Elite Fantasy Football Tight Ends
Published: Jul 01, 2022
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
This Ultimate Tight End Series is something we’ve done for a few years now. We’ve had some laughs, we’ve won some leagues, we’ve cursed at Evan Engram. We even got nominated for some awards - all of which JJ Zachariason won. But this year we are doing things a little differently. Typically this first article includes a full breakdown of what makes tight ends elite but, this time, we decided to make that its own article. That way we can focus on actual fantasy football rankings with these next couple of write-ups. We’re also bringing the 2022 Ultimate Tight End Guide to you a little earlier in the summer this year so you can use it to your advantage in best ball tournaments or fantasy football mock drafts as soon as possible.
Here is a little road map of how the series will progress. As I just alluded to, this is technically the second article.
1. What Makes an Elite Tight End - Found here.
2. Standalone Tight Ends - These are the elite guys. This is the article you are reading right now.
3. The Fades - This is the one everyone loves. And by loves, I mean they love to hate it. Well, guess what? I don’t care. Because it’s important info. And it doesn’t matter to me who’s on your dynasty team or whose the jersey you just bought. So shut up. If you want to see how these fade articles did in the past, here is last year and the year before that.
4. Yin & Yang Tight End - Unlike The Fades, this is everyone’s favorite. Or at least mine. As we discussed in our Dynamic Tier Rankings Primer, after the top few tight ends are gone, you really should be rostering two. You should have the safest possible guy to start for the short term, even if he doesn’t have a high ceiling (Yin). And you should also use a bench spot on a high-risk, high-reward guy that has some path to high-end upside (Yang). If your first Yang doesn’t hit, drop him and stash someone else. Never stop looking to improve your lineup. That’s what your bench is for no?
Standalone Tight End
Some of you will be tempted to skip that first article and just read this one. In fact, some of you little devils will likely skip reading this part and scroll down to the names below then immediately go back to Reddit and start typing a long, angry diatribe against me - without the context of the article. That is certainly your right and all I can do is ask you to maybe take 5-10 minutes to actually read what I have to say before you vehemently disagree. Yes, I did just tell you to shut up in the last section but I think we can still get along if we just hear what each other has to say first. Deal?
With that said, I will now copy and paste the Cliff Notes from that first article as a refresher for those sweet angels who actually did read it (and for the weasels who only read the Cliff Notes back in high school). These are the most important attributes for elite tight ends, with the most emphasis placed on the first two.
- Be a top 2 target on their team (ideally, #1)
- Block on less than 15% of pass snaps (ideally, around 7% or less)
- Line up at wide receiver often
- Create for himself vs. man to man
- Have a knack for scoring
- Run real, high aDot routes,
- Run real fast
- Be part of a high-volume offense
In this article, we are going to discuss what I consider to be the Standalone Tight Ends. That means that, if you draft them in your fantasy league, the plan is to start them every single week and only add someone for their bye week. We never know for sure if that’s going to work out or if guys are going to get hurt but, if you are spending the draft capital on these players, you have to be confident in them. What we are going to do here, as always, is give you The Good attributes about the player, The Bad ones, and The Advice regarding where he’s currently being drafted. If you don’t want my opinion, just read the first two sections with The Good and The Bad because that stuff is mostly facts, no opinion. But I think you should at least take a peek at my opinion too since I’m, like, super awesome at this.
THE ELITE Tight Ends
This has been the easiest part of this article to write for five years now. But it’s always worthwhile to take a moment to break down just how special Travis Kelce is and some of the underlying numbers behind that. So here ya go:
- He is a locked-in top two target on his team
- He’s been a top-two TE in the league in receptions AND yards for six straight years
- He’s been top three in touchdowns for five of those six years
- He plays an elite snaps share (82.1% per PlayerProfiler)
- He has an elite target share (22.3% per Player Profiler)
- He doesn’t pass block (2.4% pass block rate per ProFootballFocus)
- He plays a ton of WR (he lined up at WR for 71.4% of the Chiefs pass plays per PFF)
- He led all tight ends in missed tackles (19 per PFF)
And so on and so on. He checks all the boxes in terms of average depth of target (aDot), contested catch rate (CTC%), drop rate, you name it. He’s the best. Onward.
Travis Kelce is 32. There have only been two tight ends to have a 1,000-yard season at the age of 32 or older. I’m sure everyone immediately thought of the Eagles Pete Retzlaff in 1965 at age 34 as one example. The other, lesser-known tight end is some guy named Tony Gonzalez that played for the Chiefs or the Falcons or something. His last 1,000+ yard season was at the age of 32.
