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Offenses That Favor or Hurt Tight End Production (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Matthew MacKay | @Matt_MacKay_ | Featured Writer
Aug 4, 2021

Tight end is the most volatile position in fantasy football. That said, across the last three seasons, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (TE – KC) has dominated the position, finishing as the overall TE1 for three consecutive years in half-PPR formats. Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller (TE – LVR) and Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (TE – BAL) are two other players who have been dominant and consistent with top-five finishes across their last two seasons. However, there are 27 other tight ends who will inevitably fall outside of the top five. While these players are very talented and often on good teams, their restricted usage when it comes to targets and involvement in the offensive scheme fails to create the same impact as those select few tight ends at the top who receive elite volume.

Average Draft Position (ADP) referenced is using FantasyPros Consensus ADP for half-PPR scoring formats.

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A lot of coaching and player personnel changed this offseason via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. For instance, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts (TE – ATL) was selected fifth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, which is the highest a tight end has ever been drafted. Pitts signed a four-year, $32.9 million fully guaranteed contract and should see at least 100 targets in an offense that lost wide receiver, Julio Jones (WR – TEN). Is Pitts one of the first tight ends in recent memory capable of breaking the perceived rookie stereotype by finishing within the top-five at the position in 2021? Are there other tight-end prospects going later in fantasy drafts that project to have a heavily featured role within their offense? Will one of the top-five tight ends fail to return value based on the premium draft capital required to roster them? Let’s take a look at the data to answer these questions and find out which offenses favor or hurt the tight end position heading into the 2021 season.

Offenses Favoring Tight Ends

Several teams showed a tendency to distribute a significant target share to their tight ends in 2020, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, and Miami Dolphins. Whether this was due to lack of depth amongst tight end and wide receiving corps, an injured offensive line, or a byproduct of a specific offensive gameplan, getting value at the tight end position is essential. Heavy volume for a tight end, particularly in the red zone, creates an advantage for fantasy managers over league mates who whiffed on their tight end. Let’s take a look at three dominant tight ends and assess the value each possesses at their current ADP.

T.J. Hockenson (TE – DET) ADP: TE6 (54th)
T.J. Hockenson enters his third season in the league coming off of a 101 target year with quarterback Matthew Stafford (QB -LAR) under center. He is currently valued as the TE5 in half-PPR formats and commanded an 18 percent target share in 2020, ranking 10th-highest in the league. After a shaky rookie season, Hockenson rewarded fantasy managers who took a late-round flier on him during last year’s fantasy drafts with a TE4 finish. He averaged 6.3 targets per game which yielded six touchdowns and 723 receiving yards, ranking third-highest amongst all tight ends in 2020. Detroit has even fewer weapons for newcomer Jared Goff (QB – DET) to rely upon and fields a defensive unit that gave up the most points (501) in 2020. Hockenson should easily return to 100+ targets but the question is will he improve his true catch rate from 80.7 percent, which ranked 28th amongst tight ends last season. I’m willing to bet on Hockenson improving his reception rate and remaining the alpha target on a team that finds itself in rebuild mode under new head coach Dan Campbell. The notable lack of proven wide receiver depth creates the extra incentive needed for me to justify drafting Hockenson as a top-five tight end in 2021.

Noah Fant (TE – DEN) ADP: TE7 (78nd)
I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest Noah Fant believer, especially using the eye test. This is why it’s imperative to look at the data, which suggests I should be more bullish on the third-year tight end. Fant ranked within the top 12 in targets per snap percentage, which is a metric that displays his usage whenever he took the field for the Denver Broncos in 2020. He finished as the TE12 during his second season in Denver with 27 more targets (93) but failed to surpass the three touchdowns he produced as a rookie. Will Fant see more than three end zone targets in 2021? I believe so, especially considering the return of wide receiver Courtland Sutton (WR – DEN), who is fully recovered from an ACL tear that sidelined him for the majority of last season. Jerry Jeudy (WR – DEN) and Sutton will be the main priority of defensive coverage, leaving Fant open to run seams, slants, and other intermediate routes as a wide-open target for either Drew Lock (QB – DEN) or Teddy Bridgewater (QB – DEN) to rely upon. Fant is the unquestioned TE1 on one of the more underrated offenses in the league, making him a solid prospect to land at the beginning of the seventh round in fantasy drafts.

Mike Gesicki (TE – MIA) ADP: TE10 (107th)
During his third year in Miami, Mike Gesicki hauled in the fourth-highest amount of receiving yards (703) amongst all tight ends as he developed chemistry with rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (QB – MIA). Gesicki scored four touchdowns during Weeks 12-14 and tied Mark Andrews for the most end zone targets (12) despite the Dolphins’ other tight ends Durham Smythe (TE – MIA) and Adam Shaheen (TE – MIA) usurping 51 targets and five touchdowns. Their wide receiving corps added Will Fuller V (WR – MIA), rookie Jaylen Waddle (WR – MIA) with the sixth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and return veteran wideout DeVante Parker (WR – MIA). However, all of these wide receivers are currently suffering various degrees of injury in the early days of training camp. Gesicki finished as the TE7 in 2020 and is poised to ascend into the top five due to increased continuity with Tagovailoa this offseason, making him a great value as a low-end TE1 currently available to draft in the back of the eighth round.

