Coby Fleener, New Orleans — The cash-strapped Saints raised eyebrows in the offseason when they signed Coby Fleener to a five-year, $36.5 million contract this past offseason. As an early second round pick from Stanford University by the Indianapolis Colts (in the same draft where teammate Andrew Luck was taken first overall), Fleener has flashed potential during his NFL career, but never really “broke through” in the way other star tight ends have. Still, Fleener caught 51 passes for 774 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014, and had 54 catches for 491 yards and three touchdowns in 2015 (even with Luck missing about half the season due to injury). But, in New Orleans, hell be joining an offense that just helped journeyman tight end Ben Watson reach career highs in catches (74), receiving yards (825), and tie his career high in touchdown receptions (6). Fleener has far more upside than Watson, and could see a lot of open receiving lanes with Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks stretching defenses vertically. Look for Fleener to be in the mix among the top seven tight ends this season.
Zach Ertz, Philadelphia — Another tight end from Stanford University — Ertz actually succeeded Fleener as the Cardinals’ top tight end — who’s flashed enormous potential at the professional level, but never quite had that breakthrough season as of yet. Ertz had 702 yards and three touchdowns in his second season, and 853 yards and two touchdowns last year (in a season when many believed he would finally “break out”). He teased more flashes of his potential by catching 35 passes for 450 yards and a touchdown over the last four games of 2015; with new head coach Doug Pederson taking over for the Eagles, he might finally get Ertz to take that next step. Pederson was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City for the prior three seasons, where he coached Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce had over 850 yards and five touchdowns for the past two seasons, and with a player as talented as Ertz, along with the lack of other quality receiving options in Philadelphia, he could turn Ertz into the next Kelce. Expect Ertz to also emerge into that second tier of elite fantasy tight ends this season.
Julius Thomas, Jacksonville — The forgotten man in the Jaguars passing attack, thanks to the gaudy receiving yard and touchdown catch totals put up by Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. After an injury-riddled 2015 season, Thomas is flying under the radar just one year after Jacksonville signed him to a five year, $46 million contract in free agency, making him the highest paid tight end in the NFL at the time. We shouldn’t be too quick to forget that between 2013 and 2014, Thomas had 24 touchdown catches himself. If he can stay healthy — he has yet to play a full season in his career — he could re-emerge as the mismatch nightmare that he was in Denver. He might not put up the same numbers that he did in Denver, but he could still finish as a top 10 tight end this season.
Photo credit: Mark Susina