Fantasy Football 2021: Tight Ends

Standard advice in fantasy football has been to wait on tight end unless you land one of the elite options. While this remains true, I have always treated TE like any other position and simply tried to draft good players who are undervalued. If that’s a top TE early or a second-tier TE who slides a bit.

With the emphasis on passing only increasing, the best tight ends post numbers commensurate to elite wide receivers, so why wouldn’t you treat them the same way? I think these guys can be league tilters and I’ve had some really productive teams that boasted a top tight end and another TE good enough to set and forget as my Flex.

He’s not popular in these parts, but Travis Kelce has probably been the most dependable player in fantasy football over the last several years. His fantasy scoring among tight ends over his career is as follows: 6th, 7th, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st. Only two WR outscored Kelce last season. He’s a top ten pick and he’s arguably the safest top ten pick on the board.

Darren Waller is arguably the Raiders best player. Nothing made me happier last year than the top analysts in the industry telling people to fade Waller because a bunch of rookie wideouts were going to steal his targets. Just idiocy. Instead, Carr relied on him more than ever.

George Kittle is unarguably the best real tight end in the NFL, but his injuries drop him to third in fantasy. Kittle is a mild fade for me because his target share has shown marked attrition over the last three years. Since 2018, when he edged Kelce for the single season yardage record for a tight end, (since re-broken by Kelce), Kittle’s targets per game have declined from 8.5 to 7.6 to just six last season. This is an extremely negative trend.

Okay, here we go. I am a Kyle Pitts believer. I’m aware of the history of rookie tight ends being unspectacular from a fantasy standpoint. The only rookie tight end to crack 1,000 yards receiving, Hell, the only rookie tight end to crack 900 yards receiving, was a square headed prick from Chicago 60 freaking years ago. I think that record falls this year. Pitts is not like any previous tight end and he will be utilized differently than any tight end has been before. Once you get past Calvin Ridley’s anticipated 160 targets, the Falcons will have lots of footballs to go around. It’s true Arthur Smith has not been big on incorporating tight ends into his offense, but Pitts is not a normal tight end and they didn’t make him the highest drafted TE in history to ignore him. Pterodactyl wingspan, huge soft hands that didn’t drop a pass last season. I’m not going crazy with it, though. Both times I drafted him this year, I got him in round five where a disappointing season won’t torpedo me.

There is a dip before the next tier of tight ends

Mark Andrews is the only Raven whose fantasy potential isn’t hamstrung by Lamar Jackson. As such, he has been tremendously consistent and productive. 2,105 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first three seasons in the NFL, which is extraordinary production from a tight end.

TJ Hockenson is going to see a ton of action this year. It would not be surprising to see him lead the Lions in targets and it might not be a bad idea for Detroit, either. I love the player, but his ADP is almost even with Andrews and in the mid-60’s, so you’re paying top price for a guy in a bad offense. Jeudy, Aiyuk and Higgins are typically on the board when you have to pick Hock, so I doubt I’ll own him this year. I may miss a massive breakout season, but his most likely outcome is not great value for the price.

All the pieces are in place for Noah Fant to have a top five season among tight ends. This requires a bit of projection since he has finished as the 16th and 13th ranked tight end in fantasy his first two seasons. This is better than it sounds because Hock was the fifth best fantasy tight end and all he did was catch five more passes for 50 more yards and three more TD’s than Noah. If you’ve deduced that the tight end class really condenses after the elite options are gone, you are correct.

The dropoff at this point is fairly extreme. The remaining tight ends are highly dependent on volume that likely won’t be available unless injuries arise in their team’s WR corps.

Speaking of a guy who is in line for some target regression. Logan Thomas was targeted 110 times last year. This is twelve more targets than Mark Andrews high water mark and it’s probably unrepeatable. The WAS WR after McLaurin were laughable. The high water mark in targets was Cam Sims with 48. The addition of Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown will cut into Thomas’s action severely. They also want to throw the ball to Antonio Gibson more. Thomas is an excellent player, but his ADP will only be worth it if he catches more touchdown passes than expected.

