Folks often look to me to find the fantasy football sleepers from way down in the tight end rankings. And, at this point, I can say that I’m pretty decent at that. But that’s actually not my true superpower when it comes to sorting out the tight end position. My best and most consistent ability is identifying which players are likely to be fantasy busts at ADP. I’m like the prince of darkness to these fellas, pouring cold water on the overhyped players to help you avoid the landmines in your fantasy drafts. And I’m honestly happy to do it.
The kind folks on Reddit and Twitter REALLY enjoy when I post this article every year where I slander their favorite tight ends. And they always make sure to share their appreciation in the replies. Here are some of my favorites over the last few years.
As someone with plenty of experience in this matter, let me give you some advice - if you’re going to be a troll, at least be funny. So cheers to you guys for making me chuckle. Respectfully, of course.
But now it’s time to get down to business. The goal of this article is pretty simple. If you play in a typical 10 or 12 team league with one tight end spot and your tight end isn’t top five or so, you have a below average tight end. That’s math. And, as we pointed out in the first article from this series, when we hit on the high priced tight ends you should consider drafting, not all of the top five tight ends are difference makers in fantasy. Not everyone is going to be a league winner. But it’s better to be one of the “haves” with a top half TE than the “have nots”.
If you are going to pay up for a tight end, it’s because you think they have top-five upside in their range of outcomes. This article is to help you avoid the traps that don’t have that upside without help from a trade or injury. And, if you are going to trust any article from this series, this is the one we are best at. No tight end we’ve ever listed in this article has finished top five in that season. Take a look if you want.
Let’s see if we can make it five in a row!
2023 Fantasy Football Tight Ends to Fade
As always with this series, we’ll give you three sections for each player: The Good, The Bad, and The Advice.
THE GOOD - All the reasons this player could have high upside this year
THE BAD - All the reasons this player could suck
THE ADVICE - How I’m treating them based on current ADP (you can skip this part if you want but just keep in mind that I’m amazing at this)
Now, before reading this, I highly suggest you at least read our Tight End Bible of sorts where I lay out everything we look for in difference-making tight ends - What Makes An Elite Tight End. That article explains EXACTLY what we are looking for and what stats matter so you will better understand the conclusions we’ve drawn. And that will make it hurt less when you read the name of a player you like - because some names here are bound to stir the pot a bit. Like this first one.
George Kittle this year will serve as the prime example of why this position rips our heart out at times. Because literally ALL OF US agree that George Kittle is awesome. He’s an awesome blocker. He’s an awesome pass catcher. He seems like a nice guy. And he’s a physical specimen. Here are his workout metrics via Player Profiler.
His physical ability is what allows him to be a “unicorn”. As long as I’ve been doing this, there have only been three tight ends to block on more than 15% of their pass plays and still finish top five. Rob Gronkowski in a year he scored 11 TDs in 11 games before getting hurt. Julius Thomas the year Peyton Manning threw 55 TD passes. And 2019 George Kittle. The secret is his speed which allows him to break off big chunk plays and score TDs when other guys get tracked down by safeties and linebackers. Here are some impressive stats regarding Kittle’s big plays since he entered the league compared to other active players.
- Kittle has thirteen 40+ yard plays. Travis Kelce has twelve. No one else has more than five.
- He leads all active tight ends with five plays of 50+ yards.
- He leads all active tight ends with four plays of 60+ yards.
- No other active tight end has had more than one 70+ yard play. Kittle has three.
- The only tight ends in the league with even a single 80+ yard play are Austin Hooper and T.J. Hockenson. Kittle did it twice. In the same season.
Since you read the Tight End Manifesto I linked above, you already know that every top five tight end in PPR going back to 2003 has had either 90+ targets or 10+ touchdowns. Kittle has done both. He’s had over 90 targets three times and last year he scored 11 touchdowns. Without the injuries last year, he was also on pace for 90+ targets. At this point you are probably wondering why he’s in this article at all because he seems great.
We have hammered it home time and time again that, for both upside and weekly consistency, we need our guy to be a top two target on his team. Either that or we need to predict an insane level of target consolidation and team volume/productivity like that 2013 Broncos team we mentioned earlier where Peyton Manning literally set the record for touchdown passes in a season. Last year, after the CMC trade and in games when everyone was healthy, Kittle was actually the FOURTH target on the team.
