The years go by, and the story never changes. There are three, maybe four, tight ends you can trust. Otherwise, you are rolling the dice hoping to land one of the maybe one new elite option, or at least someone who scores or has five catches more often than he is a lineup zonk with one or two catches and no scores. This year, at least two new names could easily crash the elite tier and one that could return, in addition to the many possible surprises at the position.
Travis Kelce, KC
Kelce usually appears around the time that the top tier of running backs dries up. He’s an option around pick #5, weighed against Davante Adams and Ezekiel Elliott, which is about where he belongs. We know exactly what we’re getting with him, one of Patrick Mahomes II's top two targets and the easy odds on favorite to be the top fantasy tight end again this year. The only problem with taking him is you probably can’t take one of the other top-six tight ends if they fall to value pick levels.
ALMOST ELITE TE1
Darren Waller, LV
Waller was established as the TE2 in 2021 drafts, and he deserves it. Waller had 43-654-4 in the last five games last year and this is one of the most underwhelming unproven wide receiver groups to compete with for targets (and on a team that will need to throw a lot). As long as Waller is ok for 2021, I have him closer to Kelce than Kittle.
STILL ELITE TE1?
George Kittle, SF
Kittle certainly has the ability to match the production of any tight end in the league in any given game. Where will his median/mean game be this year? Better defense and the likely introduction of Trey Lance at some point won’t be great for this team’s pass attempts, which creates a lot more risk of a floor game from a player you took in the third round. Then again, Lance could make the passing game more explosive and ascend to peaks with Kittle that make the valleys tolerable. I’ll probably wait and take Pitts or Hockenson.
THE NEXT ELITE TE1?
There is a clear top six at tight this year, and you want to be getting one of them in your draft. There’s a chance that someone out of the top six will crash the party. There’s certainly enough talent outside of the top six, but none of them has the plum situations this trio has. Any of them could eclipse Kittle in a best-case scenario and find themselves in the top 25 picks of 2022 fantasy drafts.
If Pitts was drafted as a wide receiver at #4 and the Falcons were doing exactly what they have so far - moving him all around the formation to make him an offensive weapon - would we have any trouble envisioning him as an instant impact player? There’s a Julio Jones-sized hole in the target pie chart, and Pitts is the answer.
Hockenson is on a team that has the worst wide receiver group in the league, but will have to throw a lot with a limited quarterback at the helm. Jared Goff once made Tyler Higbee the most valuable tight end in fantasy football for a bit. He can push Hockenson to a 100-catch season.
Andrews was up and down when the Ravens offense struggled but found his way by the end of the year. Now with the Ravens wide receiver group battling injuries, it’s not difficult to see Andrews as the top receiver in the offense in a return to 2019 form.
Irv Smith Jr., MIN
Dallas Goedert, PHI
8/26 UPDATE: Goedert has fallen to the bottom of this tier after Zach Ertz has been featured in camp and there are no signs that he is going to get dealt.
In any given week, any of this group can hit. There’s talent here and a few factors that can amplify the fantasy impact of these tight ends. Realism dictates that there will some dry stretches and we could lose trust in this group or otherwise give ground to teams with top-six tight ends if our starter comes from this tier. It’s reasonable to zero in on one of them if you think the higher end of the range of outcomes is likely, because they all have high ceilings.
Higbee was the best tight end in fantasy football in December 2019. Matthew Stafford will revitalize the downfield passing game, which should help Higbee have more room to operate. The main factor everyone points to in the temporary nature of his reign is an injury to Gerald Everett, and Everett is gone to Seattle. Jared Goff’s lack of imagination or derring-do as a passer certainly factored in, so Higbee won’t get the volume he got during that prodigious stretch. If downfield plays and a few longer scores can spring forth from the quarterback change, then Higbee could be a hit nonetheless.
Goedert was poised to make the top six a top seven with the promise of Zach Ertz getting traded this offseason, but it looks more and more likely every day that Ertz will be staying in Philadelphia. That could change at any moment, but we have to temper expectations for Goedert until it does. Jalen Hurts isn’t the best gardener of pass-catcher fantasy value, but he is favoring tight ends in camp.
Fant oozes physical gifts but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He tried to play through an injury last year to quiet critics, so we shouldn’t look at 2020 as a measure of his ceiling at this point. The Broncos do have a crowded passing game with the return of Courtland Sutton and they will be in the bottom half of the league in quarterback play, which are reasons to be lukewarm on him at ADP.
The return of Aaron Rodgers solidified Tonyan in the TE1 mix. He’ll be touchdown-dependent but has the potential for multiple scores and big plays against defenses that are worried about Davante Adams and company. He’s unlikely to vastly outperform expectations, but also unlikely to be a bust.