Robert Tonyan’s fantasy finishes among tight ends in his career: 69th, 65th, 3rd. Man, there’s nothing better than drafting the TE who catches double digit TD passes out of the blue. Of course, nobody drafted Tonyan, outside of perhaps in the end game of a 35 round draft champion league. He was probably still sparsely owned when he busted out with three TD receptions in week four. His efficiency was incredible in every way, as he converted 59 targets into 52 receptions. The targets should go up, the touchdowns will absolutely go down.

Check back next year on Dallas Goedert. Unbelievably, his top five TE potential is going to be hamstrung by Zach Ertz for another season. Both TE were limited to 11 games last season and the far less efficient or dynamic Ertz still out-targeted Goedert. Philly is a poorly run team.

Mike Gesicki was sixth in TE scoring, but is 12th in ADP this year. He is a superb athlete with a very accurate quarterback not known for pushing the ball downfield. Sounds like a buying opportunity to me. Yes, Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller are aboard this year, which could trim Gesicki’s targets a bit, but they’re not going to be running the same routes most of the time, so I think massive target reduction is unlikely.

I’m fading Tyler Higbee. The production is just so sporadic. He got everyone excited with an All Pro caliber performance in the last five games of 2019, but he couldn’t come close to matching it. Last year, he scored 28.4 points in week two, but he only cracked double digits twice more on the season and those games came in weeks 13 and 15. Yes, Gerald Everett is off to Seattle and the QB upgrade is substantial, but Higbee is, at best, the fourth receiving option here.

Irv Smith, Jr is a typical young TE who is being ranked almost completely in projection. Yes, Kyle Rudolph is gone, but if the Vikings were really excited about Smith as a receiver, I think he would have seen more than 90 targets in two seasons. He’s being called the third option in the passing game this year. I’ll need to see that happen to believe it. I’ll bet anyone here that underrated rookie Imhir Smith-Marsette sees more targets than Smith, and that he does more with the ones he gets.

They’re paying Jonnu Smith $50 million. They’re going to get him the football. Hunter Henry is here, too, but this offense has always been able to sustain two TE. Smith is the more dynamic player and the one you want in this offense.

Rob Gronkowski is the 16th ranked TE in ADP, which is amazing since he finished as TE8 while playing himself into shape last year. He still has Brady throwing to him and even though OJ Howard is far superior athletically now, the Bucs have never incorporated him into their offense in a meaningful way.

Evan Engram probably needs to get out of New York to blossom. Expectations have always been too high and he’s inside his own head too much. Eight drops last year, which has been a problem more seasons than not. Top five TE talent still untapped. He will have a tremendous breakout season eventually, but I’m not chasing it.

Gerald Everett is intriguing this year and very cheap to own. New Seattle OC Shane Waldron brought him with him from LA and there’s a decent chance Everett could be the third receiving option some weeks. Certainly not someone to reach for but the path to TE2 relevance is in sight.

Jared Cook has been a solid TE2 and occasional TE1 throughout his career. He is familiar with new Chargers OC Joe Lombardi and should be a solid streaming option at worst.

With Jason Witten gone, I was excited about Blake Jarwin’s potential last season. He proceeded to get injured about 40 seconds into the season. Dalton Schultz filled in admirably. I’m just concerned these two will be hold each other back like crabs in a bucket as they vie to be the fifth option in this offense.

Popular sleeper Adam Trautman seems poised for success in New Orleans. He played well in limited opportunities last season and there are targets to be had in this offense. Seems like a boom or bust pick but is likely to be more like a middle of the pack TE2.

Eric Ebron is regarded as a massive bust in real life but he has been a very reliable TE2 throughout his career. Pat Freiermuth’s arrival will cut into his targets enough to wreck his value and both players are behind three WR who are all greedy for targets. I’m avoiding this situation.

