2023 Underrated Upside: Tight Ends


We hope you enjoy this FREE article preview! In order to access our other articles and content, including livestreams, projections and rankings, stat analysis and more, be sure to sign up today. We are here to help you #ScoreMore Fantasy Points!

2023 Underrated Upside: Tight Ends

Like many, I was inspired by Scott Barrett’s “Upside Wins Championships” magnum opus. It’s defined how I’ve approached fantasy football ever since, even resulting in my attempt to build on it last off-season. Luckily for us, the notion of “Upside Wins Championships” has yet to become fully priced into the ADP market, creating plenty of opportunity for sharp fantasy drafters to capitalize. Read on to learn which TEs – at cost – have underrated upside.

Darren Waller, TE, New York Giants

ADP: TE7 (Yahoo!)

The Giants reportedly viewed Waller as the best “WR” available on the market this year. Their view was likely justified, as Waller is quite experienced operating as the first read – just as an outside WR would.

Past fantasy points predict future fantasy points – and Waller has those in spades. Sure, Waller underwhelmed the past two seasons (mostly due to multiple injuries), but in the two seasons before that, he averaged 18.7 FPG in TE Premium formats (would have been 21% better than last year’s TE2). And during each of those two seasons, he appeared on over 50% of ESPN playoff rosters. Even in 2021 (before the arrival of Davante Adams), Waller still ranked as the TE3 in target share (21.6%) and TE2 in XFP/G (15.3). The Giants are perhaps the furthest away of any team in the league from having an Adams-level target hog WR.

Additionally, Waller has been plagued by ankle, knee, and hamstring injuries over the past two seasons, corresponding quite neatly with his declines in production and target share. Especially in 2022, his route share plummeted to just 65.7% (TE16), exceeding an 80% route share in only three games at the start of the season. This suggests Waller was playing hurt for a significant portion of the year.

Now that Waller’s two largest roadblocks (Davante Adams and injuries) are out of the way, we can’t be that surprised he’s been tearing up training camp. The drumbeat has been incredibly loud and consistent all summer. So long as he stays healthy, finishing top-2 at the position is once again in play.

Greg Dulcich, TE, Denver Broncos

ADP: TE18 (ESPN, NFL.com)

Last year, Dulcich averaged 41.1 YPG – the 6th-best mark by any rookie TE since at least 1990. His historically productive rookie season comprised an impressive 30.0 routes per game (4th among TEs). Dulcich has already proven to be a capable producer across significant route volume.

With Dulcich entering Year 2, we must remember that the sophomore TE breakout is one of fantasy football's most powerful and reliable laws. An insane number of top-6 TE breakouts have occurred in Year 2. There is no better time to buy in on a player like Dulcich than right now.

While Dulcich has been splitting reps with Adam Trautman in the preseason, that does not mean his ceiling has disappeared. Preseason usage is not always indicative of regular season usage, and in Dulcich’s case, we have plenty of Sean Payton quotes conflicting with the sentiment that Dulcich will not see enough playing time to be fantasy-viable. It was only a few short weeks ago Payton was calling Dulcich his “joker” and waxing poetic about Jeremy Shockey, Jason Witten, and Jimmy Graham.

As a late-round TE, we should not care about Dulcich’s downside or floor scenarios. More than likely, every team in your league, aside from one or two, will be weak at TE. You haven’t lost much if Dulcich hits a lower floor than Juwan Johnson, because you can always find fringe TE1 production on the waiver wire. Therefore, the only goal should be to find TEs who can springboard into the top tier at the position. Dulcich still has that relatively unique ability.

Chigoziem Okonkwo, TE, Tennessee Titans

ADP: TE19 (NFL.com)

Among TEs who ran 100 or more routes and caught 25 or more passes, Okonkwo just led the league in missed tackles forced per reception (0.34) and YAC/R (8.0). Even more impressively, Okonkwo averaged 2.61 YPRR as a rookie – the 7th-best mark by any TE since at least 2009, and the best mark of any rookie TE over this span.

Rookie season YPRR and athleticism together are quite good at predicting TE production. 48% of the players in the top-right quadrant below (where Okonkwo resides) went on to finish top-6 at least once in their career.

With Austin Hooper no longer on the team, Okonkwo will have a chance to replicate his efficiency (or anything close to it) in a full-time role. He took every snap in 11 personnel in the Titans’ second preseason game, up from only 17.7% last year. Titans WRs Kyle Philips and Treylon Burks are already nursing injuries, giving Okonkwo plenty of room to earn targets behind DeAndre Hopkins. He and Dulcich mean I’m never sweating it if I miss out on a TE in the early rounds.

Gerald Everett, TE, Los Angeles Chargers

ADP: TE30 (Yahoo!)

Though he’s probably the “grossest” player on this list, I include Everett for a good reason. Aside from age, he checks nearly every other box for a surprise league-winning TE.

Breakout TE seasons often come from players catching passes from highly-drafted QBs. As J.J. Zachariason describes this trend, “Tight ends exceeding ADP by 100 or more points had a quarterback with an average cost of QB10.”

Justin Herbert is currently the QB6 or QB7 on every major platform. In fact, the Chargers are one of the only teams that:

a.) have an elite QB

b.) have a firmly established starter at TE with some past semblance of fantasy relevance (Irv Smith Jr. and Durham Smythe absolutely do not count)

and c.) their TE is not already being drafted in the single-digit rounds.

Aside from liking Everett based on this process of elimination, we should also note the play-calling change and the upside it creates. The Chargers’ receiving corps appears crowded, but OC Kellen Moore has a history of heavily featuring painfully “mid” TEs like Dalton Schultz (who ranked 4th in fantasy points scored and 4th in receptions over the past two seasons).

Last year, Everett ranked 13th in FPG (9.2) despite functionally being just a part-time player; his 59% route share ranked only 23rd most among TEs. If Moore ratchets up that usage, we could be looking at a top-6 TE in the league’s 2nd-most pass-heavy offense.

Since athleticism also matters at TE (see above), it’s worth mentioning Everett’s excellent 89.4 SPORQ score as well. I don’t see a scenario where Everett puts together a top-3 season, but he’s one of the better bets to reach “weekly starter/top-6” status who is available late. At the TE position, that’s about all we need to label a player as having upside.

Isaiah Likely, TE, Baltimore Ravens

ADP: Undrafted (ESPN, Yahoo)

If Likely were not on the Ravens, he’d be the best breakout candidate on this list. In games in which Mark Andrews ran less than an 80% route share, Likely averaged a team-leading 22% target share and 68.0 YPG. He averaged 15.8 FPG in games he played on over 50% of the snaps. He has already flashed top-3 TE numbers – the only player in this article (aside from Waller) to have done so.

The Baltimore Ravens’ offseason acquisitions at WR suggest they intend to play more 11 personnel under new OC Todd Monken, limiting Likely’s paths to getting on the field more frequently. This makes his upside case fairly linear – if Mark Andrews gets seriously injured, Likely will be, at worst, a top-6 TE and a league-winner for the rest of the season. If Andrews stays healthy, Likely will do nothing.

Outside of leagues that start multiple TEs or that have very deep benches, you probably don’t need to draft Likely. But if Andrews ever looks like he’s going to miss time, Likely and his upside should be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re setting waivers.

Ryan is a young marketing professional who takes a data-based approach to every one of his interests. He uses the skills gained from his economics degree and liberal arts education to weave and contextualize the stories the numbers indicate. At Fantasy Points, Ryan hopes to play a part in pushing analysis in the fantasy football industry forward.