As we continue to lay the groundwork for 2021 fantasy rankings that will be updated throughout the offseason, we are digging into this incoming rookie class for dynasty rookie drafts, startups, and even the potential these young players can have on the 2021 seasonal formats. Even prior to the actual NFL Draft in April, rookies are available in Best Ball formats across all platforms.
2021 is a unique offseason for scouting rookies, no matter what approach you take. With the ongoing fight against COVID, the NFL combine, which would have been two weekends ago, was canceled. That event would have provided a plethora of official athletic data and access to prospects through interviews.
In place of the official combine, we are getting that data through supplemental events such as the EXOS combines and Pro Day events from each school. Pro Days are not a new development, but there is a grain of salt to be applied to treating those results as equal to what we would have gotten in Indianapolis. Still, that information can be applied to athletic models and used to shape out the full portfolio for prospects to go along with production profiles, which is a general overlay of what these players put on tape for NFL teams.
As we get more athletic testing data coming in, we will add notes in here to those prospects. However, overall, athletic testing has a low correlation to actual fantasy output and when it does, it is typically counted twice from a productive player in the first place. But when a prospect has subpar athletic testing paired with a limited or nonexistent production resume, then we are playing with fire when attempting to elevate or count on that player for NFL production.
Even from a film watching and production stance, this past college season provided some unique challenges. Some players chose to opt-out of the 2020 season altogether, giving us no new data points or game play, while the players that did play have a scattershot sample of games that range all the way as low as 1-2 games played all the way up to 10-plus games based on scheduling conflicts surrounding the season.
Alas, we press on with everything we have available. Here, we are laying out the positional rankings for each position pre-NFL Draft from a fantasy stance. For purposes of having the most information, these early ranks will cover only the players invited to the combine at each position.
Setting up some more of the process here, although I do prospect models for each of the skill positions and will share the ranks for the players in those models, my personal ranks do not strictly follow those models linearly. I use the prospect models in a similar fashion as I do projection models for the NFL season. We are looking for immediate market inefficiencies in leagues where we are drafting rookies prior to the actual NFL draft.
Post-draft we’ll have the added influence of draft investment and landing spot to add to the layout. Those two components carry the most influence in predicting immediate player usage, so things will be shaken up a bit come April and we will revisit both ranks and adjust accordingly, although I would express caution early on in avoiding overweighting those elements dramatically altering your approach on a player.
With all of that set up out of the way, we are kicking things off with the tight end position. The good news is that this current tight end class offers more objective upside than the 2020 class. Last year, we had just one tight end taken before pick 90 overall (Cole Kmet at 43) and five players taken at the position in the opening three rounds.
Compared to the 2019 class, blue-chip prospects in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson were selected within the first 20 picks of the NFL draft and eight tight ends in total were selected in the top-100 picks. On the field last year, no rookie tight end even secured 30 receptions while just two (Kmet and Harrison Bryant) caught at least 20 passes in their first season and just four caught 10 or more passes.
1. Kyle Pitts, Florida, Final Year age: 20.2 (Model Rank TE1): Pitts could be selected as early as anyone at the position has ever had 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 touchdowns 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 which goes back to 2000, Pitts enters the NFL with the highest production score in a final collegiate season since, bypassing Rob Gronkowski.
In his eight games played this past season, Pitts accounted for 20.2% of the Florida receptions, 25.7% of their receiving yardage, and 37.5% of their touchdown receptions while averaging 2.51 yards per team pass attempt. His final game played came against Alabama, in which he caught seven passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Pitts is just about a lock to be taken in the top-10 overall this April and could rival being the highest tight end ever selected in the NFL Draft, a mark that belongs to Billy Odoms at fifth overall way back in 1972. At his Pro Day, Pitts came out as glowing as his production resume, registering in the 95th percentile athletically at his position.
2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State, FY Age: 22.2 (MR: TE4): Freiermuth is a much more “traditional” tight end compared to Kyle Pitts and Brevin Jordan. Built at 6’5” and 258 pounds, Freiermuth is the best immediate blocker among the top prospects to get on the field right away.
But that does not mean that Freiermuth does not offer upside as a receiver, which is what we care about for fantasy. Freiermuth totaled a steady 92-1,185-16 line across 29 games at Penn State. He only played in four games in 2020, but had six or more receptions in three of them and accounted for 28% of the team targets in those games played. Taking on more receiving work, Freiermuth’s slot rate went from 36.5% as a freshman, up to 38.4% in 2019, and all the way up to 53.3% this past season. Freiermuth is an older prospect than Pitts and Jordan by almost two full years, but his dual-purpose ability can lead to higher drat capital and more immediate snaps.
