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Rookie Impact - Tight Ends
Young Targets

Since the beginning of the fantasy football phenomenon, almost every owner has been more than comfortable choosing a rookie RB on draft day. After all, in many cases their impact had been immediate and profound. However, those rookies that would be involved in their team’s aerial attack were generally afterthoughts. Over the past three offseasons, we have examined the conventional wisdom in the fantasy football community that warned owners to stay away from rookie wide receivers and quarterbacks in redraft leagues. What we found was that each season more and more rookie WRs were producing at a level where they could start finding their way into fantasy starting lineups. Additionally in recent seasons, while you’d still likely be uncomfortable starting them, many rookie QBs were putting up numbers at least worthy of your attention.

If you’ve read my articles at FFToday over the past couple of years, perhaps you’ve also come around to the idea that some rookie WRs and QBs just may be worth your focus when preparing for your redraft league’s big day. This year we decided it may be time to start looking into whether or not rookie TEs should be the next position to garner some attention on draft day. So, can we now line up the rookies drafted to play TE in our redraft crosshairs?

Simply put: “probably not.”

Even when looking at the bare minimum stats you would be “happy” getting from a TE on your fantasy roster (at least 450 yards receiving and 4 TDs), there have been only 14 TEs since 1960 that have reached or exceeded those bare-minimum numbers. Below is a chart that lists these 14 TEs and their statistics.

 Best Rookie TEs
Rk Player Year Rec Yds TDs FPts
1 Mike Ditka 1961 56 1076 12 235.6
2 Keith Jackson 1988 81 869 6 203.9
3 Charles Young 1973 55 854 6 176.4
4 Cam Cleeland 1998 54 684 6 158.4
5 Junior Miller 1980 46 584 9 158.4
6 Rob Gronkowski 2010 42 546 10 156.6
7 John Carlson 2008 55 627 5 147.7
8 Raymond Chester 1970 42 556 7 139.6
9 Aaron Hernandez 2010 45 563 6 137.3
10 Robert Awalt 1987 42 526 6 130.6
11 Ken Dilger 1995 42 635 4 129.5
12 Bob Tucker 1970 40 571 5 127.1
13 Jermaine Gresham 2010 52 471 4 123.1
14 Pete Lammons 1966 41 565 4 121.5

Ok, so maybe you’ve noticed that 3 out of the14 players on this list were rookies in 2010. Is this a sign of things to come? At this point, I cannot in good faith call that a trend, and it may very well turn out to be an aberration, especially when you consider that two of those three young pass catchers played on the same team—the New England Patriots. Furthermore, none of those three made huge fantasy impacts anyway. Rob Gronkowski finished highest on the end-of-season TE ranks, as the 11th-ranked TE (in ppr leagues). And his 10 TDs on only 42 receptions seems so unsustainable that it needs to be considered a highly unlikely occurrence. Aaron Hernandez and Jermaine Gresham were ranked 14th and 15th respectively, so they weren’t even legitimate starting fantasy TEs in 2010 when compared to their peers—they were merely high-end backups. One would probably want to avoid the risk of wasting a draft pick on a rookie TE for such little reward.

It seems that tight end may be one of the more difficult skill positions for a player to quickly transition from the college level to the NFL ranks. Why? In addition to all the difficulties that come with being effective as a rookie receiver, the added blocking responsibilities must even further complicate things. Some of these rookie TEs may have been able to get by on pure athletic ability in their college years, but they will find NFL linebackers and safeties more able to keep pace with them until they learn the nuances of route running and creating a target for their QBs.

Aaron Hernandez

Hernandez: Not one, but two Patriot rookie TEs shined in 2010.

If another two to three rookie TEs emerge this season as well, then perhaps I will re-evaluate my stance, as I did with rookie QBs and rookie WRs. However, as of now I just cannot suggest that you spend much time on evaluating rookie TE prospects for your redraft fantasy team. Those in dynasty leagues, of course, will need to do their research on these prospects.

I will discuss, however, which rookie TEs have at least a shot to produce in 2011, just so you can keep your eye on them while they sit on the waiver wire—and be the first to pounce on any signs of life among them.

1. Lance Kendricks, STL – While new Rams OC Josh McDaniels has been known to neglect the tight end position, he was supposedly the spearhead behind the pick of this former Wisconsin Badger on draft day. The story goes that despite McDaniels being removed from the Patriots offense for the past two years, he still kept a keen eye on his former team and was infatuated by how the Patriots used their two rookie tight ends so effectively last season. Kendricks has deceptive downfield speed and is a natural pass catcher. Last season Bradford showed that he could turn any one of his favorite targets into a fantasy factor, and perhaps Kendricks will become one of the favorites to emerge from a field containing many question marks in 2011.

2011 Projections: 45 receptions, 530 yards, 3 TDs

2. Kyle Rudolph, MIN – The old saying goes “A tight end is a rookie quarterback’s best friend,” and the Vikings may very well be starting rookie Christian Ponder at quarterback this season. While they already have a capable veteran pass catcher in Visanthe Shiancoe, new OC Bill Musgrave has stated he wants to install a conservative, run-orientated offense to protect his young quarterback, so one can expect to see many two-tight-end sets. Rudolph is tough and has good hands but isn’t one of the new breed of athletic tight ends that have burst onto the scene in recent years. But then again, neither is Rob Gronkowski, and he had a fine rookie season.

2011 Projections: 30 receptions, 385 yards, 4 TDs

3. Rob Housler, ARI - Housler should immediately move into the starting TE slot for the TE-starved Cardinals and may be the most dangerous downfield pass-catcher of the TEs in this class. However the old “chicken or the egg” theory comes into play here: Is the Arizona offense a wasteland for TE fantasy value, or have the Cardinals under Whisenhunt not used TEs simply because they’ve never had a good one?

2011 Projections: 39 receptions, 490 yards, 2 TDs

Others: Julius Thomas (DEN); Virgil Green (DEN); Jordan Cameron (CLE); Luke Stocker (TB)