We’ve already looked at my top-40 quarterbacks for the upcoming fantasy football season, in addition to my top-100 running backs and top-150 wide receivers. Today, we’ll wrap up the rankings by sticking with pass catchers: tight ends!
The tight end position, unlike the wide receiver position, hasn’t been as replenished with consistent talent, making it a very difficult position to analyze. There are some elite players at the top, but, overall, there are a lot of question marks regarding the overall depth of the group. That said, this means that more breakout players come here than with any other position group, which is very exciting!
With that, I am excited to publish my 2021 tight end rankings! In addition to ranking the top 55 tight ends for the upcoming fantasy football season, I have placed them in tiers in order to give a better idea of the perceived gap between each player. With this being such an unpredictable position, identifying which players are in position to burst onto the scene is critical. Who will lead be the player that becomes a surprising contributor to your championship team? Let’s dig in!
Utilizing research and analysis from our deep dive on the correlation and stability of key metrics, here are some takeaways that are important when it comes to ranking tight ends:
- Targets are not evenly dispersed at all
- Production at the position is relatively stable
- Thus, the quality of the player needs to be balanced with their projected volume
- Drop rate, contested-catch rate, and touchdown rate are not stable metrics
As you’ll see, I place a high priority not only on the projected volume, but how those targets will be maximized based on the quality of the tight end. Remember, not every team features their starting tight end in the passing game. Really, when projecting volume, we need to analyze where they rank in the pecking order compared to the wide receivers, rather than just if they’re the starting tight end. Also, while touchdown rate is unstable, touchdowns are a big part of how tight ends accumulate production- we’ll want to target tight ends on successful offenses.
Additionally, based on my PFF grade projections for the upcoming season, I was also able to take into the account a few other notable metrics when it comes to each wide receiver’s situation.
First, listed in each wide receiver’s average opposing pass defense grade projection, ranked from most difficult to easiest schedule:
There aren’t many high-end tight ends impacted by this, nor does it move the needle as much as with wide receivers. Still, if tight end production is about efficiency and touchdown opportunities, knowing which passing offenses are set up to be successful is important. However, it’s important to know which tight ends this could benefit, as some might have success in a way that benefits wide receivers much more, such as the Bills and Cowboys.
Tier 1: Travis Kelce
Photo via CBS Sports
#1: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Even moreso than running back, the tight end position has the easiest call for who the #1 player should be. Although this isn’t a deep position, that should speak to how dominant Travis Kelce is. He’s received over 130 targets in every season with Patrick Mahomes under center, and had he not sat out in a meaningless Week 17 game, would have led all players, not just tight ends, in receiving yards. That is absurd! In my eyes, he should have been the Offensive Player of the Year last year, and there is little doubt that he should be the top-ranked tight end heading into 2021.
Tier 2: Not Travis Kelce, But Still Absolute Freaks of Nature
Photo via CBS Sports
#2: Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
A major reason I enjoy covering fantasy sports is it allows for me to celebrate individual players not just for their accomplishments on the field, but as individuals as well. Look no further than Darren Waller as a prime example. After struggling with substance abuse for the beginning of his career, he overcame this obstacle in his life, and upon getting a chance with the Raiders, hasn’t looked back. In his two full seasons with Las Vegas, he’s averaged 2.35 yards/route run, earned PFF receiving grades over 86.5, and has combined for 197 receptions with 2342 receiving yards. At one end of the spectrum, you can look at his very low drop rate (1.8%) and high contested-catch rate (73.1%) as signs of regression. Yet, when comparing him to the rest of the pack, how many other tight ends receive 140 targets in an individual season? He’s clearly Derek Carr’s go-to option in any key situation, and that won’t change given the team’s lack of additions to the receiving corps. Don’t overthink this, folks.