And technically Kelce actually turns 33 in October so, if you really wanted to split hairs, he’s crossing over into fairly uncharted territory. Granted, Tony Gonzelez continued to have Pro Bowl-caliber seasons until he was 37 but they weren’t the hyper-elite seasons we’ve come to expect from Kelce and certainly not worth the ADP you need to pay for Kelce in 2022. So that’s always going to be something you need to consider when you draft a guy who is 32, turning 33. Folks keep telling me that Adam Thielen is dust and he’s 31, turning 32. Randall Cobb has the same exact birthday as Adam Thielen. Did you need to know that info? No. But now you do.
There are really only two other “knocks” on Travis Kelce. One is his lack of elite speed. It hurts your YAC and it hurts your big-play ability. He ran a 4.66 at the combine which isn’t that great and he’s probably not faster at 32 than he was then. Over the last half-decade, he only has one play over 50 yards which aren’t super common for tight ends anyway but some of these guys that we will mention later are capable of that at any given moment.
The other concern is related to the team in general. Peyton Manning back in 2004 put the Colts on his back with 49 TD passes and they went 12-4. The following year they were even better going 14-2 but a funny thing happened - Manning only threw 28 TD passes. And that’s mostly because the defense got better, the running game got better, and the philosophy shifted a bit. Kelce has been in this high-flying offense with Tyreek Hill drawing the coverage but, with improvements to the defense and guys like Orlando Brown, Creed Humphrey, and Joe Thuney in the trenches on the offensive line, this team might not need to be slinging the ball around like they did in Mahomes’s 50 TD season.
Right now is where I’m going to give the most important fantasy advice that I can give. And that is to play to your own strengths. Are you great at finding breakout wide receivers? Wait on wide receivers then and load up on other positions early. Are you an RB master off the waiver wire? It would be silly to waste your early capital on RB then. The evil award-collecting genius JJ Zachariason that I had mentioned earlier has made a career out of identifying late-round QBs. His Twitter handle is literally @LateRoundQB. That’s what he does. So he’d be wasting his talents drafting a QB early. I spend quite a lot of time looking for breakout tight ends and helping folks find them on waivers. So I don’t usually spend up on them. But I’ll do my best to give an honest assessment of their ADP so you can make that call for yourself.
Travis Kelce is our top-ranked tight end but our advice on this matter has been fairly consistent through the years. There has never been a tight end that has been the number 1 FLEX player in fantasy football. When you stack up the running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, it’s always a running back or wide receiver. As a big tight end fan, I hate that that is true but it is. I obviously understand the value of “positional advantage” but I’m not drafting a tight end until all the players are off the board that I believe can be the FLEX #1. And, when I look at Kelce’s Fantasy Alarm composite ADP of 13, that’s just too rich for my blood. I’m taking other positions there and hoping to generate value via positional advantage later at tight end. He’s just not sliding far enough typically for me to draft him. And that’s fine. If you hate dealing with TE and you want to draft him at ADP, I won’t knock it. He’s awesome.
I feel like folks don’t understand how good of a season Mark Andrews actually had. He went from a guy who was a top ~five tight end in 2019 and 2020 to what was literally a top-five fantasy tight end season OF ALL TIME in 2021. And we knew he was capable of it because we’ve been on him since 2018, tracking some of his elite metrics. Just watching, waiting for the masterpiece season to unfold.
As we’ve discussed in past iterations of this series, there are two spots where Andrews has consistently been better than everyone else. The first is his usage. He lined up at WR for 77.9% of his pass plays. And he is almost never asked to stay in and pass block. This man here played 670 pass snaps last year and blocked on only nine of them. That’s 1.3% which was second only to the sporadically utilized, converted WR, Juwan Johnson. Of Andrews’s 1,647 career pass snaps, he’s blocked on only 23 which is 1.4%. We want guys that are part of the attack, not the protection.
The other key for him has been his red zone usage. As we discussed in the previous article, it can be a difficult topic to predict and quantify for most guys. But not Andrews. Because no tight end has more red zone or end zone targets over the last five years. Here is how he has ranked among tight ends in those stats the last three seasons.
