We have already begun setting the table for the 2021 season. We jumped in early with seasonal rankings and player write-ups that will be updated throughout free agency and NFL Draft. Building off those initial seasonal rankings, we are now laying the groundwork for dynasty formats.
I have already laid out initial thoughts and nuggets on the tight ends regarding their 2021 outlook and will borrow a number of nuggets from there here. Here, we are going to lay out the positional tiers with a synopsis of those tiers and then at the end of the week provide linear top-200 lists for 1QB and SuperFlex formats. At the end of the week, top-200 and top-300 rankings will come out for all formats as a cross-reference.
Some real quick methodology here. If you are new to how I do tiers, I make my dynasty tiers based on a blend of age, fantasy performance, career arc, team situation, and fantasy archetype. There is some overlap to actual player rankings, but these tiers do not specifically follow the rankings, rather those archetypes. There should be tier movement for some players here based on how free agency and the draft plays out, so check back in as news develops this offseason.
The purpose of tiers not being a carbon copy of player rankings is to spot a potential arbitrage situation and shop in different buckets based on how you are constructing your team in startups and looking for trade opportunities. A veteran starter that can accrue points immediately based on where a current roster is and other times chasing more youth and upside for the future.
*Player Age = Age on 9/1/2021
George Kittle (Age 27.9)
Travis Kelce (31.9)
Mark Andrews (25.0)
Darren Waller (29.0)
Travis Kelce has led the position in fantasy scoring in five straight seasons. Despite turning 32 years old during the 2021 season and being multiple years older than the other players here, Kelce is still in a ripe spot to keep producing paired with the top quarterback in the league and ranking in the top-five in routes run at the position. Kelce is not a great startup pickup, but outside of injury, there is no reason that Kelce will not continue to produce this season.
George Kittle has led the tight end position in yards per route run in each of the past three seasons. The downside is that he runs significantly fewer routes per game than both Kelce and Waller here, while he has run into the misfortune of staying on the field the past two seasons. Kittle’s 2020 season was cut short to just eight games with knee and foot injuries, giving Kittle just one full season played through four years in the league. When he was on the field, though, Kittle still ranked third at the position in receptions per game (6.0) and points per game (15.6) while leading all tight ends by being targeted on 28.3% of his routes.
Darren Waller will turn 29 years old in September given the path he has taken, but the reward for his fight back into the league has paid off. After his massive breakout in 2019 (90-1,145-3), Waller doubled down in 2020 and improved across the board, catching 107-of-145 targets for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns. Waller has finished third and first in team target share in each of the past two seasons and second both seasons in yards per team pass attempt.
Mark Andrews is the youngest tight end of the top options, entering 2021 on the final season of his rookie contract. You can buy years with Andrews over the other three tight ends in this tier, but he also has not shown the outright reception and yardage upside of the others to date. After playing 32.9% of the team snaps per game as a rookie in 2018, and then 43.8% per game in 2019, we finally got to see Andrews as a full-time player in 2020, as he played 65.5% of the Baltimore snaps.
Unfortunately, Andrews fell into the regression machine of the Baltimore passing game as his 4.1 receptions for 50.1 yards per game were a touch below the 4.3 and 56.8 marks he had in 2019. Andrews was still third in team target share at the position (23.9% in games played), but the low-volume nature of the Baltimore passing game had him ninth in targets per game (6.3). Andrews did close the season strong, posting a 32-404-2 line over his final six games and has scored 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Kyle Pitts (20.9)
Pitts gets his own tier and there is consideration that he could be selected as early as anyone at the position already entering the league. That is the background he has entering the NFL as a pass catcher while he will not even turn 21 years old until October of his rookie season.
Among all tight end prospects since 2000, Pitts ranks first in touchdown per game (1.5), second in receiving yards per game (96.3), and 15th in receptions per game (5.4) in their final college season. His 17.9 yards per catch is the highest among all of those prospects who caught 40 or more passes and his 27.9% touchdown rate on those grabs is second among the same group. In my personal prospect model, Pitts enters the NFL with the highest production score ever, bypassing Rob Gronkowski.
