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Tiered fantasy TE rankings: Trey Burton a strong breakout pick

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Chicago Bears tight end Trey Burton is a potential breakout candidate at the position. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Matt Harmon’s 2018 fantasy football position tiers
Quarterback tiers.
Running back tiers.
Wide receiver tiers.
Tight end tiers.
Live cheat sheet for tiers.

In my view, fantasy rankings are taking a linear thought process into an inherently fluid decision-making exercise. I often find there’s a heavy amount of frivolous debate on subjects like “why do you have player-x at No. 12 but player-y at No. 15?” I don’t think it does the reader a service to try and take the numerical order as a one-to-one comparison, nor do we learn anything of use or substance about the players or how they will score us fantasy points on a week-to-week basis in the discussion. For all the hype surrounding the event of the draft, winning weekly is still the name of the game in the vast majority of fantasy formats.

With that school of thought established, I do believe that using tiers by position helps offset some of the uselessness of rankings. It helps take some of the frivolity of arguing a few spots difference in the order. Most of the players in one tier have roughly the same value, whether they fall first in the set or last. It provides more actionable information for fantasy owners to use during drafts, specifically in terms of helping us imagine the range of outcomes for players from both a season-long and weekly standpoint. We get too caught up in where we think a player will rank at the end of the season, but tiering can help remind us that the goal soon enough will be all about constructing teams that are best set to win us one week at a time.

Tier 1 – Get smashed

Perhaps the best player to ever play the position, Rob Gronkowski is a dominant force and the only annual trump card at the “onesie” positions (quarterback/tight end). The 2018 season is set up to be a special one for Gronkowski. Not only will Julian Edelman miss the first quarter of the season, the Patriots lack any sort of proven perimeter presence outside of Chris Hogan. Back in 2016 when Hogan was the lone outside vertical threat, New England made more use of Gronk as a deep threat. The massive tight end led all players at the position with a 15.1 average depth of target and turned in over 21 yards per reception. Gronkowski should be a high second-round pick in all fantasy formats this season.

Tier 2 – Difference-maker TE1s

2. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
3. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

The Kansas City Chiefs offense has a new quarterback and welcomed another passing game weapon in Sammy Watkins. It would still be an upset if Travis Kelce doesn’t come out of 2018 as the team-leader in targets. Kelce led all tight ends in yards after the catch by almost 100 in 2017. The Chiefs use him to perfection and he should quickly establish himself as Patrick Mahomes’ favorite middle of the field weapon while Watkins and Tyreek Hill own the perimeter.

Zach Ertz is the favorite to lead the high-flying Eagles offense in targets this season, especially with Alshon Jeffery in danger of finding the Week 1 PUP list. Only Jimmy Graham accrued more fantasy points among tight ends in the red zone last year and that should remain an area where Ertz dominates.

Tier 3 – Solid TE1s

4. Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans
5. Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
6. Trey Burton, Chicago Bears

Delanie Walker would be the primary beneficiary of Marcus Mariota rebounding from a down season. He’s a rare breed at the tight end position, clearing 100 targets in four-straight years. After catching a touchdown on 5.5 percent of his targets in Mariota’s first two seasons, Walker checked in with a 2.7 percent conversion in 2017. With his scoring rate set to return to the mean, he’s as rock-solid of a pick at the position as it comes outside the elite options.

Greg Olsen is one of four players (Devin Funchess, Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore) competing to lead the Panthers in targets. The veteran tight end’s pedigree and history with Cam Newton would indicate he’s the favorite. His 2017 foot injury and the other three’s upward trajectories cast some doubt on that. Usually, a safe bet to turn in a solid TE1 season, Olsen is a riskier pick at ADP this year than usual.

Trey Burton is aggressively placed and the current shooting star at the position. Matt Nagy plainly stated that the Bears signed Burton to fill the Travis Kelce-shaped move tight end shoes in his new offense. That looked to be the absolute truth when Burton split out from the line on six of his nine first-team snaps in Chicago’s latest preseason game. He should finish second on the team in targets behind Allen Robinson, while getting most of the high-percentage looks over the middle.

Tier 4 – Possible TE1s but you must embrace volatility

7. Evan Engram, New York Giants
8. Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers
9. George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers

Evan Engram is appealing on multiple levels. He bucked the trend of young tight ends struggling in the early stages of their careers with a breakout rookie season. Engram ranked third behind only Gronk and Kelce in routes run per game. With his oversized wide receiver profile, that’s unlikely to come down. The only worry with him is volume volatility. Odell Beckham back is in the mix, Sterling Shepard remains and Saquon Barkley is set to fight for targets on an offense manned by a typically run-leaning coach. Engram could easily lose some of the meat off his 115 target-total from 2017.

