“It’s been a weird, but good journey,” said Kyle Pitts, nearly five months before becoming the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. Repeatedly described as a “Unicorn” throughout the scouting process, Pitts is one of the most divisive players in fantasy circles.
He also represents the evolution of the tight end position and the dilemma it presents to fans of the virtual game.
In 2016, when Pitts’ playing career as a TE began, the highest reception total for a tight end was 86 catches (Dennis Pitta), the most yards recorded was 1,125 (Travis Kelce), and spikes maxed out at 8 (Cameron Brate and Hunter Henry). Last year, the field was still top-heavy, but the increase in production was notable. Darren Waller and Kelce both exceeded 100 receptions and 1,000 yards. Kelce additionally managed double-digit touchdowns (11) along with Robert Tonyan (Waller peaked at 9).
The numbers themselves are bigger. But the number of elite producers remains frustratingly small.
Noting this wrinkle, the fantasy conversation surrounding the position is changing.
Or it should be ...
Current tight end landscape
Earlier in the week, I asked my Twitter followers to describe situation at hand:
Some of my favorite replies included:
(Kudos to @RobbyCan81 for remembering the rzn for the szn.)
Nearly every reply highlighted two things: An uptick in young talent ... and concern that these newcomers won’t be utilized in a way that yields consistent fantasy output.
The two are undeniably connected. I would argue, however, that with the proliferation of pass-happy offenses born out of creative schemes, NFL teams are reaching for athletic weapons to use as mismatches all over the field. That’s why we see 98th percentile SPARQ star Mike Gesicki recording a slot snap rate of 49.9% (TE2) and the aforementioned Waller catching passes from four different positions.
Last year, 19 tight ends recorded at least 100 fantasy points in half-point PPR formats. That’s seven more than the previous season. In fact, 2020 gifted fantasy managers with the most 100-point efforts since 2016 (OMG, remember Gary Barnidge?). Obviously, the popularity of the TE/WR hybrid is growing. But the regular deployment of these metric-breaking marvels is still (relative to the entire league) in its tinkering phase.
So we have tiers of players whose potentials have been unlocked in varying degrees:
Established Elites: Travis Kelce (TE1, APD 11), Darren Waller (TE2, ADP 24), George Kittle (TE3, ADP 27)
Whether it’s proven and consistent production (Kelce has gone over 1,000 yards for five consecutive campaigns), massive volume (Waller recorded a target share of at least 24 percent in back-to-back years), or other-worldly YAC prowess (Kittle averaged 5.6 YAC/tgt over the last three seasons) these three ceiling skimmers command a first- or second-round pick. If managers are willing to give up that kind of draft capital in exchange for security at such a scarce position, I’d recommend waiting on WR and scooping a top-12 RB.
Rising Stars: Kyle Pitts (TE4, ADP 48), Mark Andrews (TE5, ADP 51), T.J. Hockenson (TE6, ADP 55)
The ultimate “bet on yourself” player, Pitts has an opportunity to (once again) make history and buck the “First-year tight ends don’t produce in fantasy” trend. On a Julio Jones-less Falcons squad that is being led by a former TEs coach, the opportunity (and associated draft cost) is massive for the rookie.
Despite playing on a low-passing volume offense, Mark Andrews has thrived as Lamar Jackson’s most trusted red-zone weapon, posting top-five numbers in RZ target rate for two straight years. Given the injuries to the Ravens receiving corps, he’s a favorite to lead Baltimore’s pass-catchers in high-value opportunities.
A first-round pick in 2019, Hock demonstrated substantial growth in his sophomore effort. Doubling his number of catches (67), yards (723), and TDs (6), the Iowa product should continue to ascend in Year Three, particularly given the dearth of pass-catching options in Detroit.
This tier is all about upside at relative cost. In rounds four and five, the stars at RB and WR are largely gone, making it all the more tempting to select a potential top-five TE instead of reaching for DJ Moore (ADP 53) or settling for Kareem Hunt (ADP 57).
Fantasy Flashes/Fading Favorites: Noah Fant (TE7, ADP 79), Dallas Goedert (TE8, ADP 88), Logan Thomas (TE9, ADP 92), Robert Tonyan (TE10, ADP 106), Rob Gronkowski (TE11, ADP 107), Tyler Higbee (TE12, ADP 108), Mike Gesicki (TE13, ADP 112), Irv Smith, Jr. (TE14, ADP 137), Jonnu Smith (TE15, ADP 141), Evan Engram (TE16, ADP 148), Hunter Henry (TE17, ADP 146), Zach Ertz (TE18, ADP 147)
This tier is a fantasy stew of who’s who. From the ultra-athletic (but yet to put it all together) Fant to the been-there-done-that grouping of Gronk, Engram, and Ertz … there’s an argument to be made for (and against) each of these late-round prospects. That chasm between the break from Tier 2 to the top of Tier 3 is illuminating.
