This year, like in recent offseasons, the tight end position is rather deep for fantasy football prospects. It’s also once again top-heavy, featuring six reliable No. 1 targets before a notable decline in relative safety. Once those names are off the board, gamers have to decide whether to invest in a starter from the next tier of players or wait even longer to chance it on someone assigned to the backup grouping.
In some cases, drafting a No. 2 tight end isn’t a worthwhile venture, though having a reserve is a must if your starter is injury-prone, generally risky, or among the matchup-based tier. These five tight ends are the best places to turn for taking a late-round gamble on a player defying the odds and ascending to the realm of borderline TE1 territory.
Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
A late-season stretch of remarkable play from Higbee in 2019 had gamers excited about his potential the following season. While he improved in the scoring column in both raw counting stats and also efficiency, consistency was lacking. Three of his five TDs came in Week 2, and he would go long stretches with single-digit returns in PPR — consistent, just not in the good way. Last season saw Higbee’s targets increase from 60 to 85 in the same number of games (15), resulting in a natural uptick in receptions (44 to 61), though his efficiency fell flat with only 9.8 yards per grab and as many touchdowns scored as in ’20.
The 2021 Rams return arguably the league’s top receiver in Cooper Kupp and inked veteran Allen Robinson to a lucrative deal following a serious downturn in his production. Odell Beckham Jr. (knee) remains a free agent and isn’t even a lock to play if signed. The knife cuts both ways. Sure, Higbee should remain involved and possibly even see a boost in targets while facing single coverage, but he also has basically a snowball’s prayer in you know where to take his game into the TE1 ranks.
David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
How many proven targets exist in this offense outside of Amari Cooper? Running back Kareem Hunt is about it. Njoku was given a sizeable deal to stick around and no longer has Austin Hooper to interfere with his target share. The Browns acquired Deshaun Watson for a massive upgrade at quarterback, but we’re all still waiting to learn the fate of his likely impending suspension status.
Presuming Watson indeed misses time, the step down to Jacoby Brissett is devastating for wide receivers but not so much tight ends. The veteran game manager will keep Njoku involved, albeit at a possible detriment to his overall upside. The Miami product is in an ideal spot to finally live up to his Round 1 draft billing.
Evan Engram, Jacksonville Jaguars
Engram exploded as a rookie tight end what might as well have been a million seasons ago, and he has mostly been an injury-plagued, poorly utilized fantasy anchor ever since. He managed to stay on the field during every game in 2020 for the first time in four tries at that point, only to sit twice in 2021’s expanded slate.
Getting a fresh start in Jacksonville, Engram has a chance to resurrect his career in a system that has produced consistent fantasy results for tight ends. He has a generational talent at quarterback, even if it may not have seemed that way a year ago. Trevor Lawrence should be markedly improved in his second season if for no reasons other than he can’t get worse and has a proven quarterback instructor as a head coach. Despite spending big in free agency, it’s difficult to say the Jaguars drastically upgraded at wideout, which bodes well for Engram to threaten a return to TE1 status.
Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Injuries have completely derailed a promising career by a talented tight end. Smith entered in 2019 as a reserve to Kyle Rudolph and gained valuable experience while demonstrating that he belongs in the pro ranks. His sophomore season saw five touchdowns scored over 30 catches, missing three regular-season contests with back and groin issues. Smith sat out all of 2021 with torn knee cartilage.
Now healthy, Smith sits atop the positional depth chart with no one of note to steal looks from him. He would, in theory, be third on any given play’s pecking order — while that’s obviously a generalization, it still suggests there’s value to be had after seeing wideout K.J. Osborn and last year’s starting tight end, Tyler Conklin, offering fantasy worthiness at various points. If we get 15-plus games out of Smith, there’s borderline TE1 value to he had.
Noah Fant, Seattle Seahawks
Will Seattle add another veteran to compete? Perhaps Jimmy Garoppolo? It may not matter. Inexperience quarterbacks (Drew Lock) and veteran game managers alike (Geno Smith) have a penchant for relying on the tight end position.
The Seahawks, despite what might be the worst QB room in football, still boast one of the league’s top tandems at wide receiver, but little exists otherwise in terms of proven targets. Whether it be a lack of versatility at running back or an unproven No. 3 receiver, Seattle has a role to be filled here. Fant was useful in Denver with similar circumstances, and we saw remarkable consistency year over year the past two seasons from the 2019 first-rounder. Expect high-end No. 2 volume from this safety blanket.