Draft Strategy

Who Should You Draft First: Tyler Eifert or Jimmy Graham?

Your fantasy draft has progressed beyond the initial rounds, and you have decided to target a tight end with your next selection. There have been no surprises to this point in the draft process, as Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, and Greg Olsen were the first four tight ends to be selected. But now… you are on the clock…and remain mentally committed to choosing a Fantasy Tight End with your impending pick. Tyler Eifert and Jimmy Graham are available, and both have resumes that include the propensity to deliver favorable results – if they are unencumbered by protracted injuries. You are steadfast in your determination to seize one of them for your roster. But which one should you choose?

According to Fantasy Football Calculator’s latest ADP data, Graham and Eifert are the first two tight ends that are being selected once Gronk, Kelce, Reed, and Olsen are no longer available. Graham has consistently been drafted in Round 6 while departing the draft board anywhere from five to eight slots before Eifert as we have proceeded through the summer. There is ample incentive for owners to be enticed by the option of securing either player, as both are fully capable of boosting weekly scoring totals whenever they are in the lineup for their respective teams. Yet, there is also sufficient justification for exercising caution before you dedicate a draft pick to the tight end position at this point of the draft. Rather than enhancing your arsenal of running backs, fortifying your collection of wide receivers, or securing your first quarterback.

You certainly have the option of exercising continued patience before committing yourself to a tight end. Delanie Walker, Martellus Bennett, and Kyle Rudolph occupy the next tier at the position and should be available in Rounds 7-8. Although the downside to targeting that trio of options is that they are unlikely to provide a scoring bonanza with the same consistency as a healthy Eifert or Graham. You are also susceptible to even greater risk of enduring erratic and disappointing production from the options that would remain if you chose to abstain from securing a tight end until even later in your draft.

Tyler EifertArmed with that rationale, we will proceed with the premise that you have decided to choose between Eifert and Graham. As a result of being sufficiently motivated by the concept of both players performing injury fee, and maneuvering consistently beyond overmatched defenders. Although that is an image that has been eviscerated too often for Eifert owners. His career numbers have been hindered by an inability to perform in all 16 regular-season games during any of his four years at the professional level. He nearly achieved that feat as a rookie in 2013, but a neck issue forced him to miss Cincinnati’s Week 17 matchup. He dislocated his elbow during the Bengals’ season opener in 2014, which sidelined him for the remaining 15 contests. Then, the unwanted combination of a neck injury and concussion rendered him unavailable for three contests during his otherwise productive 2015 season, while lingering issues with his ankle and back led to a lengthy absence of eight games last year. That dubious track record of unreliability could easily suppress your motivation to pursue him. However, even though his career history is laden with bothersome injuries, it also contains notable proficiency as a red zone weapon.

In 2015, the 6’ 6” 250 pound Eifert caught an impressive 12 of his 15 targets from inside the 20, with 11 of those receptions generating touchdowns. That helped propel him into the league lead among all tight ends with 13 for the season, which was a total that was surpassed by just three wide receivers. He scored in eight of the 13 contests in which he played in, and collected 52 of his 72 targets during that span. Plus, his whopping 80% red zone reception percentage tied him for first at his position. His continued potency as a weapon near the end zone was not as readily apparent last season. But despite performing in only eight games, he still manufactured five touchdowns. If the pair of prolonged injuries had not conspired to impede his season-long production, that pace during the course of an entire 16-game season would have elevated his value significantly. Particularly since it would have occurred immediately after his eye-opening production in 2015. Instead, owners are currently forced to determine whether they can retain confidence in Eifert’s ability to remain on the field, with enough consistency to deliver on their investment.

Meanwhile, Graham has navigated through an entire 16-game season four different times, and just accomplished it again in 2016. His continued presence in the lineup, enabled him to produce his highest yardage total since 2013 (923), while also assembling 65 receptions, and six touchdowns. He also averaged a career best 14.2 YPC, as 10 of his catches eclipsed 20+ yards. However, he now enters his eighth year as a professional, a full four seasons removed from his last 1,000-yard campaign. When he also generated 1,215 yards, and led the NFL with a mammoth 16 touchdowns. It would be overly ambitious to predict that Graham can elevate his production to a level that restores him to league-best status. But he remains tremendously gifted, is currently healthy, and is entirely capable of supplying owners with his highest output since becoming a Seahawk.

Pass Protection: A Potential Roadblock

Jimmy GrahamEifert and Graham will return to offensive systems that will be largely unchanged, and both players will have the benefit of continuity with their coaching staffs. However, shortcomings that exist with the two offensive lines create a justifiable reason for concern. These units were just ranked 31st (Cincinnati) and 32nd (Seattle) respectively by Pro Football Focus, and it is reasonable to expect that blocking will become an even greater issue for the Bengals this year. The quality of Cincinnati’s unit was already troubling, even before the departures of All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler. Now, their exodus has only compounded an existing problem, for a line that surrendered the seventh most sacks last season (41). This considerable void has not been addressed with any degree of significance, as the team opted to bring back Andre Smith, after a triceps issue led to his forgettable one-year stint with Minnesota. He is expected to operate at a guard position, while the Bengals will depend on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher to function as the starting tackles. This is not a formula that should satisfy any potential owners when they are considering Eifert, or any other Cincinnati receiving weapon. Any persisting protection issues from a group that was already struggling, and must now perform without last year’s most effective components, will pose a severe threat to the success of Cincinnati’s 2017 offensive blueprint. As spearheading the Bengal aerial attack could sometimes be an arduous task for Andy Dalton.

