The (Tight) End of the World as we know it?

By James Fotheringham (@NFLHypeTrain)

As the Hype Train Driver, I’m used to changing scenery. Looking out of the window, everything can look different from season to season. The NFL, and certainly fantasy football, are no different.

The Tight end position has been a bone of contention for many fantasy players over the years. The low number of fantasy relevant tight ends and the premium to get good ones has led to a variety of suggestions and solutions. Some leagues turned the TE position into a Flex spot including Tight end, others make it 1.5x points and some have scrapped the position altogether.

Going into last season, most people seemed to suggest that beyond Kelce, Ertz and Kittle, there’s very little out there. Through the season the likes of Austin Hooper, Darren Waller and Mark Andrews took flight and added their names to the “Relevant” list. Even the tandem at the Rams of Higbee and Everett became fantasy pickups. It leaves the fantasy world in an interesting position.


Current Situation


The free agency period has been hectic despite the Coronavirus pandemic.

As I currently see it, this is the situation at Tight End for each team:

The headlines this off-season have been made by Austin Hooper (going to the Browns), Hayden Hurst (filling the void in Atlanta), Greg Olsen (adding to the long list in Seattle), Jimmy Graham (being given yet another overpaid contract, this time from the Bears) and Eric Ebron (joining Vance McDonald in Pittsburgh).

With very few good quality tight ends left on the market, it appear a lot of teams are going to be relying on 2nd year tight ends stepping up or maybe even rookies. I’ll leave it to the podcast and twitter feeds to talk about those impacts on the NFL, but in terms of fantasy, Hurst has value, Hooper has some value but it’s more stunted than if he had stayed in Atlanta. Ebron will be a red-zone target so he has to score a TD to be relevant week to week. Jimmy Graham won’t see any kind of uptick while Greg Olsen may be a dark horse option if he can stay healthy. As the off-season rumbles on I’m sure it will be touched on more, but that’s my initial thoughts.


The 2020 Draft


There are a few interesting landing spots. The Patriots, Cardinals, Redskins, Panthers, Packers and Jaguars could be in the hunt for a new Tight End after some other possible spots were filled in free agency. There’s time yet for some trades, but many teams are going to be looking to develop the talent they have or target one in the draft. With 6 strong landing spots we could well see 1 or 2 rookie tight ends make it into starting line-ups.

There’s not as many standout options as in previous years but Cole Kmet (Notre Dame), Brycen Hopkins (Purdue) and Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt) are the 3 gathering the most interest. There’s not likely to be a 1st season breakout this season. Rookie Tight ends usually require a full season before becoming fantasy relevant and a feature of the offence but there have been times where this has been overruled. 


The 2020 Season


AP Photo/Damian Strohmeyer

After years of Gronk… Kelce… Then the rest; there’s now more than just 2 or 3 tiers of Tight End and no real dominant Tight End causing early round headaches in fantasy drafts. The lack of an outright #1 reduces the value and with so many options, 2020 might see tight ends fall down the order and, in some leagues, they may become a streaming position similar to QB’s and Defence/Special Teams.

Kelce, Waller, Andrews and Kittle are the guys who are going to give you a solid score every week and are a key piece of their offences. These will be most likely be the first 4 Tight Ends off the board and the value will probably be in drafting the 4th one so that you have the best RB and WR options possible, whilst still being able to trust your TE.

The next level contains tight ends where you’ll want to play them in plus matchups, and they will probably provide a good return more often then they will fail. The issue is consistency and knowing that any week there is a reasonable chance they won’t be much help. Tandems like Ertz and Goedert may find themselves here. Injury risks like Engram and Olsen may also feature here. Similarly, second season breakout candidates like Fant and Gesicki should be in this wide tier. (I’ll dive a bit more into this shortly).

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The third tier includes those who are a gamble and the risk of them not performing is built into their ADP, and those who will be consistent but not in a very effective way. Rudolph and Smith in Minnesota are a duo that may stunt each other’s fantasy relevance, but Kirk Cousins doesn’t help either. Jimmy Graham may end up here depending on the TE and QB battles in Chicago. The rookie tight ends may also end up in this tier.

The final tier is for the players who will remain on the waiver wire unless their matchup is particular tempting (e.g. Playing Arizona last season). The likes of Eifert, I.Thomas and Burton come to mind. The Tennessee situation is difficult to determine as Walker is injury prone and Jonnu Smith doesn’t seem quite ready to be the #1 so the tandem with him and Firkser may make them. The off season could change some of these scenarios, but it will take a few weeks of the season before it becomes a bit clearer.


Examining Tier 2


The success of schemes where Tight Ends are RedZone threats, check down options or planned in as pass catcher have led to an increase in targets. The fact George Kittle, and Travis Kelce ended up as the highest scoring Non-QB fantasy players (from the season) in the Superbowl shows the importance of the position in the modern NFL. The days of it being a baron landscape have been overblown in my opinion. This all bodes well for the new generation with the likes of Waller, Andrews and Goedert coming through.

The increase in the “Tier 2” Tight ends and the chances that one will crack tier 1 make the fantasy draft much more interesting. I’ve listed 20 players who could be in Tier 2. These wont all be tier 2 as fantasy season rolls around but there’s arguments for each of them. I’ve split them into categories.

Established Options: Doyle, Cook, Engram, Olsen, Henry, Fells.

Two TE Sets: Olsen/Dissly, Ertz/Goedert, Higbee/Everett, Howard/Brate, McDonald/Ebron, Njoku/Hooper.

