The 2022 NFL offseason has been a crazy one and it's time to hand out winners and losers at the tight end position! Unlike with the wide receiver, running back and quarterback positions, the 2022 NFL Draft isn’t as big of a threat to current starting tight ends as free agency was. Luckily for us, and our dynasty fantasy football teams, most of the crazy NFL news and free-agent signings have already happened.
The Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, and Cleveland Browns franchise-tagged Mike Gesicki, Dalton Schultz, and David Njoku, respectively. Zach Ertz re-signed with the Arizona Cardinals. Evan Engram went to the Jacksonville Jaguars, CJ Uzomah to the New York Jets, and Gerald Everett to the Los Angeles Chargers. Sure, Rob Gronkowski and Eric Ebron are still out there lurking as pass-catching tight ends, but the dust has largely settled on the free-agent tight end market.
You see, with positions like quarterback or running back, the depth chart is fairly linear. A replacement can easily come directly from the NFL Draft to take their spot in the lineup. However, modern NFL teams treat the tight end position more like a “room." You’ve got your blocking tight ends, your pass-catching tight ends, your “move” tight ends, and your hybrid fullbacks. Due to the difficulty in learning both the blocking and passing schemes, it’s not often that an incumbent pass-catching TE loses his role to a rookie.
Sure, there are rare occasions where the new tight end is already a better pass-catcher than the NFL veteran – like we saw with Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst this past season in Atlanta. Most times, though, it plays out like Dallas Goedert/Zach Ertz in Philadelphia or Cole Kmet/Jimmy Graham in Chicago as the younger tight end waits his turn while learning the system on the blocking side. Remember when Delanie Walker waited his turn for seven years behind Vernon Davis in San Francisco before finally breaking out for fantasy football at age 30?
In this article, we’re going to take a moment to reflect on everything that has happened in NFL free agency so far that will affect tight ends in fantasy football. Changing teams, new quarterbacks, added receiving threats, vacated targets – it's all impactful. We’ll give you the three biggest winners and losers, as well as a couple of honorary mentions. So let’s get after it!
NFL Free Agency Winners
I mean, how could we start with anyone else? David Njoku has won this NFL offseason in just about every sense of the word. At the beginning of last season, he wasn’t even the top pass-catching tight end on the Cleveland Browns' depth chart – Austin Hooper was. They also had Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry taking away targets. Now, all three of those guys are gone. Sure, the Browns added Amari Cooper, but the path for David Njoku to be a top-two target on this team is fairly clear. Plus, securing that spot on the target pecking order has historically been one of the biggest barriers to entry for elite tight ends in fantasy football – as we’ve written about in full in our Ultimate Tight End Draft Guide.
After everything said above, the quarterback upgrade in Cleveland is just gravy on top. Let’s say Deshaun Watson does get suspended. For fantasy purposes, is Jacoby Brissett all that much worse than Baker Mayfield? I’d take half a season of Keenum and half a season of Watson (the fantasy playoff half) all day long over another full season of Mayfield. That’s also assuming Watson does get suspended, which we can’t possibly know as of right now. David Njoku is in a pretty good spot for 2022 and, if they do work out a long-term deal with him, both he and Watson will be 26 years old to start the season with a lot of football left to play together.
This is a big win for all the dynasty gamers out there who focus on the merits of the individual player and care less about the situation. Much like Njoku, Albert Okwuegbunam has been stuck behind the hyper-athletic Noah Fant on the Denver Broncos' depth chart for the last two years. However, most folks might not realize that Albert O is hyper-athletic himself. Per PlayerProfiler, his 4.49 40-yard dash is in the 98th percentile for tight ends and his adjusted speed score (at 6-foot-6 and 258 pounds) sets the bar at 100%.
This offseason, in one fell swoop, the Broncos took his two biggest problems in Drew Lock and Noah Fant, and traded away both for mega-star quarterback Russell Wilson. The only downside for Albert O is that Denver still has Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy sitting atop the target pecking order. Even then, Okwuegbunam is still a huge winner considering, with one trade, he went from a literal backup at his own position to a potential top 6-12 tight end in fantasy football. I’m sure all of the “cream rises to the top” dynasty analysts out there would say they knew this was DEFINITELY going to happen this offseason.
Now, this one comes with a huge asterisk. Logan Thomas tore his ACL late in the season and everything depends on his recovery timeline. If he’s ready to go in August, though, let’s take a second to consider what has happened this offseason in Washington.