Offenses Neglecting Tight Ends

Conversely, several teams neglected to use their tight ends in 2020, instead opting to rely on their strong wide receiving corps or a running-back-by-committee (RBBC) approach. However, it should be noted that a few of these teams experienced significant roster turnover, specifically the New England Patriots, who signed Jonnu Smith (TE - NE) and Hunter Henry (TE - NE) via free agency to address their previously lackluster tight end depth. Other teams such as the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets, who both ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of tight end target share, both added significant offensive pieces but it wasn't to address their tight end depth. Here are a few tight ends that are being drafted at their ceiling that I will advise fantasy managers to steer clear of during upcoming fantasy drafts.

Robert Tonyan (TE - GB) ADP: TE13 (117th)
Hear me out on Robert Tonyan before dismissing my skepticism towards last season's TE3. The 27-year old had a breakout campaign in his third year with Green Bay but was the main beneficiary of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' (QB - GB) MVP season, tying Travis Kelce for the most touchdowns (11) scored by a tight end in 2020. Tonyan saw only 63 percent of the team's offensive snaps and an 18th-ranked target share (12.9%) but was highly efficient on just 59 targets, ranking first in true catch rate (98.1%) which can be defined as total receptions divided by total catchable targets.

Tonyan caught 52 receptions for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns but also had phenomenal target separation (2.64) to allow for such high production and efficiency.  Expected touchdown regression and reduced target separation are also likely for Tonyan based on defenses forming a game plan to shrink the cushion he was previously afforded before becoming a top weapon for Rodgers. Lastly, rookie wideout Amari Rodgers (WR - GB), recently signed veteran wideout Randall Cobb (WR - GB), and a healthy Allen Lazard (WR - GB) add much-needed depth to the top-heavy wide receiving corps led by Davante Adams (WR - GB) in 2021. Tonyan is valued appropriately but I think we've already seen his ceiling, while Tyler Higbee (TE - LAR), Hunter Henry, and Adam Trautman (TE - NO) are all players available several rounds later that I like to produce more than Tonyan in 2021.

Irv Smith Jr. (TE - MIN) ADP: TE17 (140th)
The departure of veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph (TE - NYG) has many clamoring about the upside of third-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. in 2021. His 43 targets in 2020 weren't nearly enough to justify his TE22 finish, which was made possible with five receiving touchdowns, while Rudolph only converted one touchdown on a similar targetshare with 37 total targets. Kirk Cousins (QB - MIN) has arguably the most talented wide receiving corps led by Justin Jefferson (WR - MIN) and Adam Thielen (WR - MIN) while gaining a massively underrated slot receiver in Dede Westbrook (WR- MIN).

Despite Vikings' offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak retiring, his son Klint Kubiak will not vary much from the zone-blocking scheme that allows Dalvin Cook (RB - MIN) to be a three-down workhorse running back. This means Smith's target share won't rise nearly as much as some are projecting, as he averaged a meager 7.9 targets per snap percentage and 6.4 fantasy points per game in half-PPR formats during 2020. Perhaps the most discouraging statistic is the 3.3 targets per game he garnered from one of the league's most accurate passers in Kirk Cousins, who had a 115.4 true passer rating that ranked sixth-best in 2020. Tyler Conklin (TE - MIN) and rookie Zach Davidson (TE - MIN) will also threaten to usurp targets from Smith, as Davidson averaged 22.4 yards per reception and totaled 15 touchdowns during his last season at Central Missouri in 2019. Two tight-end sets will likely see Smith function as a decoy for the others to see wide-open targets at times, much to the dismay of Smith's fantasy managers. Avoid disappointment and bypass Irv Smith Jr. as your TE1 in fantasy drafts this season.

Rob Gronkowski (TE - TB) ADP: TE11 (105th)
Rob Gronkowski had a resurgent season in 2020, reuniting with Tom Brady (QB - TB) in Tampa Bay's red and pewter uniforms to finish as the TE8 after a year off from football. Gronkowski tied sixth for most touchdown receptions (7) in the 2020 regular season despite a pedestrian 86.5 percent catch rate, failing to reach double-digit targets in any game which includes the Bucs' postseason run. O.J. Howard (TE - TB) is returning off of an Achilles tendon that ruptured early last season and Cameron Brate (TE - TB) will continue to be involved, leaving Gronkowski as one of seven or eight weapons in arguably the league's most prolific passing offense.

Even with the increased opportunity afforded to Gronkowski in 2020, he only garnered 9.5 targets per snap percentage and 4.8 targets per game. Across the last two weeks, Gronkowski's ADP has crept up to 109th overall, suggesting he will be drafted ahead of Hunter Henry, Blake Jarwin (TE - DAL), and Adam Trautman. In a crowded tight end room, on a talented offense filled with pass-catchers in its backfield and on the perimeters, there is little upside and massive concern for reduced target share. Gronk's volatility and reliance upon touchdowns to sustain week-winning production make him a player that should be avoided in 2021.

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Matthew MacKay is a featured writer and editor for FantasyPros and BettingPros. For more from Matthew, check out his archive and follow him @Matt_MacKay_.

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