The tight end position is by far the most unique and often the toughest for fantasy managers to navigate due to its propensity for being extremely top-heavy. Last season, Mark Andrews posted the fourth-highest scoring season from a tight end of all time with 301.1 PR points, nearly 50 points more than the TE2. Travis Kelce and Dalton Schultz had strong seasons with 262.8 and 208.8 points, respectively, but no other tight end surpassed 200 points on the season. For context, Schultz’s 208.8 points would have placed him 27th in WR scoring.
George Kittle (198) and Zach Ertz (180.7) round out the top-5 in 2021 scoring, and Kittle missed three contests, proving just how fickle the position is. Looking at it through average points per game rather than total points, Rob Gronkowski was TE3 with 14.3 PPG, ahead of both Kittle and Schultz. Beyond this group, the position falls off quickly as just 13 tight ends tallied double-digit PPG.
Although tight end scoring is erratic as we dig further down the list, there are values to be had. According to fantasy data, Dalton Schultz was being drafted as the 35th tight end off the board heading into last season. While every fantasy manager would like to roster Mark Andrews or Travis Kelce this coming season, not every manager is willing to spend a premium pick to get one of those guys.
The leap we saw from Schultz is uncommon but not entirely unprecedented. So, who is most likely to take a sizeable leap into the top 5? There are a few intriguing candidates.
David Njoku (CLE)
2021 Finish: TE22
Current ADP: TE21
The sixth-year pro out of Miami tops the list of TE2s with the potential to make the uphill climb to a top-5 TE. Njoku was one of my favorite tight end prospects in recent memory when the Cleveland Browns made him a first-round pick in 2017. His workout metrics and college production are exceptional, while his physical measurements are remarkable. Despite the eye-popping numbers we saw from him as a prospect, David Njoku has turned in just one tight end one season. Following the TE9 finish in 2018, Njoku suited up just three times in 2019 due to a wrist fracture and a concussion. Although I personally had faith in his ability to return to his 2018 form, the Browns were less certain when they handed Austin Hooper a four-year contract before the 2020 season.
Njoku saw just 82 targets in 2020 and 2021 combined, producing 688 yards and six touchdowns. Although it wasn’t encouraging to see Austin Hooper targeted at a higher clip over the past two seasons, it is now. Since Kevin Stefanski was hired as Head Coach, the Browns targeted their tight ends 139 times in 2020 and 142 times in 2021, the fifth-highest and sixth-highest marks in the league, respectively. Not only did Cleveland cut ties with Hooper, eating a portion of his salary in the process, but they also proceeded to hand Njoku a four-year, $56.7 million contract.
David Njoku's 2021 ranks among TEs:
#2 in EPA/att (0.44) *
#2 in YAC/catch (6.9) *
#4 in yds/catch (13.2) *
#16 in catch % (68%) *
* all were career highs
volume wasn't there, efficiency was
Hooper + Njoku last year was more $ than Njoku's new $/yr
Watson will use him a ton https://t.co/gS3Mv3DBjC
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) May 27, 2022
The motivation for the Browns to give Njoku the hefty paycheck isn’t necessarily what he’s done in the NFL thus far but rather what he will do. According to their model, a big component of a late breakout tight end is athleticism, as PFF notes, and Njoku recorded the highest athleticism score in the PFF era. It’s not exactly breaking news to say that Njoku is a tremendous athlete, but with this contract, it’s clear that the Browns believe they can get more out of him moving forward.
To recap, the Browns are absorbing dead money for Austin Hooper to play for another team, paying Njoku handsomely, and have targeted their tight ends at the seventh-highest rate since Kevin Stefanski took control of the offense. And we haven’t even touched on the massive QB upgrade the team will get when Deshaun Watson is inserted as QB1. While a suspension may be looming for Watson, Njoku’s potential ascent isn’t entirely reliant on Watson taking over. No other tight end in the league will see the quality of their situation increase as much as the Browns’ TE1. Some tight ends take time to taste success in the NFL. Njoku enjoyed an appetizer in 2018; now it’s time he gets his entree.
