The upside of upside tight ends
The fantasy tight end position has been a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma stuffed into a mystery. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. Let’s try to make sense of it together. You can find Part 1 , Part 2, and Part 3 of the series here.
I frequently get asked for advice from people trying to break into or advance in the fantasy sports industry. Usually, people inquire about how I got my start or any suggestions to improve their podcasting skills. These are all reasonable and thoughtful questions. One that I’ve yet to get is how to give advice to a significant other who wants to play fantasy football but maybe isn’t fanatical about researching players.
I can tell you from experience that anything short of a championship means you haven’t given proper advice. And unlike social media, you can’t just log off. It has made me better at targeting my advice for a specific audience. It’s also given me the freedom to test out some of my late-round theories. For instance, the late-round tight end has become a recent fascination.
Going into 2020, I was resolved to either reach early for someone like Travis Kelce or George Kittle or wait until much later — 13th round or later — for a youngish, upside tight end like Mike Gesicki (sigh), Blake Jarwin (ugh, injuries!) or Jonnu Smith (coulda been better, coulda been worse). The logic was that the guys at the top of the draft were more guaranteed to give you great production and the guys near the bottom had the chance to give you a good return on minimal investment. Meanwhile, that growing mid-tier offers mid-tier production for mid-tier investment.
If that’s not the dictionary definition of “meh”, I don’t know what is. Also, we should all take the Concorde fallacy to heart and not let it ruin our fantasy seasons. But that’s a different conversation for another time.
The late-round tight end generally falls into one of two categories — veterans with history and young guys with upside. The former is where you find guys like Eric Ebron, Kyle Rudolph and Jack Doyle and players that are drafted through a combination of muscle memory and name recognition. The latter brings you players like Jarwin, Irv Smith and O.J. Howard and guys who get picked by the “smart people” in your league.
There’s probably a bucket for Chris Herndon as well. I’m just not sure what it is.
Regardless, the aim is the same: find a gem for a minimal draft investment. Most years, there is at least one available in the late rounds. Cameron Brate was the surprise of 2016. In 2017, you had Evan Engram. 2018 was The Year of Eric Ebron. Austin Hooper stormed into 2019. In 2020, you can take your pick between Logan Thomas or Robert Tonyan, though both were more likely waiver-wire picks than draft selections.
Among those players were a few commonalities. The first is that they played in pass-heavy offenses. Which … duh. Unless you’re named Kelce, Kittle or Darren Waller, the chances of you being one of the primary targets in your team’s passing offense are slim. Therefore, it’s going to take a volume shooter under center to get a fair number of opportunities. For the aforementioned late-round breakouts, all played with QBs who were in the top 10 in attempts that season. The exception was Brate — Jameis Winston finished 11th.
Going further, nearly all of them were three to five seasons into their careers and nearly all around 25 or 26 years old. That jibes with the prevailing theory that the learning curve for tight ends is a little steeper, taking them longer to gain fantasy relevance. Again, there are outliers. Engram broke out as a 23-year-old rookie and has been chasing that statistical high ever since. Thomas’ 2020 explosion came at age 29. But he is also a converted quarterback who spent two seasons out of the league.
If we’re gazing into our murky crystal ball for who could be the late-round tight ends to pop in 2021, I’ve got a few suggestions.
- Irv Smith, Vikings: He’s likely to be your favorite analyst’s favorite upside tight end. #LetIrvSwerve started to creep into Twitter timelines last season despite having to compete with Rudolph. But entering his third season in the NFL and with Rudolph’s future with the Vikings in flux, Smith could live up to fantasy expectations.
- Cole Kmet, Bears: The love for Kmet started late last season. In the intramural battle between him and Jimmy Graham, Kmet won most the metrics you’re looking for in a fantasy tight end. He was playing more snaps and seeing more targets — only Graham was scoring the touchdowns. The Bears can part ways with the veteran this offseason, opening more chances for Kmet. Now we just need to figure out who the quarterback will be.
- Dawson Knox, Bills: Now that we feel comfortable with Josh Allen as a passer, maybe we can start looking a little deeper at his pass-catchers. 2021 will be Knox’s third NFL campaign and he won’t turn 25 until midway through the season. What’s even more encouraging is that his target share increased appreciably from Week 14 through Buffalo’s playoff run.
- Adam Trautman, Saints: Like Kmet, we wait to see who Trautman’s quarterback will be next season. But there was plenty of hype around him coming out of college and just as much excitement for his prospects when he landed in New Orleans. It would be a surprise to see Jared Cook back in the Big Easy next year, which could allow for Trautman to break out in just his second season.
- Chris Herndon, Jets: I’ll admit that I’m skeptical here. Maybe it’s because the Herndon Hive feels like it’s been buzzing for nearly a decade. In reality, he’ll be just 25 at the start of the season and entering his fourth year in the league. If new Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur can kickstart this passing game, Herndon fits the criteria of a late-round breakout player.
Ladies and gentlemen, that ends our tour of tight ends. The ending might not be as satisfying as Avengers: Endgame. Maybe next time I’ll try to get Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates to run through a multi-dimensional portal to a rousing score. But hopefully this arms you with some solid ideas when you’re on the clock later this summer. In the meantime, remember … tight end isn’t deep. But your thinking can be.
Yeah, it’s corny. So what?