Selected by Atlanta at No. 4 overall, Pitts is the highest tight end ever selected in the NFL Draft, but we have had some lofty expectations for tight ends before that have fallen short of the mark or have taken some runway to get going in the league.
Vernon Davis (6.3 rookie year points per game) and Kellen Winslow (5.0 in just two games) were both taken sixth overall in their respective drafts while T.J. Hockenson (6.7 points per game) was just selected eighth overall two years ago and was paired with a strong quarterback out of the box, unlike Davis and Winslow. Just one first-round tight end has cleared 200 PPR points in his rookie season and that was Keith Jackson back in 1988. Just five have cleared 150 PPR points in their first season, with the latest being Evan Engram in 2017.
The tight ends in Atlanta were a struggle last season as the team ranked 27th in success rate (50%) and 25th in yards per target (6.4) targeting the position. Under Arthur Smith last season, the Titans used 12 personnel 35% of the time in 2020, which led the league.
With high-end playmakers such as Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley on the perimeter, Pitts should have his way to not only opportunity, but comfortable surroundings. Matt Ryan has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in 10 straight seasons and has completed over 400 passes in each of the past three seasons. He has led the league in completions in each of the past two seasons. Put in a more friendly offensive climate under Smith that will put more of an emphasis on play action in 2021, Pitts could not have landed in a better immediate spot. Ryan could be out of Atlanta as early as 2022, but Pitts is already in contention for the top TE spot in dynasty value.
T.J. Hockenson (23.8)
Noah Fant (23.8)
Irv Smith Jr. (23.1)
This tier is our third-year tight ends that came with high draft capital, high athleticism, and have improved each year in the league. This trio of tight ends are the hottest bets to make a significant jump in 2021, potentially even threatening to be on par with the best options at the position in their range of outcomes. In the 2019 draft, Hockenson (pick eight), Fant (20), and Smith Jr. (50) were all high-graded prospects entering the NFL.
After averaging 2.7 receptions for 30.6 yards per game as a rookie, Hockenson turned in 4.2 receptions for 45.2 yards per game in 2020 while he raised his touchdown total from two to six. With the Lions having no clear direction in terms of wide receiving depth, Hockenson could end up as their primary target in the passing game in year three.
Similar to Hockenson, Fant jumped from 2.5 catches for 35.1 yards per game as a rookie up to 4.1 receptions for 44.9 yards per game in his second season. YAC regression from 8.3 yards after the catch per grab as a rookie down to 6.0 YAC per catch explains his dip in yards per catch. Fant’s surrounding target cast is stronger than Hockenson’s, but another step forward in year three should be anticipated, which can be accelerated if Denver actually makes a quarterback change in 2021.
With Kyle Rudolph already released, Smith Jr. is in line to be a climber this offseason. Smith took a step forward in year two, upping his yards per catch from 8.6 to 12.2 in 2020 while scoring five times after twice as a rookie. With Rudolph sidelined the final four weeks of 2020, Smith Jr. caught 15-of-20 targets for 183 yards and three touchdowns while turning in two top-six scoring weeks over that sample. Smith Jr. also has the best immediate quarterback situation of this trio at this time.
Dallas Goedert (26.7)
Mike Gesicki (25.9)
Hunter Henry (26.7)
Evan Engram (27.0)
Jonnu Smith (26.0)
Austin Hooper (26.8)
Robert Tonyan (27.3)
We are now in tweener tight end territory. They may not be TE1 overall material, but all of these tight ends have shown upside over the early stretches of their careers while having plenty of meat left on the bone in terms of having any age concerns.
