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2021 Positional Tracker: Tight Ends

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2021 Positional Tracker: Tight Ends

Joe Dolan and I are covering every major offensive transaction from the 2021 off-season in our Off-season Tracker articles. We broke down all the important free agency signings and trades from a fantasy perspective in articles sorted by position. The articles are ordered by players changing teams ("New Homes") and by players sticking with their 2020 teams ("Staying Put"). The players are also ordered by their potential fantasy impact for the 2021 season in each section. Be sure to also check out Graham Barfield’s “Fantasy Fallout” pieces on the biggest transactions of the off-season.

New Homes

Jonnu Smith (NE, 26) — The Patriots and Smith agreed to terms on a four-year, $50 million contract with $31.3 million guaranteed. The deal makes Smith the third-highest paid tight end with an annual average salary of $12.5 million, behind just George Kittle ($15 million) and Travis Kelce ($14.3 million).

Fantasy Points: The Patriots, of all teams, made one of the first major moves in free agency by inking Smith to a long-term contract. It’s not a total shocker though, since Bill Belichick called Smith the best tight end after the catch before their Wild Card Round game in January 2020. Jonnu averaged 5.8 yards after the catch last season, which ranked fifth at the position, and he averaged 6.8 YAC over the last two seasons. Jonnu’s talent never seemed to line up with his production in his first four seasons with Tennessee. The Titans’ offense has been one of the best in the league over the last two seasons, but Jonnu played more of a bit part with Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown soaking up most of the fantasy production. Smith never reached 500+ receiving yards or 45+ catches in any of his first four seasons. He posted 41/448/8 receiving on 65 targets last season to finish as the TE13 with 9.3 FPG in 15 games. Jonnu went from being a top-three TE through his first four games to being an unusable fantasy option by the end of the year. He scored 70.1 FP in his first four contests in 2020 before scoring exactly 70.1 FP in his final 11 games. Jonnu finished the season with two performances as a top-five TE and seven finishes in the top-12 at the position.

Smith flashed when he was actively used in Tennessee’s offense, and the Patriots will look to unlock his fantasy potential by making him a bigger part of their passing attack. Belichick and Josh McDaniels have long coveted versatile tight ends since they drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the same draft in 2010. The Patriots spent two third-round picks on TEs last year in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, but New England received no significant contributions from them as rookies — Patriots TEs saw a league-low 33 targets last season. They remedied the situation by signing the two biggest free agents in Jonnu and Hunter Henry to give them the best 1-2 combination at tight end in the league.

Smith is going to have a ton of competition for targets with Henry, and he landed in yet another offense that projects to be one of the more run-heavy offenses. It also doesn’t help that he’s getting a significant downgrade going from Ryan Tannehill to Cam Newton at quarterback. Newton threw for just eight touchdowns last season and he didn’t throw for multiple scores until the season finale. Tannehill reached eight TD passes by Tennessee’s fourth game last season and he threw for multiple scores 11 times. Cam is going to have to significantly improve in his second season with the Patriots for Jonnu to be more than a high-end TE2 next season. At least Greg Olsen once thrived as Cam’s #1 receiver in Carolina. He posted 180+ FP and he averaged 118.2 targets per year in five straight seasons from 2012-16. Jonnu should see a slight uptick in volume but pass attempts will be limited in New England’s offense, and Belichick has added plenty of receivers to his war chest in Henry, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne to go along with Julian Edelman and Jakobi Meyers. Jonnu will also be anchored to Cam next season, whose career went in the wrong direction for a second straight year at 31 years old. It’s tough to get excited about Jonnu as anything more than a high-end TE2 pick in drafts this year.

Hunter Henry (NE, 27) — The Patriots and Henry agreed to terms on a three-year, $37.5 million contract, which included $25 million in guaranteed money.