Irv Smith Jr. (MIN)
2021 Finish: N/A
Current ADP: TE19
The Irv Smith hype train was barreling down the tracks last year until it hit a preseason roadblock in the form of a meniscus tear. With Kyle Rudolph‘s departure from Minnesota came lofty expectations for Smith as the starting tight end. Instead, Tyler Conklin led the Vikings’ tight end room on his way to 61 receptions, 593 yards, three touchdowns, and a TE16 finish in PPR scoring.
Fast forward to the present day, and much has changed for the purple and gold. Conklin will be suiting up for the Jets in 2022, but most notably, the team hired Kevin O’Connell as its new head coach. Projecting Irv Smith’s success is difficult considering he has just two years of experience and 90 targets to his name, but we also haven’t seen O’Connell call plays full time. Although if we anticipate him to take on some similarities to his former boss, Sean McVay, he is likely to maximize the talent he has, regardless of position.
In fact, O’Connell has said that’s what he will do, even going so far as to say that Smith will “be a major part of what we do.” The hiring of O’Connell also reunites him with Kirk Cousins, who was his QB in 2017 as Washington’s QB coach. Although O’Connell was not calling plays, he was likely a factor in Cousins targeting his tight ends 126 times, the 10th highest total in the NFL. The Vikings are strong at the top of the WR depth chart, but the position thins out quickly, so there’s certainly enough to go around.
In addition to a golden opportunity, there’s a lot to like about Smith’s abilities. He was productive in college while sharing the field with a bevy of future NFL stars at Alabama, leading him to become a second-round pick, but he’s also flashed at the NFL level. In 2020, Smith was eighth among tight ends in yards per reception with 12.2 and second in fantasy points per target with 2.29. He generated a solid 1.68 points per target in a reserve role, even as a rookie.
It undoubtedly takes some optimism to get him all the way up to a top-five finish at the position, but he fits the bill of a tight end breakout. It’s not too late to get on the hype train if you missed it before last season’s pit stop.
Evan Engram (JAC)
2021 Finish: TE23
Current ADP: TE22
You’d be forgiven if you forgot just how good Evan Engram was when he first entered the NFL. Finishing the season as TE5, Engram played 15 games in 2017 while recording 64 catches for 722 yards and six touchdowns. So, what’s gone wrong since his rookie campaign?
Injuries, primarily. After missing the final game of 2017, Engram would miss five games in 2018 and eight games in 2019. As the injuries stacked up and he missed time, his on-field success quickly became overlooked even as he remained productive. He tallied the fourth-highest points per game amongst tight ends in 2017 at 11.6 before posting 11.3 in 2018. Although he missed half the season in 2019, he finished with 13.7 points per game, good for seventh-best. He missed just two games in 2020 and 2021 combined, but the production didn’t follow as he averaged just 8.8 and 6.8 points per game, respectively. It’s no coincidence that Engram’s struggles coincided with the arrival of Jason Garret and the subsequent face plant of the Giants’ offense.
Now freed from Garret’s dreadful play calling, Engram finds himself lining up for coach Doug Pederson and catching passes from Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville. The second-year QB is a breakout candidate himself, but more importantly, Pederson knows a thing or two about utilizing tight ends. Pederson’s offense led the league in tight end targets three times during his five-year tenure in Philadelphia while placing second in the other two seasons. The Eagles QB’s distributed 964 targets to tight ends during that stretch, easily the highest mark in the league, surpassing 200 targets in two separate seasons.
To be fair, the Eagles utilized multiple tight ends, with Zach Ertz playing the lead, Dallas Goedert a supporting actor, and Trey Burton as an extra. The Jaguars will likely take on a similar form, with Engram as the star and Dan Arnold in a supporting role. The position is clearly a big part of Pederson’s offense, which is why they shelled out $9 million guaranteed to Engram.
Extra motivation lies within Engram’s one-year contract. At 27 years old, this may be his only chance to earn a long-term contract. Loaded up with a bevy of targets from an ascending QB and playing for a new contract, the time has never been better for Engram to show why he was a first-round pick in 2017.
