TE2s With Top Five Potential (2021 Fantasy Football)
“Draft one early or wait forever.” The refrain has rung out for fantasy tight ends over and over. In 2020, two players brought that to life in Robert Tonyan and Logan Thomas. Tonyan finished fifth with 11 touchdowns, riding that red-zone usage to a TE5 finish. Thomas tied Tonyan’s week production after seeing the third-most targets from the tight end position. Both players fell well outside the top-30 in preseason ADP at the position yet returned league-altering value.
The position lends itself to players returning high weekly value relative to the field. Most weeks, a touchdown will result in a startable finish. We attempt to dive deeper to find players who could stand to replicate Thomas’s role in soaking up targets or players who could follow Tonyan’s path and land with high touchdown volume. What tight end twos can finish top five at the position?
Jonnu Smith (NE) TE17, ADP 146
Jonnu Smith could be one of the most significant values in fantasy football drafts. I have previously touched on Smith’s potential usage in two-tight end sets. However, once camp started, we have seen Bill Belichick take it a step further, with video leaking from practice showing Smith lined up in the backfield. The Patriots likely planned to use Smith in a multi-faceted role when they made him a priority signing in free agency.
Follow the money. Smith is tied with new teammate Hunter Henry as the third highest-paid tight end in the NFL. The Patriots signed him the day before Henry and gave him one additional year. Some concerns over which tight end is the right pick in fantasy exist; the reality is that Smith is much more versatile and explosive with the ball, a fact Belichick noted early in the offseason: “[He’s] great after the catch, probably the best in the league. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone better than him after the catch.”
Smith has already been productive at points in his career. Through the first seven weeks of the 2020 season, Smith ranked as the TE5. His production fell off due to A.J. Brown’s return to the offense, and it fell off even more because the team needed him to block after the injury to Taylor Lewan. Smith has steadily risen in value throughout the draft process, but he is still much too low, and he represents the best chance to hit late at tight end.
Zach Ertz (PHI) TE18, ADP 157
Zach Ertz had a year to forget in 2020. Beginning with a contract dispute that rolled into the season, compounded by performance issues at quarterback for the Eagles and injuries that limited him to 11 games, Ertz ultimately fell out of the top-25 tight ends.
After an offseason full of trade speculation, Ertz still enters 2021 as a member of the Eagles. Coach Nick Sirianni has big plans. “You look at all our catch charts throughout the entire preseason practices, and [Ertz and Dallas Goedert] are both right up there with the most catches in team periods. They’re up there with the most targets and up there with the highest percentage.”
Before 2020, Ertz had finished top-five at the position every season since 2015. Two outcomes seem clear at his ADP: either he is washed-up and worthless in fantasy, in which case you lose little taking him at his ADP, or 2020 was a one-year dip, and a rebound is imminent. Since he is going as a TE2 in almost every situation, it’s a bet worth making.
Red Zone Threats
Irv Smith Jr. (MIN) TE16, ADP 141
As he enters year three, the clock is ticking for Irv Smith Jr. to take the next step and emerge as an actual fantasy threat. He could follow in Tonyan’s footsteps as a dominant red zone threat this year. Adam Theilen was buoyed by usage in that area, placing top-five in the league on 19 targets. However, Smith also had a red-zone role, and he tied with Justin Jefferson for ten targets inside the twenty-yard line.
A narrative has persisted throughout training camp that Smith has emerged as the critical red-zone target. His 70% catch rate will require improvement to approach Tonyan’s numbers, who posted 90% success on these targets last year. But the Vikings placed in the top half of red-zone pass attempts and featured one of the tightest target trees in the league.
Smith can pay off handsomely at his ADP based solely on red-zone usage, and he has a real chance to become a weapon on every part of the field. And his ADP should continue to fall given the injury news from early this week. He’s someone to monitor and stash given his TD upside.
Austin Hooper (CLE) TE24, ADP 223
Austin Hooper already broke out in a big way. In 2019, he finished as the TE3 on a per-game basis. The breakout resulted in a large payday and a move to Cleveland. Hooper was entering the prime ages for a tight end, but he did not continue to ascend. A crowded tight end room that features David Njoku and Harrison Bryant — and his underwhelming 2020 — have combined for a bargain-basement price tag.
There are reasons for optimism. Hooper saw 15 targets in Week 16 against the Jets and followed it with 11 in the first round of the playoffs, his two highest totals of his season. Early in the year, Hooper steadily acclimated to the new team, peaking at ten targets in Week 5. Then an appendectomy sidelined him and left some lingering effects: “I came back after internal organ surgery. I’d be lying if I said I was fully confident in the running across the middle again with stitches in my stomach.”
Now healthy and comfortable in a Cleveland offense where he placed second with nine red-zone targets despite the hurdles, Hooper is another player with a productive past available at a discount.
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