Note: Our “draft prep” series is generally intended to an audience with limited fantasy football experience.
In recent years, tight end has been among the deepest of positions on paper, but we’ve seen serious volatility. This season, there is a top-heavy lean that is followed by a crop of midrange safety choices and then the usual “could-be” gambles.
How gamers choose to construct a team in the first few rounds tends to steer how the position is addressed on draft day.
The first half of drafts
Kansas City’s Travis Kelce is the undisputed No. 1 option atop the position, followed by Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller. The former’s average draft position is 1:09 in PPR, whereas gamers typically have opted for Waller at Pick 2:10.
The position always will be a staple in Andy Reid’s system, and Kelce is the team’s best weapon in the red zone. Las Vegas’ lack of weaponry at wide receiver, coupled with Waller’s athleticism, makes him their de facto WR1.
There’s a third guy who isn’t drafted quite as early as these two beasts, but he should be in the conversation for brave gamers. San Francisco’s George Kittle — when healthy — has the chops to thoroughly dominate just like Kelce and Waller. There’s just so much more risk than what is found in the latter two … rotating quarterback potential, injuries, a more pronounced role as a blocker, greater emphasis on the ground game, etc.
Choosing Kelce in the first is expecting he finishes somewhere between a career-best 2020 showing of 312.6 PPR points and his second-highest mark (2019) of 296.6 points to secure what would be the No. 4 placement for both running back and receiver based on last year’s results. His selection requires the comfort with your decision to bypass RB and WR. Screwing up a pick that early can drastically hinder one’s odds of securing a championship, and this sentiment applies to all positions. That said, the only way he doesn’t return something awfully close to being a top-12 overall player (non-QB) is by missing several games with an injury.
Waller is in a similar boat. The investment is steep, yet gamers should feel comfortable with him that early. He set the tone in 2019 and exceeded his lofty figures last year. As mentioned, by necessity alone, he’s no different than a low-tier No. 1 receiver and well worth the cost of admission.
After “The Big 3” of tight ends leave the board, gamers are looking at the decision of either waiting for a late-round value, drafting the risky potential of a historic rookie, or investing in at mid-tier choice with little upside for true explosiveness from week to week.
Atlanta’s Kyle Pitts is arguably the most controversial player of the position in ’21. He was chosen No. 4 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft and enters one of the friendliest systems (and situations) for tight ends. No one at the position was selected earlier than Pitts. The Florida product is much like Waller in that he is far closer to a wide receiver than a traditional tight end and won’t be asked to do too much blocking. All of the positives overshadow the reality that rookie TEs rarely produce anything worthy of TE1 status, let alone top-five results.
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Tight ends Mark Andrews and T.J. Hockenson figure to be your classic “Steady Eddie” types in fantasy, coming at an average cost of a Round 5 selection. Both team’s have suspect receiving corps, but each player is asked to block in a traditional “Y” role more than we can expect from Pitts. These guys will butter their bread with PPR volume. Andrews scored 10 times in 2019, so he has double-digit TD capability on his resume. And it’s unfair to say we’ve seen Hockenson’s ceiling just yet.
Round 6 doesn’t usually see a tight end come off the board, which brings us into the seventh with a trio of intriguing risk-reward choices.
Philadelphia’s Dallas Goedert has the skills to live up to his placement as TE7, even if Zach Ertz is retained into the regular season. Philadelphia has a work-in-progress receiving corps, and the system will employ both tight ends by necessity. Should Ertz get sent packing, Goedert, regardless of durability concerns, is a top-five fantasy asset among his positional peers.
Next is the Washington Football Team’s Logan Thomas, a surprise fantasy darling of a year ago. He is a converted quarterback. While he certainly could approach is 2020 line of 72-670-6, Thomas is far from a lock to repeat and/or exceed those figures. WR Curtis Samuel will gobble up a bunch of short and intermediate looks, and the upgrade at quarterback to Ryan Fitzpatrick actually will promote more downfield passing, which may work against Thomas (9.3 YPR last year).