#3: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
If we’re just looking at “real-life” value, George Kittle is the best tight end in the NFL. He’s led the league in yards/route run in each of the past three seasons, after all. That said, we play a wonderful game called FANTASY football, which Kittle holds slightly less appeal. Wait, Justin, how can this be if he gets the most yards for every route he runs? Well, the amount of routes Kittle will actually run is the question. As a winning team with a run-heavy offense, the 49ers aren’t a very friendly offense for passing success in fantasy, and that is unlikely to change in 2021. Plus, with receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel factoring in, there is certainly some competition for targets, and who knows what happens should Trey Lance earn the starting quarterback spot. His talent is so ridiculous to the point that he’s still worth an early-round investment, but volume questions cement him behind Kelce and Waller.
Tier 3: The “Money Spot” For Tight Ends
Photo via The San Diego Union-Tribune
#4: TJ Hockenson, Detroit Lions
Tight ends generally take until their third year to reach peak performance. Assuming he follows that trend, that means it is officially TJ Hockenson season! Really, why shouldn’t we be expected the Lions tight end to flourish? From year 1 to year 2, his improvements are notable:
- 2019: 62.1 PFF Receiving Grade, 1.28 Yards/Route Run
- 2020: 76.3 PFF Receiving Grade, 1.57 Yards/Route Run
I’m not the one who’ll say that every player will continue to get better like we’re playing a video game, but we’ve seen this story at the position over and over again. Even if he doesn’t improve, his volume numbers could beef the charts. Waller is the only other tight end likely to lead his team in targets, as not only is Detroit’s receiving corps depleted, but it consists mainly of vertical threats. Expect the conservative Jared Goff to lean more on Hockenson on throws with a lower average depth of target, especially when playing from behind in games. Although there isn’t much touchdown upside, there is too much in the way of projected opportunities and an upward trajectory to ignore. He’s easily the player I expect to have the most shares of at this position.
#5: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
In fantasy, we like to get infatuated with what a player can become, especially when there is greater “unknown”. Well, if that is the case, I’m sure you’ll love Kyle Pitts! After earning a 96.1 PFF receiving grade as a 20-year-old junior at Florida (yes, you read that right), Pitts not only was considered the premier non-quarterback in the 2021 draft, but perhaps one of the best tight end prospects ever. As a result, the hype was boosted his average draft position into the fourth round in 12-team drafts. Is this a logical development? I’m not quite sure. I have no doubts that Pitts will be an elite tight end at the NFL level, and his ability to line up strictly as a receiver and dominate cannot be overstated- he’ll have a higher yards/reception than almost any other tight end too. That said, the track record for rookie tight ends isn’t great, nor do we know how head coach Arthur Smith will use him. In a year or two, he may very well rank at the top of this list. At a position without much depth, though, there’s a bit too much risk for me to take over four much safer options.
#6: Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
With two+ yards/route run in each of his three seasons as a pro, it is safe to say that Mark Andrews has been one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL- the fact that he was a third-round pick is astonishing in hindsight. Sadly, though, he falls into the same trap as Kittle; his efficiency is mitigated by a lack of routes run. Last season, the Ravens only had him run over 30 routes in two games, with one of them being an overtime affair against the Titans. He’s still Lamar Jackson’s go-to target, especially in the red zone, yet what are the chances he exceeds 6-7 targets per game? Especially with the team adding a lot to their receiving corps, not high enough for me to rank ahead of Pitts, though the difference is negligible.
Tier 4: The Last Chance To Get a Starting Tight End
Photo via Denver Post
#7: Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
Why is Zach Ertz still on the Eagles? That’s the question all of us Dallas Goedert supporters would want to know! Should Philadelphia move on from their veteran tight end, the door would be open for the 26-year-old Goedert to shine, which I believe he’d walk right through. He’s earned a 76.4+ PFF receiving grade in back-to-back seasons, averaged 1.63 yards/route run despite poor quarterback play and being the #2 tight end, and has succeeded in multiple roles. With Jalen Hurts under center, I’d expect him to be targeted more down the field in contested-catch situations, to which he thrived in during the duo’s brief stint together in 2020. As the top red-zone option for an offense with a head coach (Nick Sirianni) who leverages his tights ends a ridiculous amount in those situations, expect a big season from Goedert.
