Fantasy: 3 risers who could take Gronk's place among elite TEs
Brett Carlsen / Getty Images Sport / Getty

After weeks of speculation, we've finally received the unwelcome news that Rob Gronkowski is retiring, though his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, left the door open slightly for a Brett-Favre-esque change of heart.

While injuries hampered Gronk's production in 2018, he was dominant force at the peak of his powers. The 6-foot-6, 268-pounder finished as a top-two fantasy tight end in five of his first six seasons while scoring double-digit touchdowns in each of those years.

So, with fantasy owners saying goodbye to one of the game's best, it's time to figure out who's next. Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and 2018 breakout star George Kittle have already established themselves as elite tight ends, and there are several young players at the position with a shot to join them.

Of course, nobody can replace Gronk, but let's break down the rising stars who could follow in his fantasy footsteps this year:

O.J. Howard, Buccaneers

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

If we're searching for a player who can replicate much of Gronk's skill set, Howard is by far the leading candidate.

The Bucs' 2017 first-round pick flashed big-time upside as a rookie with five games of 50-plus yards to go with six touchdowns. That season, Howard also averaged more than 8 yards per target, which only 15 first-year tight ends have done since 2000:

Howard followed that up with what should be considered a breakout season, but many will overlook his 2018 production because he missed the final six games with foot and ankle issues. Still, the 24-year had recorded the sixth-most fantasy points among tight ends when he was placed on injured reserve after Week 11, which put him on pace for a 904-yard, eight-touchdown campaign.

It was enough to earn Howard Pro Football Focus' second-highest all-around grade for a tight end in 2018, sandwiched between Kittle and Kelce.

It also means an uptick in volume should be the final piece of the puzzle for Howard to approach elite production, as his 11 percent target share in 2018 was well below Ertz's (27 percent), Kelce's (26 percent), and Kittle's (23 percent). Meanwhile, Howard recorded the second-best average depth of target among starting tight ends in each of the last two seasons, trailing only one man - Gronk - while finishing a full yard better than the next closest qualifying TE both years.

Player 2017 2018
Rob Gronkowski 12.1 12.7
O.J. Howard 11.8 12.4

On that note, it appears Howard's in line for more work this season. New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians is excited to deploy the young tight end in his offense, and Howard's target share could increase anyway now that slot receiver Adam Humphries and deep threat DeSean Jackson are no longer around.

Usurping any of the three elite tight ends will be a challenge, but Howard could expand that group to four if he stays healthy for 16 games.

Hunter Henry, Chargers

Harry How / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Much like Gronk in 2010, Henry was a second-round selection who immediately made his mark as a red-zone threat.

As a rookie, Henry scored eight times in 2016 while playing behind Antonio Gates, who had seven touchdowns of his own that year. And remember that star-studded list of tight ends who averaged over 8 yards per target as rookies? Henry was on there, too.

However, Gates continued to obstruct Henry's path toward a full-time role in 2017, and when the road cleared in 2018, a torn ACL kept the youngster sidelined for the majority of the season.

In 2019, Henry will return to a pass-catching corps that's far less crowded. Gates is currently off the books and former Chargers receiver Tyrell Williams inked a deal with the Raiders in free agency. With Travis Benjamin unlikely to command consistent targets, Henry could emerge as the default third option in the passing game behind Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

It also helps that Philip Rivers has leaned on his tight ends as much as any quarterback over the last ten years, generating a ton of fantasy points for the position.

As he takes over for Gates, Henry has the receiving skills to be a week-winner in fantasy if the Chargers finally unleash him, which likely would have materialized a year ago if he hadn't shredded his knee in the offseason.

Evan Engram, Giants

Elsa / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Engram's fantasy owners were likely filled with joy when Odell Beckham Jr. was traded to Cleveland.

That's because Engram's numbers with Beckham out of the lineup have been borderline elite. He finished with the fifth-most fantasy points among tight ends as a rookie in 2017 when OBJ missed most of the season. And when injuries kept Beckham off the field last December, Engram averaged over 80 yards per game. Overall, in 15 appearances without Beckham, Engram's recorded 71 receptions, 886 yards, and six touchdowns.

However, there are some red flags. The Giants' signing of receiver Golden Tate complicated Engram's situation, as Tate is likely to play out of the slot, where Engram saw 18.1 percent of his targets in 2018.

Additionally, Giants GM Dave Gettleman continues to preach a move toward a more run-based offense centered around Saquon Barkley. That could be a problem for Engram, who's a receiver disguised as a tight end and would be miscast as a blocker.

Still, it's impossible not to see this offseason as a positive for Engram’s fantasy value. He's already proven himself as a difference-maker in the right environment and he'll have an opportunity to build on that with Beckham working in Cleveland.

Younger options

David Njoku, Browns - You could argue that Njoku deserves his own section as a 22-year-old who's one of the best athletes we've ever seen play tight end. His upside rivals the other names on this list, but Njoku was described as a "work in progress" by Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens this offseason. If Njoku can become more consistent and harness his ability in one of the league's most exciting offenses, his breakout could come in 2019.

Rookies - Iowa teammates T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are my favorite tight end prospects this year and we may hear both their names called in the first round.

The pair will enter the league with contrasting styles. Hockenson can do it all, much like Gronk, while Fant profiles primarily as a receiving weapon. With few impact free agents left on the market, the Patriots may be forced to address the position in the draft. And if either Hockenson or Fant lands with the Super Bowl champs, we could see top-10 fantasy numbers in their rookie season.

Comments
Fantasy: 3 risers who could take Gronk's place among elite TEs
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Daily Newsletter
Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox