The tight end position is quickly threatening to become a fantasy black hole. Hunter Henry and David Njoku are injured. George Kittle and O.J. Howard are off to slow starts. And several other top-ranked guys have lost their quarterbacks.
So, we’re kicking off this week with a status check on several top tight ends, asking ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters to rate the level of concern for their fantasy value from 1 to 10.
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers. Level of concern: 2. Understandably, those who have Kittle were disappointed he didn’t contribute more in a game in which his team racked up 572 yards and scored 41 points last week in Cincinnati. But think of the long game here. Kittle is clearly the 49ers’ biggest threat and the one opponents are working to stop the most. So having a game like that, in which the running backs and rookie wideout Deebo Samuel produced big numbers, should only help open things up for Kittle — who also started slow last season, before going on to break NFL records. The slight concern has to come from the fact that Kittle has had most of his success without Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. But Kittle is still getting plenty of targets, seems to be developing chemistry with Garoppolo and has had two touchdowns called back for penalties — which if they counted probably would have rendered this question unnecessary. Bottom line: Kittle is too good to not bust loose sooner rather than later. — Nick Wagoner
Evan Engram, New York Giants. Level of concern: 2. The switch from Eli Manning to Daniel Jones shouldn’t do much to alter Engram’s fantasy value. He still is one of the few weapons the Giants have and will be targeted plenty. Jones made undrafted rookie tight end C.J. Conrad look dominant with the second-team offense throughout the summer. Jones should have no problem feeding Engram. In fact, the switch might even lead to more big plays with Jones’ arm and aggressiveness. — Jordan Raanan
Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh Steelers. Level of concern: 3. It’s an admittedly small sample size, but McDonald’s fantasy value could increase in a Mason Rudolph-led offense. With Rudolph at quarterback in the second half of Sunday’s loss, McDonald had four catches on four targets, including two touchdowns — the first multi-TD game of his career. Rudolph threw only two TD passes to tight ends in his college career at Oklahoma State. But he has targeted tight ends 10.3% of the time in preseason games, according to NextGen Stats. That is still a drop-off, though, from Ben Roethlisberger, who targeted tight ends 16.5% of the time since 2017, with 11 of his 62 TD throws going to them. — Brooke Pryor
O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Level of concern: 5. Howard’s early struggles are a function of his own performance and this coaching staff’s track record for not always having the tight end involved (tight ends saw a total of two targets last week). In training camp, Howard looked like a dominant player poised to take the next step. But in Week 1, he had a rough game, with the ball bouncing off him for an interception and a fumble at the 49ers’ 8-yard line. Then in Week 2, he saw zero targets, although he did serve as a key blocker. When coach Bruce Arians was asked about Howard’s lack of production, he said, “You’d probably have to ask him. He’s got so much talent and he can play a heck of a lot better than he’s playing.” The entire Bucs offense needs to improve. But if it does, Arians believes Howard just needs to “keep playing” and the “balls will come” — something offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich echoed. — Jenna Laine.
Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints. Level of concern: 5. Cook’s fantasy value shouldn’t automatically nose-dive just because Drew Brees is sidelined for the next six weeks or so. In theory, Cook is the perfect type of big, midrange target to provide a nice safety valve for backup Teddy Bridgewater — who did target him five times last week, with two completions for 25 yards. But I’m slightly concerned in general that Cook’s slow start hasn’t lived up to the lofty potential he displayed on the practice field in OTAs and training camp. So I expect an unpredictable mix of big games and quiet ones throughout the season. — Mike Triplett
Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts. Level of concern: 7 for Ebron, 5 for Doyle. One thing the Colts have proved so far this season is that they will consistently try to run the ball (they rank second in the NFL with 370 rushing yards) and not force the passing game. This is the opposite approach from when Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning were the franchise quarterbacks, so the tight ends haven’t had as big of an impact in the passing game, so far, as they did last season. One of the things that coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni talked about during training camp was that players would have to make sacrifices because of the depth they have at the skill position spots. And be warned: Sunday’s game doesn’t look like a good passing opportunity for the Colts, because the Falcons have given up an NFL-low 167 yards per game through the air. — Mike Wells
Now for the rest of our weekly tour around the league:
Arizona Cardinals: It has been quite the win-win relationship between 22-year-old QB Kyler Murray and 36-year-old receiver Larry Fitzgerald, so far. Murray called Fitzgerald a “security blanket,” and Fitzgerald is off to the best start in his 16-year career, wrote Josh Weinfuss.
Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson ran for a career-high 120 yards last week. But once again, Jackson showed off his passing ability with a perfect 41-yard throw when the Ravens trusted him in a critical third-and-11 situation, wrote Jamison Hensley.
Hensley also wrote about the great connection Jackson has formed with a tight end who is actually tearing it up early this season, Mark Andrews.
Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon took the blame for his “terrible” performances this season, telling reporters they can call him the “peon.” Coach Zac Taylor said the blame clearly falls on the entire offense. Either way, they know they have to get it fixed.
Denver Broncos: Second-year running backs Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay have played 72 snaps apiece this season. As Jeff Legwold wrote: “While that figures to be a source of consternation for fantasy football nation, it is the Broncos’ plan.”
Green Bay Packers: Running back Aaron Jones can help first-year coach Matt LaFleur’s offense break out from its early-season blahs –- especially if he keeps getting involved in the passing game, wrote Rob Demovsky.
Minnesota Vikings: Coach Mike Zimmer insisted the Vikings “have the utmost confidence” in quarterback Kirk Cousins. They believe his dismal game last Sunday was more of an anomaly than a cautious trend, according to Courtney Cronin.
“We know he’s special,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “If you’re a little kid and you love the Raiders and you’re a running back, I’d buy his jersey, because he’s going to be around a long time.”
San Francisco 49ers: Remember how good everyone thought that pairing between coach Kyle Shanahan and QB Jimmy Garoppolo would be, before Garoppolo tore his ACL last year? Well, we saw it come together in a big way last Sunday, as Wagoner wrote.