After the top tier of fantasy tight ends — guys like Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce — there seems to be a logjam of viable options who could all finish as a TE1. Two of those include Delanie Walker and Trey Burton, currently being drafted 14th and 15th in MFL drafts, respectively. Despite their similar ADPs, however, they’ve had different paths getting there.
Walker has quietly been one of the best fantasy tight ends since signing with Tennessee in 2013. Since that time, he leads all players at the position with 356 receptions, while his 4,156 receiving yards is third highest. He’s finished as a fantasy TE1 in all five seasons, something not even Gronkowski has accomplished.
Of course, Walker is also one of the oldest tight ends in the league. 2018 will be Walker’s age-34 season after five seasons as a Titan and seven as a 49er before that. But despite playing in his early 30s, Walker’s still one of the more efficient tight ends in the league. For example, Walker’s 1.81 yards per route run last year was good for sixth out of 43 tight ends who saw at least 29 targets last year. He also had the fourth-best drop percentage among all tight ends in 2017, dropping just three passes out of 104 targets. But if there was one weakness Walker had last year it was on the deep pass (a target 20 yards or more in the air). He dropped three such passes out of 14 total targets, eight catchable ones. That 37.5 percent drop rate was the worst among tight ends last year.
Meanwhile, Burton saw only two such targets last year but converted both of them into touchdowns. That’s a small sample size, but it’s significant when you consider Walker didn’t score on any deep targets. Burton was also above-average in efficiency, finishing 16th out of 43 tight ends in yards per route run. As far as the balance of Burton’s production, there isn’t much simply because he’s been blocked by one of the best tight ends in the game, Zach Ertz, during his tenure in Philadelphia. In 61 games, he has just 63 receptions for 629 yards and six touchdowns. But while Walker’s ADP is largely based on past production, Burton’s is based on projection. Burton signed with the Bears this offseason and will be coached by Matt Nagy, most recently the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs. Nagy’s on record as identifying Burton for the Travis Kelce role in his offense. All Kelce has done the last two seasons is averaged 84 receptions for nearly 1,100 yards and six touchdowns, finishing as one of the top two fantasy tight ends in each year. If Burton can even produce at 75 percent the level that Kelce has the last two seasons, he’ll easily justify his ADP.
For Burton, the subtraction of Ertz in the competition for targets is the biggest benefit to signing with Chicago. Now slated to start for the first time in his career, Burton could have only fellow free agent signee Allen Robinson to challenge for targets in Chicago’s new look offense. Granted, Bears tight ends cumulatively saw just 98 targets last year, but that was under the old regime. Nagy’s Chiefs threw it to Kelce a whopping 122 times last season, a number that Burton will have every opportunity to reach now that he’s the starter.
For Walker, he led the Titans last year with 111 targets and the loss of Eric Decker will free up 83 more. The Titans also lost DeMarco Murray’s 47 targets but his replacement, Dion Lewis, could easily make that up. There are two forces that could seriously cut into Walker’s target share. The first is 2017 first-round pick Corey Davis, who saw just 65 targets due to missing five games last season. You can expect more passes his way if he can stay healthy. The second is young tight end Jonnu Smith, Walker’s primary backup. Smith was a third-round pick last year and will be just 23 this season. He saw just 30 targets but could very well be more involved in the offense as Walker is set to be a free agent after the season.
Best case/worst case
Best Case for Delanie Walker: Walker keeps his starting job while the Titans improve on their No. 28 ranking in pass attempts, creating more targets to go around. Meanwhile, Davis and Smith split the targets left behind by Decker, allowing Walker to see 100-plus targets for the fourth straight year and he produces another 60-catch, 800-yard, six-touchdown season on his way to a TE1 finish.
Worst case for Delanie Walker: The Titans continue to rank in the bottom five in pass attempts. Davis takes a majority of Decker’s targets while the running back combo of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis combine for more than the 64 targets Henry and Murray totaled last year, eating into the balance of Decker’s targets. Last but not least, the Titans begin working Smith in more in preparation for Walker’s departure next year and they have an equal amount of targets, placing both firmly in the TE2 category or lower.
Best case for Trey Burton: He truly becomes the next Travis Kelce and totals 80 catches for over 1,000 yards on his way to a top-five fantasy finish.
Worst case for Trey Burton: The Bears again rank dead last in pass attempts with Robinson and fellow Bears signee Taylor Gabriel seeing most of those targets. Bears 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen outplays Burton in training camp and preseason and earns a bigger role in the offense than anticipated and severely cuts into Burton’s potential workload, making him a streaming candidate or worse.
Trey Burton. While I usually err on the side more sure thing, the potential with Burton is simply too great to pass up. I think it’s probable Walker puts up another 60-catch, 800-yard season even with the emergence of Davis and Smith. But the Bears splashed a lot of money on Burton and the tight end role in Nagy’s offense is one of the most desirable in the league. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Burton put up 1,000 yards this season, which makes him the pick.