Fantasy Points: New England pulled off a shocking pair of moves by signing the top two available tight ends in the open market in Henry and Jonnu Smith. HC Bill Belichick has long admired both tight ends and has spoken glowingly of both in press conferences over the last 15 months. Belichick spoke last December about how he’s followed Henry’s career since he played for legendary Arkansas high school football coach Kevin Kelley — he’s famous for never punting. Henry hasn’t quite ascended to stud status at the position as most expected after he scored eight touchdowns during his rookie campaign in 2016. It didn’t help that he tore his ACL in May 2018, which forced him to miss the entire regular season. He’s had availability issues in each of his first five seasons and he’s yet to play a full 16-game season. Henry had his sights set on his first 16-game season and a new career-high in receiving yards last season before he came down with COVID-19 and missed the final two games of the season. He still posted 60/613/4 receiving on 93 targets to finish as the TE10 with 10.4 FPG. Henry disappointed with just one top-five TE performance last season but he was consistently a top-12 option with eight finishes as a TE1. He posted career-worst marks in YPR (10.2) and catch rate (64.2%) switching from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert.

Henry’s play didn’t noticeably decline last season despite his drop in efficiency, but it’s tough to see him rebounding as he undergoes a QB change for the second straight season, this time from Herbert to Cam Newton. Newton threw for just eight touchdowns last season and he didn’t throw for multiple scores until the season finale. Herbert reached eight TD passes by his fourth game as a rookie and he threw for multiple scores in 10-of-15 games. Belichick and Josh McDaniels will look to recreate the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez combination from the early 2010s, but Cam isn’t the same player that Tom Brady was when he was running New England’s heavy 12-personnel offense. Cam is going to have to significantly improve in his second season with the Patriots for Henry to be anything more than a high-end TE2 next season. At least Greg Olsen once thrived as Cam’s #1 receiver in Carolina. He posted 180+ FP and he averaged 118.2 targets per year in five straight seasons from 2012-16. Pass attempts could be a little limited in New England’s new-look offense this year, and Belichick has added plenty of receivers to his war chest in Jonnu, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne to go along with Julian Edelman and Jakobi Meyers. Henry will also be anchored to Cam next season, whose career went in the wrong direction for a second straight year at 31 years old. It’s tough to get excited about Henry as anything more than a high-end TE2 pick in drafts this year.

Jared Cook (LAC, 34) — The Chargers and Cook agreed to terms on a one-year contract worth up to $6 million.

Fantasy Points: Cook will join his fifth team in the last seven seasons as he replaces Hunter Henry as Los Angeles’ top TE. Cook had a perfect environment to be more active in his second season in New Orleans with Michael Thomas and his 185 targets from 2019 out of the lineup for nine games last season. It didn’t pan out for Cook, though, who saw more than five targets just once in 15 games last season. Cook had his worst season in the last four years with 37/504/7 receiving on 60 targets to finish as the TE20 with 8.6 FPG. He finished as a top-five TE twice and he had six top-12 performances last season. Cook did score 6+ TDs for the third straight season after failing to hit that mark in each of his first nine seasons, and he owned a ridiculous 12.8% TD rate the last two seasons (16 TDs on 125 targets).

Cook will get a shot of life going from the noodle-armed Brees to Justin Herbert this season, who has a much stronger arm to take advantage of Cooks’ downfield ability. Cook averaged 13.2 YPR or better in each of his last three seasons so he’s still moving well and stretching the seams despite his advanced football age. Cook has also worked with OC Joe Lombardi in New Orleans the last two seasons, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of competition for targets at the position with just prospect Donald Parham as the top threat behind him. Cook averaged just 4.3 targets per game in New Orleans the last two seasons playing next to Thomas. He should see an uptick in targets in Los Angeles but it’s unlikely to be too dramatic of an increase since he’ll be playing next to another ball-hog in Keenan Allen. Cook should settle in as a mid- to low-end TE2 who will be better suited for Best Ball formats since he’s reliant on touchdowns and big plays for production.

