2021 NFL Draft Guide: Ultimate TE Draft Guide - The Elite
Published: Jul 25, 2021, 7:18 AM EDT
It’s that time once again. The return of the FSWA award-nominated Ultimate Tight End Guide. I say award nominated and not award winning because JJ Zachariason wins everything. Stupid sexy JJ.
Anyway, we’re back and we’re ready to get hurt again! For those who aren’t familiar with the series, here is how it works. There are four parts.
- Intro and The Elite -This is where I provide my philosophy, what it takes to be an elite tight end, and give you this year’s elite options Here is last year’s.
- Could Be Elite - These are the other tight ends that I believe are “one and done” picks. That means that I think you can confidently draft them to be your singular starting tight end and you only have to worry about his bye week. Last year.
- The Fades - This one is Reddit's favorite (just kidding, they hate it and they’re super mean). In this article I simply go over a few guys that I think aren’t good picks at their ADP. Or sometimes at all. Last year.
- Yin & Yang Tight End - This is the fun one. This isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking strategy and some people might have even done it without knowing it but the idea is to wait super late on tight end and draft at least two. You take one “safe” guy with a decent floor but a capped upside (Yin) and one “risky” guy with a terrifyingly low floor but some path to high end upside (Yang). I call them Yin and Yang because it’s tedious to type “safe, medium floor, medium ceiling guy” and “risky, low floor, high ceiling dart throw” over and over again. Yin and Yang, done. Last year.
This article is the Intro and the Elite - it’s like Beauty and the Beast except they are all beauties and they are all beasts. Now, I know you want to skip right to the players but don’t because this next part is, like, crazy important. In fact, it’s more important than the actual write ups on the players themselves. These next couple paragraphs are going to tell you everything you need to identify elite tight ends yourself so that you can win your league even if you don’t read the rest of the series. But please read the rest of it too, c’mon.
The goal here is simple. The vast majority of fantasy leagues are 10-12 man leagues with some sort of PPR and one TE spot. If you are in some new-fangled tight end premium league or some weird league where you start four tight ends then this series can obviously still help you but just know that we are focusing on normal leagues for normal people. Ya weirdo.
The math for normal leagues is straightforward - if you are in a 10-12 man league and your tight end isn’t top 5-6 that means you have a below average tight end. That is math. Now, not every top five tight end every year is a “difference maker” and sometimes there might even be six or seven tight ends who are “difference makers” but that really doesn’t matter - what matters is that your tight end isn’t putting you at a disadvantage compared to your peers. We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen.
By the nature of that, we aren’t interested in drafting the TE10 who we think has a really good shot at being the TE10 because that would “technically make him a TE1 teehee”. This isn’t some FantasyPros ranking accuracy contest - rankings don’t matter. In fact “ranking” tight ends is a good way to draft a bad tight end. If you waited and drafted the tenth tight end last year and he finished TE10 then congratulations - you probably came in fourth or something in your league. Because last year in half-point PPR the difference between the TE10 and the TE16 was ten fantasy points. The difference between the TE10 and TE20 was 25. The difference between the TE2 and the TE10 was a hundred. If you are happy “punting” tight end, starting the TE10 all season, and losing your league then skip to the third article of this series and just pick any guy from there at his ADP.
Key Metrics for Top Tight Ends
I’ve been failing and succeeding and failing again at fantasy football for 20 years now. The failing part is necessary because you can actually do things the wrong way and still get lucky sometimes then make the same mistake again later and it costs you. Idiots win money on scratch tickets all the time - doesn’t mean that was a good bet. I’ve already made those mistakes so that you don’t have to.
Besides playing fantasy for a couple decades, I’ve been writing this series for a few years now. In doing so I’ve combed through a disgusting amount of tight end data going back multiple eras, I’ve talked to other tight end gurus like our own Howard Bender, and, to answer the question of every snarky commenter out there, yes I have “watched the games.” Here are the things that I’ve found to be most important for predicting tight end success for fantasy football.
