Underrated Upside: Tight Ends

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Underrated Upside: Tight Ends

Hopefully by now, you’ve already read my recent tome, “Upside Wins Championships,” and have come to the conclusion that that title implies. Today’s article will be a less-philosophical, more-actionable accompaniment to that piece, and the final part of a larger series in which we highlight a number of players who have massive (ideally league-winning) upside and who have underrated upside relative to ADP. Today’s article will focus on the tight end position.

Notes: The top-3 or top-6 tight ends (by ADP) are all a little too obvious, so we’ll be ignoring them in this article. Well, except for Kyle Pitts, who — although he’s not quite a target — does warrant a longer discussion.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: TE4)

Okay, this one isn’t really a recommendation but I wanted to take the time to explain why.

Pitts was nearly an “acquire at all costs” player for me in dynasty leagues. He’s already my TE1 in dynasty leagues, ahead of Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller. He’s an “Oligarch TE”: he’s going to be a borderline cheat code at the position for many years to come. Yes, rookie tight ends are typically worthless for fantasy, but Pitts’ fantasy projection for 2021 should be higher than for any rookie TE ever. I explain all of this in great detail here.

But all of this being said, Pitts isn’t really a target for me in redraft. With a Round 4 ADP (TE4), he’s already being drafted at his ceiling. The bull-case argument for Pitts is something like this: “You can’t really think of Pitts like a TE. You have to think of him as like Ja’Marr Chase or DeVonta Smith but with a TE designation.” We have Chase projected for 13.2 FPG and Smith for 12.4, which would rank 4th among TEs. So, that’s perfectly in line with ADP, meaning, you have no room for error if selecting him at his current ADP.

In “Upside Wins Championships”, I argue exactly that. Or, rather, “Upside is everything.” That’s true to a degree. It’s very true in Round 9, but not really in Round 4.

Logan Thomas, TE, Washington Football Team (ADP: TE9)

Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes." And to me, “2021 Logan Thomas” sure does sound a lot like “2020 Darren Waller.”

Waller, a hyper-athletic TE-convert, had eclipsed 25 receiving yards in just one game across the four years since he was drafted. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he broke out, finishing tied for 5th in FPG (13.8). The following season (last year), he finished 2nd (17.4).

Thomas, a hyper-athletic TE-convert, had eclipsed 25 receiving yards in just one game across the six years since he was drafted. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he broke out, finishing tied for 5th in FPG (11.0).

Waller improved dramatically from his first full season playing the position in 2019 (13.8) to 2020 (17.4), and I think Thomas could be in line for a similar jump. Despite good volume, Thomas — the former QB, somewhat understandably — struggled early on but then hit his stride about halfway through the season. From Week 6 until the end of the year, Thomas ranked 3rd in targets per game (7.2), 5th in YPG (52.2) and 3rd in FPG (13.2). And from Week 12 on, he raised those averages to 9.0 targets per game, 60.3 YPG, and 16.3 FPG.

Though production was slow to materialize, Thomas’ volume was terrific all year. He rarely ever left the field, and ended the year with 110 targets (3rd-most). He led the position in routes run (609) and route share (91%), well ahead of names like T.J. Hockenson (461, 65%) and Robert Tonyan (371, 65%). And that’s key; the fact that he’s viewed as a full-time player and much more as a receiving TE (“move” TE) than a blocker (or “in-line” TE) hints at the Oligarch-upside very few TEs have.

Thomas is old (age 30), and still fairly raw and inexperienced in spite of that fact, but there’s also plenty of room to grow. And maybe he’s not even that raw — Washington tight ends coach Pete Hoener said he was the team’s most reliable offensive player last year and called him a top-5 TE in the NFL. Thomas does have terrific upside, but as a bonus, he offers a high margin of safety, which is to say he’s exceedingly cheap. He finished 5th in FPG last year, despite it being just his first full year playing the position, and despite being forced to catch passes from four different QBs (all of whom are a big step down from Ryan Fitzpatrick), and yet he ranks just 9th in ADP (Round 8).

Tyler Higbee, TE, Los Angeles Rams (ADP: TE11)

Higbee really might be the ultimate “Upside Wins Championships” litmus test.

