1. Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs) – Kelce has 15 or more games played in each of the past seven seasons, while also topping 100 targets in each of the past six seasons. Over that six-season span, Kelce has averaged 129 targets per season, rarified air for a tight end, and that is just an average year for Kelce. Last year Kelce saw 145 targets, tied with Darren Waller for the most at tight end. Kelce separates himself from Waller thanks in large part to his quarterback, however, which is clearly evident in his yardage totals. Kelce produced 1,416 yards on his 145 targets while Waller produced 1,195, and throw in the fact that Kelce is a better touchdown bet with Mahomes by his side and he’s the clear top option. With arguably fewer competitions for targets compared to last year, Kelce is the rare first-round tight end in fantasy drafts that I can get behind.
2. Darren Waller (Las Vegas Raiders) – With a massive 92.8% snap share in 2020, Waller broke out on 145 targets and is suddenly challenging Kelce as the TE1 in drafts. Waller was 16th among qualified tight ends in Air Yards per target per Fantasy Data, a very respectable number on his massive volume, so these weren’t just check-down passes from Derek Carr. The knock on Waller entering 2020 was his lack of touchdown scoring, as he reached the end zone just three times on 117 targets in 2019. But he put those worries to bed last season as he paced all tight ends with 24 red zone targets, ranked sixth with ten end zone targets, and scored nine touchdowns on the way to his TE2 finish. Waller’s competition for targets is pretty weak once again in 2021, with Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, John Brown, and Hunter Renfrow poised to lead the wide receiver group. We would need to see massive year-two jumps from Ruggs and Edwards before there was any threat to Waller’s lead-dog status. The passing game will run through Waller again in 2021.
3. George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers) – Projecting Kittle for 2021 is a volatile process. He missed eight games due to injury last season, but the injury-prone label is a bit unwarranted, as he did play 14 or more games in his prior three seasons. Kittle has just 14 career touchdowns on 369 targets for a 3.7% touchdown rate, compared to Kelce’s rate of 5.6%. Kelce is a good example when analyzing Kittle, however, as he had just one season with over five touchdowns before Patrick Mahomes entered the scene. In the three seasons with Mahomes under center, Kelce’s touchdown rate is just over 6%. That leads us to the other volatile part of Kelce’s projection – the 49ers’ quarterback position. How many games will we get from Jimmy Garoppolo? How many from the rookie Trey Lance? If Lance does play, will he be any good? One thing that we do know about Kittle is that he is a talented athlete that displays elite efficiency. Even in an abbreviated 2020, Kittle ranked first in yards per route run, second in yards per target, and sixth in yards per reception among qualified tight ends. If we get a full season of Kittle with good quarterback play, we are looking at the potential TE1. I am targeting Kittle in dynasty leagues, but for redraft, we may be a year early. Unless Lance comes in and lights it up from the start, we may be waiting for 2022 for Kittle to receive the above-average quarterback play that he deserves.
4. Kyle Pitts (Atlanta Falcons) – My ears perked up when Matt Waldman called Pitts the third-best receiving prospect in this rookie class, even if he was graded as a wide receiver. Pitts plays tight end by the way. And that is why Pitts is worth the gamble early in drafts, he has a chance to avoid the issues that your typical tight end faces. Kelce and Waller are the top two tight ends because of their volume, and they are the rare tight end that will ever have a shot at 145 targets. But if you look at wide receivers, the bar is a bit lower. Tyler Boyd, Diontae Johnson, Julian Edelman, and Juju Smith-Schuster have all had a season in that target range over the past three seasons, and while I like them all as players, that’s not exactly a list of generational talents. If Pitts can be used as a wide receiver, whether detached from the formation, in the slot, or split-out wide, that may help him avoid the pitfalls of a traditional rookie tight end, who also has to learn and excel in run-game as a blocker.
