least three catches, Donnell has yet to rack up more than 38 receiving yards in any game. Clearly he makes his hay in the red zone, but after a 2014 campaign where he converted 50% of his catches Donnell has only converted 25% in 2015. Though the Saints haven’t been very good at stopping tight ends, they have been markedly stout inside the Superdome. Tight ends have averaged just 4-47 and none have reached the end zone.
15. Kyle Rudolph at Chicago
Just like the red-nosed reindeer he’s named after, Kyle Rudolph has really only done one thing well in 2015 but thankfully he’s done it well enough to maintain some semblance of relevance. Despite just two catches in four straight and no more than 14 yards in any of those four, he’s managed to reach the end zone in in back-to-back games and three of his last five. Content to keep things conservative and hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson, the Vikings are one of just four teams to run more than they throw and that’s drastically limited Rudolph’s opportunities. A trip to the Windy City with a healthy and formidable Bear offense may force the Vikings to open things up, but Rudolph’s best bet is still likely reaching the end zone. Chicago is the only team to have surrendered fewer than 200 yards to the position along with giving up the fewest catches.
Crockett Gilmore vs. San Diego
Owned in only 25% of leagues, Crockett Gilmore has the 2nd most targets on the Ravens in the last two weeks and has at least three catches in four of the five games he’s played. He hasn’t scored since Week 2, but Gilmore has twice taken the Ravens inside the opponent’s seven-yard line in the last two weeks. The Chargers are a mess everywhere, allowing touchdowns in four of seven contests despite surrendering the 11th fewest catches and facing just two top-10 tight ends. San Diego could also be without star free safety Eric Weddle for a second straight game.