Written/ranked by Jim Ayello
1. Rob Gronkowski at Miami
Thanks to ESPN’s East Coast lean and Rob Gronkowski’s ... let’s call it charisma … the tight end’s greatness rarely goes unnoticed or underappreciated. However, it still astounds me that with his 1,158 yards and 11 scores, he now is the only tight end in league history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown seasons. He also is the only tight end to have now achieved the milestone three times in a career, surpassing Jimmy Graham who did it twice (2011, 2013). As for more recent history, Gronk has been his usual dominant self, going for at least 86 yards or a touchdown in four-straight games. He should be in line for a fifth such game against the Dolphins, a team that allowed him to haul in six catches for 113 yards and a score in their Week 8 matchup.
2. Greg Olsen vs. Tampa Bay
For whatever reason, Atlanta has Greg Olsen’s number. In his past two games against them (Dec. 13 and 27), he has just seven catches for 92 yards. Against everyone else, however, Olsen has been outstanding. He has picked up 70 yards or a touchdown in seven-straight non-Falcons contests. This week, he gets a Buccaneers defense that has surrendered the fifth-most catches to tight ends. Of course, Tampa Bay hasn’t allowed a tight end touchdown since Week 8, but because Cam Newton and co. likely are angry coming off of their first loss and want to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, I expect a big game from Olsen and the Panthers.
3. Gary Barnidge vs. Pittsburgh
Gary Barnidge is 33 yards and a touchdown away from joining Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham as the only tight ends this decade to record a 1,000-yard,10-touchdown season. And he’d be just the eighth different tight end in league history to join the exclusive list. He’ll have a good shot to do it against a Steelers defense that is No. 21 in yards and touchdowns allowed to tight ends and that conceded 65 yards and a score to him a little more than a month ago. … Keep an eye on the Johnny Manziel (concussion) situation. If he doesn’t play, feel free to drop Barnidge a few spots in these rankings.
4. Delanie Walker at Indianapolis
In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers made like Walter Donovan at the end of “Last Crusade” and chose poorly, deciding to let go of Delanie Walker and hang on to Vernon Davis. Since then, Walker has 208 catches, 2,455 yards and 16 touchdowns. And Davis? 116-1,490-15. Walker wins, especially this season. With 85 catches, he sits two ahead of Jordan Reed for the league-lead at the position and 10th among all players. He should have no issue hanging on to his title and leading your fantasy team in the final week of the season with a matchup against Indianapolis. The Colts allowed him to haul in seven catches in their first matchup and have yielded the eighth-most yards to tight ends this year.
5. Jordan Reed at Dallas
Head coach Jay Gruden acknowledged that with nothing left to play for — Washington is locked into the No. 4 seed in the NFC — he might consider resting some starters. Considering Reed’s long injury history and significance to the prosperity of the offense, I could see his snaps being limited. And combined with Dallas’ excellence against opposing tight ends — No. 1 in catches and yards allowed to the position; No. 6 in touchdowns surrendered — and Reed’s struggles against the Cowboys in their first go-around less than a month ago (3 catches, 33 yards), I just don’t see a big game on the horizon, no matter how dominant he’s been of late (333 yards, 5 touchdowns in his past three games).
6. Zach Ertz at New York Giants
While his teammates may be shedding crocodile tears after hearing of Chip Kelly’s demise, those steaming down the face of Zach Ertz will be genuine. No one was getting fed more in Kelly’s system than Ertz, whose 37 targets and 26 catches led all tight ends over the past three weeks. But alas, the Chip Kelly “revolution” (I’ll never forget, Rick Reilly) is over, and now we’ll have to wait and see what the brief Pat Shurmur era brings. My best guess? He won’t change much, and Ertz will get a chance to expose a Giants defense that has allowed the second-most catches and yards to tight ends and has surrendered scores to tight ends in back-to-back weeks.
7. Zach Miller vs. Detroit
Zach Miller has a great chance to be a top 5 play this week. Not only have the Lions surrendered more touchdowns to tight ends than any team in the league this year, but they’ve given up scores to the position in four of their past five games. Meanwhile, with Martellus Bennett and Alshon Jeffery on the IR, there’s ample reason to suspect Miller will be Jay Cutler’s No. 1 target — just as he was last week with a team-high eight targets.