Gerald Everett (LAC)
2021 Finish: TE21
Current ADP: TE24
Like Njoku, Gerald Everett is a supreme athlete that has yet to be fully unlocked as an NFL tight end. The size and workout metrics stack up nearly identical between the two; it’s somewhat of a surprise they aren’t each other’s most comparable on Playerprofiler.
As a second-round pick out of South Alabama, the target volume has held Everett back the most. Sharing the tight-end snaps with Tyler Higbee for the Rams, who haven’t featured the position a lot, led to minimal production. His best season with the Rams came in 2019, despite missing four games. Everett stood as the TE11 through 10 weeks before a hyperextended knee put a dent in his breakout season. While sidelined, Tyler Higbee found his groove, and Everett would play second fiddle to him for the remainder of his time in LA.
Although Everett escaped Higbee’s shadow, Seattle proved to be unworthy of his talents. The 63 targets he saw as a Seahawk, though uninspiring, are the highest total he’s recorded yet. The opportunities translated to the best stat line, accumulating 48 catches for 478 yards and four touchdowns. A glance at his career numbers doesn’t provide much hope he can achieve a top 12 finish at TE, let alone top five. But dig a little deeper, and we find an efficient player who has consistently been underutilized. He finished last season with 1.87 fantasy points per target, good for 12th most among tight ends while catching most of what came his way. His contested catch rate of 71.4% was second best at the position, while his true catch rate of 98% was third highest.
Gerald Everett has a 71.4 PFF Grade since 2018…
Ranks 14th among TEs with 2,300 snaps in that span 💪
Welcome to LA, Gerald! pic.twitter.com/yuCIkeHQko
— PFF LA Chargers (@PFF_Chargers) March 22, 2022
Now attached to one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, all Everett needs to excel is the opportunity. The Chargers’ 137 targets to tight ends last season stood as the ninth highest mark in the league, which included 83 to Jared Cook. That many targets would far surpass anything Everett has seen thus far. If he can remain efficient on an increased target rate in one of the most explosive offenses in the league, Everett could quickly become the talk of the tight-end town.
Albert Okwuegbunam (DEN)
2021 Finish: TE29
Current ADP: TE23
As I like to call him to avoid pronouncing his last name, Albert O has seen his stock rise as much as any tight ends in the game this offseason. In a matter of moments, he went from catching passes from Drew Lock as Noah Fant‘s back-up to the starter catching passes from Russell Wilson.
After injury concerns caused him to slip into the fourth round, Okwuegbunam lost half his rookie season to a torn ACL. Due to the injury and the roadblock of Noah Fant standing in his way, we haven’t seen a ton of Albert O to this point. The flashes, however, have been there every time he’s stepped on the field. His 55 career targets have netted him 44 receptions and an outstanding 80% catch rate, resulting in 451 yards and three touchdowns.
Albert Okwuegbunam has a 77.5 Receiving Grade over the last two seasons…
9th among TEs in that span 🐴 pic.twitter.com/Q90X1KDBJo
— PFF DEN Broncos (@PFF_Broncos) March 31, 2022
With a new coaching staff and QB in town, it’s impossible to predict the exact utilization Albert O will see, but head coach Nathaniel Hackett gave us a strong indication when he said, “he’s going to be one of those move tight ends.” The coach went on to say that “he’s going to be more of a receiver right now.” The draft pick of Greg Dulcich may ding Okwuegbunam’s fantasy appeal slightly, but Hackett’s quotes should not be taken lightly.
Of course, it’s a different offense than last year, but Fant saw 88 targets, including 19 in the red zone. If we extrapolate Albert O’s career production into an 88-target sample, he comes out around 720 yards. While napkin math isn’t enough to bump him up to a top 5 TE, teaming up with Nathaniel Hackett and Russell Wilson might be.
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy football, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you navigate your season. From our Start/Sit Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup, based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football season.
Chad Workman is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from him, check out his Twitter at @tweetsbychad.