I also looked at just games where Brock Purdy was QB and, still, he was the fourth target. The issues with Kittle last year were masked by the touchdowns but it’s incredibly difficult to depend on touchdowns from week to week. When you look at the guys who cracked the top five with touchdowns without the 90 targets it’s not usually the dream situation you imagine. Just look at a guy like Robert Tonyan in his top-five season where it was all fun and games until championship week when he caught one pass that wasn’t a TD. Kittle kept it going through fantasy playoffs last year - if you made it that far. In the three weeks leading up to that he didn’t score any TDs while averaging 25 yards a game.
We’ve already said that we are generally “injury agnostic” unless the player is actually hurt when we are drafting but I know some folks like to play that game. If you are fading someone like Darren Waller for injuries, how can you not fade a guy like Kittle who turns 30 this year and hasn’t played a full season in four years? We also talk about his speed but that crazy season with six plays all over 40 yards and three over 70? That was five years ago. Over the last two years, he has two total plays over 40 yards. He might not be ripping off those big chunk plays the way he used to and that was a huge reason we liked him in fantasy. If we don’t have the big plays then we need the volume and Kittle was barely on pace for 90 targets. And that was including games before they had CMC and with Deebo missing time as well. At this stage in his career, targets are more important than ever and they might not be there.
There are three circumstances where you draft George Kittle at his ADP in any sort of PPR format
- You believe that 2023 will be different and Kittle will get more targets than at least two of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and/or Christian McCaffrey.
- You are comfortable paying up for a middle-of-the-pack TE that only has difference-making upside via other players getting injured or traded.
- You believe the quarterback for the 49ers will go absolutely nuclear in 2023 the way 2013 Peyton Manning did.
Honestly, if you are on board with that then I have no problem with you drafting him. It’s your fantasy team, Chief. I’m just not going to. I don’t even draft tight ends going in the TE6-8 range if they don’t meet the criteria for difference-making upside. So I’m not going to take a guy at TE4 (where our composite ADP has Kittle going) when the indicators suggest he has a tough path to finishing top five.
And that’s without even getting into the quarterback situation. Kittle only had three games last year with six+ receptions and two of them came in games when Jimmy Garoppolo was the quarterback. Assuming Brock Purdy is healthy, he should be a fine option but, god forbid, Trey Lance takes over as the QB at some point. Because then you would have a mobile QB calling his own name at times on top of competing with Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Christian McCaffrey for targets. If you must, I’d consider taking this next player at ADP over Kittle at his ADP. Though I’m probably not taking either.
Dallas Goedert and George Kittle have a lot in common. They are easily among the top “two-way” tight ends in the league in terms of their combination of blocking and receiving skills. In fact, Goedert routinely grades out as one of the best run-blocking tight ends in football, finishing as high as #2 and #3 in 2019 and 2020. He also graded as the #2 receiving tight end in 2021 and #9 last year - which is what we actually care about. But that combined skillset is what allows him to stay on the field full-time and have a 90% snap share, the third-highest of any tight end last season
His 4.69 forty-yard dash isn’t blazing but it falls in that “fast enough” category. He ran over 50% of his routes from a WR position and, despite missing five games, he still finished third amongst all tight ends in yards after the catch with 428. There are two main reasons for that. One is that the mobility and skills of Jalen Hurts with the RPO and play action sets him up with a lot of space at times. The other is Nick Sirianni’s willingness to call tight end screens. In only twelve games, Goedert caught 16 screens which led all tight ends. The Eagles’ running backs COMBINED had nine receptions on screens last year. That’s part of why we are drafting Miles Sanders with his change of scenery though that’s an article for another time as we need to focus on the greatest position in fantasy right now.
Folks have been betting on Dallas Goedert for years now and it hasn’t quite panned out yet. In fact, he’s never finished higher than TE8 in PPR or TE10 in half PPR. Sure, we can blame Zach Ertz and we can blame injuries but, at the end of the day, fantasy football is a results-based game. There are a lot of imaginary shelves out there with hypothetical trophies won by Dallas Goedert, D’Andre Swift, and DJ Moore but not too many real ones.
The main issue we run into with Goedert is the same one we face with Kittle. I mean, it’s the top issue that the vast majority of fantasy tight ends face - no one actually projects them to be a top two target on the team. And with Goedert, it wasn’t close last year when everyone was healthy. Here are the targets per game.
There was a very brief window after Zach Ertz was traded but before they traded for AJ Brown where Dallas Goedert was a true focal point of the offense. But, now that he’s settled in as the third fiddle, what are we going to bank on? His aDot of 6.1 last year was low. His longest play was 31 yards. He only caught three of his eight contested targets. He had some spike weeks last year of course but those were against the Texans and Cardinals, two of the worst defenses in the league. And there’s also one major Dallas Goedert myth being disseminated within the fantasy community which is that he’s some sort of prolific red zone target. He averaged 3.8 touchdowns a year in his career and has never had more than five. He’s never finished higher than TE13 in red zone targets. And he’s only had two end-zone targets in each of the last two years. In fact, over the last three years combined, he’s had eight total. Mike Gesicki had eight last year alone. Mike. Gesicki.
Again, the bet is pretty simple. Maybe you think losing offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is a good thing for Dallas Goedert and new OC Brian Johnson will like Goedert more than AJ Brown and/or DeVonta Smith. Or maybe you are willing to “thread the needle” and bet that the Eagles have an anomaly season where their top three pass catchers all get 100+ targets and they walk hand in hand in the land of candy and hypothetical best-case scenarios. Or maybe you are just okay with paying up for a middle-of-the-pack tight end with middle-of-the-pack upside. Believe it or not, I know some fantasy gamers who are cool with that. And that’s fine - if that’s what you are into.
But for me? I want high-end upside from guys I spend high-end picks on. The reality for Dallas Goedert based on our research is that he’s the equivalent of what we call a “handcuff plus” with running backs. They have standalone value. Some weeks will be good, some will be bad. But their upside is truly unlocked if someone else gets hurt. Considering Goedert himself has been the one most likely to get hurt on this team, it’s really not how I want to spend a fifth or six-round pick, where he is currently going.
First off, is there more of a Pittsburgh Steeler-sounding tight end name than Pat Freiermuth? It’s almost perfect for the crowd that once chanted “HEEEEAAATTTHHH” to now chant “MUUUUTTTHHH”. He’s a highly regarded player within the fantasy community as well and not just because some popular podcasts have come up with catchy slogans for him - he’s legitimately good. Here are some reasons why.
I recently did a little exercise where I set the following parameters in an attempt to simulate the “two-minute drill” (which in real life isn’t just two minutes as it also includes the minute leading up to the two-minute warning as teams use that as an additional timeout). This is what I set:
- Second quarter, fourth quarter, or overtime
- Less than three minutes remaining
- Either tied or losing by 16 points or less
In those situations, no player got more targets than Pat Freiermuth’s 26 targets. Not tight ends - all PLAYERS. I also sorted it by the percentage of targets in those situations to make sure the Steelers didn’t just find themselves in desperate situations more than any other team. They kind of did because they weren’t that good but Muth’s 30.6% share of those targets was ALSO first. Which solidifies him as a go to guy when their backs are against the ropes.
The other big thing we bank on Freiermuth for is red zone targets. In 2021 he had 20 which led all tight ends. Last year he only had ten but the offense underwent some turbulence with the QB change last year and we know what Muth is capable of in that portion of the field. If Kenny Pickett takes a step forward in 2023, Muth will continue to be a focal point in the red area and there should be more of those opportunities available.
This now makes for the third tight end in this article that we like “in a vacuum”. But football isn’t played in a vacuum. The thing with Freiermuth is that he’s top 10 in a lot of categories but he’s really not top five in many. Athletically he profiles in the range of guys like Hunter Henry and Zach Ertz that need a LOT of targets to truly have upside. Zach Ertz, for how solid he has been, has one 1,000-yard season. And he needed over 150 targets to do it. Unless you run a 4.4-4.5 forty like George Kittle or Kyle Pitts, you need a massive target share to crack 1,000 yards. Look at a lot of the stats from our Tight End Bible - when it comes to aDot, YAC, YPRR, EPA etc., Freiermuth is okay but he’s not a world-beater. He needs those targets.
And that’s where the conundrum presents itself. Let’s do another little exercise. Let’s combine all the wide receivers and tight ends from 2022 into one bucket. Then let’s take the top 40 to get an idea of who is actually moving the needle in fantasy - even a little bit. That sets the line at Gabe Davis with 173.5 PPR points and puts guys like Allen Lazard and Curtis Samuel INSIDE the study which feels generous in terms of fantasy relevance. But anyway, here is how many teams had X number of players within that group last year.
Players in Top 40
# of Teams
This is reflective of the trend year after year - despite what our heart may tell us when dreaming of sleepers, in any given year, more teams will have ZERO fantasy-relevant pass catchers than will have three. And “one” is the top answer every year. In fact, when you look at the two teams with three (Jaguars and Vikings) Minnesota didn’t have all three players on the roster all year as they acquired Hock via mid-season trade and the Jaguars’ Zay Jones pulled a disappearing act anytime he faced corners like Jeff Okudah or Sauce Gardner. The reality is that two is generally the most we can predict and those teams are often high volume like the Bengals, Dolphins, Eagles etc.
Honestly, if the quarterback were Patrick Mahomes or someone here, the Freier-truck might be a little easier to get on board. But it’s not - it’s Kenny Pickett. Who threw seven touchdown passes last year. As of right now, Walter Payton has more career touchdown passes than Kenny Pickett. Diontae Johnson has gotten 140+ targets three years in a row and he had 16 red zone targets to 10 for Freiermuth last year so this team might not even be able to support a second high end pass catcher at all after DJ. And with George Pickens there, there wouldn’t even be a guarantee that Pat Freiermuth would be that second fantasy-relevant guy. I guess I should also say Allen Robinson’s name at some point in this article so I will do that now - Allen Robinson plays for the Steelers now too.
We try not to make two bets at the same time when we can avoid it. If we were simply betting that Kenny Pickett takes a step forward, we could stomach that. I actually kind of like taking Pickett at his ADP in best ball and two QB formats. Or, if Pickett were already a stud and we were betting that Pat Freiermuth gets more targets than George Pickens, that wouldn’t be too bad either. But betting on both of those going the right way by drafting Pat Freiermuth as a top-10 tight end is just a little much for us.
If you do want to make that bet, I would suggest going Yin & Yang TE (which I will link right here when it is out later this week). For that strategy, you wait on tight end and take one “safe” option then throw the highest risk, highest reward option on your bench. Muth at TE9 in ADP is fairly “safe” so you can start him Week 1, but I would advise giving yourself a second shot at upside given the concerns we expressed above. Odds are better that Muth is “just okay” than they are that he throws down a season like 2020 Mark Andrews and wins you a bunch of leagues.
Kenny Pickett might scare us for Pat Freiermuth but Gerald Everett certainty doesn’t have the problem - he plays with Justin Herbert. Herbert actually managed to have the third most passing yards in the league despite playing with broken ribs for a play-caller in Joe Lombardi who has been hesitant to push the ball down the field. In fact, if you take every quarterback that played at least five games and sort them by the average depth of target, Justin Herbert ranked 34th. For those keeping track at home, there are 32 teams.
Now he’ll play with Kellen Moore who has been accused by Mike McCarthy of scoring so fast that the defense doesn’t have time to rest. Oh, the horror. Everett, with his 87th percentile speed (per PlayerProfiler), has always been an intriguing player for us in fantasy and last year, playing with Justin Herbert, he would have likely finished as a TE1 with the 90+ targets we crave had he not missed a game. There were rumors that he could be released this off-season but that didn’t come to fruition so it should be wheels up, right?
Take a moment right now to mentally rank the Chargers pass catchers in terms of who you expect to have the most targets. Obviously, Keenan Allen should be near the top. And Mike Williams of course. Plus they used their first-round draft pick on Quentin Johnston. Now consider that Austin Ekeler is ALSO a guy that commands 90-100+ targets. In fact, Ekeler over the last four years is a top 30 player AT ANY POSITION in receptions.
The reality for Gerald Everett last year is that he benefited GREATLY from injuries to other players. When heathy, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are full time WRs that play nearly every snap. Do you know how many games the Chargers had last year where they both played more than 80% of the snaps? Two. Weeks 15 and 16. In Week 16 Gerald Everett played 37 snaps and scored zero fantasy points.
Want to hear something even crazier? Gerald Everett himself never played 80% of the snaps. Not once. In fact, he only played more than 70% of the snaps in two games. He was a part time player, even while other guys were banged up. You’d think that he would have at least been asked to play a full share with Allen and Williams missing so much time but no. And this year they not only have Joshua Palmer but the rookie Johnston to fill in if they miss time again.
Believe it or not, there are still fantasy gamers and even analysts out there that look at Justin Herbert then look at Everett’s targets last year and that’s as deep as their analysis goes - they’re sold. Personally, Gerald Everett is not a player I’m looking to draft in any format outside of best ball but, if you are dead set on taking him in redraft, make sure you pair him with someone with some real upside. Ideally, someone who actually has a full time role and isn’t the fourth or fifth target on their own team.
