Let's talk about this year's crop of rookie tight end. Who is your top tight end in a normal fantasy league? In most leagues, is there even one worth drafting? Does your answer change in a dynasty league?
Tight end is a terrible position for rookie success. It's one of the more difficult positions to learn because they often have to be adept at blocking schemes like an offensive lineman, and also a mastery of all the route combinations as a receiver. T.J. Hockenson, arguably the best tight end prospect in five to ten years, struggled last year with Detroit. So what to expect this year? Not much. This was a weak class -- historically so -- for the position. And with COVID-19 likely truncating the preseason and training camp, I don't see any rookie earning enough snaps to help redraft leagues, at least early in the season.
If I had to choose someone, it would be Devin Asiasi in New England. The Patriots seem committed to a wholesale rebuild this year (tanking for Trevor?) and it's well known how fond Belichick is of the tight end position. Asiasi is a competent receiver and has no credible veteran competition for snaps if he can win over the coaches in the preseason.
Trautman was the Saints' third-round pick. He excelled in the agility drills at the combine and was wildly productive for a college tight end at Dayton. Competiton level is obviously a question mark, but if you're investing in a rookie tight end for fantasy, at least Trautman possesses the requisite passing-game skills and is tied to a high-scoring offense.
While athletic testing is a nice standby for fantasy analysis of a prospect, it's how the athlete uses his physical skill on the field that leads to production. Something to watch with top tight ends in the NFL is the suddenness of transitions--turns back to the quarterback on routes and turns upfield after the catch. George Kittle and Travis Kelce are sudden with these moves and it earns them space against linebackers, safeties, and even cornerbacks when used on the perimeter. Even the less athletic tight ends with production do this well. At the end of his career, Tony Gonzalez did this as well as any tight end in the league despite the fact that he had the speed of a grandpa in the basketball rec league at your local gym.
The key for rookie production at this position is who is most likely to see the field early. Devin Asiasi is the most likely candidate and he has that suddenness and fluid movement to transition in and out of breaks. He's also skilled after the catch. But I'm going to roll with Browns tight end Harrison Bryant. Kevin Stefanski will use two or three tight ends as a significant part of the offense. Despite having Austin Hooper and David Njoku to fill the first two spots, I think Njoku is on his way out of Cleveland. He's the example of the superb athlete who hasn't learned the nuances of the position and he has underachieved due to inconsistent execution. Hooper will play the in-line role, and we'll see Bryant take the H-Back role--eventually relegating Njoku to the bench or the third spot. Bryant has good hands and excels at working open after the first route doesn't break free. I won't be surprised if Harrison has a rookie year where he benefits greatly from opponents paying more attention to Hooper or Njoku in the way Hunter Henry benefited from Antonio Gates in the Chargers' 12 and 13 personnel sets.
If a rookie tight end emerges this season to become fantasy relevant, it will be a surprise player or at least one that we couldn't pin as the most likely to succeed. Since 2000, only two rookie tight ends had an impressive fantasy debut. Rob Gronkowski in 2010 and Evan Engram in 2017. Both eclipsed 100 fantasy points in standard scoring. Aaron Hernandez came close in 2010 (He and Gronkowski were both rookies in 2010), as did Hunter Henry in 2016. Nobody else has sniffed that level of success in the last 20 years. If few can reach those heights as a rookie tight end, we need to look at the next best tier - the Mark Andrews, Heath Miller, Noah Fant, Dustin Keller, and Randy McMichael tier. Can anyone in this draft class hit that mark? Adam Trautman could...if Jared Cook is forced to miss multiple games. Albert Okwuegbunam could in Denver if the same occurs with Noah Fant. Other than those two, I don't see many paths for greatness from this weaker tight end class.
Agree with the others who already commented. In a redraft league, I wouldn't draft any rookie tight ends unless things fell a certain way and Devin Asiasi filled a need for an otherwise lackluster TE1 after missing out on other targets. Asiasi has arguably the best opportunity to do something this year, but it's unlikely to matter in most leagues.
For dynasty leagues, I'm also not overly thrilled at this year's group. Kmet may seem like a decent grab once you get past the deep group of wide receiver and running backs, but if his comp is Kyle Rudolph than you're drafting someone who probably has a ceiling that's largely negligible for ADP purposes and he may never be any better than a committee tight end.
Devin Asiasi, Adam Trautman, and Harrison Bryant are the ones that hold some level of interest, but I am still probably looking at wide receivers or running back depth where they're likely to get selected (or even a flyer on a quarterback like Hurts).
The historical formula for a top tight end season is typically a strong quarterback attached and the passing game without a strong top wide receiver. That perfect storm does not exist at present for any of the incoming rookies at the outset. The two most intriguing combinations in closest proximity are the Patriots and the Saints. With the Patriots, they spend two meaningful selections on Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. I prefer Keene's fluidity and underrated ability as a receiver considering his much cheaper cost than Asiasi, who has some buzz already but has below-average athleticism and production scores in my prospect model. The variable is the level of quarterback play with New England between Jarrett Stidham and any added options. Julian Edelman is eroding and N'Keal Harry is still a projection to take a big step forward as the lead receiver. For the Saints, Adam Trautman was a trade-up target to close Day 2, and a Jared Cook injury could fuel Trautman with a massive first-year opportunity. Michael Thomas is a locked-in WR1 but their WR2 has been a question mark in recent seasons and Drew Brees and Sean Payton are passing game optimizers for weapons even with low-ish volume.
If there is a tight end that will have an impact this year it will be Albert Okwuegbunam. He is not a traditional tight end in that he is not a great blocker, as he is a former converted wide receiver out of Missouri. He ran a 4.49 40 at the combine and while he is not a fluid route runner, he still has the size and speed to cause issues for defenses.
This pick is very similar to Coby Fleener back in Indianapolis in that the Broncos are getting a receiving tight end who Drew Lock is familiar with as the two connected for 17 touchdowns in just 18 games at Missouri.
I agree with your thoughts here, Devin, and I like the thinking as well as familiarity and potential continuity there.
Both Okwuegbunam and rookie slot receiver K.J. Hamler are potential mismatches depending on their personnel package. When Okwuegbunam is on the field he will be the most difficult to account for with Gordon, Sutton, Jeudy, and probably even Fant also on the field (12 personnel). He may not catch enough passes to be a viable fantasy option, but his potential to make an impact in the red zone stands out. It wouldn't be too crazy to foresee only 15-18 catches, but 5-7 of those going for touchdowns making him a weekly dart throw and priority free-agent pickup early in the season for deep leagues.