By :Jesse Patterson April 15 2019
Ask any group of fantasy football fanatics who their top ten dynasty assets are at tight end heading into the NFL draft. Outside of the obvious top three of George Kittle, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz, you will have a hard time to find a consensus on the other spots on the list. DLF rankings show Evan Engram and David Njoku as the next two popular names, while their April ADP data has Engram and OJ Howard next in line. Hunter Henry is another name being thrown about, as are 2018 breakout players Jared Cook and Eric Ebron. The 2019 rookie class is also creeping into these rankings: T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, and Irv Smith Jr. are all gaining momentum despite not yet having NFL teams or any sort of statistical success at the professional level. For championship-contending teams in dynasty leagues, if all your roster is missing is that one key reliable tight end, acquiring one of those top valued players could prove to be an expensive ordeal. Obviously, the Big Three: of Kittle, Ertz, and Kelce will cost you a fortune, while the rest of the players listed above are all either expensive due to the combination of youth and upside or risky coming off of their one successful season.
What if I were to tell you that there is a starting caliber tight end available right now, that you can likely acquire for relatively cheap, but that you can plug into your weekly lineup and get steady, consistent top-12 production? This is a tight end who was actually drafted in the same class as Kelce, Ertz, Tyler Eifert, and Jordan Reed, though is rarely talked about. He certainly looks the part as a big target, standing 6’4” and 267 lbs., so he isn’t a liability in blocking situations. Yet he is sure-handed enough to be a factor in the passing game, catching 69.4% of his targets in 2018, better than Kelce, Kittle, Ebron, Cook, and Njoku. He returns for his third season in the same offensive system, under the same head coach, and with the same quarterback who finished fourth in the league in red zone pass attempts and first in overall passing attempts last season. This pass-heavy approach was nothing new for this team either, as they finished third in attempts in 2017 and ninth in 2016. I am speaking of last season’s TE10, Vance McDonald, who currently sits atop a shallow depth chart in Pittsburgh following the departure of Jesse James to the Lions. There is a chance that the Steelers add to the position in the upcoming draft, though as it currently stands only Xavier Grimble, Jake McGee, and Bucky Hodges round out the depth chart. Add to this that rookie tight ends rarely make a year one impact, and McDonald is poised to operate as the primary tight end who will play the majority of the snaps in the always-potent Steelers offense.
Originally drafted in the second round, 55th overall by the San Francisco 49ers, McDonald put up career-best totals in catches, yards, and touchdowns last season while splitting time with James. Through 16 games, the former Rice University Owl grabbed 50 receptions on 73 targets for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. 2019 will actually be his first season playing under his new three-year, $19.65 million contract extension, so the team is financially invested in his continued success. At 28 years old, McDonald should in theory be entering the prime of his career, though there is certainly room and opportunity to improve on last season’s totals.
For starters, James leaving the team vacates 39 2018 targets, including five in the red zone. More notably, with Antonio Brown now gone, the Steelers will be looking for someone to soak up some of his looks as well. Obviously a lot of Brown’s 168 targets will be spread amongst the Steelers other pass-catching weapons at wide receiver, but some of those looks will go to McDonald. This includes some of the 24 red zone opportunities Brown was targeted on this past year. Even a slight uptick in numbers would leave McDonald plenty of opportunity for statistical success. Let’s project him for 100 targets, completely reasonable based on the departures of James and Brown. At his catch rate from last season, that would give him roughly 70 receptions, which would have placed him top five amongst tight ends. A slight increase in targets would also mean a slight uptick in yards and touchdowns, so using the same math as above, this would put him on track for 854 yards and six touchdowns. Again, this is being cautious - as there is clearly opportunity for more catches, yards, and touchdowns available to him - but with this production, McDonald would have ranked as the TE4 in 2018.
Do yourself a favor, ask your league-mates to rank their top ten dynasty tight ends for you; none of them will even think to mention Vance McDonald. Once you’ve established this, go and pitch a low offer to the McDonald owner such as a third-round rookie pick in 2019 or 2020. The opportunity is certainly there for you to cheaply acquire someone who could very well be a top six player at the position in 2019 while other championship contenders are paying a lot more for Engram, Howard, or Njoku. Even if you already have one of the other top tier tight ends, you will have solidified your roster at the position while still allowing you to focus on loading up at other spots without sacrificing a key prospect or high draft pick. McDonald is the forgotten man at tight end; take advantage and reap the rewards.