We want – we need – our tight ends to be target-commanding machines.
If you’ve ever been stuck streaming the tight end position in fantasy football, you know identifying tight ends running a good number of weekly routes is part of the process. And sometimes that’s all we’re left with: Guys like Hayden Hurst or Tyler Higbee or Tyler Conklin running a boatload of routes and getting nothing for it. The process, we cry. The process.
Knowing which tight ends have consistently seen a solid number of targets on their pass routes – measured in targets per route run (TPRR) – is another step in spotting non-elite tight ends who can deliver for fantasy purposes without being among the league leaders in route totals.
Below are four tight ends with intriguing TPRR profiles who should be on your best ball radar and should at least be interesting in 2023 seasonal leagues. I’ve skipped the part where I spend 500 words telling you that Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews command targets at an astounding clip.
Pat Freiermuth (PIT)
2022 TPRR: 22.1 percent
Career TPRR: 20.9 percent
Freiermuth has been surprisingly consistent in commanding targets in a Steelers offense long predicated on check-down passes from the team’s weak-armed quarterbacks. After posting a 19.5 percent TPRR as a rookie in 2021, Freiermuth saw a target on a more-than-solid 22.1 percent of his routes in 2022.
That Freiermuth ran a route on a somewhat meager 71.9 percent of Pittsburgh’s 2022 drop backs is a bit concerning. We’d like to see that number somewhere in the 80s if a tight end is going to be even remotely consistent as a fantasy starter. Freiermuth’s first two seasons have been hopeful, however, and with Kenny Pickett throwing dump offs time and again, the Muth could again see a fantasy-viable number of targets in 2023.
Kyle Pitts (ATL)
2022 TPRR: 26.5 percent
Career TPRR: 22.6 percent
You know and I know that Pitts is a unicorn and a generational tight end who could, one day, transform the position as we know it. That he’s been the source of nothing but fantasy pain shouldn’t obscure his ability to command targets in Atlanta’s backward offense. He led all tight ends (with at least 100 pass routes) in targets per route run last year before his season-ending knee injury and ranked sixth in yards per route run. In a particularly dominant stretch (Week 8 to Week 10), Pitts was targeted on 33 percent of his pass routes and racked up 400 air yards, 227 more than the next closest tight end.
Pitts – in no small feat – led all tight ends in air yards and had a hefty 27 percent target share before his Week 11 knee injury. He was the clearcut No. 1 option in the Falcons offense, even if that led nowhere for those who drafted Pitts in the third or fourth round.
Pitts ran a route on 78.5 percent of the team’s drop backs before his Week 11 injury. Probably a freakish athlete like Pitts should regularly run routes at a 90 percent clip, but who am I to argue with the galaxy brain of Arthur Smith?
More Pitts slot usage would be a boon for his fantasy prospects, if Mr. Smith would oblige us. Last season, Pitts was 14th in slot rate among tight ends, which could be considered a violation of fantasy managers’ rights. Pitts had a higher yards per reception from the slot, though his yards per route run from the slot was far lower than his overall YPRR.
Pitts was borderline spectacular in a horrible, stubbornly run-heavy Falcons offense. If fantasy managers stung by last year’s disappointment let Pitts drop in 2023, you should hold your nose and take the plunge. Ignore Pitts’ usage and peripheral numbers at your own risk.
Chigoziem Okonkwo (TEN)
2022 TPRR: 26.1 percent
Career TPRR: 26.1 percent
You knew ole’ Chig was going to be featured in this space after his remarkable run of target commanding in 2022 despite precious little usage in the hyper-conservative Tennessee offense.
Okonkwo, once the Titans opened up his route running a little bit in Week 11 against Green Bay, was targeted on a hearty 26.9 percent of his routes. He led all tight ends (with more than 100 routes) in TPRR during the regular season’s final eight weeks and was fourth -- trailing only Evan Engram, Dawson Knox, and George Kittle -- in fantasy points over expected. Chig is nothing if not absurdly efficient.
Okonkwo’s rookie year TPRR wasn’t exactly shocking considering he posted a 21 percent TPRR in his final collegiate season. Sadly for fantasy purposes, the Titans – whether they ditch Ryan Tannehill or stick with him for one more bitter season – are once again going to be among the league’s run heaviest teams in 2023 unless Mike Vrabel sees the analytics light in the next few months. That will likely leave Okonkwo as a touchdown-reliant streaming option rather than a locked-in fantasy starter.
TJ Hockenson (MIN)
2022 TPRR (with Vikings): 22.4 percent
Career TPRR: 20.9 percent
Hockenson’s target commanding reached a new level once he was dealt to the Vikings at midseason in 2022. He was targeted on 19.3 percent of his routes in 2019; 20.8 percent in 2020; 20.4 percent in 2021; and 19.4 percent in 2022 during his seven games with Detroit. Then he was shipped to Minnesota and stepped into a target-rich role as the de facto No. 2 pass catcher in the Vikings offense.
His 22 percent target share with the Vikings trailed only Justin Jefferson‘s 29 percent and blew away KJ Osborn’s 14 percent. Deployed exclusively as a short-area target for Kirk Cousins, Hockenson became something of a PPR cheat code (or as Pat Daugherty would call it, a PPR scam).
Only Travis Kelce notched more expected fantasy points than Hockenson over the regular season’s second half. Hockenson was an elite fantasy option despite being inefficient (17th in yards per route run among tight ends, in line with Tyler Higbee) and should be a nice, safe fantasy pick in PPR formats this summer. At worst, he’ll be one of the only non-Kelce tight ends who is not entirely touchdown dependent.