Dan Arnold (Car, 26) — The Panthers and Arnold agreed to terms on a two-year, $6 million contract.

Fantasy Points: Carolina needs more receiving production from its tight ends this year and Arnold could be a good fit for the Panthers since he worked with OC Joe Brady during the 2017-18 seasons in New Orleans. Arnold had a moment as a streaming option at the end of last season with 3+ catches or a touchdown in the final five games, which helped him to a top-five weekly performance and two top-12 finishes. Kyler Murray desperately needed a second receiver to step up with Christian Kirk vanishing in the second half of the season, and Arnold answered the call. He posted a career-best 31/438/4 receiving on 45 targets for 97.8 FP in 16 games — he appeared in just 15 games in his first three seasons. Arnold might be just starting to hit his stride as a move TE after playing WR and after earning track All-American honors as a hurdler at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. He didn’t begin his transition to TE until 2018 with the Saints, and he’s an intriguing receiving weapon because of his length (6’6”, 220 pounds) and athleticism (4.63 40-time, 39.5-inch vertical). Arnold found the right offense to find fantasy relevance in next season. Slot WR Curtis Samuel and his 77 receptions left in free agency and incumbent TE Ian Thomas finished dead last in yards per route run (.31) at the position in 2020. I also have some faith that Brady will be able to use Darnold as a matchup nightmare against smaller safeties and linebackers. I’ll be viewing Arnold as a high-upside TE2/3 in fantasy drafts if the Panthers avoid any other big moves at the position like drafting Kyle Pitts with the eighth overall pick.

Gerald Everett (Sea, 27) — The Seahawks and Everett reached terms on a one-year deal, which has $6 million in guaranteed money and is worth up to $7 million.

Fantasy Points: The Rams drafted Everett with the 44th overall in 2017, but he hasn’t been able to completely show off his receiving skills the last four years since he’s been stuck in a timeshare with Tyler Higbee. He’ll have a better chance to do it this season in Seattle, but he’ll still be competing for snaps with incumbent starter Will Dissly. Everett has steadily improved in his first four seasons, culminating in 41/417/1 receiving on 62 targets for 93.9 FP while playing 55% of the snaps in 16 games. He had just two performances as a top-12 TE last season but one of those came in his lone contest without Higbee on the field in Week 7 when he posted 4/28/1 receiving against the Bears. Everett is best known for his ability to create with the rock in his hands. He averaged 5.9 yards after the catch last season, which ranked behind only Dawson Knox, George Kittle, and Noah Fant at the position last season.

Everett is a high-level athlete with a 4.62 40-time and a 126-inch broad jump, and he may have had the most untapped potential in this year’s free agent tight end class. Unfortunately, he may not get to completely show off his skill set once again this season. Everett will be competing for snaps and targets this season with Dissly, who completed his first healthy season in his third year. I’ll feel a little better about Everett’s chances of breaking through this season if Seattle lets Jacob Hollister walk in free agency. Russell Wilson has never been shy about targeting his tight ends with Dissly, Hollister, and Greg Olsen combining for 73/699/6 receiving last season. Everett has at least worked with new Seahawks OC Shane Waldron, who has worked directly with Everett the last four years with the Rams. Everett will be worth a look after the top-150 picks in drafts this year since there’s a chance he takes command of the position in Seattle this year. Still, Dissly figures to be a thorn in his side, which is why he should only be considered late in drafts in the TE2/3 range.

Kyle Rudolph (NYG, 32) — The Giants and Rudolph agreed to terms on a two-year, $12 million deal with $4.5 million in guaranteed money.