With Julio Jones out of town, his competition for targets is Calvin Ridley, 2018 sixth-round pick Russell Gage, fellow tight end Hayden Hurst, and… Mike Davis out of the backfield? Olamide Zaccheaus? I’m intrigued with how new coach and play-caller Arthur Smith will use Pitts, and the 6’6″ fourth overall pick ran a 4.44 40 time at his pro day after dominating in college. Yes, we need one of the best rookie tight end seasons ever from Pitts, but he is legitimately one of the best fantasy football tight end prospects to come into the league. We should look at tight end like we do quarterback for fantasy purposes – if you are going to take one early, they need to have top of their position upside. Pitts has that, and if he doesn’t work out you can grab Austin Hooper or Jonnu Smith off of waivers and chase touchdowns for the rest of the year.
5. T.J. Hockenson (Detroit Lions) – Hockenson really didn’t take that leap that we were hoping for last season, but by virtue of playing 16 games in the mediocre world of fantasy football tight ends, Hockenson finished as the TE7 on a points per game basis and the TE5 overall. But if you dig deeper, there are some less exciting metrics. Hockenson recorded a 10.9% drop rate per FantasyData, the highest mark among qualified tight ends, and was only targeted four times in contested catch situations. He ranked a middling 14th in yards per route run, 15th in yards per target, and 16th in yards per reception among tight ends. Of course, there are plenty of caveats here. Hockenson was just a second-year player playing a notoriously difficult position for young players. His coaching staff mismanaged the team as a whole to a pretty epic degree. And there is almost no target competition for Hockenson entering the 2021 season. With Jared Goff under center, I don’t see this being a great offense, so Hockenson will need that volume to be a difference-maker at the position. I am a little hesitant when it comes to Hockenson’s ceiling, though, so just remember that we still need to see some significant growth for an elite year from Hock. But he’s a rock-solid starting tight end that you should be happy to roster.
6. Mark Andrews (Baltimore Ravens) – I’ve been fading Andrews in drafts so far this offseason, and it admittedly feels like I’m ignoring the metrics here. Our projections spit him out as the TE4 on the year, he was the TE4 on a point per game basis last year, and his 2019 season (13.8 ppg) has only been topped by six other active tight ends over the past three seasons. Last year he ranked fifth in yards per route run, had the most contested catches in the league, was fifth in red zone targets, and was first in end zone targets among all tight ends. My issue with Andrews is his volume, however, and it starts with his 67% snap share, good for 20th among qualified tight ends. He has yet to reach 100 targets in a single season, and while he has gotten close (98 in 2019), those numbers are a far cry from the elite tight ends in the NFL. And with additional resources devoted to the receiving corps in first-round pick Rashod Bateman, fourth-round pick Tylan Wallace, and free-agent signing Sammy Watkins, Andrews looks unlikely to jump in targets this season. In the past, he was generally fighting with just Hollywood Brown for Lamar Jackson‘s attention, but we may be looking at a significant change in 2021. He’s likely to finish among the top six of fantasy tight ends again in 2021 due to his red zone role, but if I’m taking a tight end within the first five rounds of my draft I want legitimate TE1 upside. And I’m just not sure that is in Andrews’ range of outcomes this season.
7. Logan Thomas (Washington Football Team) – Thomas scored the same amount of points and points per game as Robert Tonyan last season, yet Thomas out-targeted Tonyan 110 to 59, a staggering difference in efficiency between the two players. Playing with Aaron Rodgers is certainly the reason for most of the difference, and while Thomas still isn’t playing with a future hall of famer, Ryan Fitzpatrick does provide an upgrade from what Thomas dealt with in 2020.
The Washington offense last season consisted of 252 attempts from Alex Smith, 241 from Dwayne Haskins, 87 from Kyle Allen, and 12 from Taylor Heinicke. Well, plus some guy named Logan Thomas completed his only pass for a 28 yard gain. That combination resulted in 16 passing touchdowns, 16 interceptions, a 65% completion percentage, and an average of 6.3 yards per attempt. In nine games last year, Fitzpatrick threw for 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions, completed 68.5% of his passes, and averaged 7.8 yards per attempt. There are reasons to not buy into Fitzpatrick for fantasy purposes, but there is no doubt he will get the ball downfield, and that should help Thomas improve the efficiency of his targets.
