By Jordan Cohn
Over the course of his career, Rob Gronkowski defined the elite fantasy football tight end. He was a machine when he was on the field, producing 1,094 yards and 11 touchdowns per 16-game season.
One highlight of Gronk’s career was his 2014 season. Coming off of a nasty arm infection, back surgery, and a torn ACL/MCL, Gronk astonished the football world. He returned to play 15 games for the Pats, finishing with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. Not surprisingly, Gronk was the recipient of both the AP and PFWA Comeback Player of the Year awards.
Injuries and underwhelming performances were frequent for tight ends in 2018, but with Gronk’s retirement, there are big shoes to be filled at the position. Here are some tight ends who can bounce back from 2018 and follow in the footsteps of Gronk’s 2014 return to dominance.
3. Delanie Walker
Entering his 14th season, Walker is now 35 years old and has suffered the expected wear and tear of a long career. However, before dislocating his ankle last year, Walker had missed just eight games in his 11-year run as a starter. He only became an elite tight end option after age 30, anyway, and played in all but three games from 2014 to 2017.
Since turning 30, Walker had recorded a consistent yearly output of 100+ targets and 800+ yards before his 2018 campaign was cut short. He posted top-six yardage numbers at the position in all three seasons of work with Mariota, including a career-best 1,088 yards in 2015. He may not be ready for week one, but he’s been running on a treadmill and says he “feels healthier than 21-year-olds that come in this league.” Not a bad sign for a guy currently ranked as the No. 14 tight end.
2. Hunter Henry
Henry turned in two solid seasons in 2016 and 2017 before tearing his ACL and sitting out theentire 2018 season. In 2017, his fantasy points per game was sixth among TEs, and Antonio Gates was the starting tight end at the time. With Gates and Tyrell Williams out of the picture, Henry’s target share should go up in 2019.
The Chargers have one of the highest-value fantasy offenses, and Rivers has looked for his tight end in the red zone frequently throughout his career. There shouldn’t be any lingering issues from the injury, and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have both had recent injury history that resulted in lost playing time. Regardless of their status, Henry should perform as a mid-tier TE1 with a chance for top-tier production given an injury to another member of the Chargers’ offensive attack.
1. Evan Engram
Among the players elected to the 2017 PFWA All-Rookie Team were Alvin Kamara, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Myles Garrett. One of the more underappreciated selections is Giants’ TE Evan Engram. After bursting out of the gates in 2017, Engram finished with 722 yards and six touchdowns en route to a fifth-place fantasy finish. Expectations were high for Engram in 2018, but hamstring issues and a mediocre offense limited Engram’s production to a No. 13 finish at the position.
The Giants’ didn’t get better on offense in the offseason, as they lost their biggest weapon in Odell Beckham. As far as fantasy football goes, though, this move should benefit Engram, as he will now inherit a huge target share. When Odell was out for four weeks at the end of 2018, Engram averaged 7.8 targets and 80 yards per game. Saquon Barkley’s commanding presence on the field will attract much of the defense’s attention, allowing Engram to find holes in the secondary. Whether it’s Eli Manning or Daniel Jones leading the charge, Engram will be a favorite target for both, and the Giants will rely on him heavily, whether they’re on their own 20-yard line or in the red zone. A top-five finish is in sight for Engram.
Others to consider:
Jimmy Graham - The former No. 1 fantasy tight end (2012 & 2013) has grown older and less productive in recent years, finishing with only two touchdowns last season despite playing in every game. His durability is fantastic, and his chemistry with Aaron Rodgers will only get better. Rodgers will also likely turn in a more productive season this year than his career-low 25 touchdown performance in 2018, so Graham’s red zone presence could pay off.
Jack Doyle - Andrew Luck loves his tight ends, and Eric Ebron (750 yards, 13 TDs) took full advantage of Doyle’s absence last season. That said, Doyle was on pace for a similar statline as his top-ten 2017 campaign before hip and kidney problems derailed his season. The Colts have a lot of options, but Luck has found success with multiple tight ends before (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, for instance), and it’s no fluke that Doyle was targeted 108 times in 2017.