TE2s with Top-5 Potential (2021 Fantasy Football)
Every year, it seems we talk about how deep the tight end position is, but every year, it’s also the same handful of guys who deliver TE1 performances each week. Make no mistake about it — the top-three tight ends in 2021 (in no particular order) are Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle.
Personally, I plan to land one of those guys in my draft. But what happens if you miss out on them? My advice: wait. Let others fight over Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, and Mike Gesicki. Instead, target these three guys in the final rounds of your draft, all early consensus TE2s heading into 2021, who I believe have legitimate top-five potential.
It’s crazy to think that the guy who finished as the overall TE3 in PPR was drafted to play quarterback. After bouncing around the league for six seasons, Thomas finally landed in Washington this season with a golden opportunity to become a full-time starter at tight end. Not only did he win the job over incumbent starter Jeremy Sprinkle, he saw 110 total targets (third-most) from four different quarterbacks (Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, Alex Smith, and Taylor Heinicke). He also finished fifth amongst all tight ends in target share (20.2%), behind just Darren Waller (30%), Travis Kelce (25.1%), Mark Andrews (23.6%), and Evan Engram (23%).
In just his first season with the team, Washington used Thomas as an every-down guy. In fact, he led all tight ends with a 93% snap count. The only other tight end to play more than 90% of his team’s snaps: Darren Waller. Speaking of usage, Thomas was peppered with red-zone targets (19, tied for sixth-most), and he made the most of his opportunities — of tight ends with 10-plus red-zone targets, only Robert Tonyan had a higher catch percentage (90.9%) than Thomas (84.2%).
LOGAN THOMAS MOSSED HIM.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 4, 2021
With a lack of viable pass-catching options behind Terry McLaurin, Thomas could easily post another top-five finish in 2021 with some more consistent quarterback play. He’ll be a steal in fantasy drafts if his consensus ADP still sits at TE14 come August.
Guess who finished fourth amongst tight ends in snap percentage and seventh in total targets between Weeks 13 and 17? That’s right, Cole Kmet.
The Chicago rookie played on 90% of his team’s snaps and saw 30 targets in his last five games. And this production came playing alongside Jimmy Graham, who saw his own 15 targets on 50% of the snaps in the final five games. The 11-year veteran carries a $10M cap hit in 2021, but the Bears could free up $7M by releasing Graham. With the emergence of Kmet as a legitimate TE1, this move seems to make a ton of sense for Chicago. If Graham does get released, that would leave 76 vacated targets for Kmet to potentially soak up. Of the 76 targets that went to Graham, a whopping 28.9% of them came in the red zone. In fact, the Bears threw to their tight ends in the red zone the third-most in the NFL, behind just the Raiders and the Dolphins.
If you take his targets from the last five games after becoming the “starter” and project a full 16-game season, Kmet would be in line for 96 targets in 2021. And that number is negatively skewed, as it also factors in a projected 48 targets for Graham based on his involvement in the offense in that same time period. So if Graham isn’t around in 2021, Kmet could be well on his way to a 100-plus target season, a number attained by only five tight ends a season ago (Darren Waller, Travis Kelce, Logan Thomas, Evan Engram, and T.J. Hockenson).
But it isn’t just the rookie’s high target share over his last five games that gets me excited. During that span, Kmet was also fifth in yards after the catch (YAC) and 12th in Weighted Opportunity Rating (WOPR), a metric that combines target share and air yards share to predict future fantasy production. He did this all with Graham on the field for half the snaps!
Kmet could become the de facto second or third pass-catching option for the Bears in 2021, especially if unrestricted free agent Allen Robinson decides to leave for greener pastures. While it may be difficult to project Kmet purely based on his production as a rookie, there’s no denying the talent and opportunity ahead for the second-year tight end out of Notre Dame. For better or for worse, I wholeheartedly trust Jimmy Graham when he says that “this kid is going to be a beast.”
Kyle Rudolph’s role in Minnesota’s offense has greatly subsided since the team took Smith in the 2019 NFL Draft. For the past two years, Smith has been eased into the offense (just 90 total targets) playing alongside Rudolph. That could all change in 2021, as the Vikings can finally save money by releasing the 10-year veteran. Releasing Rudolph in 2020 would have cost the team almost $13M in dead cap. In 2021, his salary is $9.5M, but his dead cap hit would be just $4.4M, meaning that the Vikings could save over $5M against the cap by releasing him.
For this exercise, let’s say the Vikings release Rudolph, which makes a ton of sense, especially since he recently said he’s not willing to re-negotiate his contract. That would leave behind about 46 vacated targets because Rudolph saw 37 targets in just 12 games this season. Smith missed three games this season, but he still managed to see 43 targets from Kirk Cousins. Over a full 16 games, that projects as 51 targets. Given that math, Smith may garner around 90 targets next season in a full-time starting capacity.
To get a better idea of his usage next season, let’s look at Weeks 14-17 when Rudolph was out due to a foot injury. In those four games, Smith ran an average of 30 routes on almost 80% of the snaps (compared to 18.6 routes on 65% of the snaps in his other nine games playing alongside Rudolph). He also averaged 46 air yards per game over that stretch compared to just 19 air yards per game in Weeks 1-11.
Irv Smith Jr. was PFF's highest-graded tight end in the league this week (92.6 grade). Still not 100 percent healthy, he caught all four of his targets for 63 yards and a touchdown and blocked well in the running game.
With no Kyle Rudolph, this was a preview of the future. pic.twitter.com/6BZu6WQxY3
— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) December 14, 2020
Smith finished fourth amongst tight ends with 10-plus red-zone targets in the percentage of his targets that came in the red zone. An impressive 12 of his 43 targets (27.9%) came in the red zone, behind just Jonnu Smith (29.2%), Jimmy Graham (28.9%), and Jared Cook (28.3%). Simply put, the Vikings throw to Smith when it counts, as evidenced by his five touchdowns on just 43 targets in 2020.
With Rudolph out of the picture, it’s not too farfetched to think Smith could double his output over the course of a full 16-game season, giving him an outside chance to become a top-five tight end in 2021.
All three of these guys have the talent and opportunity to break out in 2021, making them incredible values at their early consensus TE2 rankings heading into next season.
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