Pretty solid considering how flukey TDs can be. He’s been consistent in an aspect of the game where consistency is rare. For Andrews in a nutshell, his efficiency and underlying usage metrics have remained the same over the last three years while, this past year, they simply threw the ball more leading to his monster year. This leads us to the problem…
Last year was pretty uncharacteristic for the Ravens' offense. It’s not what they really want to do. But injuries to their top two running backs in JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards as well as some key pieces on defense led them into more shootouts than they generally get into. They attempted 611 passes as a team and ranked 9th in team pass attempts. Here is how offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offenses have ranked over the last decade, per Kevin O’Brien.
This Greg Roman dude has basically been dead last in half the years and the best he’s been (outside of 2021) is bottom four. File that one under “Yikes”. This offseason there is a lot of talk out of Baltimore getting the running game “back on track” and a little bit about the running backs maybe catching the ball more while you haven’t heard a whole lot indicating they like throwing the ball as much as they did. Quite the opposite. They even traded away their top wide receiver in Marquise Brown. So that’s honestly a bit of a buzzkill for Mark Andrews because, as long as he’s with this organization, there is a real chance that he just had the best season that he’s ever going to have. If they go back to what they did in 2019 and 2020, Andrews could look more like he did in those seasons.
At the top of these rankings, we are honestly splitting hairs a bit as to who is the best and who is second. Travis Kelce is awesome. So is Mark Andrews. In another write-up I did on Rashod Bateman, I talked about exactly why the top targets in this offense are fairly safe. And that’s because they use so many fullbacks and blocking tight ends that the targets become really highly consolidated among the top two pass catchers on the team, which last year were Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews. That’s how they both got essentially a fourth of the team’s targets (Mark Andrews’s target share of 26.6% was first among all tight ends per Player Profiler). This year that’s probably Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman. So, even though they might not pass as much as they did last year, Andrews’s spot on the target pecking order is super safe and he’s highly likely to be a high-end option once again.
As for drafting him, it once again boils down to your strategy and where you can get him. Our composite ADP has him going at pick 20 in the second round which I’m unlikely to take him at, given the little rant I did about taking all the high-end WRs and RBs first. For me, if he falls into the third round and all those super high upside guys are gone, I will consider MAndrews at that price. Not going to go out of my way to reach for him though and I don’t think you should either.
The folks who were “disappointed” by Kyle Pitts last year are simply paying attention to the wrong details. We don’t care about last year’s fantasy points. Any simpleton can pull the box scores up. You are reading this because you care about next year’s fantasy points. And for that we look at underlying metrics. Let’s go through our check-boxes from earlier in this article to see how Pitts did in his rookie year. For the sake of this discussion, “fantasy relevant” means any guy you’d actually consider drafting in a fantasy draft so I’m going to leave out the very low sample size players like Kenny Yeboah and Stephen Sullivan, if that’s okay with you. And it has to be okay with you, because I’m the author and I make the rules.
- Top 2 Target - 20.3% target share was 6th among TEs and he led his team in targets. Check.
- Pass Block % - He pass blocked on only 2.7% of his snaps which is elite and 8th best for TE. Check.
- Playing WR - He lined up at WR for 78% of his snaps which was the second most among fantasy-relevant tight ends behind only Mike Gesicki. Check.
- Man to Man - This one is where we could use improvement. Still had the 12th most catches among TEs in man to man but only a 50% catch rate. He did tie for the second most contested catches with 15 though. No check.
- Knack For Scoring - Only one touchdown. Clearly a problem. No check.
- High aDot - His average depth of target of 11.2 yards was the highest among relevant tight ends. Mark Andrews was second at 10.9. Super check.
- Speed - His pro day was a 4.44 which would be the second-fastest relevant TE 40 time behind only Evan Engram. PlayerProfiler adjusts that to 4.49 since it’s not “combine official” which would still be 98th percentile among TEs. He fast. Check.
So for five of those seven boxes, this guy isn’t just checking them - he is taking his pencil and jamming it through the Scantron like Michael Irvin with a pair of scissors. The other two categories however need work.
Sometimes this game doesn’t need to be hard. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious what the situation is. Kyle Pitts is an immensely talented physical freak that has been drafted into a situation that isn’t currently ideal for fantasy football. That makes him our top tight end in dynasty but, in redraft leagues, the situation surrounding a player can be just as important.
