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Boom, Bust, and Everything In Between – Tight Ends (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Aug 5, 2021

Travis Kelce is worth a late first-round pick in 2021 fantasy drafts

Boom, bust, and everything in between. What does that mean, exactly? If this is your first time reading this piece, you might be wondering that.

When someone mentions that “Player X recorded five TE1 performances last year,” it irks me a bit. It’s like saying something to the effect of “Mike Gesicki was the TE7 last year, so he was a solid TE1.” Ask anyone who rostered him in fantasy last year if he was a TE1. He scored less than 10.0 PPR points in 10-of-16 games. Stating where someone finished for a particular week doesn’t do us any good, either, because variance is a real thing.

To better help you understand what I’m talking about, the average top-12 tight end performance in 2020 was 11.0 PPR points. What you don’t know is that George Kittle scored 13.2 PPR points in Week 16 but wasn’t awarded a TE1 performance because it just happened to be a high-scoring week for tight ends. On the flip side, Hayden Hurst scored 9.1 PPR points in Week 4 and was awarded with a TE1 performance because it was a low-scoring week for tight ends.

The player’s performance should not be graded on a curve, because we have no control on predicting what that curve is for any particular week. Our goal as analysts is to predict who will have TE1 performances in any given week, which stood at 11.0 PPR points in 2020.

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The numbers vary from year-to-year, which is where the research comes into play. While the TE1 number was 11.1 PPR points in 2017, it went down to 10.2 PPR points in 2018, then 10.6 PPR points in 2019, and 11.0 PPR points in 2020. Every position is different, but know that I’ve gone through each year, each position, and each player, charting how many top-12, top-24, top-36 performances they’ve had according to that year’s stats. With tight ends, I’ve divided it up into top-five performances and top-12 performances. Not just that, though, as I’ve added boom and bust categories, which showcases their ceiling and floor on a week-to-week basis. This research is done on PPR leagues because it’s the format that presents the most consistency, which makes it the most predictable.

The number to achieve boom or bust status varies per position, as some have it harder than others. With tight ends, the number to “boom” wound up on 20.0 PPR points because it would have amounted to six catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. That number can obviously be accomplished in a variety of different ways, but again, we just want them to reach that number. A “bust” on the other hand amounted to less than 7.0 PPR points. Below, you can find the chart with the parameters for each position.

Position Boom Bust
QB 26.0 13.9 or less
RB 25.0 6.9 or less
WR 25.0 7.9 or less
TE 20.0 6.9 or less

 

To give you an idea as to something you may find below, here’s an example: Rob Gronkowski performed as an TE1 or better in 37.5 percent of his games in 2020 and is going as the TE11 in drafts, while Jimmy Graham also hit that mark in 37.5 percent of his games but is going undrafted.

For the fifth time, welcome to Boom, Bust, and Everything In Between. Here are the tight ends, while the other positions will be released throughout the rest of the week. You’ll be able to find the links below once they go live.

Quarterbacks
Wide Receivers
Running Backs

Tight Ends

Top-6

So, you want to pay up for a tight end, eh? This tier is reserved for those who are okay with drafting a tight end in the first handful of rounds. Even if you don’t believe in the early-round tight end approach, I want to give you the details of who you should be choosing if you have your mind set on that.

ADP Player Tgts/gm Top-5 % Top-12 % Boom % Bust %
1 Travis Kelce 9.7 73.3% 86.7% 66.7% 6.7%
2 George Kittle 7.9 25.0% 50.0% 25.0% 12.5%
3 Darren Waller 9.1 37.5% 68.8% 31.3% 18.8%
4 Kyle Pitts DNP DNP DNP DNP
5 Mark Andrews 6.3 35.7% 57.1% 21.4% 42.9%
6 T.J. Hockenson 6.3 18.8% 43.8% 0.0% 25.0%

 

What in the what, Travis Kelce? He produced 20-plus PPR points (boom status) more than any other tight end not named Darren Waller produced TE1-type numbers. This isn’t really new for Kelce, either. He’s now produced TE1-type numbers in at least 81.3 percent of his games for three years running. He’s only “busted” three times during that three-year stretch. He’s worthy of a late first-round selection in fantasy drafts for the edge he gives you at the most unpredictable position.

Sure, Darren Waller‘s numbers from 2020 look really good, but he doesn’t have the consistent resume that Kelce does. While doing this article last offseason, Waller stood out as a tremendous value, though it was worrisome they added so many pass catchers in the draft/free agency. This offseason, however, they added John Brown while removing Nelson Agholor, so not much changed. He’s relatively safe, but not on the level of Kelce.

