2021 Year in Review: The Bleakness of Tight End
For months I lobbied members of Congress to include the elimination of the tight end position in fantasy football in their Build Back Better legislation.
I had myriad lunches with critical swing votes and their staffers, making the case to abolish the tight end spot in standard fantasy football lineups. When things got desperate, I berated senators dining in D.C. and rallied activist groups as the legislation circulated through Congress. I went on hunger strike outside the Capitol to draw attention to my worthy and just cause. I would settle for nothing short of abolition. A man has to have principles.
It was all for naught, as tight end apologists Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema sunk Build Back Better and ended our generation’s best chance to rid fantasy football of the deeply annoying tight end spot. Nevertheless, the work must go on.
(Almost) Every Tight End Is A Streamer
The 2021 season, like every season, was not fun for those who were convinced tight end was a deep position. It wasn’t. And here’s the thing: It never is. Mark Andrews was the only good tight end selection in 2021 fantasy drafts, even though his mind-melting breakout season was largely unpredictable, hinging on a marked increase in the Ravens’ pass rate and a big uptick in pass route participation.
Even top-10 tight ends like Mike Gesicki (TE8) and Hunter Henry (TE10) were barely usable in 12-team formats. Gesicki, for one, managed a grand whopping total of five double-digit PPR performances in 2021. Again -- and I can’t stress this enough -- Gesicki was the fifth most targeted tight end in the game. He was as involved as any non-elite tight end in football and he was hardly a streaming option in 2021. Henry, meanwhile, averaged a hearty 5.74 PPR points per game when he didn’t score a touchdown in 2021. The highly-compensated New England tight end was virtually unusable for fantasy purposes unless he found pay dirt.
And therein lies the issue. Tight ends in fantasy football are almost entirely reliant on touchdowns -- that fickle, highly volatile statistical happening that slowly whittles away at our in-season sanity. That we’re forced to start a tight end in fantasy football lineups is a cruel cosmic joke -- one that Congress could have addressed, but didn’t. It’s all so tragic.
To further illustrate my point and advance my cause by turning fantasy managers against the tight end position, here are tight ends who ran the most pass routes in 2021 and how that participation worked out for fantasy purposes.
Pitts drafters might read he was fantasy’s sixth-highest scoring tight end in 2021 and shake their heads until their necks snap. How, you ask, could a player who disappointed time and again -- incredibly scoring a single touchdown -- finish as a top tight end? It could be enough for Senator Machin to change his mind.
We can stop with the Cole Kmet nonsense. The guy ran the seventh most tight end routes and barely qualified as a TE2 in 12-team leagues. I’ve never written a darker sentence than that. Chicago’s offense will likely be wretched once again in 2022, leaving Kmet as a waiver pickup for good matchups.
Higbee in 2021 was a case study in seeking a tight end with an avenue to consistent production who naturally did not deliver. The process, things of that nature. Higbee ran nearly every tight end route in the high-powered Rams offense and couldn’t muster a top-12 season -- a truly incredible feat. It turns out Higbee is not among the tight ends who can consistently command targets (something we’ll touch on in a moment). He saw a target on a minuscule 18 percent of his routes last year, in line with Jack Doyle and Jordan Akins, among others. This isn’t a new development for Higbee. Outside of his blistering end to the 2019 season, Higbee has never displayed the capacity to command looks.
Knox’s TE11 finish is a little deceiving. The Buffalo tight end was eighth in PPR points per game last season thanks to an 18.36 percent touchdown rate, about 9 percent higher than his career TD rate headed into the 2021 season. Yes, it’s nice to be the primary pass-catching tight end in Josh Allen’s offense. No, Knox is not a candidate for elite production barring a further jump in touchdown rate. His horrifying 15 percent target per route run rate -- lower than Tommy Tremble -- speaks to a tight end who stumbled into a decent 2021 campaign. The Bills signing O.J. Howard this offseason is just another red flag for the Knox truthers among us.
Tight Ends Who Probably Don’t Stink
My NBC Sports EDGE colleague Pat Kerrane in 2020 did the lord’s work (sorry to get religious) in determining how to spot an emerging elite tight end (young fantasy writers would do well to read Kerrane’s analysis and discover the power of asking and answering questions).
In his deep dive into elite tight end fantasy seasons, Kerrane found the average receiving line for these top-end tight ends was 76 catches on 108 targets for 895 yards. These high-scoring tight ends drew a target on 22.2 percent of their routes. More importantly, the prior-year numbers of these elite producers looked like this: 61 receptions on 87 targets for 731 yards, with a target on 21.3 percent of their pass routes.
We want to find tight ends who don’t just run a bunch of empty routes but consistently draw targets on their route running opportunities. Kerrane posited that targets per route run (TPRR) “appears to be of key importance in distinguishing the future stars from scrubs.” Following TPRR can -- and has -- pointed us toward tight ends who are targeted “at a high rate when given the chance–indicating a high skill level and a large receiving role within their offense.”
So who, you might ask, showed the ability to command targets in 2021? I’m glad you asked.