Meanwhile, Seattle has attempted to address the inadequacies of its offensive line, by adding former second overall pick Luke Joeckel, and Oday Aboushi in free agency, and drafting 6’6″, 309 pound Ethan Pocic on Day 2 of last April’s NFL draft. Joeckel was signed to a one-year deal, following what was essentially a lost season. As he is currently recovering from an ACL/MCL tear that limited him to just four games with Jacksonville in 2016. Seattle will be reliant upon assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable to help resuscitate Joeckel’s career, and to utilize Pocic’s versatility. That trait is highly coveted with anyone performing on Seattle’s line, and could translate into snaps at several positions. The exact configuration of the line – with the notable exception of center Justin Britt- will be determined between now and Week 1. But even though the Seahawks allowed one more sack than Cincinnati last season, potential Graham owners should be reminded that Russell Wilson has been operating behind a unit that has allowed over 40 sacks in each of the past four years (42-46-42-44). But he possesses a track record of success when he is unrestricted by injury. This was underscored by his performance last season, as an assortment of issues (high ankle sprain/sprained knee/ right pectoral) limited his mobility, and hampered his production on the ground (a career worst 259 yards). Yet, he still manufactured a career high 4,219 passing yards, which was the second consecutive year that he surpassed 4,000.

Will Either Team Have A Top 10 Passing Attack?

Both teams were essentially even in total offense last season, as the Seahawks ranked one spot above the Bengals (12th/13th), with yard per game averages that were virtual carbon copies (357.2/356.9). Seattle also ranked 10th in passing offense (258 YPG), while Cincinnati finished 14th (246 YPG). 22 teams passed with greater frequency than the Bengals (57.5%), although that number could rise as a result of the regenerated collection of receiving weapons. 28-year A.J. Green will return for his seventh season, securely entrenched as Cincinnati’s primary receiving weapon. After a hamstring issue sidelined him for the team’s final six contests in 2016. Both Green and Eifert should benefit from the addition of John Ross, who instantly supplies the increased threat of a tangible, vertical element. At a minimum, he should make open space far more accessible through deployment on deep routes. Although how quickly that process evolves is uncertain, as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. Joe Mixon should become a dynamic point producer overall, and will certainly commandeer a huge portion of the 78 targets that were allocated to Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard last season. Mixon should eventually supplant Hill as the feature back, while Bernard, Brandon LaFell, and Tyler Boyd plunge to inconsequential locations outside the fantasy landscape, But Eifert will remain a vital factor within the offense, amid the infusion of new talent. Plus, he will be utilized as a menacing red zone presence, providing that he can elude further injury. It is worth noting again, that the eventual output by Eifert and Cincinnati’s other receiving options will be dependent upon the offensive line’s often problematic pass blocking. In Scott Kacsmar’s recent article on Quarterbacks and Pressure for Football Outsiders, he showed that Cincinnati’s offensive DVOA was -77.7% when Dalton was under pressure in 2016. Given the strong possibility of a decline in proficiency by the reconstructed line this season, that percentage should alarm potential Eifert owners. If Dalton’s protection is consistently substandard, it should severely reduce his efficiency, circumvent the team’s strategic approach, and decimate the prospective fireworks before they begin.

The Seahawks will not be deterred from maintaining a frequent reliance on their ground game, by dispensing backfield touches within the troika of Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, and C.J. Prosise. Prosise caught 17 of his 19 targets during a 2016 season that was limited to six games (hand/shoulder injuries), but should be allotted a sizable percentage of passes that are aimed at Seattle backs. Provided that he can evade further injury. However, Seattle’s passing play percentage has steadily risen for the past four years. The Seahawks elected to throw on 59.3% of their offensive plays last season, which was up for 6% from their percentage in 2015, and continued an uninterrupted rise in that category from 48.6% in 2014, and a league low 47.2% in 2013. Their efforts through the air will not be confused with the more frequent aerial assaults that are unleashed by the league’s most pass-oriented offensive units. But Wilson will locate Graham with enough regularity to satisfy anyone who opts to select him. Graham led Seattle in red zone targets last season (17), and his 95 targets overall were the second highest behind Doug Baldwin.  While those numbers are definitely favorable, it is realistic to believe that Graham could be deployed with even greater frequency inside the 20 this year. As he has been able to participate fully in OTAs, and mini-camp. This stands in stark contrast to one year ago, when Graham was still recovering from a torn patellar tendon, rendering him unable to perform in any offseason activities until mid-August.

Who Should You Draft First?

We now revolve back to the question at hand: who should you draft first… Tyler Eifert or Jimmy Graham? Both players are tempting options for owners as they enter the final year of their respective contracts. But Eifert is an exceptional red zone weapon, who has missed 27 games in four seasons, while Graham has played all 16 regular season matchups four times –  including 2016. As of this writing, Eifert’s health is once again in question, while Graham’s is not. That has enabled Graham to be extremely active during Seattle’s team activities, as Eifert remains locked in recovery mode. All which shifts the advantage in Graham’s favor. Plus, even though neither offensive line is among the league’s most proficient, the talent level of Cincinnati’s unit distinctly regressed with the losses of Whitworth and Zeitler. The favorable recipe of these advantages, blended with Graham’s unique talent, and his sustained health, presents him with the opportunity to achieve his highest numbers since that career best season of 2013. Making Graham the tight end that you should draft first, once you have considered these two options.

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