Moving into our last installment of the breakout players of 2018, we're covering the tight end position. Because the position is so thin up top, being able to predict a later-round pick to perform as a TE1 can be make-or-break for your fantasy team.
George Kittle - San Francisco 49ers
Current ADP: Overall 113, TE12
Kittle is my, along with many people’s as I’ve come to find out, favorite sleeper/breakout pick at the TE position for 2018 fantasy football. The 49ers front office got rid of Vance McDonald last year, right after signing him to a 5-year $36-million deal, in favor of Kittle. It took a while, but we finally saw the move start to pay dividends down the stretch, particularly the last 5 games of the szn while Jimmy GQ was under center.
From Weeks 13 through 17 in 2017, Kittle was a top-10 fantasy TE, ranking 3rd in fantasy points per snap. Getting even more granular, he was a top-3 fantasy TE over the final 3 weeks of the season, wrapping up with stat lines of 4-52, 3-42-1 and 4-100.
Kittle is a combine STUD - standing 6-4, 250lbs, running a 4.52 40-yard dash putting him in 96th percentile for weight-adjusted speed score. As you can see from the shot below, Kittle is a savage when it comes to just about every metric, including an 89th percentile SPARQ score.
The Niners tight end finished the year with 515 yards and 43 receptions, both good for 2nd among all rookie TEs, only behind Evan Engram. His 2 tuddy weren't fun for owners, but the RZ (16) and ten-zone (7) targets were definitely encouraging to see as a piece of this offense going forward.
Digging deeper, there were 30 tight ends in 2017 with at least 40 targets. Among those 30, Kittle ranked 4th in YAC (6.2), 7th in YPT (8.4) and 12th in YPR (12). He’s an explosive athlete who can move with the ball in his hands and can make something out of nothing. He just needs the opportunity. One thing to keep an eye on is Kittle’s snap counts in pre-szn compared to that of Garrett Celek. Celek isn’t a name fantasy owners would normally peg as a threat, but he played well with Jimmy G under center in 2017, too and out-snapped Kittle in 3-of-4 JG starts (didn’t really play due to injury in one).
With new hope under center in Garraps, and a year deeper into the mindfuck we call Kyle Shanahan's system, San Francisco’s offense, along with Kittle, have a chance to explode in 2018.
Ricky Seals-Jones - Arizona Cardinals
Current ADP: Overall 173, TE23
RSJ as I like to call him, was kind of like the Will Fuller of tight ends in 2017. He did unrealistically well on just a small volume of opportunity. An UDFA, who converted from college WR to NFL TE, Ricky-Seals Jones has super intriguing athleticism (4.69 40) and size (6-5, 243) to ride into his sophomore szn after a buzz-worthy rookie year in 2017. On just 70 routes run, RSJ managed to go 12-201 and 3 scores, averaging 16.8 YPR, including a 3-game run from Weeks 11-13 with statlines of 3-54-2, 4-72-1 and 2-44 before disappearing off the face of the Earth. Seals-Jones' production on such limited routes earned him the number one spot on PFF's PPOpportunity for both standard and PPR leagues, out-pacing every single NFL TE. He also graded out as PFF's #9 overall receiving TE, no surprise there.
Speaking of PFF, if you want to enter into the contest to win a free PFF Edge year subscription completely paid by ya mans, follow me on Twitter, Instagram and go leave the podcast a rating and review. Preferably a good one. That will be linked below, and if you do that you'll be automatically entered which I'll choose the winner in next week's breakout candidate video for QBs, the last one of this column.
It's very hard to produce as a rookie, especially in a limited role, which is what he had in 2017, mainly because Jermaine Gresham was there, and they thought he would be better, okay. Gresham tore his achilles in Week 17 last year, a very hard injury to return from. It's a stretch to assume Gresham is ready for the Cardinals opener, the starting job should be Seals-Jones, at just 23 the upside is huge. And all reports out of Cardinals camp including Cardinals reporter Mike Jurecki. is the expected role increase for my mans Ricky, whether through necessity or whatever, doesn't matter.
Two other big things for 2018 is the QB position. They drafted Josh Rosen, who will likely start the season behind Sam Bradford, if not his entire rookie year. Bradford is a guy who has made a living throwing over the middle to short/intermediate targets, which is where this Cardinals tight end will operate. Everything can't go to Fitz. Bradford has been in the NFL since 2010, he's played in more than 10 games in 4 seasons. In those 4 seasons, the tight end position in those offenses has averaged 116 targets, 81 catches, 889 yards and 6 touchdowns. The two most recent were Minnesota in 2016, where Rudolph finished as TE2 going 83-840-7 and the year prior in 2015 with Philly, where Zach Ertz caught 75 passes for 853 yards.
The other change comes to their coaching staff. They bring on the former Panthers DC in Steve Wilks and Mike McCoy. McCoy was fired last year after being the OC for the Broncos, but McCoy was able to work as the HC for the Chargers from 2013-2016 where his TE1 never finished below the TE12 mark in fantasy.
I think they're ready to make Seals-Jones a big piece of this offense, an offense that needs some kind of playmaker behind Fitz and David Johnson. They have a bunch of uprovens on the depth chart so a big step forward for RSJ in 2018 isn't crazy.
Vance McDonald - Pittsburgh Steelers
Current ADP: Overall 158, TE21
McDonald is definitely a deeper dart throw, who I wouldn’t necessarily rely on to go full Ovechkin post-Stanley Cup but he’s got the tools to do so.
A 93rd percentile SPARQ athlete, McDonald has flashed at times but is yet to stay healthy and put a full szn together. 2018 will be his 6th year in the NFL after just turning 28 years old. I’m not worried about the age or lengthy tenure considering tight ends normally take some time to marinate in the league and we’ve seen plenty of late breakout players at the position (Ben Watson, Gary Barnidge, even Kyle Rudolph was 27 during his 2016 career year).
Literally a day after signing a 5-year, $35M extension with San Francisco back in December 2016, McDonald landed on the I.R. with a shoulder injury. That was the end of his time in the Bay. Once the new regime was brought in, led my GM John Lynch, the team wanted nothing more than to part ways with the oft-injured tight end. So, they moved him to Pittsburgh where there hasn’t been a resemblance of a playmaker at the tight end position since Heath Miller retired in 2015.
Vance’s only true competition in yellow is the brutally average Jesse James, who we saw take a back seat to McDonald in their playoff loss to Jacksonville last year. In that game, McDonald went nuts, catching 10-of-16 targets for 112 yards. Yes, 16 targets. I understand it’s a one-game sample, but how many tight ends in the NFL have EVER commanded 16 targets in a game. That’s a monster ceiling. Despite limited time and nagging injuries, McDonald ranked inside the position’s top-11 in YPR, YPT and YAC (TEs > 20 targets).
I know this I knit-picking but I think it’s worth mentioning. Heath Miller played in the league from 2005-2015. If we take away ’05 and ’06 because rarely do TEs produce in their first two years, Miller’s per season numbers while Ben was in the lineup: 89 targets, 65 receptions, 712 yards & 5 touchdowns. Good enough for top-10 numbers in any given szn. As long as McDonald locks up the starting role, as he’s expected to, he should be a high-floor play tied to a high passing-volume, high-scoring offense.
McDonald is yet to play in a full 16-game szn, averaging just 9.2 appearances a year, so the injury concern is real. But so is the upside. If he can put it together and stay on the field, there's no reason he can't go off. This is a player to monitor throughout camp, as the word about him so far is that ESPN's Jeremy Fowler believes TE Vance McDonald "will be a big part of the Steelers offense."
1. Trey Burton
2. O.J. Howard
3. David Njoku