If you have listened to the NFL fantasy podcast at all recently (if not, I mean, what are you doing???) you have heard us talk about the state of the tight end position. Every offseason it is easy to fall in love with athletic tight ends and believe that there are options you can wait on and nab the next big breakout player. And then every season there are like three, maybe four trustworthy tight ends. I have finally come around and am fine drafting one of the Big Three tight ends early on, but only three teams can have those players, so there is still a place for the upside tight ends later in the draft.
My early approach to the tight end position is to draft one of the top three in the early rounds or to wait until the ninth round or later to nab a couple of upside shots. But that is an article for another day! Let's dive into the early top-12 fantasy tight ends!
1. Travis Kelce
Kelce as the No. 1 tight end is the biggest no-brainer in fantasy football. First, he has finished as the top scoring tight end in five straight seasons. He is the only player at his position to top 1,000 yards in five consecutive seasons (a TE record) and over 1,200 in three straight (with Patrick Mahomes). To put that into perspective, there were just two tight ends that topped 725 yards in 2020. This past season, there was just one tight end who finished within 136 fantasy points of Kelce, and even Darren Waller was over 30 fantasy points behind Kelce. I could stop now, but I still have some great Kelce stats! He was a top-five fantasy TE in 14 of the 15 games he played. He is the only player in the NFL with at least 80 catches and over 1,000 yards in five straight seasons. He topped 20 fantasy points in 10 games this past season. Oh, and he has not missed a game in Weeks 1-16 in the last seven seasons. Not only does he give you WR1 numbers from the most volatile position in the game, he does not miss time either. He should be a first-round pick, potentially going as high as seven or eight overall.
2. Darren Waller
There is a discussion to be had about which of the Big Three tight ends you should take first, but for me, give me Waller. He has finished as a top-three fantasy tight end in his last two seasons and is one of just four players, and two tight ends, to top 90 catches and 1,100 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. But what I like even more is that after his breakout 2019 season, his usage only increased in 2020. He posted a 26 percent target share, which led the position, as did his 107 catches. His red zone targets doubled, from 11 to 22, which led to him posting nine touchdowns, compared to just three a year ago. He is the clear focal point in an offense that has nice supporting pieces, but none who can threaten Waller for targets. He also has not missed any time in the past two seasons with the Raiders. That all is enough for me to take him over George Kittle, but I admit, it's close. Waller's two best seasons are actually better than Kittle's.
3. George Kittle
Kittle played just eight games this past season after missing just three games in his first three seasons. Kittle has had some unfortunate injury luck, fracturing his foot this past season. He has dealt with ankle, knee, and hamstring injuries in the past, but nothing that had ever forced him to miss more than two games. I do not consider him an injury prone player at all, and I will not fade him in drafts, but it is enough for me to put Waller ahead of him. Kittle has averaged 15-plus fantasy points in three straight seasons and he is just one of five players in the NFL to average over 75 receiving yards per game in each of those seasons. We know he is an absolute beast with the ball in his hands after the catch, and if he stays healthy, it is safe to expect over 1,000 yards this season. Another reason I have him third is because he has more competition for targets with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk there. But if the Niners upgrade the QB position, that could change.
4. Mark Andrews
Andrews had an up-and-down season, failing to live up to his 2019 campaign, but he was good enough to finish as the TE6 in total points and fourth in fantasy PPG. This was his second straight season as a top-six fantasy tight end. And while his numbers did dip in 2020, the extent to which Andrews struggled seems overblown. His late-season push really helped his numbers. He averaged just 0.2 fewer targets and catches per game, and just under seven fewer yards per game. His touchdowns dropped from 10 to 7, but that was still tied for the sixth most among tight ends. Additionally, his target share, air yards per target and per game all remained very close to his 2019 numbers. In fact, he had more red zone targets in 2020 (16) than 2019 (14). He will once again return as Lamar Jackson's favorite target, with only Marquise Brown as competition. He goes rounds after the Big Three but is still very worthy of being the next tight end off the board.
5. T.J. Hockenson
While another young TE out of Iowa (Noah Fant) received all the hype coming into 2020, it was his former college teammate, Hockenson, who finished as a top-five fantasy tight end. Hockenson is not going to blow you away by any stretch, as he did not score at least 17 fantasy points in any game last season. But he was a very consistent option, scoring double-digit fantasy points 10 times and finishing as a top-10 fantasy tight end eight times. His 18 percent target share ranked sixth among tight ends. He ranked in the top seven in yards per game, target per game, games with at least four catches and games with at least 10 fantasy points among tight ends. Additionally, it sounds like Marvin Jones is going to walk, as can Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola. There could be a ton of targets up for grabs in Detroit with Goff, who threw 21 percent of his passes to tight ends last season with arguably better WR talent and a lesser tight end. Hockenson is very safe and in his third year still comes with breakout upside.
