“Danger. Minefield” are two words with the power to stop you in your tracks. Some estimates suggest there are as many as 110 million landmines buried in 60 or more countries today. Fantasy Football has its own minefield – the tight end minefield. Every fantasy manager needs to draft at least one tight end, so this is not a minefield you can avoid. But you’d better step lightly because there are a number of mines out there, and you don’t want to be a casualty on the tight end battlefield.
Last year, I was blown up when I stepped on a landmine named Tyler Higbee. Everyone loved Higbee after he finished strong in the 2019 season. I drafted him as TE7 off the board. After week 3, I thought I was a genius. He was TE1 that week by a huge margin, helped by three touchdowns. But he didn’t do better than TE20 in the two weeks before or next several after, and I dropped him. I spent the remainder of the season trying and failing to find a decent TE on the waiver wire.
While I was putting up a series of single-digit numbers in the tight end column, the winner of my home was watching Travis Kelce put up record numbers. I was watching, too, as Kelce averaged 20.9 PPR points per game in 2020. In my last fantasy football column wrapping up the season, I shared some New Year’s resolutions. One of my resolutions was to draft Kelce in 2021. His ADP is 8.59, so I will have to use a first-round pick to do it. There are only four players that I would take ahead of Kelce.
You may think I’m crazy for considering a tight end in the first round. But if you played fantasy football last year, you know this position was a black hole of despair for those who didn’t have Kelce or Darren Waller last season. Waller averaged 17.4 PPG. Robert Tonyan and Logan Thomas tied for third with 11.0. George Kittle was expected to be in the top two, but he got hurt last year and missed half of the season. So, there’s a case to be made for drafting your tight end early, and I’m making it.
Here’s my case for Kelce being a first round player. He’s was not only the top tight end last year, but there were only three wide receivers with more fantasy points – Devante Adams, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs. Suffice it to say that the wide receiver position is a lot deeper than the tight end position. While Kelce is in my top TE tier, I would put Waller and Kittle in the second tier. Waller, ADP 23.1, usually goes in the second round, and Kittle, ADP 30.3, will be taken no later than the third round.
After the Big Three are gone, you will reach your first TE cliff. There are three tight ends in the third tier – Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson and rookie Kyle Pitts. They all have ADPs in the 60s and will likely be selected in the fifth or sixth round of drafts. I put Thomas, Dallas Goedert and Noah Fant in my fourth tier. Tonyan, Irv Smith, Mike Gesicki and Higbee are in my fifth tier. My sixth tier includes Evan Engram, Rob Gronkowski, Jonnu Smith and Adam Trautman.
In addition to what’s been mentioned, Kelce led the Chiefs in receptions and yards in 2020, which is no small accomplishment with Tyreek Hill on his team. Don’t expect Kelce to repeat his record-breaking 20.9 PPR points per game he had in 2020. But remember that he averaged 17.9 PPR points in 2018 with a healthy Patrick Mahomes and was a few points down from there in 2019 when Mahomes missed time. Kelce did leave practice a couple of weeks ago due to back and hip tightness so this is worth monitoring.
Waller is a consensus top-three fantasy tight end with every analyst. He has now posted back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons. He had a strong finish in 2020, totaling 765 yards and five touchdowns in the final seven games of last season. At that pace, he would have a chance to break every receiving record for a tight end in a 17-game season. With his guaranteed workload, plus his chemistry with QB Derek Carr, it’s hard to see how Waller is a bust barring an injury. There are no second-round picks that are safer.
Kittle missed half of last season, but he’s still in the elite tier. When he did play in 2020, Kittle was good for 14.9 PPR points per game, third-best among tight ends in all formats. Better yet, those averages weren’t far from his 2019 numbers (15.2 in PPR). Expectations remain high in 2021 for Kittle, even with the Niners eventually breaking in rookie QB Trey Lance. In fact, he’s even more popular because dependable tight ends are hard to come by, and shrewd drafters will take him in the second round.
Andrews didn’t have as productive of a season last year as he did in 2019, with the Ravens offense taking a step backward. Andrews still finished within the top-5 at the TE position, and he has a safe floor with limited upside. Heading into 2021, the Ravens have addressed some key needs at the WR position, which should only help Andrews and open things up for this offense. He still should be the number one target for this offense but must be weighed against other players available in the fifth or sixth round.
Hockenson could lead the Lions offense in targets, which is a good thing. But the scoring opportunities are going to be essentially non-existent for this team and we could see them at the bottom of the league in overall plays ran. Even if Hockenson soaks up targets this season, his upside is limited. I also expect the small number of touchdowns will disappoint his fantasy managers. Like Andrews, he seems to have a reliable floor – especially in PPR leagues – but I wouldn’t draft him at his current ADP.
Pitts is the third-tier tight end with the most upside. While Andrews and Hockenson have solid floors, the 20-year-old has a high ceiling and is being drafted fourth by many fantasy managers. The argument for Pitts is that the ball has to go somewhere in this offense and the Falcons are going to be committed to getting the ball in his hands. With that said, it would be the definition of an outlier if he finished as a top-5 option in his first season. The opportunity is there, but you risk overpaying for this rookie.
If you miss out on one of the elite tight ends, I would recommend Thomas as a value at his current ADP of 90. At this the thin position, there’s still a player or two who breaks out to be a viable fantasy option. Last year, Thomas was the waiver wire pickup of the year at the TE position. He went on a tear to finish the season and ended up as the TE6. Heading into 2021, Thomas certainly has a bit more competition for targets this time around, but he’s proven that he can get the job done for fantasy.