Closing out Round 7, Denver’s Noah Fant has all the promise in the world but will be inconsistent if his quarterback play doesn’t drastically improve. Additionally, WR Courtland Sutton (knee) returns, and second-year wideout Jerry Jeudy has a reasonable chance to ascend his game to a degree that steals significant targets. Talent alone, the ultra-athletic Fant could be the TE1 and not just a TE1. He’ll need a few breaks to go his way before he consistently delivers the goods on a weekly basis.
Round 8 and beyond
The most commonly drafted names in Round 8 are Hunter Henry (New England) and Robert Tonyan (Green Bay).
The former Charger is an injury waiting to happen and now has to learn a complex system with serious question marks at quarterback. Plus, he’s not the only new pass-catching tight end in town. There will be quality games from Henry, but he’s not a weekly starter and will require a backup plan for the weeks he’s a lineup anchor.
Tonyan exploded last year by way of 11 touchdowns, which tied with Kelce for the most among TEs, and he did it with 53 fewer receptions, or one more catch than the Packer even recorded in 2020. Rarely does a tight end continue with such a high efficiency rating year after year, and the limited volume isn’t likely to improve with the return of Randall Cobb to steal underneath looks. Few players are poised to experience such a downswing from 2020 results.
The draft then brings a handful of more or less the same middling players with inconsistent results from week to week. While some have upside to outperform their draft stock, all of them come with significant risk factors to weigh.
- Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams (10th-round ADP): New QB may not equal chemistry, despite more chances. Has the highest ceiling of this group.
- Evan Engram, New York Giants (11th): Finally stayed healthy for a full season last year but couldn’t find the end zone to save his life. NY added weapons around him to interfere with volume. Should score more but catch fewer balls.
- Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11th): Sluggish return last season after a one-year layoff and was dependent on TDs once he found his groove. So many mouths to feed in this offense will create inconsistency.
- Irv Smith Jr, Minnesota Vikings (12th): Finally gets a chance to showcase his skills as the TE1 but has struggled to stay healthy thus far. Talented and may finish as a top-10 TE with a few lucky bounces.
- Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins (12th): Ascending efficiency to date but now has more talent around him to contend with for touches.
Rounding out the remaining five tight ends most commonly drafted:
- Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints (13th): Mega potential if the quarterback situation doesn’t hold him back … should see more than enough targets to matter while Michael Thomas is out until around midseason. Value in red zone.
- Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots (13th): Could be a sly TD monster, but like several others, QB situation warrants concern. May struggle with consistently delivering necessary volume.
- Jared Cook, Los Angeles Chargers (14th): Awesome value this late for a proven veteran who has dialed up his scoring frequency in his twilight years. Reunited in LA with OC from Saints days.
- Gerald Everett, Seattle Seahawks (14th): Knows the new system in Seattle and could shine if an injury takes out one of the top two receivers. Otherwise, erratic returns and more of a best-ball backup than weekly consideration.
- Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles (14th): Kind of a wild card right now … seems like he still may get traded, despite it not happening yet. If he sticks around, gamers could be frustrated with the timeshare between he and Goedert.
Fantasy football takeaway
Understand how construction models around running backs and receivers play the largest role in determining when drafting a tight end is best for a roster. Teams with impressive core strength at the two positions have the ability to take fliers on tight ends. Players in smaller leagues shouldn’t feel compelled to take a second tight end after choosing a stud. Some owners will draft an early TE when they feel the value of a fringe RB1 just isn’t there.
Speaking of a stud, it’s tough to argue with drafting Kelce or Waller. There’s so much depth at receiver this year that going RB in Round 1 and then Waller in the second offers a smarter balance, but Kelce is just so consistently awesome that he might as well be a top-five WR or running back in PPR formats.
Doubling on the position in the second half of drafts is perfectly fine, and if your team is strong enough in other areas, there’s nothing wrong with taking a pair of risk-reward types rather than blending in a safer target.
The position is volatile. Recognize your willingness — or lack thereof — to accept the challenge of weekly rotation at the position vs. being more in the mode of “set and forget” with a top-six tight end.