6. Logan Thomas
Thomas was a focal point of Washington's offense, regardless of who the QB was. In the games started by Dwayne Haskins, he averaged 9.3 targets per game and a 23 percent target share. In Alex Smith starts, Thomas put up 5.8 targets and a 17 percent target share. On the year, Thomas averaged 6.9 targets per game, which ranked fourth among tight ends. His 19 percent target share ranked fifth among all tight ends while his 36.6 routes run per game led the position. He finished as the TE3 in total points and sixth among tight ends in fantasy PPG, all with a revolving door of QBs who will all likely be backups in 2021. Washington has made it clear that it is looking to upgrade the QB position and that likely would only help Thomas.
7. Dallas Goedert
Goedert's end-of-season numbers are not as impressive as they could be because he missed five games, but he did finish 10th among tight ends in fantasy PPG. Coincidentally enough he is also the TE10 since the start of the 2019 season. Goedert is an interesting player to figure out this season because, as you may have heard, there are a lot of moving pieces with the Eagles right now. For you optimists out there, the fact that Zach Ertz's name has been heavily featured in trade rumors is a big plus for Goedert. He averaged over 12 fantasy PPG in the four games he played without Ertz last season. Now before all you pessimists role your eyes, there's an argument to be had on that side as well! Carson Wentz, who averaged 10.4 pass attempts per game to tight ends in 2020, the second-most in the NFL behind only Patrick Mahomes, has been dealt to the Colts. In a small sample size in 2020, Goedert averaged 11.68 fantasy PPG with Wentz, and 7.67 with Jalen Hurts. If Hurts is the starter, it could lead to a run-first offense with a QB who may not have the tendency to throw to the tight end as much. But we cannot overlook that as of now Goedert has a chance to compete to potentially be their top target. I originally had him ahead of Thomas, but after the Wentz trade, I flipped the two.
8. Mike Gesicki
Marcas Grant and I joke about having a Gesicki swatter that smacks our hands away anytime we go to push "draft" for Gesicki. And don't tell Marcas this, but I am starting to see the appeal at least a little for Gesicki. First, he did make improvements across the board last season. He just didn't quite live up to the lofty expectations that were placed upon him heading into the season. That is not on him. That is on us, the fantasy analysts and community, for getting it wrong and should not be held against Gesicki. There's good in what he did in 2020. He ended strong, averaging 15.58 fantasy PPG from Week 12 on, which was good for fourth among TEs. He also was close in fantasy production regardless of QB, averaging 9.97 fantasy points with Tua Tagovailoa and 11.6 with Ryan Fitzpatrick. But there were negatives as well as he was anything but consistent in 2020. He topped 23 fantasy points three times last year -- in the other 12 games he played, he topped double-digits just twice and did not have 15 in any of them. He had a five-week stretch where he averaged under 5.0 fantasy PPG in the middle of the season, scoring single-digits in every one of those games, including under two points in two of them. He still has upside, as he is a freak athlete, and if he can build some rapport with Tua, there is a path to his 2020 breakout campaign happening a year late. But to me, price will dictate my interests. If he goes around the ninth round or later, sign me up. But if the hype pieces come out this summer and elevate his price, I will sit this one out.
9. Robert Tonyan
This may seem like a low ranking for a player who just finished fourth in total points and seventh in fantasy PPG at the position. He also tied for the most touchdowns among tight ends, with 11. But what if I told you I considered ranking him even lower? Well, those touchdowns can be hard to trust year to year, and if the TDs decrease, well, Tonyan didn't do a whole lot else. In fact, he scored 37 percent of his fantasy points off touchdowns in 2020, second among all tight ends behind only Jonnu Smith (39 percent). He averaged 4.9 fantasy PPG when he did not score a TD in 2020 (15.8 fantasy PPG when he scored). In fact, Tonyan was hardly thrown the ball in 2020. His 3.7 targets per game ranked 29th among tight ends and he had more than five targets in just two games in 2020. I am expecting touchdown regression to hit Aaron Rodgers in 2021, and if so, I believe Tonyan will take the biggest hit. I expect others to value him higher.
10. Irv Smith Jr.
Smith Jr. is my favorite breakout tight end heading into the 2021 season. He has the talent and ability, but the 2019 second-round draft pick has just struggled to get the opportunity so far in Minnesota. That is largely because he has had to split routes and targets with Kyle Rudolph the past two seasons. But in four games without Rudolph last year, Smith averaged 12.83 fantasy PPG, with his targets, catches and yards per game all doubling. Rudolph has vocalized that he is unhappy with his role in Minnesota, and the two parting ways is seeming more and more likely. That would be the final step to setting Smith free. He would be the third target in the passing game behind Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, but this is an offense that tends to funnel the ball through its best playmakers. Smith is a tight end you can wait until the double-digit rounds to grab, but he has the upside to return a potential top-five fantasy tight end season.
