It is widely viewed in ranking fantasy football tight ends that Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens are in a class of their own atop the tight end depth chart.
The question then becomes, who is in the next tier of tight ends once the top two guys are gone? Before we get into it, Darren Waller is the wild card here. He goes anywhere from the third to sixth tight end chosen, on average, depending upon the ADP source. A more casual league typically translates to an earlier selection, likely due in part to name recognition.
The next three are very different athletes, but each can make an argument to be included near the top. George Kittle, of the San Francisco 49ers, has an impressive track record of fantasy success. The Atlanta Falcons‘ Kyle Pitts is arguably the most explosive talent ever at the position. Dallas Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz is so valued by the organization that he was hit with the franchise tag rather than risk losing him.
The case for and against Kyle Pitts
- He topped 1,000 yards in his rookie season in 2021, catching 68 passes for 1,026 yards.
- Pitts’ explosiveness and size make him a matchup nightmare that is too fast for linebackers in coverage and too big for safeties to take on in single coverage. There’s a reason Atlanta took Pitts instead of Matt Ryan’s replacement with the fourth pick of the 2021 draft.
- He had eight games with 60 or more receiving yards and three games with more than 100 yards last season.
- He averaged 15.1 yards per reception and had 10 games with at least one reception of 23 yards or more.
- Pitts was the only Falcon to have at least one reception in every game — catching two or more in each — and 10 games with four or more catches.
- For all of his productivity, his 68 catches resulted in just one touchdown.
- Last year, he had borderline Hall of Famer Matt Ryan throwing to him. This year, career underachiever Marcus Mariota starts at QB, which could be an issue if defenses double up in coverage on Pitts. Rookie third-round quarterback Desmond Ridder may take over at some point, but that’s not all bad as inexperienced passers tend to rely on tight ends.
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The case for and against George Kittle
- Over his last four seasons, Kittle has posted reception totals of 88, 85 and 71 when he played in 14 or more games and was on pace for 96 receptions in 2020 before his season was scuttled when injuries limited him to just eight appearances.
- He has topped 1,000 receiving yards twice in the last four years, had 910 receiving yards in 2021 and was on pace to put up more than 1,200 yards in his injury-shortened 2020 season.
- Hasn’t seen a production drop despite playing with five different starting quarterbacks in his career – Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance, Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer.
- In 52 games played over the last four seasons, Kittle has caught four or more passes in 43 of them – a rate of 83 percent.
- He posts more strong yardage games than just about any tight end in the league. Over his last four seasons (52 games), he has 20 games with 80 or more receiving yards (and four more with either 78 or 79 receiving yards).
- Injuries have to be a bit concerning for those with Kittle on their rosters. Over the last past three seasons (49 games), he has missed 13 contests due to injury.
- He has never been a consistent touchdown producer. Kittle has 463 career receptions and just 20 of them have gone for touchdowns. At that career rate, if he were to catch 100 passes, he will be on pace to catch only four touchdowns.
The case for and against Dalton Schultz
- Blake Jarwin was supposed to be the guy who replaced Cowboys legend Jason Witten as the primary tight end in Dallas. An injury pushed Schultz to the front of the line, and he has made the most of it.
- Over the last two seasons, he totaled 141 receptions for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns. Schultz caught 73 percent of the career passes thrown his way (212 targets and 154 receptions), including 75 percent last season (104 targets and 78 receptions).
- He shattered all of his season career highs in 2021, catching 78 passes for 808 yards and eight touchdowns. That was one of the reasons the Cowboys felt obliged to place the franchise tag on him. He averaged one touchdown for every 10 receptions last season, and six of his eight scores came in the red zone.
- Dallas has a clear opening for a No. 2 receiving target behind wide receiver CeeDee Lamb after sending veteran Amari Cooper to Cleveland this offseason. Wideout Michael Gallup is on the mend after knee reconstruction, newcomer James Washington has fallen flat after ample opportunities in Pittsburgh, and rookie Jalen Tolbert must prove himself.
- Schultz saved his best for last as the Cowboys looked to improve their playoff positioning. In his final four games, he was targeted 30 times, catching 25 passes for 224 yards and four touchdowns.
- He isn’t explosive or elusive and doesn’t get a lot of yards after the catch. He’s more of a “catch and get taken down” type of receiver.
- Schultz was much streakier than the other two tight ends in this evaluation. In 17 games last year, he had nine outings with more than 50 receiving yards (never more than 82 in any appearance) and eight games with less than 50 yards.
Fantasy football outlook
When ranking these three players, you have to take their quarterbacks into account, which is why this order may differ from a lot of fantasy analysts.
The top spot goes to Schultz, although he is the least athletically gifted. Dak Prescott has locked in on him, especially in the red zone, and without Cooper there will be an emphasis on Schultz to fill in some of that void.
For similar reasons, Kittle finishes second in this race. It’s no secret that given the investment the 49ers made to move up to draft Lance that he is going to be their future sooner than later – yet another transition period for Kittle and the San Francisco receivers. However, Kittle has proved to be a system guy who can adapt to a different quarterback. His growing injury history is a concern.
Finishing third is Pitts. While he has the highest ceiling of any tight end in the league (perhaps ever), having Mariota as his quarterback and the team having lost Julio Jones, Russell Gage and Calvin Ridley over the last 18 months doesn’t leave a lot of quality depth to prevent bracket coverage on Pitts many more plays than not. We wouldn’t blame anyone who has Pitts ranked first in this group, but all signs point to his offense having more struggles than either of the other two.