News & Analysis

Player Showdown: Evan Engram or Jimmy Graham?

(All offseason, Michael Moore will be looking at some specific draft conundrums facing drafters in an effort to determine which player should be the preference.)

While there is no debate which tight ends will be picked first and second in fantasy drafts this season, there is some debate after those top two (three, counting Zach Ertz) are chosen. The pool includes Evan Engram and Jimmy Graham, both of whom could contend for the top of the second tier of tight ends. Currently the two carry ADPs of TE4 and TE6, respectively. With a lack of reliable tight end options in general it makes Graham and Engram both extremely important to fantasy teams. Should you miss out on the Rob Gronkowskis and Travis Kelces of the world, which should you prefer between Graham and Engram?

The players

The two are on the opposites ends of their careers. Engram is entering just his second year after one of the best rookie seasons by a tight end in NFL history. Drafted in the first round of the 2017 draft, Engram finished the season as one of only two rookie tight ends to record 60-plus receptions, 700-plus yards and six touchdowns since the merger and finished as the fifth-highest-scoring fantasy tight end. Interestingly enough, Engram might have had even better stats if not for leading all tight ends last year in drops with 11.

For Graham, he enters his ninth season and will be on his third team after signing with the Packers in the offseason. He actually finished as fantasy’s fourth-highest-scoring tight end in 2017, just ahead of Engram, thanks to another double-digit scoring season. It was his fourth such season in eight years but his first in Seattle. In fact, it took a couple seasons for Graham to sufficiently quiet the narrative that he was only good because of the system of his first team, the Saints, where he had three double-digit touchdown seasons in five years.

Additions and subtractions

Both players saw big changes this offseason. For Graham, he was the change himself in Green Bay, where the Packers him to a three-year deal. He’ll get the lion’s share of the team’s tight end targets, ahead of backups Lance Kendricks and Marcedes Lewis. However, the team only targeted tight ends 82 times last season — Graham saw 96 by himself in Seattle. And the Packers were already throwing the ball 35 times last year between Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley — 14th in the league — so it's not as if there's a whole lot of room to grow the target pie.

Some might point to the departure of receiver Jordy Nelson as a possible source of targets for Graham but Nelson and Graham don’t necessarily play the same role. Graham lined up in the slot for nearly half his routes (45.7 percent) last year while Nelson did so far less often (29.2 percent). Randall Cobb was actually the preferred slot receiver last year, lining up there on 77 percent of his routes, and there’s been no indication that he’ll move outside this year because of Graham.

Additionally, the Packers re-signed receiver Davante Adams, now the de facto No. 1 receiver in Green Bay. That’s bad news for Graham as literally all 10 of his touchdowns came within the 20-yard line last year on 26 targets, the most of any player last year. Coming in third with 23 targets in the red zone? Adams. What’s more likely — Rodgers continues to look at the receiver who’s played in the offense for four years or the new kid on the block? For comparison's sake, Engram only saw 11 targets in the red zone.

Speaking of Engram, he has his own challenges when it comes to replicating his 2017 success. First up is the drafting of running back Saquon Barkley who theoretically was drafted to be a three-down back. But the Giants threw 101 targets to running backs Shane Vereen and Wayne Gallman last year so there should be plenty there for Barkley to pick up. No, Engram’s main challenge to targets will be the return of a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. It was primarily injuries to Beckham that opened the door for Engram to lead the team in targets with 115 in 2017. Beckham only appeared in four games last year but even then saw 41 targets. That 10.3 targets-per-game average is similar to what Beckham saw in his last healthy season in 2016, when he finished with 169 targets to lead the team. Sterling Shepard was second, just like he was in 2017. The leading tight end in targets in 2016? Will Tye with 70. Tye ended the season with just 48 receptions for 395 yards. Receiver Victor Cruz was still around in 2016 and ended up with the third-most targets that year with 72, so it’s possible that Engram will see some combination of the Tye and Cruz targets that are available in 2018. But remember that Giants receiver Roger Lewis, who was third in targets in 2017, returns while the Giants also signed receiver Cody Latimer in free agency. So it’s not a guarantee that Engram will keep his spot on the pecking order.

Best case/worst case

Best case for Graham: Graham replaces Nelson as the third option in the passing game and sees his 90-plus targets again. He also sees a catch rate closer to his career average of 65 percent and sees 60 receptions for close to 700 yards. He develops a rapport with Rodgers and siphons off half of the red-zone targets that Adams saw last year to insure he sees eight touchdowns and finished as a top-five fantasy tight end.

Worst case for Graham: Adams and Cobb don’t give up any ground when it comes to targets and one of the myriad receivers the Packers brought in through the draft becomes the third option in the passing game. Graham sees only the 70-plus targets that Martellus Bennett and Kendricks saw in the starting tight end role last year and catches only 60 percent of his passes, much like he did in 2017, to give him a total of 40 or so receptions. He doesn’t eclipse 500 yards and doesn’t see nearly the same red-zone targets, moving him off the TE1 radar.

Best case for Engram: Engram establishes himself as the second option in the passing game and sees a role closer to what Shepard had in 2016 when he had 105 targets, and he can easily replicate his rookie season line of 60 receptions for 700 yards and a half-dozen touchdowns to be a top-five fantasy tight end again.

Worst case for Engram: He falls behind Shepard and another receiver (Lewis or Latimer) and ends up with the same amount of attention tight end Will Tye had in 2016 where he only saw 70 targets. Engram doesn’t eclipse 500 receiver yards either and sees four touchdowns or less.

The decision

Evan Engram. There’s no doubt Engram’s ceiling will be severely limited with the return of Beckham, but his floor appears much higher than Graham’s. Green Bay’s offense has hummed right along for years without a tight end playing a major role and it’s not as if Graham is as young and dominant as he used to be.

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