Dawson Knox is an afterthought in the Buffalo offense, and he’ll be less than that now that Josh Allen is reunited with his Cowboy TE Jacob Hollister. If you must draft one of these guys, make it Jake.

Most of the remaining tight ends are poor bets to take on significant roles in their respective team’s passing attacks. Guys like Austin Hooper and Hayden Hurst are poor scheme fits and promising players like Christopher Herndon and Ian Thomas never put it all together.

Here a few under radar guys who could surprise.

Anthony Firkser’s stock was trending up. Arthur Smith is gone and Titans former TE coach is the new OC. Even in a low volume passing attack, Firkser seemed a good bet to produce more than expected. The Julio Jones signing cooled some of that optimism since he and AJ Brown figure to hog the majority of the scant targets available. I still like Firkser as a spec TE2. My biggest concern about him is he’s short for a tight end, and it has really impacted his effectiveness in the red zone.

Dan Arnold is a WR conversion who is ready to pop. There is TE1 potential here. Sam Darnold seems to love him. Tommy Tremble is aboard to beat the crap out of linebackers, freeing Arnold for run routes. The downside is he’s going to likely be the fifth receiving option in this offense. Keep him on your radar.

The Colts drafted Kylen Granson out of SMU in the fourth round last April and he has been the story of their training camp. This scheme dotes on tight ends and Wentz uses them as a security blanket. There is a lot of talk about Granson being the primary receiving tight end for Indy. Extraordinarily wide range of outcomes possible here. Watch him and jump if the Colts show they’re serious about featuring him.

I thought I’d talk a little about defenses and kickers and there will be no room in the RB or WR primers.

The Broncos defense is very undervalued in the NFFC but I don’t think that will be the case in local leagues full of Bronco fans. My advice is don’t reach for them or any defense. Defense scoring (in most leagues) is incredibly high variance. There’s nothing I like better than seeing someone pick WAS as the first defense and then nobody else drafts another D for three rounds. I saw someone take WAS in round 14 and follow it up with the Rams in round 15 in my most recent slow draft. First two defenses off the board. I was busy adding Marquez Callaway and Terrace Marshall to my already stacked WR room in those rounds, but you do you, bro.

I get the philosophy. On certain weeks, one defense will score big and put up over 20 points and a few weeks later, the other defense will do the same. By the end of the year, you’re going to see a noticeable bump. Except, WAS only scored in double figures four times last year and only got over 20 once. The Rams were slightly better. Scoring between 11-15 points five times and also scoring more than 20 once. Unfortunately, the Rams and WAS both hit their high water mark of 22 points in week 14 last year. Making the net gain of owning them both essentially zero that week. I looked at the weekly numbers of both teams last season. In an optimal scoring format, owning both defenses last season would have given the owner a surplus of 81 points, or slightly more than five points per scoring period. Except, most leagues are not optimal scoring. You pick your defense each week. There’s no way you’re going to guess right every week. It’s even possible you’ll pick wrong enough that you’ll wind up scoring fewer points than you might have by rostering just one defense every week. If you want to play matchups, just stream defenses off the waiver wire each week. You’ll be able to target bad quarterbacks and bad weather and you can get started with the last pick in your draft.

There’s not much to say about kickers. Don’t get one from a really bad offense but be aware that the most efficient offenses don’t produce a lot of FG attempts. Even so, your best bet is to draft one from a team that scores a lot. You might also mention to your commissioner that drafting a kicking team, instead of individual players is an upgrade to the playing experience. Nothing sucks more than losing a close game because a kicker gets hurt. Nobody wants to scour the waiver wire in week 13 for an injury replacement, either. The bye weeks are enough of a pain in the ass already.

Alright, I’ll need some time to do a proper job on the critical RB and WR segments. Look for them on Monday and/or Tuesday.