Irv Smith Jr really hasn’t gotten a fair shake. In his rookie season he entered a tight end room with incumbent veteran Kyle Rudolph “The Redzone Reindeer” yet still managed to pry away at least half of the tight end target share while lining up often in the slot. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Irv ranked as the #1 rookie tight end in 2019 in overall grade, receiving grade, run blocking grade, and yards per route run. All while being the youngest rookie in the league.
We laid out in full in this article why young tight ends have a hard time breaking out. The trajectory usually works something like this while we wait for the window of opportunity to open:
- They are drafted to a team that has an incumbent pass catching tight end
- They earn that top pass catching TE role
- As the top wide receivers age out/become free agents, the team leans on them to be a top two target on the team
This was the path for someone like Dallas Goedert who was drafted to a team with Zach Ertz and, after Ertz was traded, conditions were perfect - for about six months until they traded for AJ Brown. The path for Irv was supposed to be for Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen to age out but instead Irv suffered a chain of injuries that never allowed him to establish himself. The team instead drafted Justin Jefferson and traded for TJ Hockenson which made Irv the odd man out.
Luckily, Irv was able to land on his feet with one of the best young quarterbacks in all the league. Since he was a super young prospect, he’s still only 24. So we’ve got this highly athletic second round pick that came from the most prestigious program in college football joining one of, if it not THE, most high powered offense in the NFL. Oh and he also wears badass eye black. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, when it comes to target competition, Irv Smith jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. We honestly underestimate Kirk Cousins as a passer - obviously we love Joe Burrow but Kirk really isn’t too far off as a passer in terms of volume statistics. If it wasn’t for injuries, the real window for Irv SHOULD have been him behind Justin Jefferson, competing with a rookie Jordan Addision for targets. He could honestly be second in that situation and it’s why we like the idea of betting on Hock - who inherited that situation. In the current set up, we picture Irv competing with Tyler Boyd and think “that’s not so bad” but we don’t actually want the third target on teams - we want top two targets. With Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins there that’s not happening. Not to mention, Joe Mixon quietly had more targets per game than Hayden Hurst last year so Irv is really competing with Boyd and Mixon for a spot that is virtually drawing dead for fantasy without an injury.
The reality of what actually happened here is they realized last year that they have their “focal points” of the offense in Chase and Higgins. It’s no secret that even Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd are tending towards “expendable” - Mixon had to take a paycut to hang around. So the Bengals looked at the three year $21.75 million dollar deal the Panthers put on the table for Hayden Hurst and said “we don’t really need a tight end that bad - how do we find a discount version of Hayden Hurst?”. Enter Irv Smith Jr at one year $1.75 million. Honestly, pretty good cap management by the Bengals but the discount version of a player that wasn’t even fantasy relevant while the top receiver missed a third of the season is just not what I’m looking for.
There is a world where a team can just go absolutely bonkers and everyone on the offense is fantasy relevant. The last time that happened was the 2013 Broncos. But here’s the thing - if that happens, it won’t matter who drafted Irv Smith Because the guy who drafts Joe Burrow will already have won the league. So my advice is to just reach on Joe Burrow if you think that’s how it goes down instead of trying to thread the insane needle you’d need for Irv Smith to have upside in fantasy without multiple injuries. It’s like betting on the arrow to split another arrow for the bullseye when you could simply bet on Robinhood himself.
Okay Wise Guy, Who Do We Draft Then?
There are only two ways to handle the position, if you ask me. Reach for tight ends that actually have difference-making upside - those elite tight ends are in this article. Or you can wait and use the late round tight end pairing system we call Yin & Yang Tight End - that article discussing those players will be out on Friday. If you want to skip the line, the early Yin & Yang rankings are already available in our 2023 Fantasy Football Draft Guide found here. Honestly, anyone taking that strategy seriously should get the draft guide anyway as those rankings will be updated regularly right up until kickoff on Thursday September 7th. Also, this series is free because I love y’all but there is 10 times as much good stuff in that guide. And you love me back so you want to support me too right?
Related NFL Links:
- 2023 FANTASY FOOTBALL DRAFT GUIDE
- 2023 TE Dynamic Tier Fantasy Football Player Rankings
- 2023 Fantasy Football Elite Tight Ends
- 2023 Pre-Season Position Rankings
- 2023 Pre-Season Player Projections