**Analysis for this series will be based on a 12-team, half-PPR league with one starting TE spot. Statistics are courtesy of my own research, Fantasy Alarm, StatHead, Pro Football Focus, Player Profiler, FantasyData, Sharpe Football, NFLSavant and others where cited**
The Two Paths
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. There are only two paths to becoming a top five tight end in fantasy football. And that’s either by getting 90+ targets or by scoring over ten touchdowns. In PPR, every top five tight end going back to Randy McMichael in 2003 has had 90+ targets or 10+ touchdowns. In half-point PPR, the one exception is 2020 Mark Andrews who missed two games with COVID but finished top five with 88 targets. He obviously would have had 90 targets had he not missed those games but the 2020 COVID season was such a huge anomaly in general that the whole thing should honestly be tossed out. It won’t be for the sake of statistical accuracy and continuity but I just want that opinion on record. Beyond guys actually missing time with COVID, not having any sort of offseason program likely contributed to the fact that injuries were up 16% over the first half of the year compared to years prior. It was not a normal year.
Now, going back to Mr. McMichael in 2003 (who we just said was the last guy to finish top five as a tight end with both less than 90 targets and less than ten touchdowns) here is how the distribution shakes out of those elite tight ends and how they got there - whether it be via targets, touchdowns, or both.
If that doesn’t make it ABUNDANTLY clear, the easiest road to tight end success is targets. The reality is that over the last decade 82% of top five tight ends crack 100 targets - so 90 is the bare minimum. When you look at the guys to finish top five without 90 targets, you basically have Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, and Vernon Davis that were having elite seasons but got hurt, then you have Marcedes Lewis with ten touchdowns and 89 targets (so close), and of course Robert Tonyan last year just having an anomaly, outlier, touchdown dependent season. Touchdown dependent TE’s are the equivalent of a friend who seems really cool until he sneaks up behind you and pulls your pants down at prom in front of a group of girls. That’s basically what Robert Tonyan did to his owners last year except instead of a group of girls it was all your buddies in your fantasy league, instead of prom it was fantasy championship week, and instead of pulling your pants down he caught just one pass. And it wasn’t a touchdown.
Top Two Target
Keeping with the weird metaphors, I’ve found the best way to find breakout tight ends is to picture the first couple “barriers to entry” for elite production like hurdles on a track. If you fall at the first hurdle, the rest of the hurdles don’t really matter, do they? After years of trying to figure this out, there are basically two major hurdles for tight ends to clear before they can even be considered for elite production.
The first and most crucial of which is being a top two target on their team. Being a top two target on their team doesn’t guarantee they will be an elite tight end, mind you. There are plenty of guys who have been a top two target or even the very top target but have not been elite tight ends in fantasy. But it serves as a “barrier to entry” of sorts for the guys who actually do put together elite seasons and the key reason for that is because it’s incredibly rare for the third target on a team to get an elite number of targets. And we just talked about how important targets are.
Here are the teams that have had three different players all get 100+ targets over the last five years. They are ranked by fantasy points, not targets (for instance, Logan Thomas was second on his team in targets but third in fantasy points).
We have seven teams over five years. Equals about 4.4% of the time. Not only are the teams not necessarily the ones you would have guessed and not only did zero teams do it in 2017 or 2015, but look at the quality of some of those assets on teams that did do it. None of those players last year were top 50 fantasy players. Look at that Ravens team in 2016 - yuck. You can go back further and look at teams like the 2014 Raiders and it’s not much better. Not to mention, some teams like the 2018 Giants only made the list because a player got hurt. Had OBJ not gone down there probably would have been no team from 2018 either. When you factor in the odds of it happening and then the odds of the third guy even being good for fantasy with the targets spread so thin, it’s simply a bad bet. In fact, it’s more likely that no one on the team gets 100 targets than three guys - here’s another poorly made chart showing the distribution last year.
And it doesn’t really matter that there’s an extra game this year so “more teams will have guys with 100+ targets”. Because it’s all relative. We are still talking about wanting about about six targets a game no matter how many games there are. Players across the board will be putting up slightly higher overall numbers.
There can be exceptions of course. Over the last five years there’s been one and of course it was our favorite outlier - 2020 Robert Tonyan. Davante Adams was far and away the top target with 149. The next three were Aaron Jones (63), Marquez Valdez-Scantling (63), and Robert Tonyan (59). So yes, technically he was not the second target getter by four targets. We already mentioned why touchdown dependent guys like that aren’t consistent enough assets for us but there will be plenty of time to talk about Tonyan later. Before him, the last guy to finish top five in fantasy without either leading the team in targets or being second was Martellus Bennett on the Bears in 2014 - another anomaly season considering how many targets Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, and Brandon Marshall all got as well. You really need to dig for these examples.
