As we are rolling along this offseason, we are laying the groundwork for early best ball drafts, new dynasty startups, and everything else under the fantasy sun as we gear up for the next NFL season. The league’s landscape is going to shift a lot through free agency and the NFL draft, but we are starting that early outlook at the ground floor with positional ranks.
These will move and be updated throughout the offseason (and I surely will have a lot more to say on players as we move on) so keep tabs on them through the spring as we dig deeper in-depth as rosters change and schedules are released. After exploring how tight end usage and production was actually up in 2020, but the position offered few quality fantasy starters, we are taking an initial dive into the tight ends.
Tight End Rankings
1. Travis Kelce: Kelce has paced the position in fantasy scoring in each of the past five seasons. Paired with the top quarterback and ranking in the top-five in routes run at the position for five straight years, he is as safe as it gets outside of injury. It is bettable that Kelce is the first non-RB taken in the majority of drafts this offseason.
2. George Kittle: 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 he led all tight ends with targets on 28.3% of his routes.
3. Darren Waller: 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. He closed the season on an impressive five-game tear (43-654-4) that gave playoff gamers a punch back option versus Kelce-led teams. 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. Considering his health (16 games played each year) and lack of surrounding target threats, I would have no pushback on anyone that even has Waller ahead of Kittle.
4. Mark Andrews: 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 in a full-time role, as he played 65.5% of the Baltimore snaps per game in 2020. Unfortunately, Andrews fell into regression along with 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 while his touchdown rate dipped from 10.2% to 7.9%. 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 after 26-297-5 over his opening eight.
5. T.J. Hockenson: Hockenson took a large step forward in year two. After averaging 2.7 receptions for 30.6 yards per game as a rookie, he turned in 4.2 receptions for 45.2 yards per game in 2020 while raising 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.
6. Noah Fant: 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 YAC per grab as a rookie 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 by a quarterback upgrade.
7. Dallas Goedert: Goedert missed five games due to a calf injury, but has managed to raise his receptions and yardage per game in each of his seasons in the league to go along with his yards per catch. With Zach Ertz rumored to likely be on the move this offseason, a runway for 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) for Jalen Hurts in their limited sample together.
8. Mike Gesicki: 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, so if Miami is going to invest heavily in wideouts this season, his target ceiling may not have room to heavily increase.
9. Irv Smith Jr.: With Kyle Rudolph officially out in Minnesota, Smith Jr. is in line to be a climber going into his third season. 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 finding the end zone 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.
10. Evan Engram: Engram appeared in all 16 games 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.
11. Jonnu Smith: 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 just 40.3% of his snaps played and ran just 20.0 pass routes per game (32nd among tight ends). By signing with New England, Smith is arguably a top target in his offense, but volume remains an issue as New England threw fewer passes than Tennessee a year ago while there was a massive efficiency gap as a passing offense between the two with the Patriots tied for last in the NFL in passing touchdowns (12) and 26th in yards per pass attempt (6.6 Y/A).
12. Kyle Pitts: On one hand, even the top tight end prospects have been a slow burn for NFL success. Just one first-round tight end has cleared 200 PPR points 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. On the other hand, Pitts also may be the best tight end prospect to come our way… maybe ever from an objective stance. 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. At a depressed fantasy position, there is nothing wrong with swinging on inexpensive upside even if the odds are long.
13. Logan Thomas: 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 dropback 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.
14. Tyler Higbee: After a late-season breakout in 2019 thrust 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 when not splitting time with Gerald Everett (who left via free agency) as the TE1 in overall fantasy points the final four weeks of 2019 with Everett limited while also getting a quarterback upgrade in Matthew Stafford.
15. Hunter Henry: This is the area when Henry has lived of late, 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. By joining New England alongside Jonnu Smith, both tight ends have their ceilings and floors lowered and the team prioritized Smith in the process as their primary target.
16. Robert Tonyan: 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 as 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 caught 20 or more passes in a season. Averaging just 3.3 receptions per game (16th) and 36.6 yards per game (15th), Tonyan is a sound bet for regression in 2021.
17. Zach Ertz: After seeing his efficiency begin to dwindle in 2019, the bottom fell out for Ertz in 2020. Playing in just 11 games, the 30-year-old tight end posted just 3.3 receptions for 30.5 yards per game with just 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.
18. Austin Hooper: 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 while the team still has Harrison Bryant and David Njoku on the roster.