Here are the only four tight ends who’ve posted top-five numbers in at least 30 percent of their career games (since I started tracking in 2000):

 Player Top-5 % Top-12 % BOOM % BUST %
Travis Kelce 37.3% 70.0% 30.0% 13.6%
Rob Gronkowski 38.9% 63.4% 29.0% 24.4%
George Kittle 30.2% 58.5% 20.8% 24.5%
Tony Gonzalez 32.3% 56.5% 17.1% 24.5%

 

You can see there’s a gap between Kelce and George Kittle, but the fact that Kittle is on here at all is impressive. He may have more variables than Waller, but Kittle is the only player who can contend with Kelce when both are healthy. He just needs to start scoring touchdowns at a higher clip.

There’s a cliff after the first three tight ends in ADP, though not many appreciate just how close Mark Andrews was to Waller in a lot of categories despite not seeing nearly as many targets. In the end, the lack of truly elite targets is what caused Andrews to bust more than managers would like, but he offers week-winning upside similar to the top-three options. Meanwhile, Hockenson gets a downgrade at quarterback, so while he might net more targets, his efficiency may go down.

Pitts is the one that makes little sense to me. I’ve done a study over the last 14 years that highlights what age each position peaks/declines, and the only tight end who’s ever finished as a top-three option before the age of 25 was Rob Gronkowski, the best tight end of all-time, who was tied to arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time. Yet some believe Pitts, who is just 20 years old, is going to offer top-three upside? It’s a bad bet to make, and it has nothing to do with Pitts’ talent as a player. Tight ends just take time to develop. Can I make a case for him finishing as the TE4? It’d be a hard one, but sure, I could… however, I don’t draft players at their ceiling.

7-12 Range

So, you don’t want to spend a pick in the top five rounds to snag one of the top-six tight ends, but you also don’t want to take one at the end of the draft. Well, this is your sweet spot.

ADP Player Tgts/gm Top-5 % Top-12 % Boom % Bust %
7 Noah Fant 6.2 21.4% 35.7% 7.1% 21.4%
8 Dallas Goedert 5.9 27.3% 36.4% 18.2% 27.3%
9 Logan Thomas 6.9 12.5% 50.0% 12.5% 31.3%
10 Rob Gronkowski 4.8 25.0% 37.5% 0.0% 43.8%
11 Mike Gesicki 5.7 20.0% 33.3% 20.0% 33.3%
12 Hunter Henry 6.6 7.1% 50.0% 0.0% 21.4%

 

This chart looks a lot different than the top-six, eh? This chart is the reason you hear a lot of analysts tell you to go with the “great or late” approach at tight end. None of the players in this tier produced TE1-type numbers more than half the time, which was only 11.0 PPR points in 2020. Heck, four of the six tight ends in this range didn’t hit that mark 38 percent of the time.

The one who looks to be a value in this range is Logan Thomas, but he lacked upside and busted 31.3 percent of the time. The Football Team has also added Curtis Samuel to the mix, which is going to make targets harder to come by, particularly in the intermediate range. It would’ve been Dallas Goedert hype season if Zach Ertz was cut or dealt, but that hasn’t happened, which means we’re likely looking at another inconsistent season.

The fact that there are no standouts in this section tells you that it’s a clear cluster of tight ends who are somewhat interchangeable. If there’s one who surely doesn’t belong in 2020, it’s Hunter Henry, who went from seeing 6.6 targets per game and being the TE1 on his team, to now being the TE2 for a team that barely targeted tight ends last year. I have him ranked outside my top 18 tight ends for 2021. Rob Gronkowski is another one who appears not to belong in this area, especially when you consider his 4.8 targets per game, as well as the return of O.J. Howard to the lineup.

13-18 Range

This is where the “stream tight end” crowd starts looking at the position. There are others who may grab two from this range, expecting one of them to breakout and become an every-week option. Mike Gesicki, T.J. Hockenson, Dallas Goedert, and Jonnu Smith were all selected outside the top-12 tight ends last year.