Bottom line is that we want guys who are likely to LEAD their team in targets. Being second in targets keeps you in the running. Third means you tripped and fell on your face. The vast majority of high end tight ends are focal points of their offense or at least second. That’s the first hurdle.
(Robert Tonyan somehow finishing as a top five tight end last year)
You might be surprised to see that the next hurdle is not snap share but pass blocking. And that’s because pass blocking is the silent killer of otherwise productive tight ends. In recent years only one tight end has managed to finish top five in PPR while blocking on more than 15% of his pass snaps. That was George Kittle in 2019 at 15.9% (more on him later). Before that you have to go back to Julius Thomas in 2013 when Peyton Manning literally set the record with 55 touchdown passes and four players on the team had double-digit touchdowns.
It’s interesting that Orange Julius should come up in this section because Adam Gase was the offensive coordinator of that team. Here are the pass blocking numbers for Mike Gesicki under Gase in 2018 vs. Brian Flores in 2020.
If you look at Chris Herndon under Gase last year, he was asked to block on 24% of his pass plays. In 2020, Gesicki played on 473 pass plays and pass blocked eight times while Herndon played on a similar 454 pass plays but blocked 109 times. THAT is why being asked to pass block is the real killer. Mark Andrews played even fewer pass snaps than Herndon with only 368 but he ran routes on 364 of those plays. It’s not the overall snaps that actually matter at tight end but the usage. Adam Gase is essentially the devil as far as tight ends are concerned. And he actually had the nerve to suggest he “didn’t know why they hadn’t been able to get Chris Herndon going."
Those first two are basically the gates to even let you onto the premises. Once you get beyond those, now we figure out if you are going to bring something to the party or stand in the corner doing nothing like Ian Thomas. Unlike “barriers to entry” which you essentially NEED to have success, the next couple metrics are extracurriculars that boost the odds of high end production once we know you at least fit the minimum criteria.
The first one is alignment. It’s highly correlated to the pass blocking stat above which makes a lot of sense - if you are lining up in the slot or split out wide, they probably aren’t going to ask you to pass block on that play. Alignment becomes especially critical on teams with multiple tight ends. The greatest example would be the Eagles last year. Even if Dallas Goedert is the better pass catcher than Zach Ertz in a vacuum at this stage, Goedert is still the better blocker (graded out as TE2 in run blocking in 2019 per PFF). So, when they have one role that plays in the slot and one role in-line, they aren’t going to put Ertz in-line because he’s not a great blocker. So he gets to play the slot by default.
- In week 12 with no Ertz, Dallas Goedert ran 55 routes out of the 58 pass plays the Eagles ran (95%). He played 33 snaps in the slot.
- In week 14 when Ertz returned, Dallas Goedert ran 24 of 36 routes (67%). He only played nine slot snaps.
Within the category of alignment we also look at their ability to beat certain coverages. Logan Thomas lined up at wide receiver 732 times last year and in-line only 324 times. In doing that he had 17 receptions vs. man coverage, ten of which were contested. Both stats are top ten for tight ends. He was playing wide receiver and he was beating the guy covering him in man-to-man. That’s what you want to see.
Average Depth of Target
Average depth of target or aDot measures how far down the field you are getting when they throw you the ball. Here’s a tried and true example that I’ve been sharing since 2017 on why it matters, using stats from Josh Hersmeyer’s site AirYards.com
Players A: 69 catches for 1,083 yards and eight touchdowns, YAC of 344
Player B: 80 catches for 690 yards and four touchdowns, YAC of 337
If you look at these stat lines, both guys had pretty much the same yards after the catch. And player B actually had more receptions - a lot more. But Player A was the better fantasy asset. Why? Because Player A had an average depth of target of 12.1 yards which means he was getting down field on his routes. Player B had an average depth of target of 4.9 yards so he was hanging around close to the line of scrimmage. Player A was Rob Gronkowski and Player B was Jack Doyle.