The two categories Kyle Pitts did not check are hugely important to success in the red zone - which was the difference between him being a top-five TE or not. Literally - if he had two touchdowns instead of one he would have been TE5. We talked about the relationship between man to man and red zone success in the first article of the series but the short and sweet is that most red zone, especially goal line, ends up being “zero coverage”. That means the line of scrimmage is crowded and all the pass catchers are in lockdown man-to-man situations. And Kyle Pitts was simply not that good in these situations. He only caught 10 of 23 red zone targets and one of six end zone targets (for his one touchdown). Matt Ryan had a QB rating of 55.7 when targeting Pitts in man to man which was good for 78th among TEs per PFF. Now he seemingly gets a quarterback downgrade from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota (or possibly rookie Desmond Ridder) which is a scary proposition.
I’m willing to take the risk here at the right ADP. Despite the QB change. And here’s why. Delanie Walker really didn’t do anything fantasy-wise until he was 30 years old. He was stuck behind Vernon Davis for SEVEN years. Then he went to the Titans where he worked with a tight-end coaching staff that included a guy named Arthur Smith. And in 2015, 2016, and 2017, while Smith was the TE coach, Walker was catching passes from a quarterback named Marcus Mariota. And, in those seasons, he finished TE2, TE5, and and TE4 in PPR. I hope by now you understand what I’m getting at here.
Kyle Pitts is a freak athlete. With the indefinite suspension of Calvin Ridley, he’s locked in as a top-two target on his team. Last year he finished TE6 in PPR while only having one touchdown. The touchdowns can’t really regress from there and he put up the second-most yards of any rookie tight end since Mike Ditka. Which I understand isn’t really fair to tight ends because he basically played wide receiver. Well gues what? Give me all the unfair players you got. We weren’t complaining back in 2012 when Marquise Colston was incorrectly labeled as a TE on Yahoo and finished as the PPR TE1. Those are the guys I want on my team. So, at his ADP of 33, I’m absolutely willing to take Pitts if he’s there when I pick in the third. Of the top guys, he’s the most likely one for me to reach for at or even slightly above ADP. Consider that an official endorsement - drop the confetti and, Alexa, play Despacito or something.
Darren Waller is a 6’6” 255-pound converted wide receiver who ran a 4.46. We could probably just stop at that sentence alone. Here's s glimpse at what that athleticism looks like, per PlayerProfiler. When those little metrics columns say “100th” on them, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt.
The big draw for him in fantasy is the MONSTER performances he’s capable of. His 45 PPR point game vs the Jets in 2020 is the highest scoring tight end performance over the last 15 years. And his 19 targets vs. Baltimore last season is the most targets any active tight end has gotten in a single game. Darry Wallgame* is capable of outright winning weeks.
*No one calls him this
Last year he struggled with injures but, when healthy over the last few years, he’s essentially been either first or second in a number of key stats. And the other guy has been Travis Kelce. Namely, targets, target share, first downs, snap share, and route participation. His average depth of target of 10.5 last year is right in that elite range of Mark Andrews and Kyle Pitts and he was the guy who finished ahead of Mark Andrews in red zone targets in 2020. And not just barely ahead - Mark Andrews was second with 31 and Waller had 41. We just finished talking about how Mark Andrews was THE red zone guy. He had more RZ targets than the RZ guy.
Another simple yet scary situation here. Darren Waller ended up in his position in an incredibly unique way. First off, he was literally out of the league with substance abuse issues and battled his way back. Then the Raiders brought in Antonio Brown who should have been the lead pass catcher on the team but AB essentially got kicked off the team after he froze his feet up and called the general manager a “cracker” over a minor hat dispute. Happens to the best of us. Then they drafted Henry Ruggs in the first round who is currently in jail. Two third-round pass catchers in Bryan Edwards and Lynn Bowden are also both no longer with the team. It’s honestly been a complete circus over there.
But the circus has finally left town. Now they have a new coach in Josh McDaniels and they brought in quite literally the best wide receiver in the league for a boat load of money. A guy who played with QB Derek Carr in college and immediately bought the house right next door to him. Do you think those guys will have a bit of a connection? If it were just Adams and Waller, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal but they also have route-running master mind Hunter Renfrow who racked up 128 targets last year. Folks kept saying on Twitter that he’d be perfect for the New England offense since he looks like Dustin Pedroia but plays like Larry Fitzgerald. Instead, they just brought the Patriots offense to him. On top of Adams, McDaniels has also built up a stash of pass-catching backs in Kenyon Drake, Brandon Bolden, Ameer Abdullah, and Zamir White so he can run that fancy modified Erhardt-Perkins system. Things could get spread a little thin.
