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Narrative Street

The Death of Tight End

by Jesse Pantuosco
Updated On: October 5, 2018, 11:26 pm ET

As a rap mogul and world-famous entrepreneur, I highly doubt Jay-Z has time in his busy schedule to compete in a fantasy football league (How cool would it be if he did though? Can you imagine Jay-Z trash-talking Kanye about their upcoming fantasy matchup? “Jamaal Williams as your RB2? Yeah good luck with that, Ye.”). But if he did, you can bet tight end would be one of his 99 problems. And it would probably be at the top of his list.


Pack it up, everyone. The tight end experiment is over. Done. Kaput. Finished. See you later. Nice knowing you. I know I can be dramatic in these columns—cranking it up from a two to a 10 is what I do best—but this time I’m actually serious. This is crisis mode. Stay calm everyone, STAY CALM.


You think tight end is thin? No. “Thin” was three weeks ago when fantasy owners lost Delanie Walker and Greg Olsen to injuries. Now it’s a graveyard. Think of some of the donkeys being rostered in leagues right now. Jesse James, C.J. Uzomah, the ghost of Antonio Gates, some Madden-generated player named Geoff Swaim (this screenshot proves we’re living in the darkest timeline for tight ends).


Traditionally, fantasy owners approach tight end one of two ways. Either you bite the bullet and grab one of the heavy hitters (Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz round out this year’s big three) or you wait forever on draft night and hope someone halfway decent (this is where you’ll find the George Kittles of the world) falls in your lap. I usually aim for the latter—I have no exposure to Gronk, Kelce or Ertz across my five season-long leagues—but with all the bedlam happening at tight end, I’ve had to embrace a third option: praying.


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Move over volcano rabbit, because there’s a new endangered species in town, the NFL tight end. The good news is that we’re all in this hell-scape together. Outside of Jared Cook owners, almost no one has been immune to the carnage at tight end. Apparently tight ends are made of glass, because this year’s crop has been especially injury-prone. Walker and Olsen got it started by bowing out in Week 1 and it’s only gotten worse since then. Evan Engram followed suit a few weeks later with an MCL injury, which is around the time Jack Doyle’s hip started barking (the Doyle injury finally gave me an excuse to roll out Ryan Griffin on a weekly basis, which is pretty spectacular). It didn’t take long for O.J. Howard and out-of-nowhere rookie Will Dissly to join Doyle among the walking wounded. Of course Tyler Eifert went full Gordon Hayward the week I decided to use him in every single DFS lineup. Hayden Hurst, Jake Butt … the list goes on and on. And we’re not even talking about Hunter Henry, who is still feeling the effects of a torn ACL he suffered during minicamp in May. When you think about it, the solidarity is really quite impressive. It’s like the tight ends held a closed-door meeting and decided, “we’ll all get hurt together!” Shame on Cook and Kelce for crossing the picket line. SCABS!


There’s not much wisdom to impart here as tight end has really devolved into a weekly game of “close your eyes and hope for the best.” If you’re able to find a living, breathing tight end on the waiver wire, you may as well pull the trigger. Tight end has always been eminently punt-able relative to other fantasy positions, but this year the YOLOing has reached its logical extreme. The desperation is real. It’s time to live dangerously. Be freed. No longer are we bound by the constraints of normal tight end logic. Let’s donkey it up with Rhett Ellison and Ricky Seals-Jones. The tight-end apocalypse is here and it’s only going to get stranger.


What’s the fantasy rub?


First, go to the waiver wire. Second, find an available tight end. Third, make sure the tight end you choose is healthy and not on a bye week. Fourth, insert that tight end into your starting lineup. I’m only sort of kidding. With injuries mounting, the tight end landscape is as bleak as it’s ever been. We’ve reached the point where perennial disappointments like Eric Ebron (who is low-key balling at the moment) and Vance McDonald have ascended to must-start status. Anything goes right now. If you can find a tight end who has all his limbs intact and is locked into any kind of consistent volume, you’re probably all set.  


Fournette Regret


I’m getting out in front of this one. You’re probably familiar with Freezing Cold Takes, a Twitter account that digs up embarrassing old sports opinions that have either aged poorly or were never good to begin with. As a professional sports opinion-haver (I dished out quite the Le’Veon Bell take in my last column), I’m not immune to occasionally making bad calls, so here’s one of them. If you have the Rotoworld Draft Guide in front of you, turn to page 132 where I say, “Leonard Fournette will avoid the sophomore slump.”


I’m not sure why I chose this hill to die on but okay, Jesse. You do you. I did hedge somewhat by filing it under the “Bold prediction” subheading, which was a clever ploy on my part (to me, bold is just a synonym for “probably wrong”). Predicting that Fournette would be good at football wasn’t an explosive take, especially compared to some of the other lines in the sand I’ve drawn over the years, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. The good news, at least for me, is that I wound up with zero Fournette exposure across all my season-long leagues (I guess I’m not really one of those “practice what you preach” guys), though that was admittedly more of a coincidence than any kind of conscious measure.