#8: Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
Tight end who made a huge second-year leap and is set for a big third season? Sign me up! Really, considering that he earned an 80.3 PFF receiving grade last year, Noah Fant doesn’t get enough credit! If you take away two games in which he ran a combined 9 routes in, he was a top-ten fantasy tight end in expected points per game, and clearly appears to be a player on the rise. Sadly, though, as with all exciting young Broncos players, the quarterback situation complicates things. Should Teddy Bridgewater win the job, I think he’ll lean on Fant’s success after the catch often, but between Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, Drew Lock has enough wide receivers to give a massive target share to, in addition to just not being accurate enough to set Fant up for success. What is less complicated, though, is that he’s an ascending player, and I’ll take a chance on that any day of the week at the right price.
#9: Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
With how thin of a position tight end is, nothing is more frustrating than committee situations. It’s already hard to find productive players, but now, we have to find productive players who also have clear situations to thrive in? That’s less than ideal! Well, all is shaping up for Tyler Higbee to finally be what we’ve been dreaming on him to be! Even in a down year in 2020, he still averaged 1.62 yards/route run, meaning his main issue has been routes run. With Gerald Everett out of the picture, though, that no longer appears to be the problem. In the games Everett missed in 2019, Higbee was allowed to run 30+ routes a game, and he absolutely flourished during that span- 104.4 yards/game, 8.6 receptions/game. With Matthew Stafford taking over for Jared Goff, I’d expect more opportunities to work down the field and increase his yards/reception, and we know that he can be efficient after the catch in the short passing game. The combination of efficiency and upside here is extremely enticing, making him someone that I want to roster NO MATTER WHAT. With a current ADP as the 12th or 13th tight end off the board, he’s definitely the top-value option at the position.
Tier 5: Could Be a Starting Tight End, But Also Could Not Be
Photo via Washington Wire- USA Today
#10: Logan Thomas, Washington Football Team
Tight ends comes from anywhere, man. Who would’ve thought that Logan Thomas, a converted quarterback with 35 career receptions, would finish at the TE4 last year? That’s just the nature of the position! Considering he ranked 5th in expected fantasy points per game and gets a quarterback upgrade, I should be high on Thomas’ outlook heading into next season, right? Well, this situation isn’t as rosy as it may seem. Given his fantasy success, it may surprise to find out that Thomas averaged just 1.1 yards/route run. Really, a lot of his success came around the fact that he ran 609 routes last season, skewed heavily by the fact that Washington was often behind in games. Yet, with the team adding to their receiving corps and figuring to be less pass-heavy this season due to a team should win more, Thomas won’t be able to rely on that unheard of among of routes runs again. He has a higher floor given that his role is much less in question than the players behind him, yet his lack of efficiency and projected volume downtick is concerning.
#11: Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Remember what I said about tight ends taking until their third season to fully develop? Take Mike Gesicki as a prime example. After averaging just 1.05 yards/route run in his first two seasons as a pro, the 25-year-old boosted that number to 1.6, earning a 79.4 PFF receiving grade in the process. This is all encouraging, though it’s unclear if he’ll have similar numbers this season. With Tua Tagovailoa under center rather than Ryan Fitzpatrick, Gesicki’s yards/route run fell from 1.98 to 1.42, as his average depth of target was significantly lower. Really, his viability in fantasy was all around him getting an ample amount of targets, something that can’t be counted on with DeVante Parker healthy and the additions of Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle. How Waddle cuts int Gesicki’s workload in the slot, in addition to his ability to mesh with Tagovailoa, will ultimately define his outlook moving forward.