Fantasy Points: Rudolph and the Vikings were seemingly headed for a divorce for two seasons since he refused to take a pay cut, and the two parties finally parted ways before the start of free agency after 10 seasons. Now, Rudolph’s signing with the Giants could be a sign that they could eventually part ways with Evan Engram, who has just a year left on his rookie contract. Rudolph had been on the outs with the Vikings since selected Irv Smith in the second round of the 2019 draft. The talented third-year pro out of Alabama slowly cut into Rudolph’s role, which culminated in Irv’s breakout at the end of last season with Rudolph on the sidelines for the final four games. Rudolph is coming off six-year lows as a receiver last season. He posted 28/334/1 receiving on 37 targets for 66.4 FP while playing 72% of the snaps in 12 games. Rudolph will need surgery for a foot injury he suffered at the end of the season, which forced him to miss four games, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of the 2021 season. Rudolph can still be a red-zone weapon with 25 scores between 2016-19, but he’s more likely to be a fantasy vulture for Engram than a fantasy asset.

Josh Oliver (Bal, 24) — The Ravens acquired Oliver from the Jaguars for a conditional pick.

Fantasy Points: The Ravens wisely took a chance on Oliver in a move that only has upside for them while the new Jaguars management threw in the towel on a toolsy prospect. Oliver has been snake-bitten by back and foot injuries to start his career. He appeared in just four games as a rookie because of a broken back and he missed the entire 2020 campaign because of a broken foot. Oliver has the size (6’5”, 249 pounds), speed (4.63), and catch radius (33.5-inch length arms) to become a receiving factor if he can stay on the field. Oliver is unlikely to break through for fantasy in 2021 but he’s a player to at least monitor for Dynasty formats if he can get on the field to start to show his receiving skills.

Jacob Hollister (Sea, 28) — The Bills and Hollister agreed to terms on a one-year contract.

Fantasy Points: Hollister signed with Buffalo to play with his old college teammate, Josh Allen, with whom he played with for two seasons at Wyoming. Hollister, like the rest of the Seahawks, ended 2020 with a dud performance in the Wild Card Round as he went 0-for-5 on his targets in a loss to the Rams. He worked as the #3 TE behind Greg Olsen and Will Dissly last season, but he finished with slightly more fantasy production with 62.7 FP compared to 53.9 for Olsen and 58.1 for Dissly. Hollister finished with 25/209/3 receiving on 40 targets in 16 games last season. It was a step down from 41/349/3 receiving he posted as the #1 TE in 2019 with Dissly landing on the injured reserve. He’s averaged just 8.5 YPR over the last two seasons, which is less than ideal for a move tight end. Hollister will slot in as the team’s #2 TE behind Dawson Knox.

Chris Manhertz (Jax, 29) — The Jaguars and Manhertz inked a two-year, $7.25 million deal, which included $4.25 million in guaranteed money. Jacksonville is desperate for tight end help this off-season and their first move at the position is to sign a career backup. Manhertz has never seen more than eight targets in a season and he has just 19 career targets in 70 career games over seven years. He’s best known for his blocking and, perhaps, his signing is an indication that the Jaguars are going to skew run-heavy next season.

Tyler Kroft (NYJ, 29) — The Jets and Kroft agreed to terms on a one-year, $2 million with $1.5 million in guaranteed money. Kroft managed just 18/190/4 receiving in 21 games over the last two seasons with the Bills. He dealt with foot issues in 2019 and he landed on the COVID-19 list twice last season. Kroft had 42 catches for the Bengals in 2017 and he has just 43 combined catches in his other five pro seasons. He should settle in as a blocking TE behind Chris Herndon this season.

Josh Hill (Det, 31) — The Lions and Hill agreed to terms on a one-year contract after the Saints released him prior to free agency after an eight-year run in New Orleans to start his career. Detroit released Jesse James prior to free agency and it didn’t take them long to find a potential replacement behind T.J. Hockenson. It didn’t hurt that Hill’s former tight ends coach, Dan Campbell, took over as the head coach in Detroit, and he’ll be given a chance to earn a small role as a blocking tight end.