The aforementioned Fant (TE7) is going more than two rounds after his former college teammate (Hock, TE6), signaling a notable dip in value/trust. The bulk of these players come off the board at the top of the double-digit rounds, as other position groups thin out and managers turn their focus to the empty (and, thus, glaring) TE slot on their starting roster.
Of this grouping, I’d likely target Thomas who — with what can only be described as a collection of talent under center in 2020 — managed a True Catch Rate of better than 80 percent and a top-three Dominator Rating).
Darling Dart Throws: Adam Trautman (TE19, ADP 182), Jared Cook (TE20, ADP 172), Anthony Firkser (TE21, ADP 215), Gerald Everett (TE22, ADP 206), Blake Jarwin (TE23, ADP 219)
This is where it gets fun. Selected after Round 15 — generally, just ahead of Team Defenses and Kickers — some gems can be found.
At the top of the tier is Trautman, who the Saints traded up for in the 2020 NFL Draft and projects to benefit from the 150+ targets that have been vacated in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Jarwin — whose return from an ACL tear appears fast-tracked, as he got the start (and played 12 snaps) in the Cowboys’ second preseason game at Arizona while Dalton Schultz nursed an ankle injury — rounds out the bottom. For what it’s worth, over the first four weeks of last season, Dak Prescott targeted his TE1 nearly 15 percent of the time, making Jarwin an intriguing super-late option, despite the number of hungry mouths to feed ahead of him on Dallas’ depth chart.
Two years ago, the TE strategy was generally limited to a pair of ideologies: Either de-prioritize the position, focus on RB early, and then swing to TE in the double-digit rounds (which allows managers to weigh the matchups and “stream” the position each week) or strike early and scoop an elite talent.
Interestingly, and likely due to the evolving landscape discussed above, more managers are arriving at a third-ish option. Per the below poll, instead of approaching the position in an all-or-nothing manner, a solid subset of the fantasy community decided to split the difference:
The TE landscape seems more top-heavy in 2021 than in previous years. How are you approaching the position in fantasy? Vote and reply with your fave strategy 👇
— Liz Loza (@LizLoza_FF) August 16, 2021
One TE Sleeper: Gerald Everett, Seattle Seahawks (TE22, ADP 206)
Coming off career highs in catches and yards, Everett’s ascent only figures to continue in Seattle. Released from Tyler Higbee’s shadow and reunited with former position coach Shane Waldron, the skies of the Pacific Northwest appear uncharacteristically sunny for the South Alabama standout. In an offense expected to operate at a heightened pace under an OC who regularly utilizes the position from a pass-catching POV, Everett’s breakout might finally arrive.
Last year the Hawks’ TEs totaled 108 looks. Obviously, Greg Olsen (37) and Jacob Hollister (40) are off the squad, freeing up over 70 opportunities. Additionally, David Moore, who was third in team targets (47) in 2020, is now in Carolina.
We’re not sure exactly how much Russ will cook. We also know he’ll spread the ball around. But even at a simmer — and noting the other bodies on the roster — Everett could easily emerge as the team’s No. 3 receiving option (think of all that YAC) and flirt with 100 looks.
That’s top-12 upside for a player who's currently the TE28 in mock drafts.
One TE to Fade: Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers (TE10, ADP 106)
TLC wisely warned against Chasing Waterfalls. I’m telling you not to chase touchdowns. Tonyan had 11 of those last year (TE1). And he did it on just 59 targets (TE24). That’s an absolutely unsustainable red-zone conversion rate of over 90 percent. Rodgers’ Last Dance figures to be special and Bobby T figures to be a solid part of it, but between Jace Sternberger’s refusal to go away and the law of regression, it’s unlikely he’ll finish inside the top-five again this coming year.
Top 15 fantasy tight ends
Kelce at the end of the first makes a lot of sense, but the volume upside of Andrews or Hockenson in the fifth makes for a cozy marriage of security and value at a scarce position. If they don’t fall to you, then take heart knowing you can shoot your shot on a growing number of viable sleepers in the double-digit rounds.
How are you approaching the TE position in 2021? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF