Best Ball Tiers: Tight Ends

season

We hope you're enjoying this old content for FREE. You can view more current content marked with a FREE banner, but you'll have to sign up in order to access our other articles and content!

Best Ball Tiers: Tight Ends

Note: If you haven’t already, go back and read the introduction in the QB Tiers article. In there, you’ll find a top-to-bottom breakdown of roster construction and an RB strategy that will change the way that you think about drafts. SuperHero RB for the win.

Jump to:

Tight end is fragmented as ever this year and there are three very distinct opening tiers that do not change from draft to draft on NFFC, Underdog, and DraftKings. Travis Kelce is a locked-in first round pick, Darren Waller and George Kittle go in the second and third rounds, while Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, and Kyle Pitts all are off the board in Round 4-6.

In FFPC’s TE Premium leagues (1.5 points per reception for TEs), the elite options just become more expensive. TE Premium is designed to make the pool deeper, but it ultimately does the opposite — the elite guys just become more valuable. And that is exactly what you’re seeing in drafts. Kelce (3 overall ADP), Waller (9), and Kittle (14) are all top-15 picks while Pitts (28) has jumped Hockenson (38) and Andrews (42) by nearly a round.

Let’s navigate through the most top-heavy position in fantasy:

Tier 1

ADP range for tier: 3 to 10 overall

Kelce is in his own stratosphere in fantasy and, as such, deserves his own tier.

Besides Christian McCaffrey, no player has the week-to-week ceiling and season-to-season consistency that Kelce possesses. Over the last five seasons, Kelce’s seasonal finishes in fantasy points per game are: TE2 > TE2 > TE1 > TE1 > TE1. And if we compare his output to that of wide receivers, you’re basically getting a WR1 that just happens to play tight end. Among receivers, Kelce’s finishes over the last five seasons would be: WR21 > WR9 > WR9 > WR10 > WR3.

Let’s look at this one more way. The difference between Kelce and a “replacement level” option last year was simply massive. Noah Fant was the TE10 in FPG (10.5), which was a whopping 10.3 points per game difference between him and Kelce (20.8). But what was the difference between Kelce and the TE2? Well, on a weekly level, Kelce had an elite finish (top-5 at the position) in an other-worldly 13-of-15 games. 13-of-15! For reference, TE2 Darren Waller was phenomenal last year but managed a top-5 finish nine times in 16 games.

What’s scary to think is that there is some room for growth in Kelce’s usage, too. Sammy Watkins earned a 16% target share over the last two seasons in his games played, and some of that could end up trickling down to Kelce. Last year, Kelce (23%) trailed Darren Waller (26%) in target share — but ended up seeing the same amount of targets per game (9.1) because the Chiefs are way more pass-heavy than the Raiders. If even 1 to 2% of Watkins’ missing targets goes to Kelce, we’ll be looking at a scorched-earth season.

I’m taking Kelce as early as 6th overall in drafts and am usually pairing him with a back in the second round. After CMC, Cook, Kamara, Henry, and Zeke are off the board, there is a massive tier drop off in the RB pool. So, Kelce in Round 1 followed by Joe Mixon or Aaron Jones in Round 2 frees you up to hammer WRs and pluck RB value throughout the rest of the draft.

Tier 2

  • TE2 Darren Waller (Consensus: 21 overall)
  • TE3 George Kittle (24)

ADP range for tier: 15 to 30 overall

Main target: Waller

Avoids: None

My biggest mistake last year was fading Darren Waller across most of my leagues — best ball and managed. Having a good amount of Kelce in the second round helped even out the blow, but my process on Waller last season was flawed. I overestimated the additions of Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, and Nelson Agholor and underestimated Waller’s usage.

I’m making up for that bad call this year.

Waller is coming off of the board in the mid-second to early-third round in every draft, and for good reason. Drafters are correctly sensing positional scarcity and just how big of a difference an elite tight end can make. Remember that example with Kelce earlier comparing him to the TE10? Well, while Waller wasn’t Kelce, he was still a difference-maker. Waller provided a massive 7.0 FPG difference between him and the TE10.