I’d say the odds aren’t very good Higbee will be a TE1 you’ll feel comfortable starting each week. But if he hits, he can hit big. Here’s the stat everyone wants to focus on:

Over the past four seasons, TE Gerald Everett — now in Seattle — dealt with only one serious injury which caused him to miss time. This occurred at the tail-end of the 2019 season, when Everett played a total of four snaps across five games (Weeks 13-17). Over this span, Higbee led the league in receiving yards (522), exceeding 100 yards in four of five games. His 11.2 targets per game and 21.4 FPG weren’t just the most by any tight end over this stretch, but they were the most by any tight end over any five-game stretch that season.

If Higbee puts up those kinds of numbers this year, at a Round 10 ADP (TE10), there’s no way he doesn’t finish as one of the top-3 most valuable players in fantasy. But of course, if he is who he was when Everett was healthy (maybe rookie TE Jacob Harris or second-year man Brycen Hopkins assumes that role), he’s borderline useless in start/sit leagues. Higbee averaged just 8.5 FPG last year and 5.3 FPG when Everett was healthy in 2019.

So, how much does Higbee’s role change in 2021? I’m confident Higbee is “good at football,” but he’ll need a massive increase in volume to be “good for fantasy football.” Over the past two seasons, he ranks behind only George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and Mark Andrews in YPRR. But, over this span, he played on just 68% of the team’s snaps and ranked just 27th in routes per game (20.1).

I think it’s far more likely than not Higbee remains closer to who he was in 2020. But even if that’s the case, and the odds are something like this — 70% chance he’s a bust, 10% chance he finishes as a low-end TE1, 20% chance he is who he was at the tail-end of 2019 — it’s not obvious to me that he isn’t a great pick at current ADP.

Donald Parham, TE, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: TE38)

Parham is a 23-year-old physical freak; at 6’8” and 240 pounds, he can run the 40 in 4.68 seconds and jump 38.5 inches in the vert. At the small school of Stetson, Parham averaged 9.4 receptions, 146.6 yards, and 1.4 touchdowns per game in his senior season. For perspective, playing the same position in the same conference, Adam Trautman averaged 6.4 receptions, 83.3 yards, and 1.3 touchdowns per game in his senior year.

Nonetheless, the NFL wanted little to do with Parham, who went undrafted in 2019 and was later released by the Lions and Redskins. It took a stint with the XFL for Parham to garner the attention he deserved. And what a stint it was! Parham was arguably the most impressive player in the entire league, averaging 15.7 FPG, which ranked 4th-most among all receivers and 9.5 FPG more than the next-closest TE. He was then signed by the Chargers, who played him in 13 games behind TE Hunter Henry. Parham finished the season 3rd among rookie TEs in total fantasy points, and, in the two games Henry missed, played on 64% of the team’s snaps averaging 9.7 FPG.

This offseason, the Chargers drafted TE Tre’ McKitty purely because of what he can bring to the table as a blocker, so Parham’s only real competition is a dusty 34-year-old Jared Cook, who was signed to a one-year $4.5M deal. What’s the most likely scenario? Probably that Cook starts over Parham, or the two are stuck in something of a committee cannibalizing each other’s production. But there’s also a small chance Parham is a future star at the position. Or a red zone / end zone cheat code and the next sophomore breakout. I’m not sure what those chances are exactly, but they’re certainly better than current ADP implies. In the top-heavy TE Premium high-stakes tournaments (the Main Event and the FootballGuys Players Championship), Parham is going undrafted in the majority of leagues (ADP: TE38), and, even if I don’t know much, I know that’s a glaring mistake.

Quick Hits

Dallas Goedert ranked 9th in FPG (10.6) last year, but would have ranked 4th with a rudimentary injury adjustment. If excluding Weeks 3-8 (ankle) and Week 16 (calf) due to injury, Goedert would have averaged 7.5 targets, 5.1 receptions, 58.0 yards, and 13.2 FPG… I’ve always thought Goedert would be a future fantasy superstar, but it would just take some time, stuck playing alongside TE Zach Ertz for the majority of his rookie contract. With Ertz a near-lock to be released or traded by the start of the season, look for Goedert to reach his full potential in 2021. The only concerns with him would be injury and, more importantly, poor QB play.

Similarly, Noah Fant’s full-season numbers are misleading. He finished 11th in FPG (10.0), but would have ranked 5th (11.4) if excluding Week 4 (left early with an ankle injury), Week 12 (WR Kendall Hinton was the starting QB), and Week 14 (played just 5 snaps due to illness). Even without the adjustment, Fant ranked 5th in YPRR (Goedert ranked 6th) and behind only George Kittle in YAC/R. And this was — like with Goedert — despite being saddled with bottom-tier QB play… With the safety net of Teddy Bridgewater, QB play should improve, though there will also be more target competition in Denver this year. So, while I like Goedert (ADP: TE7) and (then) Fant (TE8) a lot, I’d rather have Thomas straight-up and especially at the cheaper price-tag (TE9).