More touchdown chances, more downfield targets, now we just have to hope the volume remains. Fitzpatrick had a nice connection with O.J. Howard in 2018 in Tampa Bay, and last year Fitzpatrick had some spike weeks throwing to Mike Gesicki in Miami. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Thomas as a player, and now he might have a quarterback to help him out. Our projections have him as the TE8 on a point per game basis, and I think there is upside for more.
8. Noah Fant (Denver Broncos) – Fant has everything you would want from a young tight end – elite athletic profile, first-round draft capital, and the ability to play and produce from day one at a tough position for young players. Fant has been a bit streaky at times but seems to be primarily held back by his surroundings, and his 6 touchdowns on 159 career targets (3.8% TD rate) has kept him from breaking out in fantasy. Fant ranked 16th in red zone targets (12) and 21st in end zone targets (3) among qualified tight ends in 2020 and coupled with his lackluster 10.0 Air Yards per reception (21st among tight ends), Fant couldn’t pay off on his volume last season. His TE12 point per game finish was disappointing in the context of his target share, as his 19.3% rate was sixth-best among qualified tight ends. Fant struggled in contested catch situations per FantasyData, but his yards per route run ranked eighth in the NFL among tight ends, and there is plenty of upside. I ultimately expect Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater to hold Fant back from a true breakout, but if the quarterback position ever clicks, Fant is a likely fast riser at the position.
9. Tyler Higbee (Los Angeles Rams) – Higbee has an easy path to an improved season, yet he remains an excellent value if you wait at tight end. He provides a cheap way to get a piece of the Rams with Matthew Stafford, and if the Stafford-Sean McVay combo clicks this offense could explode. While everyone focuses on the receivers and running backs, Higbee quietly has less competition with Gerald Everett off to Seattle. Higbee has produced fantasy-relevant stretches, including his white-hot end of the 2019 season where he averaged 10 targets and 90 yards per game over the final six weeks. Oh, and that also corresponded with Everett playing just 21 snaps over those six weeks due to injury. Everett has played 16 games in each of his other NFL seasons, so that was Higbee’s only real extended stretch with Everett out of the lineup. With Stafford in town, I would expect the Rams will get the ball downfield more to the receivers, so I’m not expecting WR1 production out of Higbee like in 2019. But he’s a great value and one of my primary targets when I fade early tight ends.
10. Robert Tonyan (Green Bay Packers) – Talk about making the most of an opportunity. Tonyan caught 52 of 59 passes last season while scoring 11 touchdowns, just a causal 82.5% catch rate and an 18.6% touchdown rate. Those numbers are not sustainable, though we have been burnt before when it comes to touchdown rates with Aaron Rodgers‘ top targets. Our projections show the risk here, as we bump him up to 77 targets in 2021 but give him a mere mortal catch rate and touchdown rate, resulting in a TE14 finish. At age 27, Tonyan is hitting his prime as a tight end, and you can’t brush off his TE6 point per game finish from 2020 when Aaron Rodgers is back under center. But with the additions of rookie receiver Amari Rodgers, old friend Randall Cobb, and a hopefully healthy Allen Lazard, Aaron Rodgers suddenly has more targets to work with. I’ll grab Tonyan at value when the rest of his tier of tight ends are gone, but I’m not expecting another level for Tonyan in 2021.
11. Dallas Goedert (Philadelphia Eagles) – I find myself down on most of the Eagles this year, and I thought Goedert would be the exception. As I set my rankings I kept moving him down, however, and here he sits at the bottom of Tier 4. For one, Zach Ertz hasn’t been traded, and as long as he’s in town he could be a major issue for Goedert. While we’ve all moved on from Ertz in the fantasy world, he is just 30 years old, so it isn’t impossible for him to rebound and play a significant number of snaps. Then there is the quarterback situation, as Jalen Hurts has a full season to prove himself in his second NFL season. Goedert averaged 5.7 targets per game in Hurts’ three full games, a solid enough number, but the yardage totals were modest and he didn’t reach the end zone. And touchdowns could be a problem, as we don’t know how many the Eagles will score with Hurts under center, coupled with the fact that Hurts will likely score several close touchdowns with his legs (three rushing touchdowns in his four starts in 2020). Goedert has been a solid but unspectacular tight end for fantasy football in his career, and I would expect more of the same in 2021.