With Zach Ertz rumored to likely be on the move this offseason, a runway for Dallas Goedert to be the lead tight end is clear. The quarterback change in play for Philly is a question. Goedert caught 34-of-46 targets (73.9%) for 398 yards (8.7 yards/target) and all three of his touchdowns from Carson Wentz, but just 12-of-19 (63.2%) for 126 yards (6.6 Y/T) from Jalen Hurts in their limited sample together.
Like Goedert, Mike Gesicki is another three-year player who has raised his touchdowns, yards per catch, receptions, and yardage per game in each season. Like Goedert, Gesicki also dealt with an in-season transition to a rookie passer. With Tua Tagovailoa, Gesicki caught 29-of-43 targets (67.4%) for 308 yards (7.2 yards per target) and three touchdowns after catching 24-of-42 targets (57.1%) for 395 yards (9.4 Y/T) with three scores from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Gesicki has ranked 12th (5.6) and 13th (5.7) at the position in targets per game the past two seasons.
This is the area where Hunter Henry has lived through his time as a starting tight end, finishing the past three seasons as the TE10, TE8, and TE11 in points per game. The 26-year-old received a career-high 6.6 targets per game, but did not go along for the ride with Justin Herbert’s explosion, averaging a career-low 6.6 yards per target and catching a career-low 64.5% of those targets. An unrestricted free agent, Henry’s 2021 destination is up in the air.
Evan Engram appeared in all 16 games in 2020 for the first time in his career, but set career-lows in receptions per game (3.9), yardage per game (40.9), yards per catch (10.4), yards per target (6.0), and touchdown receptions (one). We have been chasing the potential breakout for Engram with no such luck as he once again was used near the line of scrimmage (37th among tight ends with a 7.4 aDOT) and not near the end zone (three end zone targets which tied for 33rd). But opportunities still remain present as Engram received 21.1% of the team targets, which checked in fourth at the position.
Jonnu Smith appeared poised to finally break out at the start of 2020, catching 18 passes for 221 yards and five touchdowns over the opening four games of the season. Then, Smith caught just 23 passes for 227 yards and three scores over his final 11 games with more than three catches in just two of those weeks. Saddled in a run-first offense, Smith ran a pass route on only 40.3% of his snaps played and ran just 20.0 pass routes per game (32nd among tight ends). Landing in New England, Smith is expected to be saddled once again with a run-first offense in 2021, waiting on the moves New England sets up down the road at quarterback beyond Cam Newton.
While Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith have free agency as an outlet to increased potential, Austin Hooper a year ago is an example that the grass is not always greener. In his first season in Cleveland, Hooper caught 46-of-70 targets for 435 yards and four touchdowns in his 13 games played. His 3.5 receptions and 33.5 yards per game were low marks since his second season in the league in 2017 while his 5.4 targets per came checked in at 18th at the position. Never a high yards created target (10.3 career yards per catch), Hooper needs his volume to significantly spike in his second season in Cleveland.
I put Robert Tonyan here based on age and his 2020 scoring output, but he is the lowest in actual ranks and someone that comes with fragility. After 14 receptions for 177 yards and two touchdowns through two NFL seasons, Tonyan broke out with 52 catches for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns, which matched Travis Kelce for the league lead. Hyper-efficient tied to the league’s MVP, just seven of the 59 targets Tonyan received were incomplete. That 88.1% catch rate was the highest ever for a tight end with more than 50 targets in a season. Not to be outdone on just pulling in targets, Tonyan’s 18.6% rate of receptions resulting in touchdowns trails only Julius Thomas in 2014 (19.4%) among tight ends who have caught 20 or more passes in a season. Averaging just 3.3 receptions per game (16th) and 36.6 yards per game (15th), living in the same capacity moving forward is a lot to ask.
Brevin Jordan (21.1)
Adam Trautman (23.0)
Cole Kmet (22.5)
Pat Freiermuth (22.9)
Peppering in our secondary tier of rookie tight ends here with some year two tight ends that are receiving a bump.
While there is a massive gap from Kyle Pitts and the field, this is actually a promising tight end class with some other upside options.