8. Travis Kelce vs. Oakland
The Oakland secondary isn’t the Eden in once was for tight ends. The Raiders have not allowed a team’s top tight end to score since Week 7 and that includes a game against the Chiefs, where Travis Kelce caught just 2-of-3 targets for 42 yards. I expect a similar result in this one.
9. Antonio Gates at Denver
In these teams’ last meeting, Week 13, Gates hauled in a respectable six passes, but for just 50 yards in a 17-3 defeat. The just more than 8 yards per catch was three fewer than his season average and is easily explainable: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was under constant pressure — sacked four times, hit 12 times — and he was forced to check down more often than not. With San Diego’s offensive line still in shambles and Denver looking to clinch their division and a first-round bye, I see this game playing out in much the same way.
10. Julius Thomas at Houston
The Texans defense is an above-average unit against opposing tight ends, so Julius Thomas’ success will be determined by the Jacksonville game plan. If they plan to use him like they did against the Saints last week, which is to say hardly use him (2 catches for 12 yards on two targets), then obviously he’ll be useless to fantasy owners. However, if they decide to get him back him back in the mix and use him like they had the previous four weeks (5.1 catches, 66 yards per game and three touchdowns), which is what I think they’ll do, then he could be in for a decent day.
11. Austin Seferian-Jenkins at Carolina
The good news: Austin Seferian Jenkins has caught touchdowns in back-to-back games. The bad news: The most recent one was about a lucky as fluky gets; he caught a meaningless Hail Mary touchdown to end last week’s game against the Bears. Take that away, and in his past three games, he’s totaled 7 catches for 77 yards and one score. Meh. And now he faces one of the best defenses in football, motivated to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Needless to say, I’m not optimistic at about Seferian-Jenkins’ prospects.
12. Jason Witten vs. Washington
No doubt, it’s been a rough season for Jason Witten and his owners. He hasn’t scored since the season opener, and his current total of 655 receiving yards would be the second-lowest mark of his Hall of Famer career — he only had 347 yards in his rookie season. Alas, there is hope. Washington, which might be resting starters, just surrendered 13 catches and 122 yards to Zach Ertz last week. Meanwhile, Kellen Moore has to throw to someone, and with Dez Bryant landing on IR this week, Witten has the potential to turn in a solid performance.
13. Benjamin Watson at Atlanta
You would think because Benjamin Watson torched the Falcons in Week 6 for 10 catches, 127 yards and a touchdown that he’d be much higher up on this list. Well, he would be, except for the fact that he got out-snapped on offense by Michael Hoomanawanui 47-41 last week. In fact, he only played 53 percent of offensive snaps, a significant drop from the 90 percent he saw the week before. This tells me Watson’s knee injury is more serious than the team has let on, and is enough of a concern for me to downgrade him this week.
14. Will Tye vs. Philadelphia
Before Jordan Reed went bananas Sunday, no tight end had eclipsed 65 yards against the Eagles. No disrespect to Will Tye, but he’s no Jordan Reed.Th ough having Odell Beckham Jr. back in the fold should help — to be clear, I mean help Tye, not defensive backs looking to avoid cheap shots to the head — the Eagles still should be feared as one of the best at limiting tight ends.
15. Heath Miller at Cleveland
I’ve been burned by this matchup before. In the days leading up to Browns-Steelers game in Week 10, I was all aboard the Heath Miller hype train. He was only one game removed from a 100-yard day against the Bengals, and the Browns had just allowed five tight end scores the previous two weeks combined. I was sure Miller was a shoe-in for a big day. Instead, he rewarded my faith with a modest 4 catches for a measly 40 yards. Hence my hesitation this week. Well that and the fact that Miller hasn’t exceeded 66 yards since that Bengals game and hasn’t found pay dirt since Week 2.
Eric Ebron at Chicago
Lots of reasons to believe in Eric Ebron this week, lots of them. 1. The Lions offense is finally flourishing, piling up 67 points in its past two games. 2. Ebron is involved. He’s seen five targets in each of the past three games. 3. The Bears have given up the third-most yards to tight ends over the past three weeks, to go along with a couple of scores (yes, one was a fluky Hail Mary, but still). And 4. Lions backup tight end Tim Wright found the end zone in Ebron’s stead during these teams’ first matchup this season.