Too much change for me. Too much uncertainty. As we talked about in the first article, you essentially NEED to be a top two target on your team. We know Davante Adams is going to lead. When you pay a guy like that, you pepper him. And just the fact that we can picture Hunter Renfrow getting 100+ targets in a Josh McDaniels offense is enough that I can’t draft Waller at TE4 in anything outside of best ball. In best ball we are okay with a guy having 15 targets in one game and then five in the next. Same with touchdown dependency. But in our normal leagues, if we are going to spend up on a standalone tight end, we need consistency from week to week. And I’m just not convinced we are going to get that in 2022 from Darren Waller unless a wide receiver goes down. So I’m unlikely to draft him unless he falls past his ADP of 44. That said, he’s in this elite article because Hunter Renfrow might take a distant backseat and, if you are going to pay what it costs to get him, you are doing so for him to be your standalone tight end. The leagues where I have him in dynasty for instance, I expect to have him in my starting lineup every week, for better or worse. I just don’t see a path to TE1 overall without injury and that’s what I want when I draft a guy TE4. So not doing it unless I get a big discount.
On top of being the #1 NFL player I’d like to have a beer with, Kittle is also the best two-way tight end in the league. As we talked about in the first article, he’s the only active tight end to finish top five in fantasy while also blocking on more than 15% of his pass snaps. That is complete outlier stuff that only absolute unicorns like George Kittle and Rob Gronkowski are capable of. Really tough and cool unicorns though, not like the sparkly ones.
The real sneaky killer with this guy is his ability to use his speed (96th percentile per PlayerPorfiler) and elusiveness (19 forced missed tackles in 2021 tied Travis Kelce for 1st per PFF) to create HUGE chunk plays. Here is how good he has been in that specific category over the last five years, despite missing games in multiple seasons as of late.
- Kittle has twelve 40+ yard plays. Travis Kelce has ten. No one else has more than five.
- He leads all active tight end 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.
- One other active player has an 80+ yard play (2017 Austin Hooper). Kittle has two.
You take a guy like Kittle and put him in this scheme, with his use of deception, and he can make you pay in a big way. When I talk about his use of deception, I’m referring to the way he uses body language to trick you into think he’s blocking before just pulling the defense’s pants right down. Casey Sully of The Weekly Spiral gives a good breakdown on that here, complete with video examples.
If you were to take George Kittle and swap him with Travis Kelce, George Kittle would probably be the top tight end on the list. Because the offense and deployment for Travis Kelce is fantastic. For George Kittle, not so much. I’d make some tired cliche metaphor about two-way tight ends and double-edged swords but this article is already long enough so let’s just look at the stats and get on with our lives:
- He blocked on 13.7% of his pass plays which is outside the top 50 for tight ends. And he’s been used that way consistently for his career. In 2021, that’s another 65 routes he could have run.
- That compounded with the run-first offense means he doesn’t run as many routes as other elite tight ends. His 464 routes was 14th among tight ends and, if you sort that by routes per game, it was 17th.
- Because of his blocking ability he also plays in-line more. He played only the 22nd most snaps at wide receiver of any tight end. He was 24th on a per-game basis. Not great, Bob.
It’s honestly miraculous that he’s been able to overcome this deployment to be a high-end tight end thus far. But the times they are a-changing in San Francisco and, not only have Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk emerged as legitimate threats to Kittle’s targets but they are making the switch to an inexperienced, mobile quarterback. In a vacuum, Kittle is obviously one of the best at what he does but we are entering pretty dangerous waters here.
Much like Darry Waller, I personally just don’t find the NEED to reach for him or even take him at his ADP. But that’s because I personally trust in my ability to cobble something together at the tight end position a lot cheaper. I can focus on RBs and WRs in the third and fourth round like a normal person.
Here is my advice to you - if you really don’t want to come along with us on the Yin & Yang tight end journey this year, this is likely your last chance to take a tight end that you can feel truly safe just leaving in your lineup all year. Darren Waller and George Kittle are good players and they are going to have good weeks. They are highly likely to finish somewhere in the top five tight ends. They even still have TE1 overall in their range of outcomes, even if I think it’s a bit cloudy. So I don’t fault anyone if they want to take Waller at his ADP of 44 or Kittle at his ADP of 47. Even I’m willing to take them if one of them goes and the other slides to the point that I’m saying “this is getting ridiculous”. But I personally think we can give ourselves a similar shot at upside without breaking the bank. So stay tuned for the fourth article in this serious, Yin & Yang tight end, if you want to play that game. Next up will be The Fades article and we can all yell at each other. How fun.
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