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle should breakout in 2018 if he can stay healthy. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Jimmy Graham lapped the tight end field by collecting 14 targets inside the five-yard line last season. He was largely useless between the 20’s but was dominant in scoring position. Even if Graham is cooked physically he presents weekly upside with this skillset in an Aaron Rodgers offense.

George Kittle is the premier tight end breakout candidate this season. The athletic tight end made noise late last year with Jimmy Garoppolo. In the last three weeks of the season, Kittle put up 4-52, 4-42-TD and 4-100 lines. Yahoo Fantasy sage Andy Behrens will give you the case for Kittle at the drop of a hat. Kittle could have pushed for Tier 3 if it weren’t for injury concerns both past and present. After coming in and out of the rotation with maladies as a rookie, Kittle enters Year 2 with a shoulder injury. He’s a lock breakout player if he doesn’t go the way of Jordan Reed.

Tier 5 – Clear top-12 upside with major questions

10. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
11. Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
12. Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts
13. David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
14. O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Vikings offense got a shot in the arm with the addition of Kirk Cousins. While his wide receivers deserve the price inflation that followed, Kyle Rudolph looks like a red-light pick at cost (TE7, sixth-round). With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs dominating the target share, Rudolph saw a whopping 51 targets shaved off his 2016 total to finish with 81 last year. He kept his fantasy stock afloat by hauling in eight touchdowns. The Vikings will remain run-heavy and with Rudolph locked-into the third spot, at best, in the pecking order a scoring regression would sting.

Jordan Reed is a tempting value. Yes, we know he is extremely likely to get injured at some point but the risk is all the way baked into the cost now. A fourth-round fantasy pick in years prior, Reed now consistently finds his way to the eighth-round range or beyond. He’s a far safer buy in that area when your picks are trending toward dart throw status.

David Njoku and O.J. Howard are a pair of sophomore tight ends who could take the next step. Howard showed big-play ability as a rookie and finished No. 2 behind Gronk in yards per route run. Njoku hauled in a pair of scores, one from each Browns quarterback in their preseason opener. He’s one of the most gifted specimens to enter the league at the tight end position over the last few years. Unfortunately, it’s tough to project either player the necessary volume for a true TE1 breakout season. Both of their offenses are just too crowded as currently constructed.

Tier 6 – Preferred dart throws and TE2s

15. Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts
16. Jared Cook, Oakland Raiders
17. Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
18. Charles Clay, Buffalo Bills
19. Ricky Seals-Jones, Arizona Cardinals
20. Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Eric Ebron will be behind Jack Doyle on the tight end depth chart but should still be in line for targets given the lack of proven bodies in the wideout rotation. Colts’ head coach Frank Reich made use of the two-tight end set in his previous stop. The Eagles threw out of their 12-personnel set (one RB, two TEs) 57 percent of the time, well north of the NFL average 45 percent.

Jared Cook is interesting given the lack of sizzle beyond Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson in the Raiders wide receiver rotation. With Martavis Bryant disappointing in camp, Cook looks to be the favorite to finish third on the team in targets. He could push for a sneaky TE1 season.

You know the drill with Tyler Eifert by now.

Ricky Seals-Jones is a favorite sleeper of the fantasy community in 2018. While he played on just 26.3 percent of the team’s snaps but shined with his opportunities, posting a whopping 3.7 yards per route run. Seals-Jones was the clear first-team tight end in the Cardinals preseason opener. If he has a true breakout season, he could smash his ADP. With the wide receiver spot lacking in the desert, it’s within the range of outcomes.

Tier 7 – No season-long consistency but a handful of TE1 weeks

21. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jacksonville Jaguars
22. Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh Steelers
23. Luke Willson, Detroit Lions
24. Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons
25. Ben Watson, New Orleans Saints
26. Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins

Austin Seferian-Jenkins ranked fourth among tight ends with six targets inside the five-yard line last year. If he maintains similar scoring-area usage in a Jacksonville offense with just one “proven” receiver with a red zone resume (Donte Moncrief), he will offer some big weeks.

Vance McDonald thrived with the Steelers in the playoffs and showed he can be unleashed when needed. It’s unlikely they will call his number much, given the other players in that offense. He’s also a medical risk.

With Eric Ebron gone, the Lions have a void on the tight end target totem pole. Luke Willson came over to the team in free agency and has flashed playmaking ability in the past. I’ve actually been happy to snag him as a part of a tight end rotation in best ball leagues. My projections loved him.

If Mike Gesicki can buck the “tight ends start slow” trend, he has massive upside as a player. He’s legitimately the biggest freak to ever enter the NFL’s tight end group. The Dolphins wide receiver group has no proven big receiver and Gesicki could push to lead the team in receiving touchdowns if he makes and Evan Engram-like leap in the pros. It would be nice if he were on a better offense.

Follow the Yahoo fantasy football crew on Twitter: Andy Behrens, Dalton Del Don, Brad Evans, Matt Harmon, Liz Loza, Scott Pianowski and Tank Williams

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