Robert Tonyan was incredible in 2020, putting together one of the most efficient TE seasons of all-time. He finished the season as the overall TE3 despite ranking just 24th in targets (59). Remarkably, Tonyan had more touchdowns (11) than he had incompletions thrown his way (7). He averaged 2.99 fantasy points per target, which was the most by any 50-target TE in any season all-time. We should take this two different ways: 1) He is a massive regression candidate, as we discussed here, though that’s also more than baked into his current ADP. 2) But he was so good, that there’s a really great chance he at least offsets that looming regression with a major increase in volume. He certainly seems deserving of it (though, of course, Aaron Rodgers’ MVP play definitely helped), and HC Matt LaFleur seems to agree.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Logan Thomas isn’t the next Darren Waller. Maybe it’s Tonyan, another hyper-athletic TE-convert who had a breakout year seemingly out of nowhere, finishing third at the position in only his first full-season playing the position. In any case, Tonyan is a major boom-or-bust pick, with good upside and high amount of risk (we haven’t yet mentioned Rodgers’ holdout). But at his ADP (TE13, Round 11) that’s exactly what you should be looking for.

Deeper Sleepers

After a down year, Evan Engram is being written off as “washed,” but instead he might just be a screaming injury discount (ADP: TE14). In his first season back from a Lisfranc injury, Engram’s FPG average dropped from 13.7 in 2019 to 8.9 in 2020 (a 35% decrease). FantasyPoints’ own injury expert Edwin Porras warned us last year, “Lisfranc injuries reduce NFL offensive players’ on-field production by an average of 21% in the first season following surgery. This production seemed to level off after the second year and returned to baseline.” If Porras is right, Engram is an immense value with excellent upside. Prior to last season, Engram averaged 13.5 FPG in his 23 career games without Odell Beckham Jr. That would have ranked 4th-best last year.

Last season, Adam Trautman ranked 6th-best of 48 qualifying tight ends in PFF Grade (76.9). Outside of that stat, it’s hard to (statistically) show you just how good Trautman was a rookie. But, per the film experts I trust the most, I’ve heard things like: “"He's a sophisticated route runner and will make things easy on the quarterback. I have a hard time imagining he's not already the No. 2 receiver in the offense,” and from someone even more bullish, “He’s already a better receiver than Dallas Goedert, and I like Goedert.” The film experts I’ve talked to love Trautman, and so do the New Orleans Saints — Trautman went late-Round 3 in the 2020 Draft, but GM Mickey Loomis said they had him as a top-40 player on their board, after trading the literal rest of their draft (giving up Round 4, 5, 6, and 7 picks) to acquire him. Tight ends tend to make a massive leap from their rookie to sophomore seasons, and Trautman has minimal target competition outside of Michael Thomas, after the team lost Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. He’s not a must-draft player for me by any stretch, but he is worth gambling on at his ADP of TE18 in TE Premium leagues like the FFPC Main Event.

Gerald Everett is one of my most-drafted players in best ball leagues. He’s ridiculously under-priced and a virtual lock to beat his ADP (TE21) serving as Seattle’s No. 3 receiver. That said, I probably won’t have much exposure in typical start/sit leagues. Why? Because I’m skeptical of his upside. His bear-case projection or floor might be well above his current ADP, but his upside probably isn’t much better than “low-end TE1.” And a low-end TE1 really doesn’t bring too much value to the table in terms of you actually winning your league. Still, he’s one of the better picks you can make at the position as, I suppose, he does have more upside than most of the other tight ends around his ADP range.

Hear me out, what if… what if Zach Ertz isn’t cooked… What if he just had a down year? And he’s still at least 80% of who he was over his prior three seasons (15.5 FPG)? While I don’t really think that’s true, I also don’t really think that matters. At least not at his laughably low ADP of TE23. That upside argument is all you need to justify taking him there. And, I’d bet his ADP jumps four spots if he lands in Buffalo and six spots if he lands in Indianapolis. So, it’s probably better to grab him now at this price.

Scott Barrett combines a unique background in philosophy and investing alongside a lifelong love of football and spreadsheets to serve as FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and Lead DFS Writer.