Positive Target Regression Tight Ends (2020 Fantasy Football)
The tight end landscape in the NFL has drastically evolved over the last several years. More often than not, the skill set required to be a successful NFL TE requires athleticism, ample blocking abilities, and big-time playmaking capabilities. Travis Kelce and George Kittle have embodied the prototypical NFL tight end over the last several seasons, combining power, quickness, and an elite range of proficiencies that places them among the league’s most valuable players.
However, the depth of TEs is deeper now more than in recent memory. Usually, Super Bowl-winning teams produce a top TE, which means teams are constantly pursuing a guy that can “do it all,” which adds a different dimension to a team that is hard to stop. For fantasy managers, it is easy to get discouraged about the tight end position when missing out on the top-tier talent. Sometimes missing out on a top tight end could be a blessing in disguise because it allows managers to collect value and talent in the earlier stages of the draft and target a TE with upside in the later rounds.
For the upcoming football season, there are several tight ends who are poised for positive target regression. Most of these players offered glimpses of their potential last season, however, most of the listed players have top-10 potential, perhaps higher.
These are my five potential TEs that are primed to be fed more targets in 2020:
Note: ADP based on PPR scoring, current as of 7/17
Despite playing more snaps in 2019, Hurst found himself being outproduced by breakout stud Mark Andrews. Hurst did not perform at the level of a former first-round pick, being targeted 39 times. Hurst became expendable from the Baltimore Ravens, who traded him to the Atlanta Falcons for 2020 second and fourth-round draft picks.
Although he was shipped from the team that drafted him in the first round in 2018, the landing spot could not be more perfect for Hurst. Hurst enters a situation where 97 vacated targets from Austin Hooper and 42 targets from Mohammad Sanu are available for the taking. Falcons were third in passing yards per game in 2019 and will continue to sling the rock as long as Matt Ryan is leading the team.
If Hurst can assume the Hooper role and flourish in that situation, the results will be immensely positive. What can we expect from Hurst? Well, in 2019, among TEs, Hooper was fourth in HOG rate, sixth in targets and receiving yards, fifth in receptions, and tied for fourth in TDs. Hooper had the sixth most total fantasy points among TEs. Hurst fits the bill of an athletic, first-round grade TE that can hold his own as a blocker. Tight ends usually take a couple of years to truly breakout, which bodes well for Hurst.
The Falcons let Hooper walk and traded a valuable second-round draft pick for Hurst, leading many experts to assume Hurst will have a similar role that Hooper had in 2019. Hurst was once a steal in fantasy drafts at one point this summer, however, his ADP has skyrocketed this offseason due to the great fit in an offensive scheme that heavily utilizes TEs, and high praises from Matt Ryan bodes well for Hurst’s 2020 fantasy outcome. Hurst will have to compete with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley for targets, but if 2019 is any indication, all three pass-catchers can thrive in the Falcons’ offense. Hurst enters 2020 as the TE11 with an ADP of ADP 109.5. I believe Hurst will be the biggest breakout tight end this season, with a chance to catapult himself inside the top-6 fantasy TEs by the end of the 2020 season.
Hockenson started his rookie campaign at an astonishing level. In his first game, Hockenson hauled in six of nine targets for 131 yards and a touchdown, good enough for 25.1 fantasy points. His 131 yards is an NFL record for a tight end making his NFL debut. However, Hockenson would not produce at this level of play again all season and would eventually sit out the remainder of the season after a brutal ankle injury against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving.
Despite not producing at a high-level following his breakout performance Week One, Hockenson had some promising aspects of his rookie season. Hockenson had 59 targets as a rookie, a number that should rise in his sophomore year. His 2.79 Cushion, which measures the amount of space between a receiver and his assigned defender on every route run, ranked second among TEs, showcasing his ability to make space and get open. Hockenson is a former first-round draft pick with ultra-athletic playmaking abilities that has the chance to bounce-back in year two.
Hockenson looks to rebound from his injury that derailed his rookie season by leaning on his talents that made him a top-10 NFL draft pick in 2019. Hockenson could very well carve out a large role as the third passing option on pass friendly Detroit Lions team. If a fantasy manager were to target Hockenson in drafts, he is a great late-round option for those completely punting TEs. Hockenson has an ADP of 129.8, ranking as the TE14. With tremendous upside and potential for large volume, T.J could surprise a lot of fantasy managers this season.
