Chasing a breakout tight end in the late rounds has often been a fool’s errand. Fortunately, if a TE2 fails to exceed expectations, the opportunity cost to select them is low. And hitting on one can be game-changing for the scoring upside of a fantasy roster. Two tight ends with an expert consensus ranking (ECR) after TE12 are intriguing options.
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TE2s with Top-5 TE Potential in 2023
Looking Back at Top-5 TEs Since 2018
First, Travis Kelce has been the king of the position. He’s finished as the TE1 in half-point point-per-reception (PPR) points per game (PPG) in four of the previous five seasons, ranking as the TE2 in the outlier campaign. He showed no signs of slowing down last year, despite being the clear-cut focal point for opposing defenses sans Tyreek Hill. So, even at Kelce’s advanced age in football years, he’s probably a shoo-in to secure one of the top-five spots.
Second, Mark Andrews was also a mainstay among the fantasy leaders at the tight end position, cracking the top five in the previous four years. There’s uncertainty about Lamar Jackson‘s future. Ergo, it’s unclear who will start for the Ravens. Yet, a reunion is possible. In addition, Baltimore’s passing game could excel this year with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, regardless of who is the club’s quarterback.
Zach Ertz was routinely a top-five fantasy tight end, but the veteran hasn’t cracked that threshold since 2019. George Kittle is another regular among the top-five fantasy tight ends. So, there haven’t been many fresh faces. Just seven appeared once among the 25 tight ends who finished among the top five at the position since 2018.
Still, there’s hope for catching lightning in a bottle. So, what are some shared characteristics among the top fantasy producers? Only two top-five tight end seasons in half-point PPR PPG in the previous three years were by players on their rookie contracts. And since 2018, only six were by players on their rookie contracts. Kittle and Andrews each accomplished the feat twice, and Austin Hooper and T.J. Hockenson were the other players to finish as a top-five tight end in half-point PPR PPG since 2018. So, 19 of the 25 finishers in the top five weren’t on their rookie contract.
Predictably, running a ton of routes was helpful. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), four of the top-five tight ends last year were in the top 10 in routes. Further, 16 of the 25 tight ends with a top-five finish in half-point PPR PPG since 2018 were in the top 10 in routes in those respective campaigns. Seven of the nine players in the group of tight ends who lagged in routes were out for at least two games.
Andrews (2019) and Robert Tonyan (2020) were the two healthy tight ends who didn’t rank in the top 10 in routes during a top-five season. However, it’s apparent how they outperformed their lackluster volume of routes. Tonyan was second at the position in touchdowns in 2020 with 12 (10 during the fantasy season), and Andrews was first with 10 (nine during the fantasy season). Understandably, touchdowns can fuel a top-five finish. To that end, the tight end who led the position or one who tied for first (Andrews tied with two others in 2021) the position lead in touchdowns during the fantasy season finished as a top-five option in each of the last five years. So, again, touchdowns carried a ton of weight for fantasy value at the position.
Dawson Knox (TE – BUF): 118.9 ECR and TE13
Knox was one of two tight ends, along with Hunter Henry, to tie Andrews for the lead in touchdowns (nine) among tight ends during the 2021 fantasy season. Knox’s sizable touchdown contributions left him just outside the top five among his peers in half-point PPR PPG that season, ranking as the TE8.
Unfortunately, Knox was unable to build on his breakout 2021 showing. Fantasy football gamers who aren’t fans of the Bills might be unaware Knox’s 22-year-old brother died in late August last year. So, Knox’s play might have been impacted by the tragedy of his brother’s untimely death. Players are humans, after all. He also finished his season playing markedly better down the stretch. Including two playoff games, Knox scored a touchdown in five of his last six games. He also had at least three receptions in five of his last six games and bested 40 yards three times.
So, Knox has a nose for the end zone in a high-octane offense. He also ran many routes in Buffalo’s pass-heavy attack. Per PFF, he ran the fifth-most routes (472) among tight ends in the regular season in 2022, despite missing two games. Knox isn’t a highly-efficient player, but his integral role as a route-runner and weapon in the red zone gives him a path to a top-five tight end finish this season. Finally, he fits the bill as a tight end who’s not on his rookie contract since he signed an extension before the 2022 season.
Juwan Johnson (TE – NO): 193.8 ECR and TE25
Johnson is a longer shot than Knox to crack the top five this season. However, barring offseason hype getting out of control, gamers in traditional season-long redraft leagues should be able to pop him in the last round of their draft.
Johnson was an undrafted wideout in the 2020 NFL Draft class who converted to tight end. He came into his own to an extent last year, and the Saints signed him to a two-year contract extension this offseason. Johnson had 42 receptions for 508 yards and seven touchdowns in 2022. He was also 21st among tight ends in routes (365).
Johnson teased some potential early last year before torching the Cardinals for five receptions, 32 yards and two touchdowns in Week 7. And from Week 7 through Week 17, Johnson was the TE7 in half-point PPR PPG (9.7) among tight ends who played more than one game. In his final eight games of 2022, Johnson had more than 40 receiving yards five times, reached paydirt in four games and had at least three receptions four times.
He’ll catch passes from a new starting quarterback this season. The Saints signed Derek Carr to be their starting quarterback. The change could allow Johnson to build on his career-best season in 2023. Moreover, Carr helped unlock another wideout-to-tight-end conversion, Darren Waller. Johnson’s athletic profile wasn’t as impressive as Waller’s entering the NFL, but Carr’s new teammate’s athleticism was stellar. Johnson might be on an upward trajectory and could reward gamers who take a chance on a step forward this year with a last-round pick. Gamers can quickly pivot to an early-season hot waiver-wire option if he fails.
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Josh Shepardson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Josh, check out his archive and follow him @BChad50.