12. Adam Trautman (New Orleans Saints) – Trautman is the most likely of this group to shoot up the list due to training camp hype, and there are plenty of reasons to like Trautman as a breakout tight end in 2021. He was a 3rd round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and Jared Cook left for the Chargers in the offseason, leaving a gaping hole at tight end. With Michael Thomas injured for the foreseeable future as well, the targets in this new-look offense are up for grabs. Trautman has an interesting athletic profile and impressed in flashes last year when given the opportunity. But at the end of the day, we are talking about a tight end in his second season with just 16 career targets under his belt. The list of young tight ends that we’ve been a year or two early on in fantasy circles could reach to the moon, so make sure you understand the risk with Trautman. But the risk is pretty minor this late in drafts, so in drafts where you miss the early tight ends, I don’t mind waiting and grabbing Trautman. Just be prepared to take a second tight end as insurance, or to be ready to play the waiver wire if early returns are disappointing.
13. Irv Smith Jr. (Minnesota Vikings) – Irv Smith suffered a knee injury and is likely out for the season. I do like Smith so don’t take this ranking as a reason to avoid him. As a former second-round pick entering his age 23 seasons, Smith’s best years should be ahead of him. But Mike Zimmer already told us that Tyler Conklin (one of my favorite late picks in deep leagues) will fill the Kyle Rudolph role, leaving Smith in a similar spot as last year. In his two seasons in the NFL, Smith has topped out at 47 targets (2019) and 365 yards (2020). We know that the run game is priority one in Minnesota, and Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are 1A and 1B in the passing game. We already saw Smith without Rudolph down the stretch last year when the veteran missed the final four weeks, and Smith averaged 5.25 targets per game with 3.75 receptions for 46 yards. The three touchdowns from Smith were encouraging, but over that same stretch, Conklin saw one more target, caught the same number of passes, and averaged 42 receiving yards per game. Smith will likely need injuries around him before a true breakout occurs, but I love his upside when he falls in drafts.
14. Mike Gesicki (Miami Dolphins) – I’m down on Gesicki simply due to his surroundings, as he suddenly has increased competition with Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle on the roster. And while Gesicki was the clear lead tight end with 85 targets in 2020, it was frustrating to see Durham Smythe steal 29 targets and two touchdowns and Adam Shaheen vulture an additional 22 targets and three touchdowns. Those threats remain, and the Dolphins even drafted tight end Hunter Long in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. This Dolphins passing attack was very schemed with Tua Tagovailoa under center, spreading the ball around to whoever was on the field at a given time. Barring some injuries in the receiving corps, I don’t Gesicki being a focal point of this offense. He’s a solid pick in the sense that he is a true pass-catcher, an important quality in a fantasy tight end. But I would expect more of the 10.6 PPR points per game that we saw in 2020 as opposed to a massive breakout.
15. Rob Gronkowski (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – Gronk probably deserves to be higher in my rankings, as he finished as the TE9 overall last year in his return to the NFL. But last year was a down year at the position, and on a point per game basis, he was TE15. Gronkowski scored seven touchdowns during the regular season and two across four games in the playoffs (both in the Super Bowl), so the touchdown scoring will keep him a weekly option. But I just don’t see much of a path to 100 targets in his age 32 season, and I would expect Tampa Bay to preserve him for the stretch run as much as possible. I’d rather take shots on the options ahead of him having a true breakout, but Gronk will no doubt provide 6-10 touchdowns in 2021 if his health cooperates.