Let’s say you get the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th overall pick in your draft. From a roster building standpoint, starting your team with CMC, Cook, Kamara, or Henry then following it up with Waller in the second gives you two positional advantages at RB1 and TE1. Then, because the third round is chock full of great receivers, you come away with A.J. Brown, Keenan Allen, Justin Jefferson, Allen Robinson, or Terry McLaurin as your first wideout. RB1 + Waller then WR1 is my plan every time I draw a top-4 pick.

That same logic applies to George Kittle, just to a lesser extent.

While Waller has a locked-in high target share because none of the receivers on his team can command high volume roles, the opposite is true for Kittle. Brandon Aiyuk is an incredible talent and just had a phenomenal rookie season while Deebo Samuel has commanded 125 targets across 21 career healthy games.

Plus, Kittle will have to deal with yet another QB change at some point. Trey Lance is coming. When Lance starts, it’ll mark the fourth passer Kittle has caught balls from in the last three years.

It’s such a tiny sample, but we only have four games of Kittle, Aiyuk, and Samuel all playing together. It was Weeks 4-7 last year and the QB situation was in flux. Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard played in a Week 4 loss to the Eagles while Jimmy Garoppolo was out, then JimmyG started in Week 5 but was benched in a blowout loss to the Dolphins. Garoppolo then started Week 6-7.

Still, through all of that, Kittle led the 49ers in targets by a wide margin in those four games. Kittle saw 40 targets for a massive 29% share while Samuel saw 22 looks and Aiyuk had 21. I have no idea who Trey Lance will prefer to throw to, but if those four games are any indication of the future, HC Kyle Shanahan was scheming up plays left and right for Kittle with both of their starting wideouts healthy.

Another small problem for Kittle’s outlook is in the touchdown department. He’s scored just 12 times across his last 38 games over the last three seasons while Waller has 12 TDs in 32 games in 2019-20.

Between the coming QB change, two great receivers that will compete for targets, and his lagging TD production — there is a gap between Waller and Kittle at TE2 and TE3. It’s not significant enough to separate the two by a big gap, but it’s big enough to make Waller a better bet.

Tier 3

ADP range for tier: 50 to 65 overall

Main target: Andrews

Avoid: Pitts

The hype train on Kyle Pitts was gaining steam before Julio Jones got traded and it’s now fully off the rails.

Over the last month, Pitts has overtaken Mark Andrews and T.J. Hockenson across all best ball platforms. In BB10s, Pitts’ ADP is 58 overall while Andrews’ is 60 and Hockenson’s is 62. On Underdog, the gap is even wider. Pitts’ ADP is 46 while Andrews and Hockenson are late-fifth / early-sixth rounders. So, not only are you taking Pitts a round ahead of those two, you’re likely taking him over stud WR2’s like Adam Thielen or Robert Woods on Underdog.

Whew.

There is nothing wrong with being excited about Pitts, but there is basically zero upside left at his exorbitant ADP. Not only will Pitts have to be the best rookie tight end ever (which is logical!), he’ll have to do so by a wide margin (which might not be!).

All three of these things can be true:

  1. Pitts is the best TE prospect ever and is already the TE1 in dynasty
  2. You can project Pitts for the best rookie TE season ever
  3. He’s still overvalued in season-long leagues

For Pitts to pay off his cost, he’ll have to average 13.3 PPR points per game — which is what the TE4 in FPG has put up over the last five years.

How likely is it that Pitts puts up at least 13.3 FPG?

Well, only one tight end in NFL history has scored more than 13.3 FPG as a rookie and that was Mike Ditka back in 1961 when he put up 56/1072/12 in 14 games (16.6 FPG). Since the beginning of 2000, Jordan Reed (12.7), Evan Engram (11.6), Jeremy Shockey (11.4), Aaron Hernandez (10.1), and Rob Gronkowski (9.7) have all come relatively close to that TE4 average of 13.3 FPG, but none have exceeded it.

Is Pitts a better prospect and is he in a better situation to produce than any rookie TE history? Absolutely. That is not in question. What is in question is Pitts’ pathway to beating his season-long ADP and returning value.

For the premium you’ll have to pay for Pitts, he’ll have to end up with somewhere around 70 catches, 850 yards and 8 touchdowns. There have only been 48 individual seasons in NFL history in which a tight end has gone over 850 yards and scored at least 8 times and five tight ends — Tony Gonzalez, Travis Kelce, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and Rob Gronkowski — account for 21 of them. Is Pitts already at that level?