3. Brevin Jordan, Miami, FY Age: 20.5 (MR: TE2): There is a significant tier gap between Pitts and the field at the position and that will play out in rookie drafts, but there are also other prospects of note behind Pitts.
The first is Jordan, who is another receiving first option (6’2” and 247 pounds) at the position. Jordan is only three months older than Pitts and was a 4-Star recruit who also had offers to play at Alabama and Auburn among others of note.
Jordan improved on his per-game output all three seasons at Miami. Closing things down in 2020, Jordan only appeared in eight games, but averaged 4.8 receptions for 72.0 yards per game while snagging seven touchdowns. From a team production stance, Jordan accounted for 22.4% of the Miami receptions, 27.8% of the receiving yardage, and 43.8% of their touchdowns in those games played while turning in 15.2 yards per catch.
At his Pro Day, Jordan did not alleviate any concerns about his size and physical profile being a potential hang-up as he came out in the 38th percentile athletically at his position.
4. Hunter Long, Boston College, FY Age: 22.4 (MR: TE3): There is another tier gap from Jordan/Freiermuth to where we are here. The production model likes Long (6’5”, 253 pounds) as he closed out his career at Boston College with a 57-685-5 line and led all collegiate tight ends with 88 targets in 2020. Long accounted for 23.6% of the Boston College receptions, 21.9% of their receiving yardage, and 2.17% of their touchdowns. While Pitts and Jordan had higher per-game market share percentages of their team passing game, those team reception and yardage marks for Long were tops among all tight ends in this class over the full season. Even while accounting for that large share of his team’s passing pie, Long is more of a brass tacks tight end in the passing game as 82% of Long’s routes came while inline.
5. Kenny Yeboah, Mississippi, FY Age: 22.2 (MR: TE7): Transferring after four seasons at Temple in which he caught 47 passes for 538 yards and six touchdowns, Yeboah secured 27 passes for a robust 524 yards and six touchdowns in seven games for Mississippi in 2020. His 19.4 yards per catch were tops among this draft class in 2020. Used strictly as an inline tight end at Temple (20.4% slot rate), Yeboah was used in the slot on 44.9% of his snaps a year ago. Yeboah turned in a massive 7-181-2 game against Alabama, who struggled with this archetype of tight end as one of their few blemishes defensively. Starting the year off hot, Yeboah had 91, 83, 181, and 83 yards over his first four games of the season, then totaled 86 yards over his final three games with a game-high of 39 yards.
6. Kylen Granson, SMU, FY Age: 22.8 (MR: TE5): Granson is another tweener (6’2” and 242 pounds out the Senior Bowl) that is more receiver than blocker coming out of SMU. As an 18-year-old freshman at Rice in 2016, Granson caught 33 passes. After a step back in 2017, he transferred to SMU for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, where he caught 78 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns over 22 games played. No tight end in this class caught more passes in college than Granson (129) while only Kyle Pitts (4.2) and Brevin Jordan (4.0) caught more passes per game over their collegiate career than Granson (3.5) in this class. Over two years older than both, Granson will need a true system fit since his draft capital is anticipated to be significantly lower than those younger, receiving first options.
7. Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame, FY Age: 20.6 (MR: TE15): Tremble (6’4” and 248 pounds) does not have much production on his resume, turning in 16-183-4 in 2019 and 19-218-0 in 2020. He also was outproduced in the passing game by freshman tight end Michael Mayer (42-450-2).
What Tremble has going for him is that he is considered the best blocking tight, is the third-youngest tight end in this class, and an early declare, so there is clearly some signal here that there is more buzz around him from the league than his raw receiving production suggests. Tremble also had a plethora of offers from tangible programs before choosing Notre Dame, but there are significant question marks surrounding if he will be used heavily as a receiver for fantasy purposes given all of the production signals.
8. Matt Bushman, BYU, FY Age: 25.1 (MR: TE6): Bushman (6’5” and 240 pounds) was on the preseason John Mackey Award watch list after a breakout in 2019 in which he caught 47 passes for 688 yards and four touchdowns. In all three of his seasons at BYU, Bushman cleared over 500 receiving yards while turning in 13.8 yards per grab. But Bushman was shelved for all of 2020 after suffering an Achilles injury prior to the season. Playing at BYU and taking his mission in Chile, Bushman is already 25 years old and will turn 26 during his rookie season.
