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2023 NFL Free Agency Primer: Tight Ends (Fantasy Football)

2023 NFL Free Agency Primer: Tight Ends (Fantasy Football)

Nothing kicks off the start of a brand-new football season better than NFL free agency, which is sure to involve plenty of player movement. Teams can place their franchise/transition tags on players as early as February 21, 2023, setting the stage for a wild off-season sooner than you think. The NFL never ceases to provide entertainment for all 365 days of the calendar year, and 2023 is shaping up to be no different. Free agency officially kicks off on March 15th. But deals will likely already be in place with the legal tampering period starting March 13th at noon.

So grab your popcorn, and get ready for the free agency frenzy with the 2023 free agency primer. I’ll break down the most notable impending free agents across the four major fantasy positions – with some potential trade/cut candidates to widen the scope – through the lens of fantasy football to prepare you for the ensuing March Madness. This primer should also help you make optimal trades in your dynasty leagues and unearth values in early best-ball drafts before the chaos occurs.

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2023 NFL Tight End Free Agency Primer

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Dalton Schultz (TE – DAL)

Dalton Schultz got the franchise tag this past year from Dallas, with the team unable to agree on a long-term deal. The Cowboys’ tight end battled through injuries, but he still ended the season as the TE9 overall in 14 games played (TE10 in points per game). The biggest factor in Schultz’s production was based on Dak Prescott being under center. When Dak missed time to start the year, Schultz was a non-factor. He averaged fewer than one fantasy point per game. Woof. But with Prescott back in the lineup, Schultz averaged 9.5 fantasy points, 4.5 receptions, and nearly seven targets per game (21% target share).

For fantasy purposes, Schultz staying in Big D attached to Prescott would be ideal. But his production over the last three seasons suggests he will have a fair amount of demand on the open market that Jerry Jones and co. might not be able to exceed or match. They currently have negative cap space available. A new situation could prove unfavorable results considering Schultz is super dependent on his offensive environment to support his fantasy value. He doesn’t create after the catch – 38th out of 42 qualifying tight ends in yards after the catch per reception – and his every-down role from Dallas is not guaranteed to carry over to another team.

Mike Gesicki (TE – MIA)

It’s really hard to knock Mike Gesicki down too far down the 2023 fantasy football tight end rankings because he was a total victim of circumstances. He posted a meager 8% target share in an offense that had no use for him from the get-go. But in the games that he played at least 60% of the snaps, he flashed. In those three games with increased playing time, Gesicko Mode averaged over four catches for 45 receiving yards and one touchdown per game.

Fantasy managers should hope he finds himself in a more favorable situation in 2023 where his receiving abilities can be taken full advantage of. Perhaps 2023’s version of this year’s Evan Engram is in Gesicki’s future. The expectation is that Miami will let the 27-year-old walk in free agency, but that will no doubt benefit his long-term fantasy value. Keep in mind that before the 2022 season, Gesicki finished sixth in receptions, ninth in receiving yards, fourth in route participation (78%), and fifth in target share (17%) through 18 weeks of action. This receiving and route volume led to only moderate success in fantasy football, as Gesicki finished as TE9 (TE8 Weeks 1-17). Although Gesicki did deliver worthwhile fantasy production at times, as displayed by his TE6 standing from Weeks 3-15 during the 2021 season. Gesicki is being drafted at his stone-cold floor in early best-ball drafts (TE22 ADP).

Evan Engram (TE – JAC)

Evan Engram’s return to his rookie year form has so much to do with his role in the Jags offense: 80% route participation (4th) and 3rd in routes run (495). The elite usage fueled Engram to a fantasy TE5 finish and TE7 standing in points per game (8.4). And he finished strong as the TE4 from Weeks 6-17 averaging 9.8 points per game with an 18% target share. The athletic tight end’s health also played an integral part as he stayed healthy for an entire season.

The concerns for Engram in fantasy are that his 2023 ADP will be much higher than it was in 2022 despite the team’s addition of Calvin Ridley (assuming Engram re-signs with the Jaguars, who rank 29th in available cap space). As enticing as it will be to want multiple pieces of the Jaguars’ passing game, Engram could become too costly if he is viewed in the high-end second tier of fantasy tight ends. I’d be even more bearish on Engram if he signs elsewhere. Although with both Chris Manhertz and Dan Arnold hitting free agency, Jacksonville will have to address the position in some capacity – either through a different veteran tight end or in the 2023 Draft (or both).

Hayden Hurst (TE – CIN)

Hayden Hurst was solid in his first year with the Bengals, serving as one of the better streaming/waiver wire options throughout the year. He finished as TE22 overall (TE20 in points per game) while seeing one of the best roles for a tight end. He played a nearly every-down role as a receiver, which has been the norm for the Bengals starting tight end Zac Taylor’s offense. His efficiency/target metrics left some to be desired – par for the course playing alongside stud WRs – but he did enough to land a role either back with the Bengals or with a new squad in 2023. Cincy is a prime candidate to revamp their tight end room as blocking tight end Drew Sample is also a free agent, and Mitchell Wilcox is an exclusive restricted free agent.

