By Matt Citak
With opening kickoff right around the corner, it’s time to prepare for your upcoming fantasy football draft. Most fantasy rosters consist of a majority of proven veterans, some young upside players with potential, and maybe a rookie or two. Finding and selecting potential breakout players before the rest of your league is one of the best parts about participating in fantasy football. It helps your team become stronger, and normally will come at an affordable price on draft day. We already looked at quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers that could end up having a big 2017 campaign. Now here are a couple of tight ends with breakout potential entering the 2017 NFL season.
Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
After tearing his patellar tendon in 2015, it was unclear if Graham would ever return to his status as one of the league’s elite tight ends. Well, the 30-year old squashed any of those concerns last year when he caught 65 passes for 923 yards and six touchdowns, finishing as the TE4 in PPR formats. Graham averaged a career-high 14.2 yards per catch in his first season back from the devastating injury, despite head coach Pete Carroll being extra cautious with his tight end. It served as the second time Graham finished in the top four in fantasy football over the past three years, as he placed as the TE2 in 2014. The former University of Miami tight end has been very consistent throughout his career. In each of the four seasons in which he played all 16 games, Graham caught at least 65 passes for 885 yards and six touchdowns. And although he missed some time in 2015, Graham has managed to stay relatively healthy since he entered the league in 2010. Not counting 2015, the tight end has only missed two regular season games in six seasons.
Entering his eighth year in the NFL, Graham is fully healthy and looks poised for a big year. Russell Wilson targeted Graham 95 times last season, and that number is practically guaranteed to increase this season. The two spent the offseason working out together, and reports indicate that they have established a strong rapport with each other. It’s also important to note that Graham was able to put together a very solid 2016 campaign with Wilson having the worst season of his career. The quarterback was banged up throughout the entire year, and it was obvious that the injuries were taking a toll on him. Now healthy, it is fair to expect a rebound from Wilson, which is great news for Graham. Outside of Doug Baldwin, the tight end will remain as a primary weapon for Wilson in the Seahawks’ passing game, especially in the red zone. Wilson targeted his tight end 17 times in the red zone last year, which was the third-most among tight ends. With his 6-foot-7 frame, Graham is likely to once again be Wilson’s favorite target close to the end zone.
Despite his strong bounce-back season, Graham is still being drafted in the fifth round as the 5th tight end off the board. All signs are pointing towards a huge year for the tight end, and he is likely to outperform that ADP. His performance last season should be his fantasy floor, while a top three finish is very realistic if he can stay healthy.
Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
Henry had a very impressive rookie season last year. The tight end out of Arkansas caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns, and finished the year as the No. 11 tight end in standard-scoring leagues. His eight touchdowns tied Cameron Brate for the league-lead among tight ends, and he was able to do this while playing only 58 percent of the Chargers’ snaps and sharing targets with Antonio Gates. While Gates will still steal some catches from Henry this year, it was very clear last season who the more explosive tight end for Phillip Rivers was. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end is 15 years younger than Gates, runs a 4.66 40-yard dash, and overall just looked better than the veteran tight end in 2016. Both Henry and Gates ranked among the seven most-targeted tight ends in red-zone situations, which shows where Rivers’ eyes are when the Chargers get close to the end zone.
Heading into the 2017 season, it is obvious that Henry is the future at tight end for the Chargers. The 2016 second-round pick is set to take on a much larger role in Los Angeles’ offense, and with rookie Mike Williams already out for a while with a back issue, Henry should end up as the third option in the passing attack behind Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams. The 22-year-old was one of the stars of training camp this summer, drawing rave reviews from everyone present at camp. Henry worked on his pass-blocking throughout the offseason, which was one of the areas he struggled in last year. That may not sound important for fantasy purposes, but in reality, it makes a big difference. An improvement in his blocking means the Chargers will likely keep him on the field for more snaps, thus leading to more targets and catches.
The biggest criticism of Henry’s rookie campaign was the percentage of snaps he was on the field for. With that looking like it will not be an issue in 2017, Henry looks poised for a breakout season. Henry’s ADP is currently in the eighth round, but if he can take the next step in his development, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he ends the season as a top five tight end.
Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts
Doyle has played four seasons in the NFL, yet he didn’t actually burst onto the scene until last year. After recording 35 total receptions in his first three seasons, Doyle caught 59 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. Those numbers were good enough to land Doyle as fantasy’s TE12 in standard leagues and TE13 in PPR leagues. But the most impressive part of Doyle’s game is his catching ability. Although he is far from the most athletic tight end, the 27-year-old displayed amazing hands last season, finishing 2016 with the best catch rate of any Indianapolis receiver with at least 50 targets with a mark of 78.7 percent. Not only was this the best catch rate of any Colts receiver last season, but it was also the best catch rate among all of the league’s tight ends in 2016. Doyle has developed into a reliable possession receiver for Andrew Luck, and should continue to perform in that role in 2017.
Doyle managed to put up very solid numbers last year despite sharing targets with Dwayne Allen. The former played a larger percentage of the team’s offensive snaps, but Allen was still on the field for 55.7 percent of them. Allen signed with the Patriots this offseason, meaning Doyle is set to take over as the team’s primary tight end. The two combined for the second-most targets inside the 10-yard line among players of their position last year, but with Allen now gone, Doyle will absorb most (if not all) of those looks. Another thing in Doyle’s favor is Indianapolis’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Chudzinski has an amazing track record of developing his tight ends. He played a large role in Kellen Winslow II’s career year in 2007, several years of Antonio Gates’ prime, Jordan Cameron’s unreal season in 2013, and Coby Fleener’s strong 2014 campaign. Doyle is the next tight end to join this group, and will surely benefit from the tutelage of Chudzinski.
Doyle is currently being drafted in the 10th -11th round of fantasy drafts. If he can come even close to performing at the level that many believe he will this season, then the tight end will grossly outperform that ADP. Doyle’s potential rests partly on the shoulders of Luck’s health. But even if the quarterback misses some time, Doyle should still find plenty of success in Chudzinski’s offensive system.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.