If Fournette came back tomorrow, I’d still be treating him as an every-week RB1, but here’s the thing—he’s not coming back tomorrow. Or next week. And that’s the point. We don’t know WHEN Fournette is coming back from his hamstring injury. Maybe we should have seen this coming. As good as he was as a rookie in 2017, Fournette wasn’t exactly Mr. Durable. A seemingly minor ankle injury led to a two-week absence and even upon his return, the former LSU Tiger wasn’t the same player who dominated early on, limping (quite literally) to 3.23 yards per carry over his final five regular season games. Fournette caught a second wind, however, rumbling to four touchdowns over three postseason appearances.


If Fournette’s playoff resurgence had never taken place, he probably would have been an easy fade in drafts this summer. But instead he gave us false hope and we took the bait, making him a first-rounder in nearly every fantasy format. I guess the joke is on us (well not me, since I didn’t draft him anywhere) because injuries have rendered the 23-year-old a complete and utter non-factor. Fournette has seen a grand total of 45 offensive snaps this season, which is fewer than backfield mates T.J. Yeldon (165) and Corey Grant (57). And after seeing Fournette aggravate the injury almost immediately upon his return in Week 4, it’s fair to wonder if his hamstring will be an issue all year. Soft-tissue injuries tend to linger longer than most.


It’s a shame because had he stayed healthy, the former fourth overall pick would have been a huge cog in the Jaguars’ offense. Trying their best to hide erratic signal-caller Blake Bortles, the Jags handed Fournette an exhausting 20.6 carries per game in 2017, topping the rushing workload seen by both Todd Gurley (18.6 attempts per game) and Melvin Gordon (17.8). Fournette wasn’t as involved in the passing game as those two were, but his nose for the end zone (10 touchdowns over 13 regular season games) proved extremely valuable. However, until he returns to something resembling full health, all those points are moot. Fournette could have been a league-winner this year but as his injury struggles continue, he’s looking more and more like a wasted fantasy pick.


Fantasy owners face a similar conundrum with Dalvin Cook, another injury-plagued sophomore back desperately fighting to retain his fantasy relevance. Cook’s torn ACL may have been a freak injury but his persistent hamstring woes this year have done nothing to quiet the “fragile” narrative that has long surrounded him. Much like the Jaguars and their strange handling of Fournette, the Vikings seem to have botched Cook’s recovery, trotting him out at far less than 100 percent (on a short week, no less) for last week’s Thursday night tilt against the high-powered Rams. Cook was wholly ineffective in that game, plodding his way to 20 yards on 10 first-half carries. The FSU alum didn’t see a single touch in the second half, suggesting A) he suffered a setback or B) he never should have been out there in the first place. Actually, it was probably both.


Coach Mike Zimmer has branded his workhorse a game-time decision for Sunday’s battle against the Eagles (a rematch of last year’s NFC title game), but he’s not fooling anyone. The 2017 second-rounder garnered “DNP” status at each of the Vikings’ three practices this week, making him a long shot to suit up against the reigning champs. Assuming the Vikings subscribe to logic and actually give their young star time to heal instead of exacerbating his injury by making him play through it, Latavius Murray should see the lion’s share of Minnesota’s backfield work in Week 5. Any good will Murray may have built up in the fantasy community evaporated two weeks ago when the 28-year-old managed a single yard on two carries with Cook absent against the Bills. To his credit, Murray fared somewhat better the following week, doubling his Week 3 total by generating a whole two yards (also on two carries) in a loss to the Rams.


Minnesota’s passing offense helmed by Kirk Cousins has been among the league’s best this year, but their ground game has been nonexistent, faltering to the tune of 63 rushing yards per game, good for last in the NFL. Game script has been partially to blame as the Vikes have found themselves playing from behind each of the past two weeks, but that still doesn’t account for Minnesota’s disastrous efficiency (3.5 yards per game) or the fact that they haven’t scored a rushing touchdown since last year’s playoffs. Where the running game is concerned, the Vikings haven’t held up their end of the bargain and after a month of underachieving, it’s going to take time for them to win back our trust.


What’s the fantasy rub?


May I interest you in some Blake Bortles? Obviously, Bortles has a long history of being … well Blake Bortles. But it stands to reason that he’ll be forced to throw more without Fournette around to prop up the running game and when that’s happened in the past, Bortles has fared surprisingly well. In five games without Fournette the past two seasons, Bortles has averaged 289.2 passing yards (well above his career mark of 242.8) while contributing a thoroughly impressive 9:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Lining up against one of the league’s worst secondaries in Week 5, Bortles should put on a clinic in Kansas City. For DFS stacking purposes, Dede Westbrook, who is coming off a career-high 130 yards in a Week 4 win over the Jets, would probably be your safest bet. Given his reasonable price ($6,500 on FanDuel), especially relative to the volume he’s likely to receive, Yeldon also figures to see high ownership this week.


As for the Vikings, well that one’s a bit more complicated. On second thought, maybe it’s not that complicated. The Vikings kick off at 4:25 PM ET on Sunday, meaning the early slate will already be in full swing by the time we learn Cook’s status. That’s not ideal, nor is it ideal that the Vikings will be lining up against the stingiest run defense in football, all while playing in one of the league’s most hostile environments. No thanks. Cook, Murray, Roc Thomas—whoever gets the ball on Sunday, I don’t want him. This has “fade” written all over it.

Jesse Pantuosco
Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.