Evaluating the tight end position in fantasy football used to be easy. Either you got New England’s Rob Gronkowski — a four-time all-pro with 79 career touchdowns, the fourth-most by a tight end in NFL history — or you waited until later in the draft to fill the position. Gronkowski announced his retirement from football in March, making this year’s decision a little more difficult.

And yet there seems to be some consensus at the top of the pecking order. According to the experts polled by Fantasy Pros, Travis Kelce gets top billing, followed by George Kittle and Zach Ertz. Of more than 100 experts polled as of Aug. 13, all but four ranked Kelce as the top tight end.

But our own schedule-adjusted projections for the 2019 season (read more about the methodology here) give Kittle the edge over Kelce, a departure from what you were likely expecting. That’s because our model adjusts for strength of schedule.

The San Francisco 49ers have an easier projected schedule for tight ends than the Kansas City Chiefs, enough to give Kittle a slim one-point edge in the season projections. The 49ers start their season at Tampa Bay, at Cincinnati and then home against Pittsburgh, three teams that ranked 25th or worse against tight ends last season in terms of expected points allowed per 100 snaps. And half of San Francisco’s opponents ranked 22nd or worse against tight ends in 2018. Kansas City, on the other hand, plays just six games against defenses that ranked 22nd or worse against the position. The Chiefs also play the Chicago Bears, one of the top teams against tight ends in 2018, in Week 16, which is the championship game in most fantasy football league formats.

(For the record, our model would rank both Kittle and Kelce as mid-to-late first round picks, although our beginner’s guide recommends waiting to draft Kittle.)

You also might have noticed our fantasy draft list includes three tight ends ranked in the top 15 and seven in the top 50. Here’s why: positional scarcity. The top five players at the position in 2018 averaged 230 points in point-per-reception, or PPR, leagues last year, 101 more points than the average score of tight ends who finished the season ranked between No. 6 and No. 10. The next highest seasonal gap between the first five and next five tight ends occurred in 2004, an 86-point difference.

Our schedule-adjusted projections for the 2019 season aren’t forecasting as big a gap as last year (67 points, as of Aug. 14), but that is still the second biggest projected positional drop from elite to second-tier, behind only the running back position. In other words, a high-ranking tight end offers more potential value than any other position aside from an elite running back. And when you consider that there are only 12 starting tight end slots (not including the flex position), it becomes even more valuable to nab one of the top tight ends before focusing on the other positions.

Among the experts, there is some disagreement in the second tier of O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and Hunter Henry, who are projected as anywhere from the second to ninth best tight ends in 2019. Our model has Howard on top, followed by Engram and Henry, with all three ranked among the top 40 overall.

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