Two viable strategies exist if you want to win the tight end position in your draft:
Ignore every other tight end typically drafted inside the top-120 picks (unless one falls) and swing from your heels on a pair of breakout candidates in the late rounds
The gap in weekly fantasy production from Kelce (20.8 PPR fantasy points per game), Waller (17.5), and Kittle (15.6) to last year’s No. 4 tight end -- Mark Andrews (12.2) -- is a relative chasm considering the next eight scoring leaders at the position were barely separated by two fantasy points per game.
Perhaps this season will be different. Many believe Falcons rookie Kyle Pitts will buck historical trends and produce an elite fantasy season as a rookie. Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, Dallas Goedert, and Noah Fant also stand out as mid-round picks with a top-3 season in their range of possible outcomes.
But even if there is some merit to drafting a tight end in Rounds 4-9, the opportunity cost remains steep. Taking Pitts means passing on a wide receiver you can set your watch to, such as Chris Godwin. Drafting Hockenson or Andrews may cost you a shot at a potential top-3 quarterback like Dak Prescott. Goedert and Fant are more affordable, but even they come at the expense of building up the running back and wide receiver depth needed to withstand injuries and inevitable draft busts.
If Kelce, Waller, or Kittle are too rich for your blood, not just any late-round tight end will do. Focusing on the correct details led us to Kittle’s TE3 finish in 2018, Andrews’ TE5 output in 2019, and a finish inside the Top 5 from T.J. Hockenson in 2020.
The three traits we’re seeking from the ideal late-round tight end:
Productive in a small sample: They must have shown they can produce at the NFL level, even if the sample size is small
Athleticism: Lends itself to yards after the catch and red-zone production, two essential factors in a top-shelf fantasy season for tight ends.
Targets: Above all, fantasy points don’t create themselves. The opportunity has to be there. Bonus points if they’re in a top offense that adds scoring chances.
This year’s candidates listed in order of priority:
Irv Smith, Underdog ADP 127.7
It has been two years since Smith got drafted in the second round out of Alabama, and he has yet to reach 400 receiving yards in a season. Overall, it’s difficult to point to his past production as a feather in his cap, but Smith has split time with established veteran Kyle Rudolph since entering the league.
We got a preview of what Smith's fantasy output could look like post-Rudolph from Weeks 14-17 in 2020. With Rudolph (now on the Giants) sidelined with a foot injury, Smith racked up 15 catches, 183 yards, and three touchdowns across a four-game sample, which placed him behind only Darren Waller, Travis Kelce, and Logan Thomas in tight end PPR scoring over that span.
Smith ran a 4.63 40-yard dash at the 2019 scouting combine, which is extremely fast for a 6-foot-2 and 242 lbs. player. His elite size-adjusted speed translated at Alabama, where he averaged 16.1 yards per reception, placing him in the 88th percentile.
In early June, Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer raised eyebrows when he suggested Smith’s role in the offense would not grow while also talking up fourth-year pro Tyler Conklin (a darkhorse breakout candidate in his own right). Zimmer was since corrected by offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who said Smith is “going to have more opportunities” this season.
With Rudolph sidelined in Weeks 14-17, Smith commanded a 14% target share, including 20.3% of the team’s air yards (second on the team behind Justin Jefferson). Those numbers came with Conklin playing between 57% and 81% of the offensive snaps, so there is no reason to think Smith won’t sustain (or improve upon) his volume throughout a full season.
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