While everyone chases Pitts hype, I’ve been taking the discount on Mark Andrews in my drafts.

Andrews disappointed as a third/fourth rounder last year and you’re now getting a near two round discount. After leading the Ravens in targets per game in both 2019 (7.0) and last year (6.3), it’s clear that Andrews is Lamar Jackson’s preferred target. In fact, Andrews has seen at least 20% of Lamar’s targets in 21-of-29 games (that’s 72%) over the last two years. For reference, Kelce has received at least 20% of the Chiefs targets in 24-of-31 games (77%) in this span.

Touchdown upside isn’t a problem for Andrews, either. According to SIS, Andrews led all tight ends in end-zone targets (13) in 2019 and tied Travis Kelce for second-most at the position last year (12).

The additions of Rashod Bateman, Sammy Watkins, and Tylan Wallace are more of an indictment on their poor depth at receiver and not on Andrews. The situation is not too dissimilar from Waller and the Raiders last year.

The argument for T.J. Hockenson centers around the team letting both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones walk in free agency. Their departure opens up the entire passing game for targets and Hockenson will likely end up leading the team in that department.

And while Jared Goff isn’t sexy, he’s kept Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods afloat in fantasy and has been pretty decent at throwing to his tight ends. Over the last two combined years, Goff ranks tied for fifth-best with Patrick Mahomes in completions (73%) to his tight ends. Only Derek Carr (77%), Kirk Cousins (77%), Jimmy Garoppolo (77%), and Aaron Rodgers (75%) have been better.

Hockenson’s QB downgrade isn’t as bad as you might expect, but the surrounding factors aren’t great. First and foremost, new OC Anthony Lynn will certainly try to rely on the run.

In his 21-year NFL career, Lynn has only called plays over a stretch of 14 games in 2016 when Greg Roman was fired after Week 2 and Lynn was named interim OC to close out the season. And in that span, Lynn called a run on 51% of their plays when the game was within a score (2nd-highest rate), they were 55% run-heavy when ahead (3rd-highest), and they were 44% run-heavy when trailing (highest rate). Granted, having Tyrod Taylor’s dual-threat ability helped aid in the Bills run-first ways, but that season is the only indicator on the field of how Lynn will design the Lions offense. Off the field, Lynn has spent most of his time adamant that his Lions will run the ball a ton. Here’s a quote from mid-February a few weeks after Lynn was hired: “It will be an emphasis to run the ball and run it well. Defenses are too good to be one dimensional. You have to be balanced in your attack and approach. That's going to be our intention… I believe the more ways you can run it, the more ways you can pass it."

The other factor working against Hockenson is that the Lions offense is going to struggle, which won’t lead to as many scoring opportunities as Pitts or Andrews. Detroit’s win total is a lowly 5 games, which is more than half of Baltimore’s total (11) and behind Atlanta (7.5).

Of course, both Andrews and Hockenson are on run-first teams and that is one notch in Pitts’ belt over those two. However, Andrews plays on the best team by far of this trio and has a two-year history of TD upside. 9-12 touchdowns are in play for Andrews, which I’m not sure can be said of Pitts and Hockenson.

Tier 4

ADP range for tier: 75 to 95 overall

Main target: None

Avoid: Thomas

The position starts to fall off drastically after Tier 3. All three of the Tier 4 tight ends have question-marks entering the season that are straightforward.

For Goedert, his upside hinges upon whether or not Zach Ertz is an Eagle or not. Deadlines spur action, though. We’ll see how this plays out in a few weeks.

Goedert will end up being one of the best TE values on the board if the team does move on from Ertz and finds a trade partner. Goedert averaged 12.3 fantasy points per game in the contests that Ertz missed last season compared to just 9.6 FPG when Ertz played. That 12.3 FPG would have equated to a TE4 finish last year, just ahead of Mark Andrews (12.4).

Plus, we have plenty of evidence that shows us Goedert is going to be very efficient when he gets a true No. 1 role. Over the last three combined seasons, Goedert ranks 6th among TEs according to PFF in yards gained per route run (1.63) behind only Jared Cook (1.81), Mark Andrews (2.17), Travis Kelce (2.20), Darren Waller (2.34), and George Kittle (2.79).