#12: Evan Engram, New York Giants
Some players get consistently better, while some players get consistently worse? Really, it’s almost impossible to explain Evan Engram’s overall career trajectory. After earning a 75.7 PFF receiving grade and posting 1.83 yards/route run in his second season, the ceiling appeared to be through the roof for the young tight end. Instead, those numbers (61.4 receiving grade, 1.29 yards/route run 2020) have regressed significantly, leaving him in a tough predicament heading into a contract year. Still, there is a lot to like. His 11.4% drop rate and 19% contested-catch rate should each improve significantly, which helps explain why he was tied for the TE5 in expected fantasy points last season. Naturally, I’d want to buy low on that, and Daniel Jones’ conservative style of play meshes really well with Engram’s prowess after the catch. On the down side, the addition of Kyle Rudolphu guarantees that he’ll likely produce little in the way of touchdowns, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett used him much more on downfield routes, which doesn’t work to his strengths and could decrease his efficiency. There are reasons to think he’ll finish as a top-ten tight end and also reasons to think he doesn’t finish as a top-20 player, making this ranking appropriate for him. Consider him a decent value as your backup tight end.
#13: Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Easily my favorite fun fact from researching the tight end position: despite the fact that he’s heading into his third season, Irv Smith Jr. is only 22-years-old! How is this possible? Anyways, with the departure of Kyle Rudolph in Minnesota, many are excited about the young tight end’s outlook moving forward. Simply based on the overall quality of the player, that makes sense- 75.4 PFF receiving grade last season. Nevertheless, I think we’re overrating how good of an opportunity Smith Jr. has in Minnesota. With this being an offense that utilizes mainly two tight-end sets, the target share amongst tight ends has been very evenly spread. Could that change with Smith Jr. ingrained as the lead guy? Yes, but remember, this is a run-heavy offense with its targets heavily condensed to its top two receivers. It’s exciting to buy into a young player on the rise; just don’t do it too early.
#14: Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers
Okay, I lied when I said Smith Jr.’s age was the best fun fact of this position: Robert Tonyan had more touchdowns (11) last season than incomplete passes (6). I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure how that can even be accomplished! Unfortunately for Tonyan, this doesn’t exactly void well for him when projecting his production moving forward. As you’d expect, he only finished 23rd in expected points per game last season, which you’d expect considering he only had 58 targets last season. Sure, maybe he’ll always overachieved his expected points total by heavy usage and efficiency in the red zone for a successful offense, but that is extremely difficult to bank on. Considering he has very little in the way of a proven track record, I’d rather take a chance with a younger or more proven player; it’s important to not just look at previous fantasy points when projecting future fantasy points.
Tier 5: Interesting Backups
Photo via Who Dat Dish
#15: Hunter Henry, New England Patriots
Dear Patriots, thank you for ruining everything when it comes to tight ends in fantasy football! As you’ll see, they not only signed one well-regarded tight end to a lofty contract, but two! How does that work for fantasy football? Tight ends in committee situations rarely produce high-end fantasy producers, making the New England situation one to try to avoid. Still, at this point, the quality of these two players might be enough. Although he hasn’t been player since he missed all of the 2018 season due to injury, he’s still been very proficient in contested-catch situations (59.45%), and his struggles this season were mainly due to being used poorly- he’s much better with a higher average depth of target than the 8.5 rate he was targeted at last year. Especially since he generally plays about 50% of his snaps in the slot, it’s likely he leads New England in targets next season.
#16: Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots
Meanwhile, Jonnu Smith projects much more as the traditional in-line tight end with the Patriots, in a much more versatile role. Even in a limited role with the Titans, the 25-year-old has still averaged a respectable 1.64 yards/route run over the past two seasons, thanks in large part to his prowess after the catch (7.1 yards after catch/reception). In any other offense, we’d be talking about Jonnu Smith like we are with Dallas Goedert and Tyler Higbee. Alas, here were are. He was the TE16 in Tennessee, which looks like a reasonable expectation for him this year.
#17: Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints
The farther we go into the tight end list, the more we want to embrace the unknown. That’s what makes Adam Trautman so interesting. Even at FCS Dayton, anyone who earns a 94.3 PFF receiving grade is going to catch my attention, and many saw him as the best tight end in the 2020 draft. That said, considering he’s a small-school prospect with 146 career NFL routes run, it is very difficult to project him moving forward. In his 16 targets, the 24-year-old was mainly used as a threat after the catch in the short passing game (4.8 average depth of target), though that’s too small of a sample size to really gauge anything from it. It’s likely he settles in as a threat in the intermediate areas of the field for the Saints, who don’t have a lot of other options in the passing game, which would work well- head coach Sean Payton has always utilized his tight ends in the red zone heavily. Simply based on potential upside and the chances he poaches a lot of touchdowns from other players on the roster, he’s the exact type of fascinating asset I want to have stashed on my bench just in case.
