Get ready for your season with theScore’s 2018 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.

Fantasy owners who miss out on the top four tight ends often wait until much later in the draft to address the position, confident they’ll find the next breakout star.

It’s a good plan, if you can pinpoint which tight ends will return value in the later rounds.

Who will exceed expectations?

David Njoku

After blowing away scouts with his supreme athleticism at the combine, Njoku had an average rookie year, with 32 receptions, 386 yards, and four touchdowns. It’s not surprising to see a tight end fail to make a major impact in his debut campaign – even one as physically gifted as Njoku. The position is one of the more difficult transitions in the pro game and often requires a season or two before a player hits his stride.

It’s also possible the Browns’ coaching staff is to blame for the quiet year, since it wasn’t willing to feature the first-rounder – instead having him split time with teammate Seth DeValve. However, reports have indicated the team will deploy Njoku as a “full-time starter” in 2018, and head coach Hue Jackson has stated they expect a big jump from him as a sophomore.

Working against a potential second-year breakout is the arrival of Jarvis Landry, who, combined with Josh Gordon, will push Njoku down the pecking order for targets. From a talent perspective, he could easily be a first-read tight end and lead the team in receiving, but that won’t happen with Landry and Gordon in the mix.

The arrival of a more reliable quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, and eventually Baker Mayfield, should help Njoku’s volume. Charles Clay finished seventh in target share among tight ends each of the last two seasons while playing with Taylor. Clay saw 20 percent of Taylor’s pass attempts during that time, double the percentage Njoku saw as a rookie in Cleveland.

Even with Landry and Gordon around, Njoku carries more upside than any other tight end going outside the top 12 in fantasy drafts. It’s not wise to take him as your only tight end, but pairing him with another late-round option is a smart play if you miss out on the elite players at the position.

Hayden Hurst

Wait, I thought rookie tight ends rarely produce in fantasy? Before you call me a hypocrite, give me a chance to sell you on why Hurst can do what few young tight ends can.

While it seems counter to their hard-nosed, defense-driven identity, the Ravens led the league in passing attempts over the last two seasons. In 2016, Dennis Pitta returned from a serious hip injury to pace the team in both targets (121) and receptions (86). In 2017, a 36-year-old Ben Watson topped his teammates in catches (61), while finishing second on the club in targets (79). Joe Flacco favors his tight ends, and the fact Baltimore selected Hurst in the first round of April’s draft guarantees he’ll be a big part of the team’s plans.

If their propensity to target tight ends isn’t enough to sway you, the fact the Ravens lack a proven receiving threat outside of a soon-to-be 31-year-old Michael Crabtree should give you confidence in Hurst. John Brown and Breshad Perriman haven’t been able to stay healthy, and Willie Snead regressed significantly after his early-season suspension in 2017.

Though he’s a rookie, Hurst will be 25 when the season begins, compared to someone like Njoku who broke into the league as a 21-year-old. He brings a pro-ready skill set both as a receiver and blocker, meaning his snaps shouldn’t be affected. He also holds a significant draft-capital advantage over fellow rookie Mark Andrews, who was taken in the third round.

Waiting on a tight end can be extremely beneficial if you’re able to hit on the right player. Going off the board as the TE20, Hurst will end up undrafted in most leagues, despite having the upside to be a low-end TE1 even as a rookie.

Vance McDonald

The Steelers haven’t had a fantasy-relevant tight end in recent seasons, with Jesse James only returning value when he found the end zone. McDonald can change that if he stays healthy.

McDonald joined the Steelers in a preseason trade but missed a big chunk of the 2017 season due to injury. When he finally made it into the lineup, he posted a pair of 52-yard games late in the year, followed by a 10-catch, 112-yard outing in a playoff loss to the Jaguars.

With a better athletic profile than James, McDonald should provide the Steelers with a full-field weapon, while still serving as a red-zone option when teams focus on stopping Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the plethora of pass-catching stars at Ben Roethlisberger’s disposal.

McDonald doesn’t have the ceiling of an elite fantasy tight end, but he’s capable of giving owners steady numbers in one of the league’s most prolific aerial attacks, all for the price of a pick in the final round.

Deep Shots

Vernon Davis – Is anyone confident Jordan Reed will play more than a handful of games in 2018? When Reed is on the field in Washington, he’s among fantasy’s best tight ends. However, he’s missed 28 games over his five-year NFL career, including being sidelined for 10 contests last season. Davis has filled in admirably in his absences and projects as a top-12 tight end any time he gets a start.

Virgil Green – Green’s outlook will depend entirely on whether the Chargers bring back the corpse of Antonio Gates in an effort to cope with the loss of Hunter Henry to a season-ending ACL tear. Philip Rivers has an affinity for tight ends, and Green has the tools to emerge as a low-volume, TD-scoring fantasy streamer.

Jake Butt – Butt spent his rookie season on IR as he recovered from an ACL tear. He returns to a wide-open competition for the starting role in Denver, needing only to beat out the likes of Jeff Heuerman and fifth-rounder Troy Fumagalli. Broncos head coach Vance Joseph voiced his excitement about Butt’s progress this offseason. Though he’s a long shot to deliver immediately, he’s a player to put on your watch list.

Who will exceed expectations?

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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