Speed kills in this league. It’s often the difference between a decent chunk play and a long touchdown. Speed can help on both sides of the play, whether getting down field faster for a higher aDot or having more YAC after you get the ball in your hands. I really shouldn’t have to get too far into explaining why being fast would be good in a game where you attempt to run away from people trying to tackle you but here’s a tweet from last summer that was sent out by a super smart tight end guy with some speed examples.
Red Zone Prowess
This one is tough to quantify. Quite frankly it drives me nuts because it’s not as mathematically sound as these other ones and I’m a big footbally nerd. But it cannot be left out. We have to consider the ability to score touchdowns and the skillset surrounding that.
Here’s the example I like to use. Take the 2019 Ravens. Nick Boyle led the team in snaps at tight end with 769. Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst were next, each playing EXACTLY 457 snaps. Even crazier, Hurst and Andrews both blocked on exactly four pass snaps. Hurst and Andrews also have incredibly similar profiles in terms of height, weight, and speed. Yet in 2019 despite Nick Boyle playing more snaps and Andrews and Hurst having similar profiles and getting similar usage, Nick Boyle (five) and Hayden Hurst (seven) combined for 12 red zone targets and three red zone touchdowns. Mark Andrews himself had 19 red zone targets and nine red zone touchdowns. Lamar Jackson and Greg Roman simply preferred going to him to score.
As I mentioned, this one is tough to quantify. As an analytically driven fantasy gamer, I HATE when people defer to the “eye test”. If you are going to argue that a guy “didn’t look good” you better be breaking down a video clip. But, if there was ever going to be a time for you to apply your couch-surfing YouTube watching Twitter scout skills, it might be here. We’ll quantify it with stats as always but at least touchdowns are fun to watch. Maybe you can figure out why certain tight ends have a mind-meld with their QB.
I’ve already told you that I don’t like rankings. If an “article” is just rankings, I have no use for it. It’s not making me a better fantasy gamer, it's not making you a better fantasy gamer. Here’s something else I don’t like - “‘articles'' that are just opinions. Since you are here now, reading this type of article, you probably already know what kind of articles you should be looking for and you’re probably already pretty amazing at fantasy football and you’re likely also super chill. You don’t need someone to give you their gut feeling and tell you what to do. You need stats. You need facts. If I were you, I wouldn’t even blindly trust MY opinion over your own. I’m here to help you improve the way YOU form your own opinions.
That’s why, for a few years now, I’ve been presenting these players in a specific way. You get three parts: The Good, The Bad, and The Advice. The Good and The Bad will attempt to be as objective as possible. Those two sections will be stats, facts, metrics, known narratives. Anything that I know to be true, you will know - whether it’s good or bad. In the final section, The Advice, I’ll discuss things I believe will happen. I’ll give an opinion on their ADP and tell you what I’m doing this year in my leagues. The first two sections should be able to help ANY fantasy gamer learn more about these players and form their own opinions. The last part is The Advice that I believe is the best dang tight end opinion you’re going to find. And you know what? I might be right.
So, without further ado…
This section could honestly just be “he good” and that would get the point across. But we’ll give you some tight end stat candy if only to showcase what we want from a tight end. Travis Kelce has been the top tight end in fantasy football for five straight years now. That’s half a decade. Straight. He’s been top two in receptions all five years. He’s been top two in yards all five years. He’s been top three in touchdowns four of five years. And those are just the surface stats.
He plays an elite snap share (86.6% last year, 94.1% the year prior per PlayerProfiler.com). He has an elite target share (his 24.4% target share was second of all tight ends). Per PFF, he led all tight ends in air yards (831), he led in broken tackles (14), he led the league in first downs (79), he led in routes run split out wide (245), and I guess he was only second in YAC (590 yards was four shy of Waller). On top of all that he had an elite aDot (9.3), drop rate (1.9%), and passer rating when targeted (124.9). That’s probably enough.
This is probably the most difficult section of this article to write because of how dominant he’s been. The one glaring metric is obviously his age. He is 31 years old now and will turn 32 during the season. Going back through the history of the league, there have only been two tight ends aged 32 or older to have 1,000 yards in a season. Everyone obviously probably already knows those two tight ends were the Chiefs Tony Gonzalez in 2008 at age 32 and the Eagles Pete Retzlaff in 1965 at age 34. How many leagues did you guys have Retzlaff in?
As far as just being over age 30, there have only been 12 guys in the history of the league to drop a 1,000-yard season. This is important to note because, at Kelce’s ADP, you are expecting 1,000 yards. The good news is that ten of those 12 seasons have come in the modern era and two of them were Kelce himself at age 30 and 31. Either way though, his age needs to be mentioned because this sport is violent and the wear and tear is real.
If I could find one other “knock” on Kelce it’s his lack of elite speed. He ran a 4.66 at the combine which isn’t particularly fast and at his age he’s not getting any faster. He’s made up for it by being a fantastic route runner and by breaking tackles but he’s never really been a threat to take one the distance. Five years ago he had an 80-yard touchdown from Alex Smith but beyond that he’s never had another play longer than 47 yards. I know he’s a tight end but we do have guys like George Kittle who runs a 4.52 and had plays of 85, 82, and 71 yards in 2018 alone. As we discussed, slower players NEED high target volume to be high end in fantasy football as lower aDot and lack of YAC can be problematic. Hopefully you can forgive me for speaking ill of Sir Travis Kelce but we told you we’d objectively give you the good and the bad for these guys.
With your early draft picks in fantasy football you want predictability and consistency. The beautiful thing about Kelce is the Chiefs haven’t really even attempted to “upgrade” the pass catchers in that offense. They LIKE that offense - they simply want to maintain the good thing they have. There was already no question that Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill were the focal point of that pass attack but now the (distant) third-most productive pass catcher in Sammy Watkins is gone. You know exactly what you are going to get and there’s comfort in that.
And that’s why I’d never fault anyone for taking Kelce. But I’m not going to do it at his ADP. You know why? Because I just spent like a gazillion words explaining that my personal strength in fantasy football is the tight end position. I trust my ability to generate value at the position either via the draft or via the waiver wire. If I use my first round pick on Travis Kelce (he has a top ten ADP pretty much anywhere you look) then I’m doing myself a disservice. Not only am I taking a guy in the first round at his ceiling but I’m also committing to start him in my one TE slot all year. My advice to anyone is play to your strengths. The evil genius JJ Zachariason that I mentioned in the first paragraph has an entire brand built on drafting late-round QB’s (his twitter handle is literally @LateRoundQB). So he’d be wasting that skill set drafting a QB early. If you personally do not like drafting or finding tight ends then by all means take Travis Kelce with your first round pick. He’s the best and I would not fault you for it. You can just stop reading now if you want and lock that up. But, if you want to use the position to generate value at ADP and potentially play the Yin-Yang TE game with us this season, then read on.
This should be no surprise. Remember we mentioned how the TE2 scored a hundred more points than the TE10 last year in half-PPR? Well, it was actually 115 points. AND he scored 75 more points than the TE3. Travis Kelce and Darren Waller last season were far and away the best two tight ends in fantasy. Which is why they’re here. And here’s why.
First off let’s talk about the target pecking order. Waller was not supposed to be the top target on the Raiders. Antonio Brown was. But then he froze his feet off and called the GM a cracker over a minor hat dispute. And thus Darren Waller as we know him in fantasy was born. Now Tyrell Williams and Nelson Agholor are also gone. Do you see two of these guys getting more targets than Waller this year: Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, John Brown, Hunter Renfroe, Willie Snead, Zay Jones? Me neither. That’s the most important hurdle.
As for stats? You can take most of the ones Kelce is top two in and Waller is likely the other guy. He led the league in targets (146), led the league in target share (28%), was second in first downs, had the second-highest snap share (92.8%), and the third-highest route participation (91.7%). He was second to Gronk in deep targets (15 targets of 20+ yards) and he had the second most receptions and third most yards on those plays. He also had ten more red zone targets than the next highest tight end with 41( Mark Andrews had 31 and Kelce had 29). Even with all of that, if I had to pick his most impressive stat, it would be his contested catch rate. He saw the second-most contested targets with 26 and caught 17 of them. That’s a 73.1% CTC rate which was not only first among all tight ends but fourth of any player behind only Cole Beasley, Kenny Golladay, and Michael Thomas. Monster.
The athleticism speaks for itself - here are his metrics per Player Profiler.