16. Gerald Everett (Seattle Seahawks) – Four years into his NFL career and the breakout hasn’t happened for the former second-round pick Everett, whose career highs of 41 targets, 417 receiving yards, and three touchdowns have left him off the fantasy map. Still, we have seen tight ends break out around age 27 on their second team, and getting paired with Russell Wilson is certainly intriguing. Seattle has had several tight ends flash fantasy relevance over the years (Will Dissly, Jacob Hollister, Jimmy Graham) but none have been able to stay healthy and keep the job. Everett is worth a shot late in drafts, though he will remain behind the run game and Seattle’s two elite receivers in the pecking order, limiting his upside a bit.
17. Hunter Henry (New England Patriots) – Henry is a tough but intriguing projection at this point in the offseason. We have him as the TE16 on a point per game basis in our projections, with a 14% target share. But it’s complicated by Henry spilling the tight end work with another talented tight end in Jonnu Smith, as well as the uncertainties at quarterback in New England. How many games will Cam Newton start? Will the Patriots fully commit to heavily targeting both tight ends? Will Mac Jones be competent in his rookie year? There’s a lot up in the air here. Smith profiles as the red zone threat, but Henry is the best bet for volume. Henry has seen over six targets per game over the past two seasons, while Smith was just over four per game last year, and while they certainly came from different types of offenses, Henry still profiles as the more wide receiver-like of the two. I think there is some hidden upside here – a jump in play from the quarterback position or an injury to Smith could present Henry with a huge opportunity. But it is hard to wave off the question marks, making Henry an intriguing yet uncertain option in fantasy leagues.
18. Jonnu Smith (New England Patriots) – Smith was maddening to roster last year, as his frequent touchdowns (9 total) kept you holding on for one more week hoping for a breakout. It looked like it was happening early on, as Smith came out of the gates averaging nearly seven targets per game over his first four games with 5 total touchdowns. But he fell off the map starting in Week 6, catching two or fewer passes in seven of his final ten games. I’m still intrigued by the athletic profile, and despite four years in the league, Smith is just entering his age-26 season. This is a boom-bust pick, and we may know as early as Week 1 if Smith is going to be a fantasy factor or not. It’s troubling that he will have to share the position with Hunter Henry (though the Pats will run plenty of two-tight end sets), and the quarterback situation could be a mess in 2021. But if Josh McDaniels schemes up a creative offense to focus on these tight ends, and either Cam Newton regains his accuracy or Mac Jones takes the job and runs with it, there is some potential here. Smith would fit the bill of a breakout tight end athletically, and the change in teams is just enough for me to draft him one more time.
19. Evan Engram (New York Giants) – Engram had a miserable 2020 season, ranking as TE19 on a point per game basis despite 109 targets, the fourth most among all NFL tight ends. The quarterback situation was a mess, with Daniel Jones struggling and Colt McCoy playing in four games. With Jones back for another year, coupled with the additions of Kenny Golladay in free agency and Kadarius Toney via the draft, and suddenly this is a crowded Giants pass-catching group. They even added Kyle Rudolph to steal snaps at tight end. But there’s a chance Engram still finds his way to volume, as Golladay battled injuries all of last year, Toney has already suffered a delayed start to his career due to a holdout, a minor injury, and being placed on the COVID-19 list, and Sterling Shepard has missed ten games over the past two seasons. Engram is one of the last tight ends with a chance to see legitimate volume, making him a decent upside play towards the end of drafts.
20. Austin Hooper (Cleveland Browns) – A few things stand out right off the top with Hooper. He has 70 or more targets in each of his past three seasons, and his out of nowhere 2019 season has only been topped by four other tight ends over that same span. That season was with Atlanta, a pass-happy offense, and is certainly an outlier, but I still think we are undervaluing Hooper here. The Browns may try to increase their passing volume as they look to become a Super Bowl contender, and there isn’t a ton of competition standing in the way for Hooper. Odell Beckham Jr. is coming off an ACL injury and is years removed from his last elite season. Jarvis Landry is a possession receiver, and the rest of the group is primarily made up of homerun threats. And while David Njoku and Harrison Bryan provide competition at the tight end position, Cleveland ranked ninth in percentage of snaps in 12 personnel, fifth in 22 personnel, and first in 13 personnel, all formations using at least two tight ends, per Sharp Football Stats. This Browns passing game was derailed by multiple weeks of bad weather during the middle of the 2020 season and was also in the first year of coach Kevin Stefanski’s system. Meanwhile, Hooper quietly finished the season with 26 targets over the final three regular-season games, and though he only had three targets in the Divisional Round, in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs he caught seven passes on 11 targets. Hooper isn’t explosive, and he isn’t going to win you your league, but if you don’t want to use draft capital at tight end, you can pick him late and start him Week 1.