Brevin Jordan was a highly productive pass catcher at Miami. In eight games in 2021, Jordan averaged 4.8 receptions for 72.0 yards per game while he snagged seven touchdowns. Jordan will only be a 21-year-old rookie.
Pat Freiermuth could very well be the second tight end off the board and we know Penn State players show out in individual workouts thanks to the legend Dwight Galt to gain steam heading into the draft. Freiermuth is an older prospect than Jordan by almost two years, but totaled a steady 92-1,185-16 line across 29 games in college. Unlike Pitts and Jordan, Freiermuth is more of the traditional inline tight end and he is the best immediate blocker among the top prospects to get on the field right away. Landing in Pittsburgh, Eric Ebron is a free agent after the 2021 season.
As for the 2020 rookies getting an uptick in outlook for 2021, Cole Kmet only played 34.4% of the Chicago snaps through nine games, catching six passes over that span on eight targets. At that point, Chicago leaned into giving the rookie tight end more opportunity. For the rest of the season, Kmet played 84.6% of the team snaps, catching 22-of-36 targets (5.1 per game) for 164 yards and a touchdown. Kmet only managed 8.7 yards per grab and the team still used Jimmy Graham heavily as an end zone target over that span. The Bears can save $7M if Graham is released this offseason, giving last year’s second-round pick more room to improve in year two.
The Saints took Adam Trautman in the third round last year (pick 105) after a decorated collegiate career with the most career receptions (178), yards (2,295), and touchdowns (31) among tight ends in the 2020 class. The rookie found the field for just 37% of the team snaps, catching 15-of-16 targets for 171 yards and a touchdown. With Jared Cook and Josh Hill released, Trautman is set up to take the next step forward in year two as a contributor.
Tyler Higbee (28.7)
O.J. Howard (26.8)
Blake Jarwin (27.1)
Eric Ebron (28.4)
Gerald Everett (27.2)
Anthony Firkser (26.5)
Hayden Hurst (28.0)
This tier of tight ends has enough age runway and shown upside to offer intrigue and starting ability that can get you through a tough stretch, but also have not completely popped as locked-in fantasy options as well.
After a late-season breakout in 2019 thrust Tyler Higbee up boards entering 2020, he reverted to a timeshare role at the position with Gerald Everett, catching 44-of-60 targets for 521 yards and five touchdowns, three of which came in one game in Week 2. The pros for Higbee as an upside TE2 are that he has shown he is capable of a high ceiling, Everett is expected to walk in free agency, the team upgraded at quarterback to Matthew Stafford, and he still was third on the team in end zone targets in 2020.
Selected 44th overall in the 2017 draft, Everett has shared time and targets alongside Higbee and never had a chance to truly break out. Through four years in the NFL, Everett has had his targets, receptions, and yardage climb every season, but has capped out with a season-high of just 62 targets. Hitting free agency, Everett’s destination will tell us how much he is valued and what kind of opportunity he can receive in his fifth season.
After getting a contract extension last offseason after Jason Witten finally moved on, Blake Jarwin was set to finally get a real shot as the starting tight end for the Cowboys. Unfortunately, Jarwin made it just 25 snaps into the season before suffering an ACL injury. His replacement, Dalton Schultz, then went on to be the PPR18 in points per game the rest of the way and ninth among all tight ends in targets (89).
Eric Ebron closed his first season with the Steelers as the TE13 in points per game (9.5 points), catching 56-of-91 targets for 558 yards and five touchdowns. With 37.2 yards per game, Ebron has hit 40.0 yards per game in just one of his past four seasons. A potential loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ben Roethlisberger returning can aid Ebron, but he also could be a potential cut candidate as well.
Anthony Firkser is a restricted free agent for the Titans coming off career-highs with 53 targets, 39 catches, and 387 yards to go along with a touchdown. With Jonnu Smith moving on in free agency, Firkser could fall into more opportunity after posting games of 8-113-1 and 5-51-0 in the two games Smith was out or exited early last season, but Tennessee should be a team we anticipate adding a tight end this offseason.
