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.
Adam Trautman, Underdog ADP 135
Unlike Smith, who stepped up when given the opportunity, Trautman famously flopped in a Week 4 spot-start for the injured Jared Cook, failing to record a single target. While Trautman’s rookie season output was undeniably disappointing, we shouldn’t hold it against him.
Making the jump in competition-level from small-school Dayton to the NFL is off-the-charts difficult at any position, let alone tight end where the learning curve is particularly steep. And while his box scores weren’t impressive, Trautman acquitted himself well as a rookie in other areas. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest run-blocking grade in the league. We at least know he’ll be on the field, as Sean Payton looks to lean more heavily on the run in his first year without Drew Brees.
Trautman is a humongous target at 6-foot-5 and 255 lbs. He won’t beat you with speed (4.8 40-yard dash), but he doesn’t have to when he can use his massive frame to box out defenders and win balls in the air. Beyond his size and catch radius, agility is Trautman’s strongest trait, as evidenced by a 4.27 20-yard shuttle and 6.78 3-cone-drill at the 2020 combine.
The potential for Trautman to emerge as the No. 3 target in New Orleans’ passing game puts him neck-and-neck with Smith for the top spot on this list. Not only were tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill cut loose, but Emmanuel Sanders’ 82 targets from a year ago are also up for grabs. It’s impossible to overstate how valuable some of those targets will be.
Trautman’s size, athleticism, and ability to use his body to create catch space should make him a go-to option in the red zone. The Saints presumed starter at quarterback, Jameis Winston, has a long history of looking to his tight ends when his team is within scoring position. In Winston’s four-year stint as Tampa Bay’s starter, tight end Cameron Brate led the Buccaneers with 26 red-zone touchdowns.
Cole Kmet, Underdog ADP 170
Kmet’s 48-26-243-2 (TE41) receiving line as a rookie seems pedestrian enough, but the 43rd overall pick in the 2020 draft didn’t play significant snaps before Week 10 last season. Over Chicago’s final five games, Kmet commanded an impressive 17.8% target share, including 16.4% of the team’s air yards. For context, only 11 tight ends eclipsed a 17% target share in 2020. If we limit the sample to Weeks 13-17, Kmet posted a respectable TE19 ranking in PPR leagues.
Kmet is a size-adjusted speed specimen with a 6-foot-4 and 262-pound frame. He performed well in the vertical jump (37”) and broad jump (123”) drills, suggesting he also possesses exceptional burst. Not only can he shake defenders downfield, but Kmet is also strong enough to drag them after the catch.
Chicago’s target pecking order behind Allen Robinson is ambiguous enough for Kmet’s late-season emergence to continue into 2021. But the overall quality of Chicago’s offense caps his ceiling below Smith and Trautman. And while Kmet’s increased playing time came at the expense of Jimmy Graham last year, the veteran (and his $6.9 million base salary) is still around to steal snaps and red-zone looks.
It’s worth noting Kmet may be the only Bears player who would benefit from Matt Nagy’s stated plan of sticking with Andy Dalton as the team’s starting quarterback. Dalton’s accuracy on short throws is a match for Kmet’s ability to run unsophisticated routes close to the line of scrimmage and plow through defenders after the catch. The likelihood Chicago quickly moves on from Dalton to a rookie quarterback adds more uncertainty to Kmet’s outlook, even if it increases his upside.
Dan Arnold, Underdog ADP 214.5
Each of the above tight ends comes with a significantly higher pedigree than Arnold, a former undrafted free agent wide receiver out of Division III Wisconsin–Platteville, who is on his third team since entering the league in 2018. Arnold is a comparative long-shot for a breakout season, but he does check some important boxes.
For starters, he is coming off an impressive 2020 season with the Cardinals, in which he posted a 45-31-434-4 receiving line (TE22) despite playing just 41.6% of the team’s offensive snaps. Among tight ends with at least 30 targets, Arnold’s 9.7 yards per target ranked fifth in the NFL. We’re talking Kelce (9.7)/Kittle (10.1) levels here.
At 6-foot-5 and 222 lbs., Arnold is essentially a tall, skinny wide receiver. Nonetheless, his athletic profile might be the most impressive of anyone on this list. In addition to solid size-adjusted speed, Arnold tested off-the-charts in the burst and agility drills.
This is where the going gets tough for Arnold. D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Christian McCaffrey are each in line for minimum-20% target shares. Even with Curtis Samuel’s 97 targets vacated, there isn’t much meat left on the bone for Arnold to carve out a consistent role in the passing game.
It may also be worth noting Carolina ranked 31st in tight end targets in their first year under head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady. But Brady is familiar with Arnold from his time on the Saints’ coaching staff, and the connection between the two reportedly played a role in Arnold’s decision to sign with the team.
Even if regular targets are scarce for Arnold in Carolina, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him emerge as the team’s top red-zone threat. Moore has 10 touchdowns through three otherwise stellar NFL seasons, and no one is confusing the 190-pound Anderson with someone who can box out defenders and win jump balls.
Gerald Everett - We’ve seen glimpses of Everett’s potential before, but the Rams’ offense was too crowded for him to sustain it. Unfortunately, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett have a stranglehold on Seattle’s target share.
Blake Jarwin - Jarwin was the top option in this space last season, but a preseason ACL tear ended his breakout bid before it ever had a chance to get off the ground. Now recovering from the injury, it’s fair to wonder if Jarwin will have to share with Dalton Schultz.
Mo Alie-Cox - This guy is a dang moose at 6-foot-4, 262 lbs, and with plus-athleticism. He impressed early last season when forced into a prominent role due to Jack Doyle missing time. But with Doyle still on the roster and rookie Kylen Granson reportedly making a strong impression on the coaching staff this spring, it appears doubtful Alie-Cox will be featured.
Tyler Conklin - Remember how Irv Smith commanded a 14% target share in four games without Kyle Rudolph? Conklin’s was 14.5%. The former fifth-round pick was productive as a pass-catcher at Central Michigan and possesses his own impressive athletic profile.
Tim Tebow - Just kidding.