21. Anthony Firkser (Tennessee Titans) – Firkser was a hot commodity on fantasy football Twitter after Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis left town, leaving an enormous opportunity for someone to step up behind A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry. Enter Julio Jones, and Firkser hype has fizzled as the summer wears on. Still, an injury to Jones, Davis, or Henry would open up a massive opportunity, and Firkser has very little competition for targets in the tight end room or with the rest of the receiver depth chart in Tennessee. At just 26, Firkser is a pass-catching tight end, which is good for fantasy, and saw a career-high 53 targets last year even with Smith and Davis around. His athletic profile isn’t exciting but he was a productive player at Harvard, and this Titans passing game has been among the most efficient in the league over the past two seasons. He’s worth a bench stash in deep leagues and a watchlist in shallow leagues, as injuries could snap him into a nice target share.
22. Zach Ertz (Philadelphia Eagles) – Ertz produced elite fantasy tight end seasons in both the 2019 and 2018 seasons and is just 30 years old, so I think we would be well served to not forget him entirely. But with an unproven young quarterback, a younger lead tight end in Goedert, and an injury-plagued 2020, we probably need a trade for Ertz to be a fantasy starter. Still, the bar is low to crack the top 12 tight ends, and a trade to Buffalo, as has been rumored, would certainly be an intriguing landing spot. Stash Ertz if you have super deep benches, see what happens before the season starts, and cut bait if he enters Week one in Philadelphia.
23. Jared Cook (Los Angeles Chargers) – He’s set up to be a red zone option for Justin Herbert, so Cook will certainly be a tight end streaming option in 2021. Cook saw his production dip last year at age 33, catching just 37 passes for 504 yards in New Orleans. But the offense was without Drew Brees for much of the year, and Cook still managed to catch seven touchdowns, so it wasn’t a completely useless season. Cook’s 8.5 points per game were just 22nd at his position last season, but we do have him projected for a TE13 finish, and in 2019 and 2018 Cook produced an excellent 12 fantasy points per game. Not much upside here, but the touchdowns will come in handy in stretches.
24. Hayden Hurst (Atlanta Falcons) – Any number of tight ends could have grabbed this final spot, including Blake Jarwin, Dan Arnold, Dan Arnold, Eric Ebron, and O.J. Howard. But I like Hurst here because he has a head coach in Arthur Smith that will likely incorporate two tight end sets, and we should know pretty quickly if Hurst has a role here, allowing us to cut bait if needed. There are enough “what ifs” here for me to take a second look at Hurst, for example, what if Kyle Pitts isn’t a factor in his rookie season? What if Calvin Ridley gets hurt? What if Smith takes this offense to another level? What if Russell Gage is just a role player, and not capable of being the second wide receiver option? Hurst saw 88 targets and caught six touchdowns last year, a better season than most likely remember. Give him a shot in deep leagues and see what this new Falcons offense looks like in Week 1.
25. Cole Kmet (Chicago Bears) – An intriguing late-round dart throw, Kmet’s rookie season wasn’t the complete waste that many tight ends tend to experience, catching 28 passes on 44 targets across 16 games. But Jimmy Graham remains on this roster, somehow, and Graham demanded 12 targets inside the 10-yard-line last year, the fifth most opportunities in the league. Kmet saw just 5 targets inside the ten, and until he wrestles that role from Graham it will be tough to be a fantasy option, barring a Justin Fields breakout. Similar with most young tight ends, we are probably still a year or two away from realizing his full potential.
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