100th percentile speed - is that good? If he looks like just a gigantic wide receiver to you on paper then he should because that’s literally what he is. He was drafted as a wide receiver by Baltimore then, after a brief hiatus with some substance abuse issues, came back as an absolute force as a tight end.
No one is perfect and, even if they are, this is a team game. Ask Mike Trout. One of the main reasons that Waller comes after Travis Kelce is that Derek Carr simply isn’t Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is a 25-year-old MVP and Super Bowl Champion with a 50-touchdown season on his resume and Derek Carr is a seven-year vet with one 30+ touchdown season - and it happened five years ago. If you were to swap Mahomes and Derek Carr that would honestly be enough to swap Kelce and Waller in my opinion but that’s simply not going to happen.
Beyond that Waller also oddly did not have the best alignment/deployment, as crazy as that sounds. He only played 345 snaps at WR compared to 639 in-line (and three in the backfield) which is 35%. That’s quite a bit less WR than Travis Kelce played at 55% (yes, Kelce played more WR than in-line tight end last season). And in doing so Kelce only pass blocked on 6.6% of his snaps which is right in the wheelhouse for an elite every down tight end while Waller blocked on 11.2% of his pass snaps. That’s not outside the range of where we want to live but it’s also not ideal as it’s creeping towards that 15% rate. Waller was amazing of course but 11.2% vs. 6.6% is another 30 routes Waller could have been running. The concern in any situation like this is that, if new(ish) pass catchers on the team emerge like Henry Ruggs, John Brown, or Kenyan Drake) and old school Jon Gruden is asking the tight end to block on a bunch on pass plays, Waller might not see the insane target total he just saw.
The final differentiator between Kelce and Waller is aDot. Waller’s average depth of target is still elite at 8.09 yards but Kelce’s is 9.35. In 2019 Waller was at 7.52 and Kelce was 9.45 so it’s not as big of a gap as it was but some playbooks simply call for deeper routes for the tight end. They had essentially the same targets and similar YAC so that’s really where the difference was in Kelce having 200 more yards. We are splitting hairs here in the land of the elite but these are things that need to be talked about.
Despite that, I’m actually much more likely to draft Darren Waller than I am Travis Kelce. And that’s simply because I almost always use my first few picks trying to draft the highest scoring flex player in fantasy football. Which has been a running back before and it’s been a wide receiver before but it’s never been a tight end. And I don’t need a lecture on positional advantage - this whole damn series is about getting an advantage at tight end. The nature of Kelce going in the first round and Waller going in the early third round on average means I’m more likely to acquire Waller at his ADP than pay up for Kelce. Once all the RB’s and WR’s that could finish as the number one overall fantasy player are gone, I start considering a tight end.
As far as why I trust Waller to remain in this elite tier, here’s a tweet from my podcast co-host Kevin Tompkins of BallBlast Football and FantasyPros that sums it up nicely.
Waller got 117 targets in 2019 and 145 targets last season. As the tweet suggests 27 of the last 28 TE’s to get 115 targets have finished top five in half- PPR. If 90 targets are the barrier to entry, 115 is a barrier to exit of sorts. If you get those targets you have to really be inefficient to not be a top five tight end in fantasy. The conditions over the last couple seasons that allowed Waller to surpass that threshold have not changed. Darren Waller is about as safe of a bet for elite tight end production as you can get and he’s going at a discount compared to the other tight end offering near-guaranteed elite production.
To be completely honest though, even though I may be more likely to take him at ADP than Kelce, I’m still not likely to spend a high pick on him either because of the same things I mentioned with Kelce. Taking the TE2 at ADP and hoping he finishes top 2 again is not a high upside proposition to me. Again, I won’t blame anyone who does it and even I take him in the third at times. But we’re looking for this year’s breakout like Darren Waller of two years ago, just like how we advised people to draft him and Mark Andrews in our 2019 series. We are looking to potentially generate a huge value at ADP. THAT’s what this series is really about. So stay tuned.
If you like this flavor of stats and silly memes then follow Coop on Twitter @CoopAFiasco and make sure you grab the Fantasy Alarm Draft Guide where the vast majority of Coop’s articles live. With promo code DRAFTNOW you can still get 20% off while your opponents will be paying full price in August.