#18: Anthony Firkser, Tennessee Titans
I mentioned that Jonnu Smith was the TE16 last year, which makes this ranking an appropriate range for Anthony Firkser, who will take over as the starting tight end in Tennessee. Even though he’s been a relative unknown for the first three years of his career, don’t discount the 26-year-old’s skills. Last season, he earned a 76.2 PFF receiving grade and averaged 1.67 yards/route run, which is quite impressive when you consider how low he was in the pecking order when it comes to target share. Yes, the Titans are a run-heavy team with two terrific receivers that will hog most of the targets. That said, given what we’ve seen from this offense when it comes to tight ends in the past, there is enough to like for him to be drafted higher than his current ADP as TE26- take advantage of his lack of name recognition to secure a serviceable backup tight end at an incredibly cheap price.
Tier 6: Backup Tight Ends With Less Intrigue
Photo via 247 Sports
#19: Blake Jarwin, Dallas Cowboys
Coming into the year, expectations were high for Blake Jarwin to be the Cowboys’ starting tight end. After all, the team signed him to a $22 million extension with the hopes he’d be the successor to Jason Witten, despite the fact he ran only 430 routes in his first two seasons. Sadly, he tore his ACL in the first game of the season, and with Dalton Schultz having a productive year in his place, it appears the two will be in a committee this year. That’s a shame; in 2019, he averaged 1.82 yards/route run and looked to prime to succeed in a larger role. If the team’s investment in the 26-year-old means he’ll be the true starting tight end, then I can make a case for him being ranked near the fringes of the top ten. Thus, of this group, he’s clearly the one I’d target.
#20: Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns
There are some players where you just feel what you know what you’re getting from them, which holds value. That said, when the projection is a mid-tier fantasy producer, you’re betting off generally chasing variance. Austin Hooper is a quality tight end who will see positive regression from his career-high 9.8% drop rate. That said, Kevin Stefanski likes to rotate his tight ends, which limits the upside they have in fantasy, and their run-heavy tendencies and extensive 12-personnel usage has made it not a friendly offense for the position group overall when it comes to production. The certainty of Hooper (17th in expected fantasy points per game) being a contributor next season cannot go overlooked, yet his range of outcomes appear to be too condensed for my liking in a bench stash.
#21: Gerald Everett, Seattle Seahawks
The Rams’ tight end room has been frustrating in recent years, in a way the Patriots will be this year. Both Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are very talented players, but since they’ve both split time, neither has had the opportunity to truly demonstrate what they’re capable of. Higbee will have that chance this year, yet are we sure that Everett won’t either? After signing a one-year contract with the Seahawks, the 27-year-old will have the opportunity to function as the third option in a passing game led by Russell Wilson, which doesn’t sound too bad to me! Everett had earned PFF receiving grades of 78.9 or higher in back-to-back seasons before a down 2020 season that was hampered by a very unsustainable 12.8% drop rate, and I’d expect him to be utilized down the field more in Seattle. Remember, this wasn’t a tight-end-by-committee situation before Greg Olson went down with an injury last season, and the team clearly sees something in him. Add in the fact that new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron is quite familiar with him coming from the Rams, and I better stop writing now before I talk myself into ranking him higher!
#22: Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears
Embrace the unknown, right? Last season, Cole Kmet averaged 0.94 yards/route run and totaled just 243 receiving yards for the entire season. Still, this was the top tight end drafted in 2020 after all, and he did take on a larger role down the stretch, so all is good, right? Unlike other young tight ends, I’m not as convinced. The 22-year-old never produced (1.65 yards/route run, 515 receiving yards) in college, despite his high pedigree. Even when taking on a larger role, his production wasn’t much better, and a lot of his targets (21.4%) came behind the line of scrimmage. Jimmy Graham will continue to play some role here in the red zone, and since the second year isn’t always the peak year for tight ends, I’m perhaps less excited about his outlook than the public.