Thomas has gone from surprise starter to long-term security and a new contract in one year, along with attaining fantasy relevance. The quarterback play is going to improve in Washington, but so is the supporting cast at wide receiver, so Thomas’s ceiling is capped compared to the conditions he flourished in last year.
Smith is coming into his own in his third year and the reports out of camp have been glowing. This is still a lower volume pass offense, and Tyler Conklin will get more targets than Smith fantasy teams want to see, but Smith has a path to a breakout if injury strikes either of the top two wide receivers, and he seemed to have Kirk Cousins eye in the red zone late last year.
UPSIDE BENCH TIGHT END
Zach Ertz, PHI
8/26: Everett has gained value as second round pick D'Wayne Eskridge hasn't taken off as the third receiver and the Seahawks offense is generating excitement. Jarwin has tumbled within the tier after Dalton Schultz didn't go away. Ertz moves into this tier after a strong summer.
Hopefully, you got a top-six tight end or your favorite of the boom/bust second tier. If you didn’t, you definitely need to take two of this tier, and even if you did, you should try to take your favorite to potentially create trade bait from one of your two tight ends that hit and to deny one of your competitors who went cheap at tight end a possible out. These tight ends can achieve mid to low TE1 fantasy value if things break right for them.
Jarwin would have been a top 6-8 tight end last year if he had stayed healthy and gotten Dalton Schultz’s target share. Some worry that Schultz turned this into a split role, but Jarwin is the better pass catcher and playmaker and will still get the majority of the targets.
Everett is exciting because he’ll be playing with the best quarterback of his career and he’s the most familiar with the new Shane Waldron offense of anyone on the team, playing under him for four years in Los Angeles. Add in second-round pick DWayne Eskridge being slowed by a toe injury and the recipe for a breakout year is complete.
Smith looks like the #1 receiving tight end in New England, and Hunter Henry has already gotten banged up in camp. Smith has had durability problems of his own and this might not be a robust pass offense, but it will be better than last year, thanks in part to Smith.
Engram is a forgotten man after the Giants brought in Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, but he’s still a top talent at the position, even Jason Garrett doesn’t know how to use him. That isn’t likely to change soon, so Engram is merely a dart throw at the end of your draft.
Gesicki has a much better receiver group to compete with for targets this year, although he could be in a much better pass offense for Tua Tagovailoa. The possible re-emergence of Albert Wilson in the slot would be an obstacle to consistency for Gesicki, who already has some of the wildest scoring swings at the position.
Firkser’s outlook lost its shine with the Titans got Julio Jones, but he is having a good camp and he’s still in line to be the #3 target in what should be an efficient pass offense. Like Blake Jarwin, Firkser should be the least of the defense’s worries, so his targets could be high value. He also has Jones' injury upside.
BYE/INJURY/EMERGENCY BENCH TIGHT END
This is where we are basically waving the white flag at tight end if we are starting any of these players every week. Hooper could be better in year two, but it’s a low-volume pass offense, and he’s the third or fourth option. Henry will get some scores, but won’t be the top targeted tight end on his own team, which won’t be a pass-heavy. Cook might not be better than Donald Parham. Kmet could make strides this year, but Jimmy Graham is still there to hog red zone targets. Gronkowski will have scores and big plays, but might also have games when he doesn’t even make the stat sheet.
WAIVER WIRE WATCH LIST
Mo Alie-Cox, IND
Donald Parham, LAC
Foster Moreau, LV
C.J. Uzomah, CIN
Dawson Knox, BUF
Tyler Conklin, MIN
Hayden Hurst, ATL
Pat Freiermuth, PIT
Eric Ebron, PIT
Jimmy Graham, CHI
David Njoku, CLE
Will Dissly, SEA
Dan Arnold, CAR
Harrison Bryant, CLE
8/26 UPDATE: Granson and Howard have fallen out of this tier after a poor summer. Parham and Alie-Cox have moved up. Parham has had a great summer and Alie-Cox will get Wentz back sooner than later.
That surprise tight end who breaks into the top 10-15 could come from the waiver wire. Foster Moreau certainly has the ability to, and if Darren Waller isn’t available, he probably will be a startable fantasy tight end. Uzomah was on his way to being fantasy-relevant before tearing an Achilles last year. Howard was the primary receiving tight end before tearing his Achilles last year; he could get back to full speed during the season. Knox is ultra-athletic in a good passing game and looking to put it together in his third year. Alie-Cox has had flashes of dominance, but hasn’t stayed healthy and he’ll share with the rookie Granson, who the team loves. Conklin, Hurst, Freiermuth, Dissly, Bryant and Parham are potential fantasy TE1s if the starter goes down. Ebron and Graham are trending down but still have red-zone potential. Njoku could get dealt and have a chance to show what he can do. Arnold may revive the tight end as a target in the Panthers offense.