Robert Tonyan (TE – GB)

Big Bob Tonyan could have easily seen a larger role in the post-Davante Adams Green Bay Packers passing game, but he failed to deliver. He finished as the TE19 and caught just two receiving TDs. His role on offense was subpar even as the starter – 60% route participation – and he was limited to just five red-zone targets. His lack of high-value targets completely overshadowed the fact that he set season-highs in both targets and receptions. At 29 years old, Tonyan still has a chance to carve out a legitimate red-zone role on a new offense, but he won’t be anything but a TD-or-bust option for fantasy purposes. It’s still very possible he returns to Green Bay with both Marcedes Lewis and Tyler Davis (RFA) also free agents.

Juwan Johnson (TE – NO)

The Saints WR-TE convert broke out in a big fashion in 2022, finishing the season as the TE8 overall and TE13 in points per game. Juwan Johnson’s strong campaign was charged by his seven receiving TD – third-most among all TEs. And I’d hardly say that his TD dependency was gimmicky. He ranked 13th in route participation (64%) and tied for the team lead in red-zone targets (11). Johnson has scored 11 TD over the last two seasons, so it’s clear that his red-zone presence needs to be considered in 2023 fantasy drafts, regardless of where he ends up. The Saints are in salary cap hell (per usual), so there’s no guarantee that the 6-foot-4 fiend will return to the Big Easy. But it works in their favor that he is a restricted free agent, giving them first-refusal rights. Johnson could easily build off his third season in a big way with the hiring of new tight ends coach, Clancy Barone. Barone has worked with a number of elite tight ends, such as Antonio Gates, Alge Crumpler, Julius Thomas, and Kyle Rudolph.

Irv Smith Jr. (TE – MIN)

Irv Smith Jr. seems like a likely candidate to test the free agent market after the Vikings acquired T.J. Hockenson via trade in the middle of last season. Minnesota also ranks 30th in available cap space. The former Alabama tight end has still yet to turn 25, but injuries have plagued him over the last two seasons. His impressive sophomore campaign seems like a distant memory, more than an actual way to project him moving forward. At least Smith was able to return from the high-ankle sprain that placed him on IR, and he will get the chance to be fully healthy during off-season activities. Before his injury in Week 8, ISJ was the TE23 in points per game (5.7) and caught at least two passes in all but one game. The former second-round pick still has talent and could easily rebound on a new team in 2023. His 20% target rate per route run ranked 12th among all tight ends with at least 30 targets in 2022. He could land with former Vikings executive George Paton in Denver.

Foster Moreau (TE – LV)

Darren Waller has been floated in trade talks already this offseason, stemming from a report last season when he was originally going to be dealt as part of the Davante Adams acquisition. That trade fell through, and Waller went on to miss seven games in 2022. In his place, Foster Moreau was the Raiders’ starting tight end, and he was underwhelming — to say the least. He averaged just 5.7 fantasy points, 2.3 receptions, 30 receiving yards, and 4.3 targets per game. And that was despite Moreau playing close to an every-down role where he routinely played 90% or more of the snaps. He never surpassed 50 receiving yards during a seven-week stretch of peak usage. Waller nearly out-scored Moreau in total fantasy points despite missing so many games. The superstar tight end was the TE8 in points per game as PFF’s 11th-highest graded tight end. Moreau’s probably a better real-life addition than a legitimate fantasy option.

Jordan Akins (TE – HOU)

Jordan Akins consistently played ahead of Brevin Jordan in 2022, running a route on 46% of dropbacks versus Jordan’s 24%. Not a great outlook for Jordan’s long-term value as he enters Year 3. It will be curious to see if the Texans re-sign Akins and/or O.J. Howard this offseason. Akins was low-key and productive after joining the Texans roster in Week 3, finishing the year as the TE20 overall. He tied Moreau for third overall in yards after the catch per reception (7.3) and finished ninth among all TEs in yards per route run (1.63). The 31-year-old tight end essentially posted career highs across the board (including 5 TD receptions), which could make him a sneaky add for TE-needy teams. But I’d also understand why new head coach Demeco Ryans would want to keep a long-tenured Texan like Akins around as he looks to stamp his name on the roster.

Austin Hooper (TE – CLE)

Both Austin Hooper and Geoff Swaim are free agents, but I doubt either will land in a place where they become fantasy forces. Hooper has finished no better than TE22 since he cashed in with the Cleveland Browns back in 2020, and Swaim is a typical blocking tight end. This past season, Hooper commanded just a 14% target share as the TE24 overall averaged just 4.4 points per game (TE33). The hope for fantasy managers in Tennessee is that both veterans leave in free agency, opening up the starting job for second-year pro Chigoziem Okonkwo. He started the last two games of the season for Tennessee and flashed uber-efficiency in the receiving game. The rookie’s 26% target rate ranked 2nd among all tight ends with at least 40 targets in 2022. He finished 3rd in PFF receiving grade, first in yards per reception, and first in yards per route run among all tight ends.

Honorable Mentions

Blake Bell, O.J. Howard, Donald Parham

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