A season ago while with the Atlanta Falcons, new Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan connected with tight ends Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst a combined 94 times. In fact, only once during the veteran’s final five seasons in Atlanta did the team fail to have a tight end catch more than 50 passes in a year — and that was 2017 when current Tennessee Titans tight end Austin Hooper caught 49. Go back even further and you’ll see the prolific numbers Tony Gonzalez put up during his time with the Falcons. Bottom line, Ryan has a long history of targeting his tight ends.
Now the question becomes what does head coach Frank Reich want to do? With four different starting quarterbacks in four years, it’s hard to get a read. In 2018, Andrew Luck’s final year, tight ends were targeted 168 times. In 2019, it was 146. In 2020, it fell to 119. Last season, it was just 103. Clearly, that’s a downward trend, but things could tick upward in 2022 with Ryan taking over a team that has only one established wide receiver in the form of Michael Pittman Jr.
While the team would love to see rookie Jelani Woods step right into the starting lineup, Alie-Cox is a decent fallback option if the Virginia product isn’t ready for extended work right out of the gate. The fifth-year pro has flashed each of the past two seasons, posting 174 yards and a pair of touchdowns during a three-game stretch in early 2021. He then scored four times last October, but he has never proven he’s capable of sustaining that production. To that end, Alie-Cox has yet to top 400 yards in a season.
For the second straight year, Ryan will have a talented rookie tight end at his disposal. That doesn’t mean you should expect the 1,026 yards that Pitts produced in Atlanta, however, as Woods isn’t considered nearly as polished. Still, the third-round pick has the type of size (6-foot-7, 253 pounds) and speed that makes scouts drool. Woods also has a big wingspan that affords the towering target an expansive catch radius, making him an ideal candidate for 50-50 balls and red-zone looks.
Fantasy football outlook
Although there wouldn’t be much excitement with Alie-Cox as the primary tight end, Woods’ physical tools create some legitimate upside, especially given Ryan’s history targeting the position and a lack of proven weapons elsewhere in the passing game.
If Woods looks ready for a decent-sized role coming out of camp, he could warrant a late-round stash in larger leagues; he’d also be someone to strongly considered in keeper formats. Given the history of this system’s usage of multiple tight ends, it’s entirely plausible both cancel out any fantasy-relevant consistency.
For now, the upper hand slightly goes to Alie-Cox as rookie tight ends tend to face a rather steep learning curve. We’ll revisit in training camp if Woods starts turning heads.