Traded to Atlanta after two seasons of minimal usage in Baltimore, Hayden Hurst set career-highs everywhere in 2020 with 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns on 88 targets. Hurst was held to fewer than 50 yards in 10 games, checking in as the TE17 in points per game (9.3) and 18th in yards per game (35.7). The selection of Kyle Pitts nukes Hurst for 2021 in the final year of his contract.
Zach Ertz (30.8)
Logan Thomas (30.2)
Rob Gronkowski (32.3)
Jared Cook (34.4)
Jack Doyle (31.3)
Cameron Brate (30.2)
Jimmy Graham (34.8)
Our veteran tights end tier that are into their 30s, but have still shown production ability and still project to see targets in 2021. They are solid TE2 options with starting upside, but are primary targets for win-now roster depth.
After seeing his efficiency begin to dwindle in 2019, the bottom fell out for Zach Ertz in 2020. Playing in just 11 games, the 30-year-old tight end ended up posting just 3.3 receptions for 30.5 yards per game with only one touchdown, contributing career lows with 9.3 yards per reception and 4.7 yards per target. His 6.5 targets per game were his fewest since 2014, his second year in the league. With his low yards after catch ability and never clearing more than eight touchdowns in a season, Ertz’s next stop needs to be in a place that can provide a high number of targets.
Logan Thomas was the TE3 in overall scoring, breaking out with a 72-670-6 line on 110 targets. The downside is that was the lowest scoring TE3 season since 2003. Thomas averaged just 9.3 yards per catch, so that volume will need to be sticky. The good news is that he did lead all tight ends in routes per team drop back at 91.3% and has not had a real shot at being a lead tight end in the NFL prior to last season. Turning 30 years old this offseason, the target competition that Washington brings in will say a lot for Thomas heading into 2021.
Returning to the NFL to play with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski caught 45-of-77 targets for 623 yards and seven touchdowns. He also appeared in every game this season, but his 2.8 receptions per game were his fewest in a season since he was a rookie in 2010, catching three of fewer passes in 11 games. That said, Gronk led all tight ends with 14 end zone targets as a goal line presence and was fifth at the position in air yards as a vertical threat to offer weekly upside.
Harrison Bryant (23.4)
Albert Okwuegbunam (23.4)
Donald Parham (24.0)
Chris Herndon (25.5)
Dawson Knox (24.8)
Drew Sample (25.4)
David Njoku (25.1)
Devin Asiasi (24.0)
Dalton Schultz (25.1)
Brycen Hopkins (24.4)
Dalton Keene (22.4)
Mo Alie-Cox (28.0)
Jace Sternberger (25.2)
Dan Arnold (26.5)
Bringing things home, our final tier of tight end relevancy. As Logan Thomas and Robert Tonyan showed last season, this position is always open for a player to make a seasonally relevant impact with little more than a runway to opportunity.
As a Chris Herndon late-round supporter last offseason, I am obligated to mention him. After a positive rookie campaign with 39-502-4, Herndon basically lost all of 2019 to injury and suspension and then returned to a pedestrian 31-287-3 line a year ago. Herndon scored in his final two games of the season and closed the year with 7-63-1 to tease us with potential now that the team has moved on from Adam Gase and should upgrade at quarterback, but Herndon is still a dart throw.
Mo Alie-Cox is a restricted free agent in 2021. The Colts have seemed to be reluctant to give him a real shot as a focal point in their offense, but he keeps making the most of the opportunities he has gotten. Despite leading all Indianapolis tight ends with 31 receptions and 394 yards (including 5-111-0 and 3-50-1 games as a starter Weeks 2-3), Alie-Cox still shared time with Jack Doyle and Trey Burton the rest of the season, never catching more than three passes in a game outside of his apparent Week 2 breakout.