Noah Fant and Logan Thomas both have similar concerns centering around 1) how many targets they will get and 2) a quarterback change.

Fant saw 20% or more of the Broncos targets in just 6-of-15 games last year and now has to compete with Courtland Sutton for targets, too. Sutton got hurt in Week 2.

Thomas is in a similar conundrum with Curtis Samuel stealing targets in a similar part of the field that Thomas operates in and with Antonio Gibson getting more involved in the passing game.

At the very least, the good news in Fant’s case is that he’s been efficient. Among the 26 tight ends that got 50 or more targets last season, Fant ranked sixth-best in PFF’s receiving yards per route run (1.64) while Thomas was a lowly 22nd (1.10 YPRR). Only Hayden Hurst (1.08), Tyler Eifert (0.92), Zach Ertz (0.92), and Drew Sample (0.85) were less efficient on their routes than Thomas.

Fant and Thomas’ prices are fair in the 9th round of drafts, but there isn’t a huge difference in their outlooks compared to other options that go in Rounds 10-12.

Tier 5

ADP range for tier: 105 to 135 overall

Main target: Tonyan, Higbee

Avoids: I. Smith, Engram, and Gesicki

Tier 5 is, by far, the hardest tier to draft from.

Irv Smith is an incredible athlete and has flashed explosive play-making ability on his limited targets, but he’s easily the fourth fiddle on the team with Cook, Jefferson, and Thielen handling the vast majority of the touches. On top of that, there is concern that Smith’s role won’t change all that much with Kyle Rudolph now in New York.

In the four games that Rudolph missed last year (Weeks 14-17), Smith was fourth on the team in targets (20) behind Justin Jefferson (41), Adam Thielen (21), and Tyler Conklin (21). Keep in mind, Dalvin Cook missed Week 17 and got 11 targets in three games in this span. Not only did Conklin and Smith split targets, they also split snaps basically right down the middle in the final four games of the season (203 to 202).

With all of that in mind, I believe HC Mike Zimmer when he says that, “I don’t think it’s any bigger role for (Irv Smith) whatsoever… I think it’s a bigger role for Tyler Conklin. (Conklin has) kind of emerged as a guy moving upward, and with those two guys, we have a lot of weapons there. Irv always has been able to do what he’s been able to do whether Kyle was here or not.”

We have to expect some scoring regression for Robert Tonyan and that is baked into his price. Tonyan is the TE10 off of the board and goes in the early 100 overall range. Last year, Tonyan scored 11 TDs on just 59 targets. In fact, 37% of his fantasy points came from touchdowns alone, which was the highest rate among the top-24 scoring TEs. Amazingly, Tonyan is the first tight end to finish top-5 at the position with fewer than 60 targets dating back to 2000. Tonyan can overcome the likely dip in TDs with more targets, which is something HC Matt LaFluer alluded to this offseason. Randall Cobb is back, but we have to expect Tonyan’s role to grow a bit regardless. Tonyan is my second-favorite target in this Tier to Tyler Higbee.

I want nothing to do with the Patriots WRs and TEs in managed start/sit leagues, but I’ve been taking stabs at Jonnu Smith as a TE2 attached to an elite option or as a part of a 3-man late-round committee. Smith is explosive with the ball in his hands and should be good for a handful of spiked scoring weeks in a much larger role after securing the bag for $50 million this offseason. Over the last two years, Smith ranks third-best in YAC (6.7) and second-best in missed tackles forced per reception (0.202) among the 28 TEs with 100 or more targets.

While Evan Engram and Mike Gesicki struggled to remain fantasy relevant last year, both now have to deal with way more competition for targets in 2021.

Engram managed a top-12 (TE1) weekly performance in 6-of-16 weeks last year with just two “elite” (top-5) performances. Now, to be fair, Engram got extremely unlucky in the touchdown department last year. How bad was it? Well, since 2000, only two tight ends have seen 100 or more targets and scored just 1 TD: Chris Cooley in 2008 and Engram in 2020. For reference, tight ends that get 100 targets average 6.3 TDs per season. Now, Engram is a safe bet to score more in 2021, but his target share is a legitimate concern since he has to compete with Kenny Golladay, a healthy Saquon Barkley, first-rounder Kadarius Toney, and Kyle Rudolph for looks from Daniel Jones. No thank you.