11. Kyle Pitts
What? A rookie tight end in the top 12? How can that be? I mean it is no secret that rookie tight ends tend to struggle in their first season. Using 2020 as a barometer, a tight end would have to score over 145 fantasy points to finish as a top-12 fantasy tight end. That number was higher in 2020, as it has hovered around the 130 points area in recent seasons. Since 2010, there has been just two tight ends to top 145 fantasy points in their rookie season -- Evan Engram (173.6) and Rob Gronkowski (154.6). In that 10-season span, there were only two other tight ends (Aaron Hernandez, Timothy Wright) who topped 130 fantasy points as a rookie. So why am I ranking Pitts in the top 12? Well, Pitts is not your normal tight end prospect. Pitts has plenty of size -- listed at 6'6, 240 pounds, but we will get an official measurement at his pro day. But he has blazing speed and profiles to be an absolute mismatch the minute he steps on an NFL field. There are scouts who believe he is the best offensive weapon in this draft class, and he is likely to go off the board in the first 10 picks. Again, he is not your normal tight end prospect and we should not treat him as such. As a rookie he has top-10, maybe even higher, upside. In his career? He has the chance to be the next great dominant fantasy tight end, following in the footsteps of Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.
12. Hunter Henry
I have Henry behind Irv Smith and Kyle Pitts because there is some upside in the unknown. Henry always gets labeled as a high-upside tight end because he is a great athlete and shows flashes of how great he can be. The issue is those flashes have not become more consistent over time. Henry busted out on the scene with eight touchdowns as a rookie and looked like the next great tight end for the Chargers after Antonio Gates retired. He's yet to top five touchdowns in a season since. He has never posted 700 yards in a season and his 60 catches last year were a career-high. Henry has been a more useful real-life tight end for the Chargers than he has been for fantasy teams. Henry is a free agent so his landing spot will greatly impact his fantasy value, but as of now, it's hard for me to rank him any higher than No. 12.
Bonus: 13. Hayden Hurst
Hurst finished as the TE10 in fantasy last season, but he still was largely disappointing as there was just no consistency. He finished as a Top-10 fantasy TE in eight games but had fewer than 10 receiving yards in five games. Given the lofty expectations that were placed upon him as the Austin Hooper replacement. While he failed to meet those expectations, do not write him off just yet. The Falcons hired former Titans offensive coordinator as their head coach. In his time in Tennessee he ran two tight end sets on 32 percent of his plays, the third most in the NFL. His offenses had 26 percent of the passes went to tight ends, the fifth most in the NFL. Additionally, Jonnu Smith was heavily used in the red zone. All of those are enough reasons to not overlook Hurst, especially since his draft cost is likely to decrease this season from last.
Backup Options: Noah Fant, Evan Engram, Jonnu Smith, Austin Hooper, Jared Cook, Zach Ertz
It feels a little wrong to have Fant and Engram outside the top 13. Fant last year finished inside the top 10, but if you rostered him, you know it was not nearly that fun. After a hot two-week start, he topped double-digit fantasy points just three times and scored one touchdown. Oh, and he will have more target competition with Courtland Sutton back. But if Denver does upgrade its QB, he can jump back into the top 12. Perhaps I just have Engram fatigue. He has all the physical abilities but has not been a TE1 since his rookie season, due to injuries or down performance. He still has a high ceiling. Smith has all the tools to be a breakout tight end in this league, but it just hasn't happened yet. If Smith, a free agent, ends up in a pass-happy offense, he could easily jump back into the TE1 mix. But his landing spot will greatly matter. The rest all have the ability to be a TE1 in any given week but have struggled to be consistent weekly options.
Upside TE2s or later: Cole Kmet, Blake Jarwin, Adam Trautman, O.J. Howard, Chris Herndon
If I wait on TE and end up grabbing, say, an Irv Smith or someone like that as my starter, I will double down with at least one of these tight ends. Given the number of tight ends who we think have upside but come with question marks, waiting and doubling down seems to be a worthwhile approach if you miss out on the elite three at the position. Kmet is my favorite of this bunch as he flashed down the stretch in 2020. His 18 percent target share from Week 13 on was eighth among tight ends. With it looking like Jimmy Graham will be gone next season, everything is wide open for the second-year pro. I am not sure Jarwin belongs in this grouping, but in early drafts he is going late. He had a ton of hype last offseason, and then his season was over before he ever got a chance to live up to that hype. If he and Dak Prescott are back together this season, he has a high ceiling. Trautman is a great athlete who could step up in New Orleans, especially if Jared Cook walks. Howard and Herndon have been the butt of a lot of upside tight end jokes by fantasy Twitter, but they are both great athletes who have just been in unfortunate situations. They will likely cost nothing more than a last-round pick too.
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