9. Briley Moore, Kansas State, FY Age: 23.0 (MR: TE8): After catching 85 passes for 1,116 yards and five touchdowns over 36 games at Northern Iowa, Moore caught 22 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns in nine games played at Kansas State. While those 338 yards do not strike a chord overall, they were 18.2% of the Kansas State passing yardage, which ranked fourth among tight ends in this draft class while Moore’s share of team receptions (16.1%) was also good for fourth among this group. At his Pro Day, Moore checked out in the 65th percentile athletically.
10. Tony Poljan, Virginia, FY Age: N/A (MR: TE10): After splitting time at both quarterback and tight end for two seasons at Central Michigan, Poljan made the move to full-time tight end for the 2019 season where he caught 33 passes for 496 yards and four touchdowns. Poljan then transferred to Virginia for 2020, catching 38 passes for 411 yards and six scores. Still putting work in as a tight end, Poljan’s yards per catch have declined each season as his usage has risen, but the primary appeal for teams this April will be his size (6’7” and 265 pounds) to play inline as a blocker and a red zone presence. 89.7% of Poljan’s snaps this season were inline.
11. Noah Gray, Duke, FY Age: 21.7 (MR: TE9): This tight end group in 2021 is full of tweener/receiver tight ends over inline options and Gray is right in that mold at 6’3” and 240 pounds when he was measured at the Senior Bowl. 70.5% of Gray’s snaps were out of the slot. After catching a team-leading 51 passes over 12 games in 2019, Gray caught 29 passes for 285 yards and two scores in 2020. As much as Gray’s size and talent gap from other receiving first prospects in this class, Gray is still the fourth-youngest tight end in this draft class despite having four years of collegiate experience. At his Pro Day, Gray helped himself by checking out in the 84th percentile as an athlete at his position.
12. Pro Wells, TCU, FY Age: 22.4 (MR: TE11): We are deep in the weeds in tangible production from prospects at the position paired with unknown draft investment. Wells only caught 32 passes for 403 yards and eight touchdowns in 16 games played at TCU. His five touchdowns in 2019 did tie for the team lead with Jalen Reagor and his 15.0 yards per catch were seventh in this class in 2020 as deeper pros in his limited resume. At 6’5” and 240 pounds, Wells is another tight end in a deep bucket of mid-sized options, but lacks the receiving production of those in that group.
13. Tre’ McKitty, Georgia, FY Age: 22.0 (MR: TE13): The former three-star recruit made some noise at the Senior Bowl this offseason, but McKitty has an extremely limited production profile for a four-year player. After three seasons at Florida State in which McKitty caught 49 passes for 497 yards and two touchdowns, he transferred to Georgia this past season, catching six passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in his four games played.
14. John Bates, Boise State, FY Age: 23.2 (MR: TE12): Bates is another Senior Bowl tight end that lacks measured production (47-579-2 across 24 games at Boise State). Bates was surrounded by intrigue by being on the John Mackey watch list over the 2018-2019 seasons, but things never materialized for him in counting stats. Despite the lack of production, there is even further intrigue for Bates as an athlete after being a three-time qualifier for Oregon state track championships in 110-meter hurdles and the triple jump. At 6’5” and 259 pounds at the Senior Bowl, Bates could be a workout darling when Boise State hosts their Pro Day on April 2.
15. Nick Eubanks, Michigan, FY Age: 24.1 (MR: TE14): Eubanks only produced a 45-578-6 line over four seasons (24 games) at Michigan, but at 6’5” and 256 pounds, Eubanks is one of the few traditional body types here at the position. Playing 85.2% of his collegiate snaps inline, Eubanks’s size is about the only spade he has to play as he will also be a 25-year-old rookie.
16. Luke Farrell, Ohio State, FY Age: N/A (MR: TE16): A four-year player at Ohio State, Farrell caught just 34 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns over 21 games played, catching single-digit passes in three of those four years. At 6’6” and 250 pounds, Farrell is projected to make more of an impact in the run game than as a receiver.
17. Dylan Soehner, Iowa State, FY Age: 23.1 (MR: TE17): Soehner rounds out our closing trend of combine invites that supreme in stature and inline options for blocking depth over receiving production. Over four seasons at Iowa State, Soehner tallied 26 receptions for 312 yards and one touchdown, but at 6’7” and 272 pounds, is built like a lighter offensive tackle.