Tight end is the most vexing position in fantasy football. It’s hard to determine how much to invest in a position that produces fewer fantasy points than any other except for kicker and defense.
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Redraft Primer: Tight End Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023 Fantasy Football)
There are three basic approaches to the TE position in redraft leagues. Here they are, along with the premise that underpins each philosophy.
- Spend up. With reliable scorers so scarce at the position, getting a top tight end can give you a big competitive advantage.
- Spend down. There are few prolific scorers at the position, and the upper-crust TEs are expensive. Better to target inexpensive TEs with intriguing profiles. If the tight ends you draft don’t work out, you can pan for gold on the waiver wire.
- Hunt for value. Rather than committing to a predetermined TE strategy, take what the room gives you. If a high-quality tight end is available at a bargain price, pounce. Otherwise, be patient and don’t overspend.
The Kelce Conundrum
If you decide to spend up at tight end, one option stands above the rest. Travis Kelce has finished TE1 in PPR fantasy scoring in six of the last seven seasons. (He finished second to Mark Andrews in 2021.) The gap between Kelce and all other tight ends was Grand Canyon-sized in 2022. Kelce averaged 19.2 PPR points per game last season. The next-closest tight end, T.J. Hockenson, averaged 13.3 fantasy points.
Kelce has strung together seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and he’s averaged 8.4 touchdowns per year over that span. In 2022, he had a career-high 110 catches for 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Investors who have been willing to spend an early pick on Kelce have been rewarded with a massive positional advantage. So, why wouldn’t you draft Kelce in the first round?
Well, there’s an opportunity cost. If you draft a tight end in the first round, you’re likely to come out of your draft with below-average firepower at either running back or wide receiver. There’s also some age-related risk. Kelce turns 34 in October. There have been no signs of age-related decline, and Kelce has been indestructible for most of his career. He missed a game in 2020 due to COVID-19, but Kelce hasn’t missed a game due to injury since he was a rookie 10 years ago.
Before we spend more time discussing specific tight ends, let’s discuss the TE-premium format and how it affects positional strategy.
In TE premium, tight ends are awarded more points per reception than wide receivers or running backs. In most TE-premium leagues, WRs and RBs get 1 point per reception, and TEs get 1.5.
The format seemingly makes it imperative to spend up at tight end. With the greater rewards for TE receptions, strength at the position is handsomely rewarded, so there is an incentive to aggressively draft a top tight end in the early rounds.
There’s no denying that the TE-premium format places greater emphasis on the position, but drafting a tight end early in a TE-premium league isn’t automatically the right strategy. Since tight ends come off the board earlier in TE-premium drafts, good players at other positions are available later in the draft than they would be otherwise. If you decide not to draft a tight end early, you can scoop up value at other positions. If you can figure out a way to get adequate TE production later in the draft, you’ll be well ahead of the game.
A Word About Rookies
This year’s crop of rookie tight ends is widely considered to be a good one. First-round draft pick Dalton Kincaid (Bills) and early second-rounders Sam LaPorta (Lions), Michael Mayer (Raiders) and Luke Musgrave (Packers) could be fantasy-viable performers right away.
But beware: Historically, rookie tight ends haven’t been great bets for fantasy, even when they’re first-round draft picks. Of the 25 tight ends taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2000, only four — Kyle Pitts, Evan Engram, Heath Miller and Jeremy Shockey — were fantasy TE1s as rookies. That’s just a 16% hit rate. Kincaid’s long-term outlook is bright. But the smart move for 2023? Fade Kincaid.
Tight End Rankings & Tiers
Here are the top 25 tight ends in my redraft rankings, sorted into tiers, with thoughts on some of the players from each tier.
- Travis Kelce
Long live the king!
- Mark Andrews
If Kelce is the king of tight ends, Andrews is the prince. He temporarily dethroned Kelce with a 107-1361-9 season in 2021, and Andrews has averaged 4.4 catches and 56 yards per game over his career. Andrews managed to produce 73-847-5 last season despite missing two games and being without QB Lamar Jackson for the last month of the season.
Hockenson’s target and reception totals spiked last season after he was traded from the Lions to the Vikings, but will he be able to maintain a robust target share now that the Vikings have brought in another first-round wide receiver, Jordan Addison, to play with superstar Justin Jefferson?