That’s a curious name at the top: Jonnu Smith, a fantasy non-factor and one of the league’s worst run blocking tight ends (per PFF) in 2021, earned a target on an incredible 31 percent of his limited routes. It didn’t amount to much -- Smith caught 28 passes and one touchdown -- but his league-leading TPRR is noteworthy. ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported this week that Smith, unlike last offseason, will be a full participant in New England’s voluntary offseason program in 2022. Perhaps that could lead to a bigger pass-catching role for the mountain of a man, though Hunter Henry remains likely to retain his role as the team’s primary pass catching tight end. Henry, for the record, had a bottom-barrel 20 percent TPRR in 2021, in line with guys like Kyle Rudolph and Durham Smythe. Neither Henry nor Smith profiles as fantasy relevant in a New England offense that ranked 27th in pass rate over expected in 2021. Still, fantasy managers should monitor summertime chatter about Smith’s role in the boring Pats offense.
Travis Kelce certainly didn’t destroy your fantasy squad’s chances in 2021. He wasn’t nearly the mind bogglingly efficient producer he has been in recent years though. Kelce’s yards per route run, which remained between 2.25 and 2.6 from 2018 to 2020, fell all the way to 1.84 last season. Perhaps it was KC’s late-season commitment to dinking and dunking to counter opponents’ two high safety looks. Maybe it was Kelce simply regressing. Maybe it was Kelce being 32 years old and not quite as spry as he was in the mid-and-late 20s. Kelce in 2021 posted the lowest yards per reception (12.2) of his career. His expected receiving fantasy points fell from 247 in 2020 to 211 in 2021. In another sign of faltering efficiency, Kelce went from nearly 70 fantasy points over expected in 2020 to 34 FPOE last season. Importantly, Kelce’s ability to command targets from Patrick Mahomes proved steady in 2021 -- his 24 percent TPRR is perfectly in line with his TPRR since 2018, and just slightly lower than his 2020 TPRR (24.55). That Kelce’s days of blow-the-roof-off fantasy seasons might be over doesn’t mean he’s not a top-two tight end headed into the 2022 season. Being the central cog for the unfailingly pass-heavy Chiefs offense gives Kelce a structural advantage shared by no other tight end in the league.
Dallas Goedert was (finally) (sorta) freed in 2021 with Zach Ertz‘s trade to Arizona. Before Ertz’s departure from Philly, Goedert ran a route on 48 percent of the team’s pass plays; after the trade, that number spiked to nearly 73 percent. Not shockingly, Goedert’s TPRR went through the proverbial roof, from 18 percent with Ertz to 27 percent without him. That’s really something -- it’s certainly not nothing. Perhaps the Eagles embrace the pass a little more in 2022 with another year of development for Hurts as a passer, leading to a target uptick with Goedert. But maybe not. Head coach Nick Sirianni told reporters this week that he’s going into 2022 as firmly committed to a run-based offense as he was in the second half of 2021, when the Eagles had a league-low 43 percent pass rate. Philadelphia ran the ball on a truly stunning 67 percent of their plays while leading in the second half of last season. The nature of Philadelphia’s offense could be something of a cap on Goedert’s upside even if he retains a strong TPRR.
The Okwuegbunam hipsters partied for 24 consecutive hours in Ibiza this week after new Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett said he would be used as a tight end-receiver hybrid, and that he’s “excited to get the ball” in Albert O’s hands. Okwuegbunam, a size-speed freak of nature, is Denver’s presumed starting tight end after the team dealt Noah Fant to Seattle as part of the Russell Wilson trade. He was highly efficient as a pass catcher in limited 2021 usage with the nightmarish pre-Wilson Denver offense, making the most of his rare looks with the run-heavy Broncos. In his four career games with at least five targets, Okwuegbunam has averaged 5.5 catches for 42.75 yards and 0.25 touchdowns. He’ll be a popular -- and possibly overdrafted -- mid-to-late round tight end option in 2022 redraft leagues. Okwuegbunam has shown, if nothing else, that he can command targets.
Zach Ertz is boring, I get it. He’s been a dad runner since his early 20s; his business model remains catching a seven-yard pass and immediately tipping over. It works for fantasy though. He was the TE4 from Week 7 -- when he was traded to Arizona -- until season’s end. Only Kelce, Andrews, Kittle, and Gronk averaged more PPR points than Ertz over that stretch. And he did it without a lot of touchdown luck, managing a TD on a mere 5.3 percent of his receptions during his 11 weeks as a Cardinal. The return of DeAndre Hopkins could chip away at Ertz’s stellar 25 percent TPRR, though D-Hop in 2021 showed signs of regressing from his target-hog days. Ertz, re-signed by the Cards in March, should be a perfectly serviceable fantasy option in 2022.
Waller’s TPRR remained strong in what was a massively disappointing fantasy campaign. The daydreams inspired by Waller’s 19-target Week 1 outing against the Ravens never came to fruition, but he continued commanding targets in the Vegas offense. Make no mistake though: Hunter Renfrow was emerging in the Raiders’ passing game before Waller’s late-season knee injury. In fact, Renfrow led the team with a 27 percent TPRR before Waller’s injury. He also had a higher yards per route run than Waller. Davante Adams’ addition to the Raiders roster last month could very well crush target volume for one or both of Waller and Renfrow, meaning Waller’s fantasy intrigue will be determined by his redraft ADP, wherever it may fall.