Goedert is a very talented receiver, which we’ve seen that on display since he came into the league in 2019. Also, Philadelphia doesn’t have the most dynamic receiving corps, and Goedert could easily lead the team in targets as the No. 1 option for QB Jalen Hurts. However, Zach Ertz is still on the roster, and a time share puts a cap on his targets and what Goedert can do from a fantasy perspective. If Ertz is traded or released, I would feel better about drafting Goedert at his current ADP around 80.
Expectations were high for Fant when he came into the league two years ago, but he has yet to deliver the consistent production we were hoping for from him. The QB play has certainly hurt him and he has several other receiving weapons to worry about this year. It’s difficult to find a path for Fant to match his 93 targets from last year, so I don’t see how he returns value on his current ADP of 86. He has the talent, but if he doesn’t get the targets necessary to be a viable fantasy asset, it doesn’t matter.
Like Thomas, Tonyan was a waiver-wire gem last year, with an absurd 88% catch rate and 11 receiving touchdowns. With his talent, all Tonyan needs is enough targets from Aaron Rodgers to return value. Don’t cannot expect that high of a catch rate again, and you’re also likely to see negative regression on his touchdowns. But is you’re drafting him outside the top 100, you should expect some volatility. Tonyan is going two rounds later than Goedert and Fant in most drafts, and he’s a far better value.
I’m higher than most on Smith and have him as a top breakout candidate. The 22-year-old will no longer be sharing targets with Kyle Rudolph, which gives him a higher ceiling. He’s draftable as early as Round 9 as a borderline top-10 tight end. He just needs targets in this run-first offense. Six times in his short career he’s received at least five targets in a game. In those games he averaged 11.6 PPR fantasy points. Like Tonyan, he can return significant value if you are able to draft him outside the top 100.
Gesicki has had his moments in his three years in the NFL, and he’s in the top-12 conversation at the TE position due to his opportunity and athleticism. However, I can’t imagine drafting him and expect to see him on the waiver wire during the season (like last year). There are more mouths to feed in Miami this year, which pushes Gesicki into a secondary role in the offense. If you wait on tight end, you’re better off taking Tonyan or Smith in this range, or taking a flier on Adam Trautman three rounds later.
Fool me once, shame on you. Higbee is my unlucky TE13. I shared my experience with Higbee last year. The fantasy community seems to have a shorter memory than me because he’s being hyped again in spite of being a bust in 2020. Analysts point to the departure of Gerald Everett and the possibility of finding lightning in a bottle with Matthew Stafford. But Higbee’s targets never stabilized after his late 2019 breakout, leaving him as nothing more than a touchdown-or-bust tight end. I’ll pass.
I drafted Engram on one of my fantasy teams last year, and he was a bust. His value has dropped, and his ADP is currently 131. Some will be encouraged by the words of Giants head coach Joe Judge who said Engram will be featured in the offense, but that doesn’t move the needle for me. Engram saw 10 targets in four separate games during the 2020 season but finished with 63 receptions for 654 yards and just one receiving touchdown. The fourth-year tight end also had frequent dropped passes last season.
Gronkowski got off to a slow start last year as he was working his way back into football shape, but he still finished the season as TE8. With his involvement in this offense, plus chemistry with QB Tom Brady, Gronk’s a solid bet to return value at an ADP close to 140. The return of O.J. Howard and three talented wide receivers will reduce Gronk’s target share, but he’s still a favorite red-zone target for Brady. If you have waited late in the draft, you can take Gronk with confidence that he won’t be a bust.
Smith signed a big contract with New England Patriots in March, but then the Patriots signed Hunter Henry a day later. Go figure. With a lackluster WR corps, there’s still a possibility that Smith leads the team in targets. He’s an electric playmaker with the ball in his hands, and Bill Belichick is smart enough to find creative ways to get him the ball near the line of scrimmage and create something after the catch. However, the Patriots figure to be a pretty low-volume passing attack overall.
Cook, 34, was selected in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and 11 years later he’s still finding ways to put up TE1 fantasy numbers. Now, he steps into an offense that has a huge hole at the TE position following Hunter Henry’s departure and a QB that is only going to grow from here on out. I believe Cook’s age has pushed his ADP down to 160, which is too low. If you want to wait on TE and grab Cook with one of your last picks, he’s got an excellent chance of returning value in this situation.
If you’re looking for a deep sleeper TE that could break out this season, look no further than Trautman in New Orleans. Drafted 105th overall in 2020, Trautman needed some time to adjust to the NFL level after coming out of Dayton. But analysts mostly agree that he has big time talent that flashed in his limited opportunities last season. With Jared Cook now out of the picture, and Michael Thomas out for at least several games, Trautman just needs to step up. Adam, that knock on the door is opportunity.
Hunter Henry, TE19; Gerald Everett, TE20; Zach Ertz, TE21; Blake Jarwin, TE22; Anthony Firkser TE23; Cole Kmet, TE24; Austin Hooper, TE25; Eric Ebron, TE26: Tim Tebow, TE27; O.J. Howard, TE28; Hayden Hurst, TE29; Christopher Herndon, TE30; Dallas Knox, TE31; Dalton Schultz, TE32.
Follow Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, on Twitter.