19. Gerald Everett: Selected 44th overall in the 2017 draft, Everett has shared time and targets alongside Tyler Higbee and never had a chance to truly break out. Though four years in the NFL, Everett has had his targets, receptions, and yardage climb in every season, but has capped out with a season-high of just 62 targets. Hitting free agency, Everett is joining the Division rival Seahawks and getting paired with Russell Wilson. New Seattle offensive coordinator Shane Waldron was the Rams tight ends coach in 2017 when Everett was drafted and the passing game coordinator over the 2018-2020 seasons. Seattle is also no stranger to Everett’s upside as the best game of his career (7-136-0 on 11 targets) came in Seattle Week 5 of the 2019 season.
20. Hayden Hurst: Traded to Atlanta off two seasons of minimal usage in Baltimore, 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 usage of Jonnu Smith under Arthur Smith in Tennessee does not provide much encouragement for Hurst vastly improving his 2020 output.
21. Eric Ebron: 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 is a floor-based option in PPR formats.
22. Cole Kmet: 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.
23. Blake Jarwin: After getting a contract extension in the offseason in which Jason Witten finally moved on, 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).
24. Anthony Firkser: Firkser is a restricted free agent coming off career-highs with 53 targets, 39 catches, and 387 yards to go along with a touchdown. With Jonnu Smith leaving as a free agent, 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, even after losing Smith.
25. Jared Cook: After losing Hunter Henry early in free agency, the Chargers added Cook to the fold in part of replacing him on a 1-year, $6M deal. Cook will turn 34-years-old this April coming off a 37-504-7 campaign in 2020 in 15 games played. After never posting a season with more six touchdowns, Cook caught nine and seven scores over the past two seasons while compiling 15.1 yards per catch. Hunter Henry averaged a career-low 6.6 yards per target and caught a career-low 64.5% of those targets despite Justin Herbert’s impressive rookie campaign while in the apex of his career.
26. Adam Trautman: The Saints took 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 a free agent, Trautman is set up to take the next step forward in year two as a contributor.
27. O.J. Howard: Howard only appeared in four games last season, catching 11-of-19 targets for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but his 2.8 receptions per game were a tick above his 2019 output (2.4 per game). Hitting 2021 in a contract year, Howard is coming off an Achilles injury, but if he is back fully healthy, we saw to close the season with Cameron Brate and Howard to being the year that the ancillary tight end is still a part of the passing game alongside Rob Gronkowski.
28. Brevin Jordan: There are other good tight ends in this draft class outside of Pitts and 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 snagging seven touchdowns. Jordan will only be a 21-year-old rookie.
29. Rob Gronkowski: Returning to the NFL to play with Tom Brady, Gronk caught 45-of-77 targets for 623 yards and seven touchdowns. His 2.8 receptions per game were his fewest in a season since he was a rookie in 2010, catching three or fewer passes in 11 games. But Gronk led all tight ends with 14 end zone targets as a goal line presence.
30. Pat Freiermuth: Freiermuth could very well be the second tight end off the board behind Kyle Pitts and we know Penn State players show out in individual workouts to gain steam heading into the draft. Freiermuth is an older prospect than Brevin Jordan (a 23-year-old rookie), but totaled a steady 92-1,185-16 line across 29 games in college. Unlike Pitts and Jordan, Freiermuth is more of the traditional in-line tight end and he is the best immediate blocker among the top prospects to get on the field right away.
31. Christopher Herndon: 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, but Herndon is still a dart throw.
32. Mo Alie-Cox: Alie-Cox is a restricted free agent in 2021, but the Colts seem to be reluctant to give him a real shot as a focal point in their offense. 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.
33. Dawson Knox: After 1.9 receptions for 25.9 yards per game as a rookie, Knox produced 2.0 catches for 24.0 yards per game in his second season. His yards per catch dipped from 13.9 yards down to 12.0, but his targets per game climbed a tick from 3.3 per game up to 3.7 per game.
34. Donald Parham: Parham was signed last season after popping in the XFL. The 6’8”, 237-pound tight end will only be 24-years-old this August and with Hunter Henry gone via free agency, Parham could potentially get a shot at an extended role in 2021. The signing of Jared Cook dampens those odds, but at least Parham does still have upside with only a 34-year-old tight end ahead of him. In his first season with the Chargers, Parham averaged 15.9 yards per catch on 10 receptions, while playing 80.7% (2-45-0) and 52.1% (3-37-1) in the final two games of the season with Henry sidelined.
35. Jordan Akins: Akins has improved his per game reception and yardage output in each of his three seasons in the NFL, but at 2.8 catches for 31.0 yards in 2020 with just three career touchdowns, there has not been a large signal for upside, especially if Houston moves on from Deshaun Watson.