Blake Bell (KC, 30) — The Chiefs and Bell reunited on a one-year deal after he spent a season in Dallas. The Belldozer once starred at quarterback at Oklahoma, but he’s turned into a blocking tight end in the NFL. He actually topped 100+ receiving yards last season for the first time since his rookie season with the 49ers in 2015. Bell will once again be a depth option for the Chiefs behind Travis Kelce.

Ryan Izzo (Hou, 26) — The Texans acquired Izzo from the Patriots in exchange for a seventh-round pick. Houston released Darren Fells to save $2.3 million against the cap and they brought in Izzo to compete with Kahale Warring and Pharaoh Brown for snaps behind top TE Jordan Akins. Izzo was likely to be a cap casualty in New England after the Patriots signed Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.

Nick Vannett (NO, 28) — The Saints and Vannett agreed to terms on a “three-year contract.” The Saints are maneuvering against the salary cap so Vannett’s contract likely has at least a ghost year or two in it. The Saints needed help at tight end after they lost Jared Cook and Josh Hill in free agency, and he’ll slot in as the #2 TE, at best, next season. Vannett should be no threat to second-year pro Adam Trautman, who is one of the more intriguing TE2/3s late in drafts.

Lee Smith (Atl, 34) — The Falcons acquired Smith from the Bills for a 2022 seventh-round pick. Smith has never reached 80+ receiving yards in any of his 10 seasons between the Bills and Raiders and that’s unlikely to change with the Falcons next season. He’s a glorified third tackle and his acquisition is more of a telling sign that HC Arthur Smith wants to pound the rock as he did in Tennessee with Derrick Henry.

Cethan Carter (Mia, 28) — The Dolphins inked Carter to a three-year, $7.8 million contract with $2.7 million in guaranteed money. Miami brought in Carter to help their rushing attack and their special teams units after he posted career-highs in offensive (220) and special teams snaps (318) in this third season.

Staying Put

Rob Gronkowski (TB, 32) — The Buccaneers and Gronkowski reached terms on a one-year, $10 million contract.

Fantasy Points: It would’ve been absolutely stunning if Gronk played with anybody but Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in 2021. Both sides seem content to take it year to year after Brady coaxed Gronk out of retirement last off-season. The move certainly paid off with Gronk winning his fourth Super Bowl title. He played a pivotal role with two touchdowns in their stunning 22-point victory over the Chiefs after previously totaling just two catches in Tampa’s first three playoff games. Gronk played well overall last season with 45/623/7 receiving on 77 targets and he finished as the TE13 with 9.3 FPG. He also registered his first full 16-game season (while playing 75% of the snaps) since he did it in his first and second seasons in 2010 and 2011.

Gronk’s role in the passing game diminished after Antonio Brown joined the team as he posted two or fewer catches in nine of his final 12 games (playoffs included). Gronk will be hard-pressed to match his TE13 fantasy finish from last season since he’ll be another year older and he’ll have more competition for targets. Cameron Brate emerged as a Brady favorite in the postseason and O.J. Howard will return from his torn Achilles next season. Gronk could still challenge for the position lead in touchdowns next season, which makes him intriguing for Best Ball formats. He’s going to be a frustrating mid-TE2 in re-draft formats after he averaged 4.3 targets per game in the final 12 games of last season (playoffs included) after AB joined the roster.

Anthony Firkser (Ten, 26) — The Titans re-signed restrict free agent Firkser to a one-year contract

Fantasy Points: Firkser is a fantasy option I’m monitoring for the rest of the off-season because he could turn into a sneaky strong late-round option in deep-TE formats after Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis vacated 157 targets in free agency. Firkser flashed several times in his third season out of Harvard, posting a career-best 39/387/1 receiving on 53 targets for 81.6 FP while playing just 32% of the snaps in 16 games. He nearly out-scored Jonnu in the final 12 games of the season, with Smith posting 70.1 FP from Week 6 on while Firkser posted 67.8 FP in that same span. Firkser isn’t going to create many holes for Derrick Henry at 6’2”, 246 pounds, but he could have a bigger role as the team’s move TE with the Titans currently devoid of viable receivers behind A.J. Brown. Firkser is an under-the-radar breakout fantasy candidate in 2021 and he should be considered as an upside TE2/3 in Best Ball drafts if the Titans remain relatively quiet at receiver the rest of the off-season.

