TE Tyler Higbee — Second Year Breakout?

One of the bigger sleeper prospects out there for the 2017 fantasy football season is Los Angeles Rams second-year tight end (TE) Tyler Higbee. To say the Rams offense was abysmal last year would be an understatement. They were 31st in both passing yards and quarterback rating, and they were dead last in passing touchdowns with only 14 all season (14!). For all the grief Houston (including Brock Osweiler) and the Browns received — both teams outperformed the Rams through the air. In a day and age where it seems like everybody in the league is airing it out as much as possible, the Rams somehow managed to average only 184 passing yards per game. Lost in this cesspool of underwhelming numbers was Tyler Higbee. Higbee only managed to haul in 11 of his 28 targets for 85 yards and a single touchdown.

Nothing about that sounds good at all, but there is some cause for hope on the horizon in the form of new Rams head coach Sean McVay. McVay comes to the Rams from the Washington Redskins where the 31-year-old was the offensive coordinator since 2014, and prior to that the TE coach from 2011 to 2013, and assistant TE coach in 2010. In the 7-seasons with McVay on staff, the Redskins TEs were among the leaders in fantasy football point production 6-times. In six of those seven years a Washington TD finished in the top 13, or basically a TE1, and in five of those years a Redskins TE finished in the top 9 (full disclosure, TE Jordan Reed hasn’t been the model of health during his NFL career, so for 2013 I estimated his season totals based on the games he played and in 2014. Then, I combined his numbers with those of Niles Paul who filled the role when Reed was out). The point is, under McVay, the TE is an integral part of the offense. McVay’s hiring probably serves no one better than Higbee.

So, who is Tyler Higbee? He was a 4th round pick out of Western Kentucky in 2016, and by all accounts, he was one of the top TE prospects in last year’s class, who only fell in the draft due to character concerns stemming from off the field issues. He was a converted wide receiver and only got significant snaps at the position his senior year where he used his 6’5” 249 lbs frame to put up some pretty solid numbers. He was 11th in the nation in receiving yards among TEs (198th overall) despite missing 6-games. Without that missed time, the sky was the limit. According to Pro Football Focus, Higbee only had 2-drops in 55 chances over his final 2 seasons at Western Kentucky, and that shouldn’t be a surprise given his 10–1/4” mitts. He was also on the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff award in 2015, which is awarded to college football’s most outstanding receiver. Check out some footage of Higbee from college courtesy of draft breakdown, and try to come away without being impressed with his hands, especially in traffic. He’s got hands like magnets covered in glue.

Where does that leave us in 2017? Well, his current average draft position (ADP) has him as the 27th TE coming off the board. His MFL ADP is currently 195th, which makes him a 16th round pick in 12-team leagues. Here at DFF, Higbee has actually been sliding backward a bit with his ADP over the last three months falling from 166 in January, to 176 in February, and finally to 180 last month. (You can see all of our mock draft and ADP data here.) I have a feeling he’s going to be one of this year’s big draft risers as this off-season wears on. If you can still grab him now on the cheap, this is the time to do so. The Rams staff has been talking him up a little bit over the course of this off-season as well and he currently sits atop their depth chart with the only competition to push him for touches coming from recent draft pick Gerald Everett out of South Alabama. They did invest heavily in Everett as he was the team’s first pick in the draft at the 44th overall pick, so he may cut into Higbee’s workload. As such, Higbee is really going to come out of the gate strong this year to fend off the dynamic rookie, but this is the right system in order for him to do that. He could work on his blocking a bit, but that’s not what the Rams will be using him for. He presents a matchup nightmare: He’s extremely fast for his size, can’t be covered by most linebackers, and he’s way too big for most defensive backs to cover him. Looking at the Rams schedule this year, they actually face one of the most TE-unfriendly defensive schedules as far as fantasy production is concerned. Six of their 16 games are against teams that were top-4 defensively in fantasy points against for the TE position last year (Seattle and Arizona twice and the Eagles and Texans once). Just basing a rough estimate off of last season’s fantasy points allowed to TEs, in standard scoring leagues, the matchups present a total of 105 fantasy points, just around 6.5 per game. Although that’s not a number that will blow you away, the last five years, that averaged out to be TE9 worthy, so you could do much, much worse with none of the upside.

Tyler Higbee is one of the rawest players at the TE position in the NFL, having only one year of full-time experience in college and one season in the NFL on an atrocious offense. The learning curve is steep for TEs in the NFL, but physically he has all the tools to not only compete but excel at the NFL level. As you reach the end of your upcoming fantasy drafts, you’ll have a difficult time finding someone who presents the upside Higbee does in those later rounds. A big bodied, athletic TE that is getting overlooked by everybody just might be your ticket to a fantasy championship.

Originally published at dynastyfootballfactory.com on May 5, 2017.