ADP Player Tgts/gm Top-5 % Top-12 % Boom % Bust %
13 Robert Tonyan 3.7 13.3% 46.7% 6.7% 33.3%
14 Tyler Higbee 4.0 13.3% 20.0% 6.7% 46.7%
15 Jonnu Smith 4.3 14.3% 50.0% 14.3% 35.7%
16 Irv Smith Jr. 3.3 16.7% 33.3% 8.3% 58.3%
17 Evan Engram 6.8 6.3% 31.3% 0.0% 37.5%
18 Zach Ertz 6.6 0.0% 9.1% 0.0% 54.5%

 

When looking at this chart, you can see why there are analysts clamoring for you to take the discount on Evan Engram, as his 6.8 targets per game should belong in the top-10 conversation. The issue is that he didn’t perform with them in his new offense, which led to the Giants going out to sign big-name free agent Kenny Golladay, as well as draft Kadarius Toney in the first round, and we haven’t even mentioned the return of Saquon Barkley. His results from 2020 with the same offense and same quarterback were bad enough to make you look elsewhere.

The results from Zach Ertz in 2020 were worse than I thought. Seeing 6.6 targets per game was tied for the sixth-most in the league among tight ends, but he posted TE1-type numbers just 9.1 percent of the time? Yuck.

What Jonnu Smith did with just 4.3 targets per game in 2020 was special, and though he should get more targets per game with the Patriots, are his targets worth as much with Cam Newton under center? Still, he belongs in the top-12 conversation over Hunter Henry.

19-30 Range

For those of you who like to live dangerously, here’s the tier of tight ends for the “I’m waiting until my last pick to select one” crowd.

ADP Player Tgts/gm Top-5 % Top-12 % Boom % Bust %
19 Jared Cook 4.0 0.0% 53.3% 0.0% 40.0%
20 Austin Hooper 5.4 0.0% 30.8% 0.0% 46.2%
21 Adam Trautman 1.1 0.0% 10.0% 0.0% 90.0%
22 Anthony Firkser 3.3 6.7% 6.7% 6.7% 73.3%
23 Gerald Everett 3.9 0.0% 13.3% 0.0% 73.3%
24 Blake Jarwin DNP DNP DNP DNP
25 O.J. Howard 4.8 0.0% 50.0% 0.0% 25.0%
26 Jordan Akins 3.8 0.0% 23.1% 0.0% 53.8%
27 Hayden Hurst 5.5 6.3% 43.8% 0.0% 31.3%
28 Eric Ebron 6.1 0.0% 53.3% 0.0% 26.7%
29 Cole Kmet 2.8 0.0% 7.7% 0.0% 69.2%
30 Jimmy Graham 4.8 18.8% 37.5% 12.5% 43.8%

 

Remember when we talked about the tight ends being drafted in the 6-12 range and how none of them performed as a TE1 more than 50 percent of the time? How is it we have three tight ends who hit TE1-type numbers 50 percent or higher in the 19-30 range? Jared Cook is switching teams, but he’s still the No. 1 tight end on his team, and he’s familiar with the new offense being installed in Los Angeles. O.J. Howard was a very small sample size, but he was outproducing Rob Gronkowski over the first four games. Eric Ebron now has competition in Pat Freiermuth, but we know rookie tight ends take time to develop. But on top of Freiermuth, Najee Harris was added and is sure to take some targets away.

Speaking of Gronkowski, I think most would be shocked to see this comparison from last year:

Player Tgts/gm Top-5 % Top-12 % Boom % Bust %
Rob Gronkowski 4.8 25.0% 37.5% 0.0% 43.8%
Jimmy Graham 4.8 18.8% 37.5% 12.5% 43.8%

 

That’s crazy, right? Sure, Graham is going to lose some work to Cole Kmet, but Gronkowski is going to lose some work to O.J. Howard. Both of these tight ends are nearing the end. Keep in mind that this is not a comparison I’m highlighting for you to draft Graham, but rather one to highlight why you should fade Gronkowski at his cost.

What We Learned

There aren’t many tight ends who produce TE1 numbers more than half the time. Seriously, there were just nine of them last year. Heck, there were just 12 tight ends who did it more than 37.5 percent of the time, highlighting why many go with the streaming approach. Still, streaming tight ends isn’t as easy as streaming quarterbacks, as their target totals are so low, which makes touchdowns so important. If you want to select Kelce in the first round or Kittle/Waller in the second/third round, no one should fault you for that. We know that if they’re on the field, they’re producing.

Chase targets with tight ends. Seriously, they mean everything to their consistency. If you find a tight end that’s slated to see 85-plus targets, there’s about an 81 percent chance that he’s going to finish as a top-12 tight end, regardless of age (Since 2009, there have been 143 tight ends who’ve seen 85-plus targets, and 116 of them finished top-12).


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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