Best Ball Journal: Tightrope at TE
Best Ball Journal: Tightrope at TE

This article is part of our Best Ball Journal series.

We're not even two weeks removed from the Super Bowl and yet Best Ball Season 2019 is already into motion. I've signed up for two drafts, one of which is 10 rounds in, and between the results as of press time and the general ADP info trickling out, I'm sure I can find something to howl about.

What were formerly MFL10s, now referred to as 'BestBall10s' just went live, so I wasn't able to log any picks there yet, but DRAFT has had some lower-level contests available for a week or so, allowing me to sign up for two $5, 12-team leagues. The leagues are appropriately categorized under 'Way Too Early Best Ball,' and you know it is in fact way too early because the rookies aren't even in the pool yet. I would imagine that will change imminently, though. These are slow drafts, so I don't have full results yet.

Anyway, here are some scattered thoughts so far. I already mentioned last week about how I plan to invest heavily in David Johnson, so I'll leave him aside here even though it certainly remains the case.

Here is the team I have so far, with the assorted thoughts following...

1.08 – Tyreek Hill, WR, KC

2.05 – David Johnson, RB, ARZ

3.08 – George Kittle, TE, SF

4.05 – Brandin Cooks, WR, LAR

5.08 – Rashaad Penny, RB, SEA

6.05 – Andrew Luck, QB, IND (timed out)

7.08 – LeSean McCoy, RB, BUF

8.05 – Keke Coutee, WR, HOU

9.08 – Vance McDonald, TE, PIT

10.05 – Antonio Callaway, WR, CLE

Tightrope at TE

The tight end pool looks weird to me. We once had Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Aaron Hernandez make up a three-deep elite tier at tight end back in 2011, but the 2019 trio of Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle is even stronger. Meanwhile, the depth after that elite top tier has suffered since then. All of Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Kellen Winslow, and Brandon Pettigrew hit 75 receptions in 2011, and guys like Dustin Keller and Brent Celek went over 800 yards. Antonio Gates scored seven times in 13 games and was a well-established TE1 at this point, as well.

I see no such depth behind Kelce, Ertz, and Kittle. I'd normally guess this would result in inflation for them, but their ascent coincides with a strengthening of both the running back and wide receiver pools. Rather than a danger of overpayment, I think the 2019 elite tight ends represent an especially stable asset. That's both because I perceive the options after them as risky, and because the previously mentioned RB and WR depth means you're similarly likely to get burned waiting at TE than RB and especially WR.

If I'm unable to affordably acquire one of Kelce, Ertz, or Kittle, then I have a small margin of error from that point. The fourth tight end off the board was Eric Ebron at 5.12 (55.1 ADP). Ebron is a fade for me until something like the eighth round. As much as 2018 was his long-awaited breakout, I think it pretty clearly will go down as the best fantasy season of his career, and maybe by a big margin. There are at least a few issues I have with Ebron.

The first issue is that Ebron still wasn't good. He caught only 60 percent of his targets, credited with a problematic eight drops, and he averaged 6.8 yards per target – a brutal average for a 60 percent catch rate. His production was not meaningfully different from the box score he posted for the Lions the year prior, he just played in an offense where the quarterback threw 39 touchdown passes. The second issue is that Ebron's playing time and role cannot be taken for granted. Jack Doyle missed 10 games due to hip and kidney issues at separate points, and Ebron still played fewer than 30 snaps in five games, even playing fewer snaps at one point than Mo Alie-Cox and Ryan Hewitt both.

The third issue with Ebron is that he's touchdown-dependent. His value is predicated on the assumption of Andrew Luck throwing 39 touchdown passes and Ebron catching precisely one third of them. Luck could easily throw fewer touchdowns, and Ebron would be somewhat likely to claim a smaller share of the eventual number than he did in 2018. The Colts will have better pass catchers at wide receiver in 2019, and if Doyle is back healthy then that could be a death blow to Ebron's fantasy viability. Doyle is better by every metric and the Colts played him ahead of Ebron. Can you imagine spending a fifth-round fantasy pick on Jack Doyle's backup?

The Ebron selection in any case sparked a run from that point:

OJ Howard (6.01, 61.2 ADP)
Hunter Henry (6.02, 53.9 ADP)
David Njoku (6.04, 67.2 ADP)
Evan Engram (6.12, 71.6 ADP)
Rob Gronkowski (8.03, 92.7 ADP)
Austin Hooper (8.08, 99.3 ADP)
Jared Cook (9.02, 83.8 ADP)
Trey Burton (9.04, 101.7 ADP)
Kyle Rudolph (9.07, 111.6 ADP)
Vance McDonald (9.08, 123.5 ADP)
Chris Herndon (9.11, 115.4 ADP)

So there are our top 15 candidates. There will be strong TE assets this year aside from the big three, and all of the four picks after Ebron are great candidates to do so. Howard may be the best tight end in the league soon, Henry already established himself as one of the leagues' best before his injury, and both Njoku and Engram are first-round talents with rare athleticism for the position. As my TE4, I prefer Henry of the group, because for all their upside there are workload concerns with Howard, Njoku, and Engram in crowded pass catcher rotations. I have no such concern with Henry.

After those four we have a guy who might retire (Gronkowski), a good TE in a limited role (Austin Hooper), an inconsistent journeyman who's a free agent (Cook), a 2018 bust in an impossibly crowded offense (Burton), and a guy who has averaged five targets per game for two years in a row (Rudolph). And all of those selections occurred in the first nine rounds. I'm off Gronk and Cook until further notice, and I'm almost unconditionally off of Hooper, Burton, and Rudolph before the 10th round.

I took McDonald as my TE2 and indeed prefer him over all of the five prior TE selections, and maybe even Ebron. I expect his ADP to rise over those players if the Antonio Brown saga keeps heading the way it has, and especially if the Steelers fail to re-sign Jesse James. I don't know how much I'd be willing to pay for McDonald in that case, but the late ninth works for me in the meantime.

Herndon is also more interesting to me than Gronk/Cook/Hooper/Burton/Rudolph right now, though I'm made skittish by his awful prospect profile. I'm trying to get over it – Herndon's rookie year was legitimately strong and with that performance he substantially improved said prospect profile. I worry about him being a flash in the pan for now, but Herndon at 9.11 is a solid value that I think will age well. No matter what I think of his profile coming out of Miami, it's very promising that he won't turn 23 until Feb. 23 yet already has 39 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns to his credit at 9.0 YPT and a 69.6 percent catch rate.

To summarize, I don't even know what I expect my TE portfolio to look like this year. If I miss out on the big three, I'm not sure I have the stomach for any of the mid-round prices aside from Henry. If I miss out on Henry and the big three, I'm probably looking at a lot of McDonald and Herndon, adding guys like Jack Doyle, Gerald Everett, Ricky Seals-Jones, and I guess Jimmy Graham if his price stays low enough.

Post-Hype RB Targets: Leonard Fournette + Dion Lewis + Ronald Jones

Leonard Fournette went 4.07, which is too low. If I could redo my picks, I'd switch Cooks for Fournette, especially given the mid-round WR depth (more on that in a bit). As a general rule, I don't think Fournette should fall past the third round.

Consider some running backs who went before Fournette: Aaron Jones (3.03), Kerryon Johnson (3.04), Phillip Lindsay (3.10), Derrius Guice (4.03). Tarik Cohen went immediately after Fournette, and Lamar Miller at 4.11.

Now, I'm a longtime fan of Jones and Guice, and I'm sold on Lindsay at this point, but I can't imagine what everyone thinks is going on with Fournette. Do they think the Jaguars will cut him? Okay, so he probably starts for another team. Do they think the Jaguars will keep him and not start him? I don't think that's a risk. Do we think Fournette will get hurt again immediately? It's a fair concern, but Jones is the most injury prone runner of this group, and Guice is attempting to return from a torn ACL that resulted in recurring infections that remain a substantial concern until he shows he's healthy in OTAs.

The reality is that you're going to take on substantial risk for any running back outside of the blue chip candidates in the first two rounds, and within that frame there is nothing especially scary about Fournette. His upside in the good-case scenarios, meanwhile, cannot be imitated by these other backs, Guice aside. Fournette was a universal top-15 pick last year for a reason, and some bad games on a bad leg in a cursed offense doesn't negate that. The risk is substantial but, in contrast to the upside, not uniquely so for the price range.

Dion Lewis was another huge disappointment last year, and he's on the board as of this post (125.8 ADP). If Lewis is a 10th-round pick now, then he could very well be in the 12th-to-13th round range once the rookies are added. As long as he isn't a surprise cut from Tennessee, I think Lewis is pretty obviously worth a 10th-round pick in best ball. He can't compete with Derrick Henry for carries, but Henry can't compete with Lewis for catch-up snaps. Lewis' YPC could improve by a yard or more after improbably finishing last year at 3.3 YPC despite a 12.1 percent broken tackle percentage that ranked far above average. The Titans offensive line cannot get worse than it was last year.

Ronald Jones was an even bigger bust than Lewis was last year, but he too seems like a pretty obvious post-hype target at his current ADP of 148.2. Peyton Barber is not it, and for whatever limitations Jones might have I just cannot imagine a coach like Bruce Arians doing the same stupid things Dirk Koetter was so fond of. Maybe Jones is bad, but he's not worse than Barber, and Koetter has no idea what to do with running backs. Or maybe he liked Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers so much because he's really good at evaluating running backs, I don't know. Jones is the potential starter for an Arians offense until further notice and should not be falling into the 12th round after guys like Rex Burkhead, C.J. Anderson, and Kalen Ballage.

Substantial WR Depth

I'm currently waiting for someone to make the seventh pick in the 10th round, and here are some wide receivers still on the board:

Sterling Shepard (126.5 ADP)
Marquise Goodwin (130.1 ADP)
Curtis Samuel (137.2 ADP)
Tyrell Williams (151.4 ADP)

I also took Antonio Callaway at 10.05. Callaway is a guy I'd rather have as WR5, but he has top-25 upside and in best ball in particular I think it can work just fine if he's your WR4. The Baker Mayfield offense is going places, and Callaway is its fastest player and best big-play threat among route runners.

Shepard would be a no brainer on this list and indeed would be a top-20 candidate at WR if Odell Beckham is traded, as Jay Glazer predicted today.

Goodwin is a guy who went in the fifth and sixth rounds of last year's best ball drafts, and with totally good reason. His season was a disappointment due to Jimmy Garoppolo's injury, Goodwin's own early-season injury, and the personal tragedy he and his family were subjected to. He's one of the league's best receivers and I'm confident he'll suffice as a WR3, let alone a WR4.

Samuel is perhaps the best player of the group, and while I'm concerned about Cam Newton's health and the solvency of the Panthers generally, this is too late for a player as good as he is. Samuel possesses legitimate star power as one of the league's better route runners with low 4.3 speed.

Williams is interesting because people are holding his free agency status against him, which is totally backward. At this price tag he would be well worth selecting even if he stays with the Chargers. But there's an argument to make that he's the best free agent wide receiver on the market, and so the odds are very good that he ends up with a bigger workload this year. Imagine if Williams goes to the Cardinals. He'll be a top-100 pick if that happens.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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