Perhaps it would be easier to list who isn’t a tight end sleeper heading into 2019 fantasy football drafts. After the three top-tier options, the middle ground is debatable. There might be 18 players with legitimate cases to be in the top 10 of the TE rankings. So, if your draft strategy steers you away from Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, or George Kittle early, you’ll need to nail a breakout pick in the later rounds.
Fortunately, there are options. It seems like every tight end these days is a physical specimen — 6-4 or taller with a huge catch radius and vertical leap. All of them look like the type of guy who could grab touchdowns if given the chance. That’s what this list is about: Finding the players who have the best chance at outperforming their rankings.
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Some of these tight ends have joined new teams, giving them a new avenue to production. Others could have a big role in the case of injury. Regardless, the names on this list have talent. They’ll just need a seizable opportunity to fulfill their sleeper outlook.
2019 Fantasy Football TE Sleepers
Trey Burton, Bears
Burton was many people’s sleeper TE target last year. Then he was Mr. Inconsistent throughout the season, giving off the impression that he didn’t have a very good year. But he finished as the No. 6 standard league tight end, so the fact that he’s being selected as TE13 per FantasyPros, is pretty inexplicable. There would have to be a lot of bad things happening in Chicago plus a lot of good things happening elsewhere for that many TEs to leap Burton. If you can get him after 12 others are off the board, do it.
Vance McDonald, Steelers
It’s easy to try and think of receivers who might benefit from Antonio Brown’s departure. Maybe the answer is actually McDonald. He averaged 4.8 targets per game in an offense with the third- and fourth-most targeted receivers in football. That number is bound to increase by a pass or two. With the loss of Brown and Jesse James, that’s more than 200 targets to go around.Ben Roethlisberger already trusts McDonald on third down, when he received 31 targets in 2018, fifth most among TEs. That might have a chance to expand to all downs with Brown gone, and you shouldn’t have to pay a steep price to get McDonald on your team.
T.J. Hockenson, Lions
Being the No. 8 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft sets a high bar for Hockenson. The Lions brought in fellow TE Jesse James, but the opportunity is there for Hockenson to live up to expectations. He averaged 15.5 yards per catch in his last season at Iowa, a rate that’d make him elite among NFL tight ends. Even some expected regression there makes him a decent risk-reward choice. And that’s what sleepers are all about: Potential opportunity combined with ability. Hockenson should have both.
Jordan Reed, Redskins
Reed’s average draft position (ADP) among tight ends ranks 19th on FantasyPros. Our rankings have him higher, and if Reed stays healthy, he’ll almost certainly finish in the top 10. Of course, he hasn’t played 15 games in a season during his career, and the odds of him staying healthy are slim to none. Still, the fact that everyone is seemingly out on Reeds opens the door for value. You draft Reed with dreams of his 2015 season, when he out-averaged all other TEs in PPR scoring, but you’re more likely to get his ’18, when his PPR average was 14th. But even if he finishes 14th, that might be a slight return of value, and there’s always the potential for more, at least week-to-week, with Reed.
Benjamin Watson, Patriots
Watson will begin the year with a four-game suspension for using testosterone in the offseason, but the Patriots surely didn’t talk him out of retirement to sit on the bench. There’s a Gronk-sized hole in New England, and while no one can fill all of that, Watson can take advantage. He’s still an efficient pass-catcher, reeling in more than 75 percent of his targets two seasons in a row. With Tom Brady throwing to him, that should be within reach again. Obviously, the four-game suspension puts a damper on Watson’s value, but that might be to the savvy fantasy owner’s advantage. It will set Watson up to be either a draft-and-stash or a waiver-wire pickup, depending on your league size. Come Week 5, Watson will be worth a spot in most lineups.
Chris Herndon, Jets
Herndon is suspended for the first four games of the season because of a DWI. He had 502 receiving yards as a rookie paired with a rookie quarterback, Sam Darnold, last season. If both show some growth, Herndon could turn into an on-the-rise TE option. His 12.9 yards per catch shows a glimpse of big-play potential, but the early-season suspension could stunt some of Herndon’s opportunity. If not for the four-game ban, Herndon would be close to 10 spots higher in our TE rankings. That’s what makes him a sleeper, just like Watson. In the weeks he plays, he’ll be more valuable than the relative spot in which you draft (or add) him.
Mike Gesicki, Dolphins
Gesicki’s 2019 hinges on whether any of the questionable quarterback options in Miami can deliver him the football reliably. He’ll be the unquestioned starter, unlike in his rookie year, and a new coaching regime in Miami could opt to feature him more. Even if someone else beats you to Gesicki, he might soon find his way to the waiver wire. No one will be holding him very long if he doesn’t score right away. But the ability he showed at Penn State might actually get a shot to show again this year, so his low cost could be valuable.
C.J. Uzomah, Bengals
Uzomah becomes a serviceable option the second that Tyler Eifert inevitably goes down injured again. He put up five of his six double-digit standard-league point games in contests Eifert missed last season. Fantasy owners might scoff at anyone catching passes from Andy Dalton that isn’t named A.J. Green, but Uzomah should perform better than one might expect from a Dalton TE — again, once Eifert gets hurt.
Ian Thomas, Panthers
Thomas was a relative unknown as a rookie out of Indiana, but in the 2018 season’s final five weeks, he averaged 7.3 standard FPPG. That’s just below what Evan Engram averaged across the entirety of the season, and Engram’s a top-five TE in our standard rankings. Greg Olsen’s return to the Carolina lineup will keep Thomas in the background to start the season, but the second-year TE could push the older Olsen out of the way or benefit from an injury. The door could swing open for Thomas quickly.
Josh Oliver, Jaguars
A rookie tight end out of San Jose State, Oliver is 6-5 and probably Jacksonville’s top option at the position. In the lesser Mountain West Conference, Oliver led SJSU in catches, with 17 more than the next closest pass-catcher. Nick Foles always did seem to enjoy throwing to Zach Ertz in Philadelphia, so maybe he’ll take a liking to his rookie option with the Jaguars. And he’ll come dirt cheap, surely going undrafted in any standard league. You’ll just have to pounce on the wire in time if Oliver shows promise. (Update: Oliver suffered a “serious” hamstring injury at practice on August 1, according to Jags head coach Doug Marrone. If he misses early-season time, you’ll want to keep his return on your radars.)
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
Pro Football Talk reported that Gronk said there’s a 40 percent chance he comes out of retirement and returns to play for New England. We shouldn’t have to explain to you how valuable he’d be the instant he stepped back on the field, even if his first few weeks back were for red-zone snaps only. If you’re in a deeper league or have deep benches, holding Gronkowski through the preseason and even a week or two won’t kill you. And if Gronk’s whims go the right way, you might have yourself a top-five TE once he does come back.