TE: Go great, or go late

In my tight end preview a year ago, I described the tight end position as a minefield. My advice was to “go great, or go late.” To go great meant to draft one of three elite tight ends. Last year, that trio was Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle. My advice hasn’t changed, although the trio of greats at the top of the food chain has – Kelce, Mark Andrews and Kyle Pitts.

Waller and Kittle are still around, but their stocks have fallen after disappointing 2021 campaigns. The elephant in the room in Las Vegas is Davante Adams. The former Green Bay wide receiver will command a lot of targets. That means fewer for Waller. In San Francisco, Kittle can’t stay healthy. He’s already injured in training camp, and I would expect more of the same this season.

After finishing as the fantasy TE1 for three straight seasons, Kelce was de-throned by Andrews last season, posting his worst points per game average (16.6) dating since 2017. If Kelce was guaranteed 16.6 PPG this season, he would still be worth a second-round pick, but consider that Tyreek Hill has left town. At 33, Kelce is no spring chicken, but he’s still damn good. Draft with confidence.

Last year, Andrews was a second-tier tight end. Based on my “great, or late” philosophy, he wasn’t rostered on any of my fantasy teams. My bad. The Ravens fourth-year TE led the position with a 25% target share, 28% air yards share and 17.5 fantasy PPG. With Marquise Brown traded, Andrews has solidified himself as the clear TE1 and has little competition for targets in Baltimore.

Pitts, 21, finished third among tight ends in receiving yards (1,018) through 17 weeks of 2021 and third in route participation (80%) through 18 weeks. The rookie fell short of lofty preseason expectations only because he scored just one touchdown. With positive touchdown regression a good bet for Year 2, Pitts should be drafted aggressively in 2022. Using a third-round pick is not too aggressive.

But what happens if you miss out on this talented trio? This has happened to me several times in my early-season mock drafts because value simply popped up in the first four rounds. If this happens to you, you need a backup strategy. The remainder of this column will be devoted to mid- and late-round tight ends I like. If they’re not listed, I don’t like them at their current ADP.

DALTON SCHULTZ, TE, DALLAS

Schultz is going in the sixth round of most fantasy drafts this year. He has an ADP of 68 in the National Fantasy Championship League where the high-stakes players compete. The Cowboys led the NFL in scoring last season, and they’ll be near the top again. While CeeDee Lamb is the alpha dog in Dallas, Schultz will probably be Dak Prescott’s second read on most plays with Amari Cooper gone.

T.J. HOCKENSON, TE, DETROIT

Hockenson was on his way to a career year with the Lions before he suffered a thumb injury in Week 13. Through 13 weeks, Hockenson ranked sixth in points per game, fifth in targets per game (7), first in route participation (85%), third in target share (19%) and third in air yard share. He will compete with D’Andre Swift and Amon-Ra St. Brown for targets and is also worth a sixth-round pick.  

ZACH ERTZ, TE, ARIZONA

One beneficiary of the six-game suspension of DeAndre Hopkins is Ertz. Last year, the former Eagles tight end broke out in the Cardinals offense during the last four weeks of the season with Hopkins sidelined. Ertz was TE4 over that stretch, averaging seven receptions per game (24% target share). If you want him, be prepared to take him no later than the seventh round.

COLE KMET, TE, CHICAGO

After Ertz is off the board, you’re free falling off the tight end cliff. Fall right past Dawson Knox, Pat Freiermuth and Mike Gesicki and grab hold of Kmet in round eleven. Kmet should make a huge leap in 2022 with veteran Jimmy Graham a free agent and on his way out. Second-year quarterback Justin Fields is going to be better and Kmet checks off all the boxes for a tight end breakout.

IRV SMITH, TE, MINNESOTA

If you miss out on the Big 3, Schultz, Hockenson, Ertz and Kmet, you’re just about out of decent options. Smith, who is coming off a lost 2021 season due to torn meniscus injury, could be a deep sleeper. I think new head coach and former Rams’ OC Kevin O’ Connell will carve out a huge role for Smith. Just keep in mind that Smith underwent thumb surgery and might not be available Week 1.

WAIVER WIRE FODDER

If you wait until the end of the draft to take a tight end, you’ve made a mistake. It’s likely that you will be playing the streaming game for the rest of the season, but there are a handful of tight ends that are waiver wire fodder now but might emerge.  Gerald Everett, Albert Okwuegbunam and Tyler Higbee are the ones I’ve identified as the most likely to break out and become fantasy relevant.

Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, writes about football and baseball for CreativeSports. Be sure to follow Thomas on Twitter@ThomasLSeltzer1.

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