Kittle scored 11 touchdowns in 2022 after never scoring more than six TDs in any of his previous five seasons. He’s one of the toughest players in the league to tackle, right up there with Derrick Henry, and one of the most talented tight ends in the league. Just realize that Kittle’s week-to-week inconsistency can be maddening. It has more to do with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s game-planning than with Kittle himself, but that makes it no less frustrating if you’re a Kittle investor.
After becoming the first rookie TE in 60 years to record a 1,000-yard season, Kyle Pitts had only 28-356-2 in 10 games before his season ended with a torn MCL. Part of the problem was that a large percentage of Pitts’ targets were deemed uncatchable. Pitts is an extraordinary talent, and if young QB Desmond Ridder can put more throws in Pitts’ area code, there could be a rebound season coming for the young tight end.
Goedert has averaged 13.8 yards per catch and an extraordinary 10.6 yards per target over the last two years, but he’s never scored more than five touchdowns in a season and has to compete for targets with WRs A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
Waller is entering his age-31 season and has missed 14 games over the last two years. His back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons in 2019 and 2020 still have some drafters salivating, even if those seasons are getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. Admittedly, Waller could easily draw 100+ targets if he stays reasonably healthy, but it’s a risky wager.
Freiermuth has racked up 60 or more receptions in each of his first two NFL seasons. His TD total fell from seven in 2021 to two last season, so he’s due for a bounce.
Njoku had a career-high 58 catches last year in only 14 games. He has the potential to post the best numbers of his career in 2023 if Deshaun Watson has finally shed all of the rust.
Engram is coming off a 73-766-4 season, but the arrival of WR Calvin Ridley could put a dent in Engram’s target total.
Dulcich and Okonkwo had compelling rookie seasons that offer hope for Year 2 breakouts. Okonkwo’s target outlook became slightly less sunny with the Titans’ signing of DeAndre Hopkins, but it’s not as if the young tight end will be facing a target crunch.
- Juwan Johnson
- Dalton Kincaid
- Gerald Everett
- Cole Kmet
- Sam LaPorta
- Mike Gesicki
- Irv Smith
- Trey McBride
- Jelani Woods
- Michael Mayer
- Noah Fant
- Tyler Conklin
Kmet led the Bears in targets (69), receptions (50), receiving yards (544) and TD catches (7) last season, but don’t expect a repeat of that feat with D.J. Moore arriving in Chicago and Darnell Mooney returning from injury.
The Dolphins gave Gesicki the franchise tag last year after his 780-yard performance in 2021, then completely marginalized him, pulling way back on his snap share. Gesicki is one of the most athletic tight ends in the league, and he’ll be playing for new Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who was Gesicki’s college coach at Penn State. No one will confuse Gesicki with Rob Gronkowski, but the last time Bill O’Brien was New England’s play-caller (2011), Gronk and fellow TE Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. (Just sayin’.)
Widely regarded as the best tight end in the rookie class of 2022, McBride could see ample targets early in the 2023 season if Zach Ertz isn’t ready for the start of the regular season after tearing his ACL and MCL last November.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Woods had some impressive flashes last year as a rookie, including a two-TD game against the Chiefs in Week 3 and an eight-catch, 98-yard game against the Steelers in Week 12. He also brings 4.61 speed to the table.
A few final thoughts about drafting tight ends in 2023:
- If you miss out on Kelce and Andrews, be willing to exercise patience at the position. Don’t pass up a potential difference-maker at running back or wide receiver to draft a middle-class tight end.
- If tight ends fly off the board in your draft and you miss out on all the players from the top three or four tiers. You can justify dumpster-diving at TE if it means loading up on talent at the other positions. If you’re not satisfied with the tight end(s) you draft, you can work the waiver wire during the season, playing matchups and hoping to hit on a dependable TE option.
- “Bully TE” is a strategy that involves a fantasy manager drafting not one but two top tight ends and playing one of them in a flex spot. The idea of monopolizing the supply of high-performing tight ends has some surface appeal, but I don’t recommend this approach. It requires too great a sacrifice at other positions, and the reward isn’t compelling enough to go into a season short on firepower at the all-important RB and WR positions.