Over the past four seasons only 14 tight ends have managed at least 20 catches in their rookie season, and the best of those campaigns—Tim Wright’s 54-571-5 in 2013—would have barely been fantasy starter-worthy in a 16-team league.
With the 2015 tight end class one of the weaker in recent memory—and expectations lowered accordingly—here’s a rundown of the fantasy prospects for this year’s crop of rookie tight ends.
MAXX WILLIAMS, RAVENS 2.23 (MINNESOTA)
Williams was the consensus top option among this year’s thin tight end class. He found an almost perfect landing spot as well, with the Ravens trading up to take him in the second round. Baltimore won’t be quite as tight end-heavy as they were under Gary Kubiak, but Marc Trestman knows how to use his big fellas as well. Williams will need to get stronger to stay on the field all three downs, and historically rookie tight ends are a fantasy wasteland, but he has the upside to harken Ravens fans back to the days of Todd Heap.
CLIVE WALFORD, RAIDERS 3.4 (MIAMI (FL))
First-round pick Amari Cooper might be the most high-profile addition to Derek Carr’s arsenal, but Walford could challenge Mychal Rivera for looks in the Oakland offense. Walford has the size and blocking acumen to hold up as an every-down tight end, but he’s also an adept pass-catcher as well—and he’s faster than Rivera as well. Given that the tight end was a frequent third-down target for Carr last season, Walford could move quickly into a prominent role in the Raiders passing game.
TYLER KROFT, BENGALS 3.21 (RUTGERS)
While in theory the Bengals appear set at tight end with the return of Tyler Eifert, the 2013 first-rounder’s injury history—he missed most of last season with a dislocated elbow—gives reason to drafting two tight ends and adding two more UDFAs. Kroft was the first of those tight ends, making him the top insurance policy to Eifert. But the Bengals also use plenty of two tight end sets—at least when both Eifert and Jermaine Gresham were healthy—so Kroft may see the field sooner rather than later. Unfortunately he’ll likely wind up as the blocking tight end in the tandem, at least for now, so his immediate fantasy impact is iffy at best.
JESSE JAMES, STEELERS 5.24 (PENN STATE)
A fifth-round pick isn’t exactly a large investment, but there’s an opportunity for James to join the fray this year as a potential red-zone vulture. Long-term, James has the size and athleticism to develop into the heir to current Steelers tight end Heath Miller—giving him the upside of a low-end fantasy starter down the road.
NICK O’LEARY, BILLS 6.18 (FLORIDA STATE)
With a new coach and new offense, the Bills spent the offseason looking for both quality and quantity at tight end. They signed free agent Charles Clay, then added O’Leary on Day Three of the draft. While O’Leary’s greatest claim to fame may be his bloodlines (he’s the grandson of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus), he’s a solid player in his own right. His blocking ability should get him on the field sooner rather than later, but even in Greg Roman’s multiple tight end sets he’ll have his work cut out for him to carve out fantasy value behind Clay.
JEFF HEUERMAN, BRONCOS 3.28 (OHIO STATE)
Dynasty leaguers with deep rosters and an injured reserve will want to keep tabs on Heuerman. He has all the physical traits of previous tight ends—Owen Daniels, for example—who have found success in Gary Kubiak offenses. However, Heuerman tore his ACL during minicamp and will miss his rookie season. File him away for future reference, as a tight end guru like Kubiak thought enough of him to use a Day Two draft pick—and Daniels himself, who followed Kubiak from Houston to Baltimore to Denver, isn’t getting any younger.