With a vast majority of fantasy football formats starting one tight end and plenty of NFL starting tight ends going undrafted in typical depths, the ability is present to streamer or find a quality starter in the final round(s) of a draft. Here are the preferred tiers if taking a late-draft shot on tight end with an eye towards an early-season hit at tight end:
*Using tight ends outside the top-200 in Average Draft Position by Footballguys consensus at the time of publication*
Likely-Potential Week 1 Starter
Olsen is the play here considering his career profile and situation. Will Dissly is working back from a second straight season cut short by a significant injury. The signing of Olsen reduces any pressure to play Dissly early in the season. Olsen has six seasons as a fantasy TE1, plus another three as a high-TE2 on a PPG basis. Olsen is one of the best bets for the investment to hit as a top-12 fantasy tight end, especially early in the season.
Competition for targets is a reason for pause with Ian Thomas, as well as minimal track record considering he is of Day 3 pedigree sporting a mere 9.0 career yards-per-catch and three scores on 52 receptions. However, the depth chart is wide open with Greg Olsen gone and no threat for targets. The competition is strong from wide receivers (D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson) as well as Christian McCaffrey.
Jace Sternberger saw just a single target as essentially a redshirt Day 2 rookie in 2019 as veterans Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis painfully collected 82 targets among Green Bay tight ends. Sternberger has a strong prospect profile and the uncertainty among Packers wide receivers beyond Davante Adams are reasons for promise entering Year 2 with, like Ian Thomas, minimal depth chart competition for targets among tight ends. Historically, a Day 2 tight end putting up nearly nothing in Year 1 returns an 8% chance of being a top-12 tight end in Year 2 with Travis Kelce and Jermichael Finley two notable examples of success following a minimal Year 1.
Knox is the expected starter in Buffalo. His overt athleticism showed in 2019 as a rookie with a handful of big plays. Knox had a more than 3:1 edge in targets over any other Bills tight end, collecting 50 looks, nearly 400 yards, and 13.9 yards-per-catch. The competition for targets is high considering their wide receivers and running backs, however, with incumbents John Brown and Cole Beasley both seeing 100+ targets in 2019 and Buffalo adding Stefon Diggs. Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, and T.J. Yeldon all have quality receiving profiles between NFL and college production.
If there is an answer to the question "Is there an attractive fantasy tight end in Arizona?", Dan Arnold is that answer. Arnold flashed with New Orleans, plus ended last season with a 4-76-1 stat line in Week 17 for Arizona. With athleticism and ball skills, Arnold has the come from nowhere to be a strong post-Week 1 pickup profile.
Eifert may very well be done, but his Round 1 pedigree is still hanging around with TE1 depth chart chances in Jacksonville. Eifert played 16 games for the first time in 2019 and saw his second-most targets in a season (63) for the Bengals. Jacksonville drafted Day 2 Josh Oliver last season but he had a virtual redshirt rookie season at tight end and. Expect Eifert to be the TE1 on the depth chart with top-12 fantasy potential if his touchdowns surge towards his 2015-2016 career peak where he logged 18 scores over 81 receptions in that span.
Washington could easily be on the 'stay away' fantasy tight end depth chart radar. However, Thomas is an athletically-intriguing positional convert and, while he has bounced around the NFL, he continues to have appeal to stick. Jeremy Sprinkle offers little upside outside of 2-TE format viability and Thaddeus Moss fell out of the 2020 NFL Draft entirely as more name than a quality profile, plus is an incoming rookie. If there is a fantasy answer here, it is Thomas but he is a bigger Week 1 leap of faith to warrant keeping him than Arnold or Eifert.
High-Upside, Needs Help
O.J. Howard becomes officially interesting if Rob Gronkowski does not make it to Week 1 healthy or available. Also, Howard is an early-season monitor player from the waiver wire as the assumption is Gronkowski will be his former (prime) self in usage, production, and impact. If Gronkowski is not, Howard is entering the historically prime window for a peak season for the tight end position and with Round 1 pedigree.
Irv Smith had a quality career start as a 2019 rookie considering the low threshold it takes a tight end to clear for the moniker. He lacked big plays, but did find the end zone twice and collected 47 targets. The Vikings are not a deep wide receiver depth chart and expect plenty of multiple-tight end formations for Smith to log routes. However, Smith is only in play in 1TE formats if Kyle Rudolph is out of the picture.
David Njoku is a blend of the Howard and Smith write-ups above in his situation. Possessing Round 1 pedigree and enough early-career flashes (a la Howard), Njoku has breakout potential if he is the unquestioned starter. But he needs Austin Hooper out of the picture in some fashion. Like Smith's situation, expect the Browns and their relatively thin wide receiver corps beyond the top options to center on 2TE formats. Njoku will see weekly targets but will have to sharpshoot a rogue big play and/or touchdown for viability due to the low projected volume.
The Bengals depth chart has uninspiring streaming candidates including Uzomah and a potentially developing Drew Sample as a Round 2 pick entering his second season. Graham is a shell of his former self, with quarterback questions, and a Round 2 promising rookie in Cole Kmet who is bound to mix in (or more) during the season.
The Patriots drafted two rookie tight ends in Round 3 this year and the early training camp notes are already they have a long way to go for a prominent role. Combine a rookie moniker with so much changing in New England overall, and it is a depth chart to avoid overall until new information is available.
Houston is a quality passing game, but Darren Fells collected touchdowns last year on low volume (48 targets), Jordan Akins was relatively quiet on his team-leading 55 looks, and Jordan Thomas has some early buzz with his camp reports. Unless there is a strong shift in one direction, this is another depth chart to avoid.