Gesicki was the definition of feast or famine last year, finishing inside of the top-5 a solid four times and scoring 23 or more points three times. However, he finished outside of the top-12 in his other 11 weeks. So, basically Gesicki either smashed or was completely unusable. Yikes. With Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller added and third-rounder Hunter Long waiting in the wings, I can’t justify buying Gesicki at his ADP (118) when Jonnu Smith goes off the board 22 picks later.

All of this leads to Tyler Higbee.

Higbee was a big fade of mine last year because the majority of drafters were massively underrating the presence of Gerald Everett and just expected Higbee to take over. That didn't happen. Higbee (65) and Everett (57) split targets closely in their 17 games played together in the regular season and playoffs. However, now that Everrett is up in Seattle, the pathway for Higbee to breakout is finally open. Yet, for some reason, drafters aren’t making an adjustment. Higbee goes off the board at 110 overall, which is about two rounds behind Noah Fant and Logan Thomas.

Especially with Cam Akers (Achilles’) out for the year, Higbee is a safe bet to finish third on the team in targets and has little in his way on the depth chart. Second-year man Brycen Hopkins played 2 snaps last year, Johnny Mundt has nine catches in his career, and 2021 fourth-rounder Jacob Harris is a converted wide receiver and a project for HC Sean McVay in his rookie season. Keep in mind, the Rams are just two years removed from giving Higbee a massive 4-year extension that will pay him up to $29 million. L.A. has every incentive to feature him this year.

If I miss out on Kelce, Waller, Andrews, or Hockenson — I’m eyeing up Higbee 8th-10th rounds. For what it’s worth, I’m way higher on Higbee than anyone on staff and have him at 83 overall (TE8) in our best ball rankings.

Tier 6

ADP range for tier: 135 to 170 overall

Main targets: Trautman, Everett, and Hooper

Secondary target: Gronkowski

Avoids: Ebron and Firkser

With Michael Thomas likely out 4-5 games (at the minimum) to start the season, Adam Trautman will start sky-rocketing up the board. He’s the clear top option in Tier 6. Trautman dominated FCS competition at Dayton, leading the team in all receiving categories in his senior and junior year. After trading all of their Day 3 picks to trade up and take Trautman at 105 overall in the 2020 draft, HC Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis are clearly all-in on Trautman. Jared Cook is gone and the only other tight end that will push for snaps is former Seahawk, Steeler, and Bronco Nick Vannett. Last year in Denver, Vannett was primarily a blocker and that will probably be his role for the Saints this year. Vannett was left in to block on 68% of his snaps in 2020.

Along with Trautman, Gerald Everett is another exciting TE2 target in the 13th-14th rounds. Those two are my favorites in this range, by far.

Everett should immediately usurp Will Dissly as the Seahawks primary receiving tight end after following new OC Shane Waldron from L.A. to Seattle. Back in 2017, Waldron was the Rams TEs coach when they drafted Everett so Waldron should have a great plan in place in his fifth year coaching him. Seattle went with a gross 3-man rotation last year between Dissly, Greg Olsen, and Jacob Hollister and that trio still combined for a solid 75/715/6 line on what wound up being a slow-paced, balanced team. Dissly will cut into his snaps and targets and, for that reason, Everett will end up being very up and down in managed start/sit leagues. That said, Everett is consistently coming off of the board around TE20 and he’ll be good for a few spiked scoring weeks and you don’t have to figure out when they’re coming in best ball.

Austin Hooper isn’t as sexy of a target as Trautman or Everett, but the price discount is way too deep here. Hooper was drafted in the 10th-12th rounds last year, but he has plummeted to the 15th round this year. Is that rational?

Pass catchers transitioning to new teams often get off to slow starts and Hooper was no exception after going from the pass-first Falcons to the run-first Browns. However, after a mid-season appendectomy that cost him two games and a nagging neck injury cost him another, there is no doubt Hooper got a bit unlucky last year. However, when Hooper put that neck injury behind him in Week 15, he was quietly productive. Over the Browns final five games (including playoffs), Hooper finished with 25/211/3 — which shakes out to 12.8 fantasy points per start.

