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Let's say you’re not interested in spending a first round pick on a tight end even if Jimmy Graham helped you to a title last year. Gronkowski’s health concerns have you picking a RB2 in the third round and everyone knows about last year’s breakout star Jordan Cameron since he won't be on the board by the time you pick again. Even if you’ve targeted these players, an early tight end run can also leave you primed to select a top tier back that may have fallen a round or a receiver unexpectedly still available on the board as a vale pick.
There is quality out there and when the seventh round comes, there will likely be several names out there all worthy of your serious consideration.
You’re on the clock, who’s it going to be? Kyle Rudolph, Greg Olsen or Dennis Pitta? In this piece, we analyze these three prolific pass-catchers and determine which player you should draft and why! Please note, if you are actually on the clock, feel free to skip to the end to get my conclusions and return to get my reasoning later. It will prevent people from throwing ice cubes at you.
Each of these pass-catching tight ends have something wrong with them. That’s just the way it goes in the second or third tier. In many cases it’s totally out of their control. Take Kyle Rudolph as an example. He’s lost 15 pounds this offseason (now a svelte 260-pounder); he’s young (24) and he has a coordinator in Norv Turner known for developing tight ends. Not to mention, he’s in a contract year. Rudolph could suffer from having a rookie (or an underwhelming veteran) quarterback.
Let’s start with the good stuff. In 2012, Rudolph hauled in 53 receptions, nine of those in the end zone. Second-year production like that gets attention, particularly if you hit those numbers with Christian Ponder throwing you the ball. Before going down with a fractured foot last year, his 30 receptions through eight games put him on pace to top his career-highs in both receptions and yardage.
Don’t get hung up on his injury last year though. Fractures are not soft tissue injuries. A broken foot does not make you injury-prone, just as Adrian Peterson’s broken collarbone in college didn’t actually make him an injury risk when entering the pros. Worry about ACL tears and turf toes, not fractures. Obviously you can’t predict injuries, but there are no red flags on that front for the former Notre Dame.
Rudolph may actually be the cheapest of the three in terms of availability during your fantasy draft. According to FFToolbox's ADP charts, Rudolph is being drafted a few picks after Olsen and Pitta. So, unless you’re drafting from a bar in the Twin Cities, you’ll be able to grab Rudolph roughly a half-round later.
There are additional reasons those other guys are going earlier. Rudolph has neither a 500-yard season nor a 100-yard game on his résumé. While he is five years younger than those other guys, he still has unrealized potential, making him more of a risk (and also more of a reward). It also remains to be seen if Teddy Bridgewater will be an upgrade at quarterback. Even if Bridgewater does succeed in Minnesota, will he do so in his first year?
In the rare TD-only league, Rudolph may give you what you need. His size makes him incredibly difficult to cover in the end zone. He’s also worth bumping up a little in dynasty leagues, especially if you believe in Bridgewater’s potential to be a franchise quarterback.
Synopsis: Rudolph is the weakest of these three options because of his unrealized potential which may never come and due to Minnesota's less-than-ideal QB situation.
Of all the tight ends in the middle tiers, few will elicit a collective yawn from the group like Greg Olsen. But why? Likely because he is the model of consistency. He’s caught exactly five TD’s in four of the last six years. His reception total changes minimally from year to year, and he never misses games with injury.
However, while fantasy owners were searching for interesting or unknown up-and-coming tight ends to populate their teams, Olsen has quietly put together two of his most productive seasons in 2012 & 2013. Eclipsing 800 yards and upping his receptions per game, Olsen is smack in the middle of his statistical prime. It only helps his case that with the departure of every wide receiver in town, Olsen will only continue to solidify himself as Cam Newton’s top target.
Conventional wisdom would indicate a big uptick in targets for the former Chicago Bears TE with the departure of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, and Ted Ginn Jr. What about the quality of those targets? Being the only proven guy in town means the ball gets force-fed to you. Not always the best plan if the other team knows about it. With rookie Kelvin Benjamin on one side and uninspiring veteran Jerricho Cotchery on the other, defenses could shift extra coverage to Olsen. Some receiving threats can fight through double coverage and thrive as the only weapon in town. But is Olsen one of those guys? Probably not.
Who swoops in and saves the day? It’s Newton, of course. In a system with a one-dimensional pocket passer, Olsen could expect long stretches with a safety and a linebacker teaming up to harass him. But in Carolina that would just encourage Cam to rush for a hundred yards and two scores.
Olsen put up a line of 73-816-6 last year and there is no reason those numbers should diminish. Losing Smith, LaFell and Ginn isn't easy, but these guys weren't exactly dominant last year either. If Benjamin can come out of the gate fast in Carolina, rolling coverage his way, I can easily see Olsen nabbing 80 or more balls for a new career-high. The only thing missing are the red zone looks that would easily put him in the top tier.
Synopsis: Olsen is the safest mid-round tight end out there, but perhaps not the best option.
If early reports out of Baltimore are to be believed, Dennis Pitta will be used as an in-line tight end, wide receiver, running back, equipment manager and team photographer. If we limit our spotlight to Pitta’s on-field contributions, we still see a ton of opportunities coming his way.
We already know Joe Flacco likes to target Pitta when he’s on the field. During the 2012 and his limited time in 2013, Pitta saw a 26.4-percent target rate (targets divided by routes run) when he ran a route instead of staying in to block. That’s third-best among tight ends, behind only Graham and Gronkowski. Not only does he see those targets, he knows how to convert then into production on the field and fantasy points. Over his career, Pitta has caught 65.2-percent of balls thrown his way. Assuming he maintains this role and efficiency, which seems likely considering new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s skill at incorporating tight ends, the needle will continue to tick up for Pitta.
What makes the former BYU tight end a wild card is the flock of talented pass-catchers in Baltimore. S. Smith may be in the final act of his career, but he still has sneaky old man quickness and will see 50-plus receptions with a handful of touchdowns. Torrey Smith remains the number one receiver in town and with his speed demands the occasional double team. That leaves our man Pitta free to run past flat-footed linebackers or using his frame to box out smaller safeties and corners en route to posting career numbers.
Synopsis: The Ravens are going to target Pitta a lot, especially with their ground game not quite what it used to be. He edges Olsen in what turned out to be a two-man race.
It’s time to make your pick. If you are a gambler (and let’s face it, you are), let a more conservative competitor take Olsen and let a sanguine Minnesotan take Rudolph. Grab Pitta and assert your dominance over the seventh round. Trust me, that’s a thing.
1. Dennis Pitta
2. Greg Olsen
3. Kyle Rudolph