#23: Rób Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I have to give props to Rob Gronkowski; who takes a year off from football and then finished as the TE9 in the first year back? Even as he’s taken a step back, he’s still remained one of the more efficient tight ends in the NFL, which is incredibly impressive. That said, he hasn’t run over 450 routes in each of his past four seasons, and with a fully healthy group of weapons in Tampa Bay, it’s unclear what we can expect from him on a weekly basis. Remember, OJ Howard outperformed him in the four games the two played together.
#24: Jared Cook, Los Angeles Chargers
Sticking with veteran tight ends, Jared Cook has also played some of the best football at the end of his career. That said, the 34-year-old took a step back in 2020, and with the track record of both older tight ends and tight ends changing teams being very thin, there’s a lot working against him. He’s a big-play receiver who’ll see some time in the slot due to the team’s lack of a true slot weapon, but Justin Herbert didn’t feel comfortable targeting Hunter Henry as much down the field; the tight end’s average depth of target (8.5) was two years below his previous norm. Add in Donald Parham being in the tight end room as a red-zone weapon, and the outlook isn’t as pretty as you’d hope for an accomplished player seemingly ingrained as the starting tight end.
#25: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles*
I fully doubt that Zach Ertz will be on the Eagles at the start of the year. Yet, he’s still in Philadelphia for now? It’s a very confusing situation that is certain to cause head aches from a fantasy perspective. Last year (57.7 PFF receiving grade, 0.92 yards/route run) was not only Ertz’s worst season of his career, but one of the worst seasons from a tight end in 2020. As someone who isn’t known for making plays after the catch, his production has been reliant on a high target share, yet it’s unlikely he gets that for whatever team he plays for. I’d monitor the Colts, Bills, and Jets when it comes to who is most likely to trade for him, with a reunion with Carson Wentz in Indianapolis probably being his best pathway to fantasy success.
#26: Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last season, Eric Ebron was the TE8 in expected fantasy points, which holds some value, right? Not as much when you only average 1.18 yards/route run, especially when your team drafts a tight end (Pat Freiermuth) in the second round. Of all the players expected to see their targets decrease due to a more run-heavy offense and the addition of running back Najee Harris, Ebron ranks at the top. On the bright side, we’ve seen him produce fantasy wise in this situation and Freiermuth could play a minimal role as a rookie. I wouldn’t want to bet on that, however.
Tier 7: One Can Dream, Right?
Photo Cred via The Athletic
#27: Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills
#28: Jordan Akins, Houston Texans
#29: OJ Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
These players could not be more different from one another. Knox has the clearest role, but also hasn’t been efficient at all and is at best the fifth option in the Bills’ passing attack. Akins, meanwhile, took a noticeable step forward in his third year, but he faces some competition and the Texans offense isn’t one I want to looking to invest in. That’s not the case with the Bucs offense, and OJ Howard averaged 2.39 yards/route run during his four-game stint before getting injured last year. That said, he’s also in a committee situation at best and behind their their very talented tight ends.
#30: Jimmy Graham, Chicago Bears
#31: Mo Allie-Cox, Indianapolis Colts
#32: Dan Arnold, Carolina Panthers
#33: Chris Herndon, New York Jets
The first two players on this list are committee players who could have pop-up weeks just from their overall touchdown upside. Arnold and Herndon, meanwhile, have some track record of production, though neither has shown in the past to be capable of producing consistently while being the sole tight end of an offense.
- Best Values: TJ Hockenson, Tyler Higbee, Evan Engram, Adam Trautman, Anthony Firkser
- Least-Optimal Values: Robert Tonyan, Cole Kmet, Rob Gronkowski
- Most Intriguing Late-Round Targets (Non Rookie): Adam Trautman, Gerald Everett
- Most Exciting Rookie (Value): N/A
- Players With Widest Range of Outcomes: Kyle Pitts, Mike Gesicki