THE PLAYER: Gary Barnidge, TE, Browns
The SI rank—Beller: No. 9 TE, No. 101 overall | Fitz: No. 6 TE, No. 68
The consensus rank: No. 6 TE, No. 83 overall
There are out-of-nowhere stories, and then there’s Gary Barnidge in 2015. Two things took place when he caught six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in a Week 3 loss to the Raiders. First, 99% of the fantasy community said, “Who is Gary Barnidge?” Second, he increased his total career yardage since entering the league in ’08 by 17.4%, while his lifetime touchdowns jumped by one-third. It didn’t take long before Barnidge went from complete unknown to household name.
Over the next five weeks, Barnidge had at least one touchdown or 100 yards in every game. By season’s end, he had 79 receptions for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns, finishing third to Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed in points among tight ends in standard-scoring leagues. He and Reed were the only two tight ends in the top five at the position in all three categories. If you jumped on the Barnwagon right at the start of his run, you ended up with one of the best returns on investment not only at tight end but at any position in the fantasy game.
As great as Barnidge was last season, some realities must be taken into account. He will turn 31 at the end of September. Before last year, he had all of 44 catches, 603 yards and three touchdowns to his name in seven NFL seasons. He played nothing but special teams in 2008 and ’10 with the Panthers, and he missed the entire ’11 season because of a broken ankle. You could say the Panthers whiffed on their player evaluation with respect to Barnidge, but he was no more than a bit player in a Cleveland offense desperate for playmakers during his first two seasons with the team. He made the most of his opportunity last year, but it’s not as though he knocked down the door and forced his way into the lineup.
Past performance is not predictive of the future, especially when that performance is good and the player in question is on the Browns. Barnidge could trade spots with plenty of tight ends in the league and be a rock-solid TE1 option, potentially pushing up toward the top five depending on the specific environment. In Cleveland, however, he could very well be fighting an uphill battle all season.
It all starts at the quarterback position, where Robert Griffin III enters training camp as the favorite in a competition with Josh McCown. If it were up to Barnidge, those roles would likely be reversed. The tight end had his best games with McCown under center. McCown started eight games last year, and Barnidge had 46 receptions for 641 yards and six touchdowns, good for 12.51 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. For comparison’s sake, Gronkowski averaged 12.24 points per game last season. It is no stretch to say that, purely by the numbers, Barnidge was every bit as good as Gronkowski when McCown started last season.
The story was quite different in Cleveland’s eight other games, started by Johnny Manziel and Austin Davis. Barnidge averaged just 7.28 points per contest with that uninspiring duo at the helm, which, over the course of a full season, would have placed him 11th among tight ends, sandwiched between Travis Kelce and Zach Miller. There’s still a place for that tight end on a roster in all fantasy leagues, but that’s a far cry from being neck-and-neck with Gronkowski for the most points per game at the position.
This might be a serious issue for Barnidge. Griffin has to change his game to make the most of his second chance at a starting gig, but the guy we saw in Washington wasn’t exactly a pure drop-back passer and didn’t show the chops to be able to grow into one in the near future. McCown is a journeyman for a reason, but the guy can take three-, five- and seven-step drops, as well as run an offense out of shotgun. Steady quarterback play is good for Barnidge. McCown is the steady option. Griffin is the favorite. That’s something all prospective Barnidge owners must consider.
Cleveland’s quarterback competition will be one of the most interesting in training camp for this very reason. Stylistically, there’s nothing similar about Griffin and McCown. A player who might thrive with one could very well struggle with the other. The Griffin-Barnidge relationship will be one to watch as the summer progresses.
There’s no real consensus in the tight end rankings after Gronkowski, Reed and Greg Olsen are off the board, but there’s also no shortage of options. Delanie Walker is a rock of consistency. Travis Kelce has immense upside. Coby Fleener and Ladarius Green found ideal new homes. Tyler Eifert, though already banged up with an ankle injury, scored 13 touchdowns last year. Antonio Gates continues to get the job done. Barnidge fits somewhere in that mix, but the limited ceiling in Cleveland is a mitigating factor.
Barnidge may have been one of 2015’s best stories, but it’s hard to have much confidence in the Browns offense. Remember, you’re investing in teams nearly as much as players, especially once you get beyond the elite talents. Barnidge remains a TE1, but his environment places him on the low end of that spectrum.