Potential breakouts: Fant, Hockensen, Gesicki, Herndon, Knox, J.Thomas.


Established Options


Be it because of injury, QB play or competition these guys won’t be able to crack the upper echelons but are usually going to be playable.

Cook had a decent year with Drew Brees last season while Greg Olsen has moved to the TE haven in Seattle. Both he and Evan Engram are injury risks and if they are missing more often then you can play them, you’re better looking elsewhere.

Jack Doyle is perhaps the least spectacular on the list but is the most consistent and may actually be a sleeper pick now with Eric Ebron out of the way and Philip Rivers slinging the ball for one year in Indy. The recently franchise tagged Hunter Henry will be reliant on what the Chargers do at QB, while Darren Fells will need to prove that his form last season can be made consistent, though did sign a new deal this offseason. Jordan Thomas behind him may also steal some targets so buyer beware.


Two TE Sets


A big threat to the relevance of the TE position in fantasy is the two tight end systems. When one goes down the remaining player isn’t guaranteed to take off (but sometimes they do). It’s often a case that when both options are playing, one will take off each week, but it never stays consistent who it is.

Take Higbee and Everett for the LA Rams. After both toiled early on in the season, Everett broke out, only to then go down injured and leave Higbee to pick up the slack. It’s a combo where one or the other can work but together they ruin each-others value. Everett started getting the targets over Higbee and that got the ball rolling. They ended up with similar stat-lines, but I’d be wary of drafting either of them in 2020 as you’re going to have to hope you pick the one that takes off first.  

I’ve mentioned Olsen already but when you look at Seattle, they could play 4TE and only 2WR looking at their depth charts. Olsen, Dissly, Hollister and Dickson could all be playable if they are in that weeks set. Will Dissly (when he’s fit) has been superb but you’re just waiting for something to break. He’s probably worth a roster spot while he’s active unless Olsen hogs all the targets.

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Howard and Brate are going to have Tom Brady this year which leaves them as total wildcards so it’s obvious that some people will take the gamble in drafts. McDonald and Ebron at the Steelers are probably going to flip-flop in terms of being relevant but across a season they should be usable. I nearly put Njoku and Hooper into tier 3 but Baker can’t be that bad again can he? If Njoku gets trades he gets a boost and Hooper likewise become more trustworthy. Again, both will be a gamble but if anything gives them an uptick in opportunities, their draft stock will rise with it.

The big one currently is in Philly as the Ertz/Goedert combination is proving to be great news for the Eagles but bad news for fantasy. Ertz is still tabbed as a top 4 TE and with good reason. He is still a beast, a great catcher and can dominate a game. The problem is, Goedert is very much going to same way but has a few less years wear on the tyres. Using both is allowing them to stay healthier and give Wentz options. With their lack of true WR options I think you’ll find both can be top 12 options this season but calling which games will be Ertz dominated and which Goedert dominated may be the difference between a win and a loss.


Breakouts


Most rookie Tight Ends don’t hit in their first year but start really coming on in their second. There’s going to be some differing levels of improvement thanks to their respective teams’ philosophies and personnel but if it’s late in your fantasy draft and you fancy a gamble, hopefully one of these will be kicking around.

Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Noah Fant is one of my major hopes for this season. Drew Lock has improved the QB situation in Denver and with Sutton breaking out, Fant found himself becoming relevant late in the season. He was well hyped last season after the draft, and this is probably the year he really gets going. Mike Gesicki falls into the same boat here. His main issue is being in Miami and not being certain what he’s working with. The advantage he has is that the offence is sort of being built around him as he’s one of the few decent, young offensive pieces they have.

TJ Hockensen may need a few things to go his way to truly break out. The Lions have never historically been a good place for Tight Ends but considering the capital they spent on him, they are going to have to find ways of getting him the ball. Matt Stafford isn’t a bad QB, he just needs to be 100% healthy mentally and physically (which he hasn’t been for a few years now). Dawson Knox is also a rookie who may need some team improvement to see relevance, however the Bills keep progressing and is Josh Allen can start finding Knox like he did towards the end of last season, then who knows what they may create.

Jordan Thomas is a long shot who could be a serious sleeper. If Darren Fells doesn’t come back and the Texans rest their hopes on Thomas, he will get the targets from Deshaun Watson and when you consider how good fells was for fantasy last season, that could be a decent position to have.

The final name to throw in here is Chris Herndon. He’s threatened to break out before but suspensions, injuries and QB changes have stopped that from happening. With a new season can come new hope, however he is last on my list at this level.


The Outlook


The Tight End landscape is now probably as wide spread as it has been for a long time. The calls for the position to be scrapped were a little pre-mature and now that younger guys are breaking through, and taking less time to become relevant, the turnover is only going to get better. The success of the Chiefs and 49ers this season with Kelce and Kittle as prime targets does bode well for teams trying to find their TE equivalent so it’s possible more teams may look this way.

The good news for fantasy is that it’s not as much of a headache as it used to be. The need to weight up when to take a relevant tight end was tough. You could guarantee a good one but which RB/WR would you miss out on? But if you waited too long and had to settle for what was left, was your RB/WR worth it? Now there’s enough late options to know it’s fine to delay. Where the likes of Waller and Andrews fall may be critical to how the fantasy draft season goes. It’s just nice to be able to say that fantasy Tight ends are becoming an interesting thing once more.  

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