James O'Shaughnessy (Jax, 29) — The Jaguars re-signed O’Shaughnessy to a one-year contract. Trent Baalke and Urban Meyer bungled the TE position so far by getting rid of their two most talented options at the position in Tyler Eifert and Josh Oliver. They replaced them by giving career backup, Christ Manhertz, $4.25 million in guaranteed money. O’Shaughnessy has a chance to be active this season after posting 28/262/0 receiving last season, but he’s unlikely to be fantasy relevant next season.

Pharaoh Brown (Hou, 27) — The Texans re-signed restricted free agent Brown to a one-year contract. Brown once looked like a surefire top-tier NFL prospect before he suffered a gruesome leg injury in 2014 while at Oregon, which nearly cost him his leg. It’s been a long road back for Brown, and he started to show some of his potential last season when he posted 14/163/2 receiving in 13 games. Brown is moving up the team’s depth chart after the team cut Darren Fells, and he’s a name to remember if he would see an uptick in playing time this season behind the underwhelming Jordan Akins.

Marcedes Lewis (GB, 37) — The Packers and Lewis agreed to terms on a two-year, $8 million contract with $4 million in guaranteed money. The 15-year veteran hasn’t posted more than 15 catches in a season in his first three seasons with the Packers, but his return is a big boost for Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon since he’s one of the league’s better run blockers at the position.

Stephen Anderson (LAC, 28) — The Chargers and Anderson came to terms on a deal for the 2021 season, and he’ll slot in as the team’s #3 TE behind Jared Cook and Donald Parham. He has just three catches over the last three seasons since he posted 25/342/1 receiving for the Texans as a second-year pro in 2017.

Ross Dwelley (SF, 26) — The 49ers re-signed restricted free agent Dwelley to a one-year contract. With George Kittle missing a large chunk of the season, Dwelley posted career-highs with 19/245/1 receiving on 24 targets in 16 games last season. He’s unlikely to be fantasy relevant next season even if Kittle misses playing time once again in 2021.

Geoff Swaim (Ten, 30) — The Titans re-signed Swaim to a one-year contract. He’ll be competing for snaps with MyCole Pruitt to be the team’s primary blocking tight end since Anthony Firkser figures to handle the majority of passing work at the position. Swaim has just two career touchdown receptions in 53 games over six seasons.

Darrell Daniels (Ari, 27) — The Cardinals re-signed Daniels for the 2021 season. He’s latched on with the Cardinals because of his blocking prowess over the last two-plus seasons after starting his career with the Colts and Seahawks. He has just 12 career catches in 46 games and he’s the current second option behind Maxx Williams for Arizona right now.

Jaeden Graham (Atl, 26) — The Falcons re-signed Graham, an exclusive right FA, to a one-year contract. Graham has yet to start a game in his first three seasons as an undrafted free agent out of Yale, and he owns 12 career receptions over the last two seasons. He’ll compete for a roster spot behind the team’s top tight end Hayden Hurst next summer.

Derek Carrier (LV, 31) — The Raiders re-signed Carrier to a one-year contract, who caught just one pass in 16 games last season. He’s never reached 150+ receiving yards in a season, and he’ll continue to work as a blocking complement to receiving TE Darren Waller in Las Vegas’ offense.

Tom is a Senior Writer at Fantasy Points who specializes in fantasy and betting analysis. He’ll be helping you to navigate the waiver wire and manage your fantasy teams while also keeping our betting content robust all year long, especially during the season. Tom's Best Bets against the spread won at 61.5% clip in 2019 and he was a perfect 8-0 on his Best Bets for season win totals in 2020.

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