After finishing as the TE4 in 2018, Ebron’s numbers drastically dropped in 2019 following the retirement of QB Andrew Luck. Ebron’s targets were cut nearly in half last season, dropping from 110 in 2018 to 52 targets in 2019. The decline made the Colts decision to move on from Ebron easier than it would have been if he had performed at a similar level to 2018.
Despite the downgrade in his performance, Ebron displayed efficient production. His 17.4 HOG rate was second among TEs in 2019. Ebron has always been a deep threat, big-play TE during his tenure in the NFL. His 7.3 Air yards per reception was 10th most between TEs, and his 12.1 yards per reception ranked ninth. He also ranked eighth in yards per route, fifth-best Cushion, and he ranked third in target separation among tight ends. Ben Roethlisberger loves employing TEs, most recently feeding Vance McDonald 73 targets in 2018. If Ebron receives similar love from Roethlisberger and serves as a reliable safety blanket, Ebron’s fantasy value will surely rise. Coming into 2020 as the TE17, with an ADP of 150.5, Ebron is a great late-round TE option.
Smith took over as the Tennessee Titans’ primary tight end after Delanie Walker was plagued by injury for the second year in a row. Stepping into this featured role, Smith performed at a high-level. Among tight ends, Smith ranked second in target separation. His 85.7% Contest target rate ranked 1st between TEs and his 89.7% True Catch rate ranked fifth. Smith exhibited his big-play nature, ranking second in yards per target, seventh in yards per reception, and 10th in yards per route. Jonnu saw 44 targets last season, and with 66 vacated targets due to Walker and Tajae Sharpe‘s departure, that number could rise substantially with Ryan Tannehill under center for a full season.
There is a lot of hype surrounding Jonnu this offseason, but he is still a relevantly cheaper draft selection. Although the Titans are a run-heavy team, and Smith is the second option behind A.J. Brown, there should be enough targets to go around for Smith to thrive and have fantasy value. Entering his first season as the full-time starter, Jonnu has a great chance to smash his ADP of 155.5 and beat his offseason ranking as the TE19. Similar to Hayden Hurst, Jonnu Smith is one of my favorite potential breakout TEs this season.
Vacated targets are an intriguing aspect to examine for fantasy purposes. Such is the case for Dallas Cowboys’ new starting TE, Blake Jarwin. Jarwin is stepping into the featured role where Jason Witten saw 83 targets in 2019, which was 10th-most among TEs. There are also 83 vacated targets after Randall Cobb left for the Houston Texans in free agency. Jarwin has the opportunity to eat into Witten’s 77.2% Snap Share from 2019.
In a limited role in 2019, Jarwin saw 41 targets, a decent number for a backup. Jarwin proved to be a sizable target, capable of making big plays downfield. His 7.1 air yards per reception fell just outside the top-10. He ranked seventh among tight ends in Air Yards per target and yards per route. He also ranked sixth in yards per target. Currently, Jarwin has an ADP of 169.8, entering 2020 as the TE20. Jarwin has a strong opportunity of surpassing his preseason ADP.
Jarwin is another late-round TE possibility, though he is the weariest option on this list due to stiff competition for targets from Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Ezekiel Elliott, and 2020 first-round pick CeeDee Lamb. Despite the “too many mouths to feed” narrative, the pass-friendly nature of the Cowboys under new head coach Mike McCarthy should give Jarwin plenty of opportunities to showcase his ability as a valuable fantasy asset.
Aside from Hurst, each of these TE options are great late-round value pieces that have top-10 potential. For those who like to punt TEs and wait on them as much as possible (like myself), these candidates for positive target regression are fantastic options for managers. Now more than ever is the time to wait on TEs. If you miss out on the top-tier TEs, holding out to draft one of the above mentioned TEs will allow managers to build a strong foundation while still drafting an upside TE late in the draft.
Advanced Metrics via https://fantasydata.com/nfl/advanced-te-efficiency-metrics
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