Now, the big caveat is that Odell Beckham was out, but I still don’t think it’s all that surprising that Hooper had his best stretch late in the year when he finally got healthy and got to build some chemistry with Baker Mayfield. Now in his second season, I’m targeting Hooper late on all of my team’s as either a TE2 paired with Kelce, Waller, and Kittle or as a part of a late-round 3-TE roster build.

While Gronk doesn’t have week-in, week-out TE1 upside anymore, he is an easy pathway to get exposure to what will be a high-scoring Bucs’ offense. He might be their No. 4 or No. 5 option some weeks, but Tom Brady will never get tired of targeting his guy when they get within scoring range. Gronk saw 16 end-zone targets in the regular season and playoffs, which trailed Mike Evans (17) for most on the team. I love Gronk as a part of a 3-TE build (like Higbee-Gronkowski-Hooper or Trautman-Gronkowski-Hooper).

I really want to be in on Cole Kmet, but the Bears are still carrying around Jimmy Graham on the roster for some reason. For what it’s worth, Chicago can save $4M in cap space by cutting Graham before Week 1. But, for now, it’s looking like Kmet, Graham, and recent signing Jesse James will form a rotation. Kmet will obviously lead that group, but if last year is any indication, HC Matt Nagy will still use Graham extensively. Over the final eight weeks of the season, Kmet ran more routes (177 to 103) and saw more targets (34 to 20) than Graham — but that was only good enough for 6.1 FPG.

I’m living in Tier 6 to round out my tight end corps on most of my team’s, so I have to take a stand somewhere and that has led me to mostly avoid Eric Ebron and Anthony Firsker.

Ebron only had four top-8 weekly performances last year as the Steelers fourth target and the team just drafted his replacement in the second round in Pat Friermuth. Pass.

Meanwhile, there are people excited to draft Anthony Firsker… for some reason? Jonnu Smith — who is way better at football than Firkser — was largely irrelevant for fantasy in this offense. What has materially changed? Firkser, just like Mike Gesicki, is really just a big slot receiver. Firkser ran 71% of his routes lined up in the slot last season, leading all tight ends. On the flip side, Geoff Swaim will be elevated to a near full-time role. The Titans played with two tight ends on the field on a league-leading 48% of their offensive snaps last year and I expect that will continue with Brown and Julio out wide, Firkser as the “move” TE and Swaim as the primary blocker. Per PFF, the Titans used Swaim as a run or pass blocker on 77% of his 356 snaps.

Finally, I have no idea what to do with Hunter Henry. Jonnu Smith is far more explosive after the catch and seems primed to lead the duo in receiving, but Henry will still have a full-time role as the Patriots transition back to a 2-TE offense. Henry will certainly have some usable weeks, but there is a 2-3 round difference in cost between him and Austin Hooper. There shouldn’t be.

Tier 7

ADP range for tier: 175 to 250 overall

Main target: Ertz

Avoids: Knox and Herndon

Because Tier 6 is chock full of options, I never find myself waiting to take my second or third tight end in this range. There are just so many warts with all of these options compared to the previous group.

Blake Jarwin avoided the PUP list and will be good to go for Training Camp, which is a great sign for his health coming off an ACL-tear. That said, Dalton Schultz was fine in Jarwin’s place last year and will force some sort of rotation here.

Jared Cook is entering his age-34 season and will only be a part-time player for the Chargers. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if him and Donald Parham ended up splitting snaps right down the middle. Cook was on the field on just 46% of Saints’ snaps in his healthy games last year, which, for reference, was behind Cole Kmet (56%) and Mo Alie-Cox (49%).

The only guy I’m targeting from this range is Zach Ertz. Even though he was brutal last year — he ranked 25th out of 26 qualifying TEs in yards per route run — he’s either going to be a thorn in Dallas Goedert’s side all year and give you a few usable weeks or he’ll get traded (or released) and be in a better situation. He’s a TE3 only.

Graham Barfield blends data and film together to create some of the most unique content in the fantasy football industry. Barfield is FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and formerly worked for the NFL Network, Fantasy Guru, and Rotoworld.

Recent Articles