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Tight End Strategy Guide (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Matt Barbato | @realmattbarbato | Featured Writer
Jun 10, 2021
Travis Kelce

Tight end has been the weakest position in fantasy football for seemingly the last decade. For years, the general rule of thumb has been if you couldn’t draft an elite option such as Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, or Tony Gonzalez, then you were better off waiting, filing depth at more critical positions, and taking a flyer on an upside candidate later on.

Dare I say it, but that narrative might be changing. While there still are only a few elite tight ends, the middle class is improving. Last season, 19 tight ends scored more than 100 fantasy points in half-PPR formats, the most since 2016.

Does this mean we should take a new approach to tight end in our upcoming drafts? I’ll break down the current landscape at tight end and delve into my strategy for drafts.

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The Position is Evolving

Before I get into draft strategy, let’s dive in a bit more into why tight end seems more appealing than it has in years.

Tight ends have traditionally served as in-line blockers with the ability to catch passes. But as NFL offenses evolve, tight ends have become weapons, not just extra blockers with good hands.

Guys like Kelce and Darren Waller are redefining the position and lining up on the line, in the slot, and sometimes out wide. Teams want tight ends who are mismatch nightmares due to their size and athleticism. That’s why Kyle Pitts was drafted fourth overall in the NFL Draft and is ranked 6th among tight ends on our Expert Consensus Rankings.

While the 2016 tight end boom ended up being a fluke, last year’s boom feels legitimate thanks to an injection of athleticism. Now the question is, how do we treat them in the grand scheme of a fantasy draft? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the position’s tiers.

The Elites: Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Darren Waller

When healthy, all three of these guys are studs. The question is, how high are you willing to take them?

It’s hard to put a ton of stock into Average Draft Position in June. But right now, Kelce is going ninth overall in drafts. He’s going ahead of Aaron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and even his own teammates, Tyreek Hill and Patrick Mahomes. While Kelce gives you a distinct advantage at a thin position, it’s hard to justify spending a late Round 1 pick on a tight end. The same logic applies to Kittle and Waller, who are going 21st and 27th in drafts, respectively, per ADP.

Strategy for this tier: Pass on all three of these guys unless they fall at least a round in your drafts. While they’re all excellent, it’s not worth the sacrifice of passing up a top-15 tailback.

The Middle Class: Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, Kyle Pitts, Dallas Goedert, Noah Fant, Robert Tonyan, Logan Thomas

This is the sweet spot when looking at finding value at tight end. None of them are sure bets, but they all offer tangible upside.

Things get interesting as we dig into ADP. There’s a huge dropoff between Waller and Andrews, who’s the TE4 and being drafted 53rd overall. After him is Hockenson at pick 64. Andrews still finished as the TE5 last season in what many argued was a down year. And Hockenson took a big step forward in his second season to finish as the TE4. I like both guys, but prefer Hockenson at his Round 6 price tag.

Pitts is currently the TE6 and being taken 87th overall, and I’m really curious to see where his ADP goes over the summer. Pitts is the type of player that gives me hope about the future of the position in fantasy football. However, tight end is one of the hardest positions to transition to at the next level. If you want to shoot for the moon, I get it. But something tells me Pitts’ price will be too high when we draft a couple months from now.

Passing on Pitts is easier when you’re really excited about the players going after him. The guys I prefer are Goedert and Thomas. Goedert is an immensely talented player who hasn’t gotten the shine he deserves because of Zach Ertz‘s presence. With Ertz likely leaving Philadelphia this summer, I anticipate a huge year for Goedert, who’s being drafted 110th overall.

Thomas is going five picks ahead of Goedert but seems to be getting no love for his 2020 season. The converted quarterback is a 6-foot-6, 250-pound problem for opposing defenders. He caught 72 passes for 670 yards and six touchdowns despite having Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith and Taylor Heinecke throwing him the rock. Everyone is gushing over the potential of Washington’s offense with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, so why isn’t Thomas a bigger part of that conversation?

Strategy for this tier: I’ll be targeting one of Hockenson, Goedert and Thomas in this tier and will likely take the last of the three remaining.

The Late-Round Flyers: Mike Gesicki, Irv Smith Jr., Rob Gronkowski, Tyler Higbee, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Evan Engram

If I miss out on Hockenson, Goedert or Thomas, I’ll definitely have Smith as my fallback option and high-upside flyer. He closed the year well and Kyle Rudolph is out of town. He’s the one guy in this tier whom I’m willing to bet on and he’s being drafted as the TE17, so you should have no issues getting him.

As for the rest of this group, I’m praying I’m not stuck with one of them on draft day. Gesicki is a nice player, but he’ll never reach that ceiling many analysts hoped he’d reach. Gronkowski is already being over-drafted (TE7, 90th overall). Higbee is slightly more intriguing with Matthew Stafford in town, but he isn’t an overwhelming talent. I have a sense fantasy managers will be awfully frustrated by the Smith-Henry tandem in New England. Oh, and Evan Engram still can’t catch or stay healthy.

Strategy for this tier: Target Smith if you decide to wait until the last minute to take a tight end.

Overall Tight End Strategy  

My plan of attack at tight end is to wait, but not as long as you might’ve in the past. I can’t endorse the steep price tags for the elite options at the position. Instead, target the middle class for value in the middle rounds of your draft after the reliable running backs dry up and the receivers become muddled.

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Matt Barbato is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Matt, check out his archive and follow him @RealMattBarbato

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