- Trade for Carson Wentz
- Let Ricky Seals-Jones leave and sign with the Giants
- Sign zero incoming pass-catchers
The only real difference between this team and the one where Logan Thomas was TE3 in fantasy football is a quarterback upgrade. Before the injury last season, Thomas was quite literally playing every snap. He played 100% of the snaps in all three of the first weeks of the season. It's notable that Thomas ran more routes from the slot than any other NFL tight end in 2020 and was top five once again last season before his injury. Since he lines up in the slot so often, John Bates coming in to play in-line tight end at times isn’t much of a threat. Speaking of tight ends that play a ton of slot, here is how Zach Ertz finished in PPR in his four healthy years playing with Carson Wentz in Philadelphia:
- 2016: TE 6
- 2017: TE 3
- 2018: TE 2
- 2019: TE 4
The only two real threats to production for Logan Thomas are the recovery from injury and the potential emergence of Curtis Samuel in the short passing game (he missed pretty much all of last season). Samuel was already part of the team, though, and they didn’t bring in any new wide receivers or tight ends. Plus, Washington grabbed arguably the best QB for what Thomas does – so I consider him a pretty big winner here. If Logan doesn’t recover in full, perhaps John Bates could find himself a winner instead.
NFL Free Agency Losers
Last year, Tyler Conklin fell backside first into about the best position a player like him could imagine. The Vikings got rid of their blocking tight end in Kyle Rudolph, and then Irv Smith Jr.'s knee injury left Conklin alone atop the depth chart. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen were both target hogs, but Thielen getting hurt opened the door for more production. Yet, despite catching a couple of touchdowns and having more receptions than he’s ever had, Conklin still blocked on more pass snaps last year than any other tight end in the entire league. That itself was a red flag and had me warning any folks who would listen. Then free agency started.
If Tyler Conklin simply signed with the Jets, that wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Elijah Moore and Corey Davis aren’t necessarily insurmountable target threats and Jamison Crowder left for Buffalo. However, the Jets ALSO signed CJ Uzomah. That’s a death blow because Uzomah is clearly the better pass catcher and was paid more money to do it. That relegates Conklin to the blocking role and the fourth target on the team, at the absolute best. His value in fantasy football got hit with an ACME sledgehammer this offseason and he did it to himself by signing with New York AFTER Uzomah already signed there.
Ever since Brian Flores took over for Adam Gase in Miami, Mike Gesicki has checked a lot of the boxes we like for tight ends in fantasy. He’s athletic and a 4.54 forty-yard dash at his size helps put him in the 95th percentile or better for all the major athleticism metrics, per PlayerProfiler. He plays a ton of slot snaps as over 90% of his snaps last year were played at wide receiver, which creates the argument that he’s not really a tight end at all. He’s also had a path to top-two on his team in targets (largely opened up by injuries to Preston Williams and DeVante Parker, but still). Pretty good scenario.
This offseason, I expressed my concerns on the Fantasy Alarm Quick Out Podcast that the signing of Cedrick Wilson (who played 90% of his snaps in the slot with Dallas) could move Mike Gesicki into more of an in-line role. That wouldn’t have been completely tragic, but also not great for production. Well, then the real bomb dropped with the Tyreek Hill trade. Forget Cedrick Wilson – now we are looking at a world where Tua Tagovailoa is spreading the ball around to Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, DeVante Parker, and Mike Gesicki. Even if Parker is traded or released, I can’t possibly project Gesicki to be a top-two target on the team ahead of Hill and Waddle. If you think the Dolphins' offense will be prolific enough to support all three, you should probably be drafting Tua in every league too. I’ll probably just stay away from the situation.
I like to think I keep a pretty good finger on the pulse of this league in terms of understanding the rationale behind moves, but this O.J. Howard signing was pretty confusing to me. Just think about the motivations behind where a free agent might sign and what kind of deal it is. Sometimes you just want as much guaranteed money as possible. That makes sense for a guy like O.J., who was a free agent for the first time ever. Well, in that case, you go after a multi-year deal with the biggest guarantees – not a one-year deal for $3.5 million where the whole thing isn’t even guaranteed.
On the flip side, sometimes you sign a one-year “prove it” deal, hoping to cash in the following free agency. That would also make sense for Howard because the cap should jump next year with the Amazon TV deal. In that instance, though, you do what Evan Engram or DJ Chark did and go somewhere where you can realistically compete for targets.
You don’t sign on to be the backup tight end behind Dawson Knox in Buffalo. On top of that, the Bills then go out and sign Jamison Crowder – who runs similar low aDot routes to tight ends. Now all these guys, along with Gabriel Davis, are battling for the second target share behind Stefon Diggs. If O.J. Howard doesn’t play a decent amount of snaps and sign a solid contract next year, he should take his agent back to the agent store and get a new one.
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