Kyle Pitts was to be the next great tight end. Functionally a wide receiver with a tight end designation, he was always going to step up from his TE5 finish in 2021, right? Well most of us thought so! He was a consensus 3rd round pick, which looked like amazing value. It wasn’t. While Travis Kelce remains the picture of consistency, other early-round tight end picks continue to underperform. Today, we’re having a look back at the tight ends who turned out to be sleepers (outperformed their ADP) and busts (underperformed their ADP) in the hope that we can learn something for next season. If you haven’t already, also check out my QB, RB and WR articles posted in the last few weeks. For the sake of this article, I’m assuming PPR, with ADP using the FantasyPros consensus and final rankings based on points per game (PPG) from weeks 1 to 17. This is important as the aim of this article is to look for the underlying cause of positional finishes so that we can apply our knowledge next season. Injuries only get in the way of that analysis, and PPG mitigates that issue.
Let’s start with the sleepers. We’re looking at players who provided significant return on investment by outperforming their ADP by a significant margin. Note that we’ll only be looking at players who were either drafted in the top 14 or finished in the top 14, as they’re unlikely to be particularly informative otherwise. Here’s who we’ve designated as sleepers:
TJ Hockenson – TE2, drafted as the TE8 (mid-sixth round)
Evan Engram – TE7, drafted as the TE20 (mid-sixteenth round)
Pat Freiermuth – TE8, drafted as the TE11 (late ninth round)
David Njoku – TE10, drafted as the TE17 (late thirteenth round)
Tyler Higbee – TE12, drafted as the TE16 (late thirteenth round)
Gerald Everett – TE14, undrafted
Now let’s look at what caused these sleepers to boom (or at least become feasible starters) and consider what these factors mean for 2023:
- Offensive improvements:
Some of the biggest surprises in tight ends came from improved passing offenses. TJ Hockenson got a big boost both before his trade but especially after it, Evan Engram got a major bump from the seriously enhanced passing attack in Jacksonville, and David Njoku got plenty of help from Cleveland’s step-up in their aerial attack. When there are more passing yards to go around, the main tight end often gets a major boost if they’re playing on most passing downs.
- Route run regression
Unlikely wide receivers, tight ends are regularly required to block or come off the field. Elite or at least high-performing tight ends will spend less time blocking or letting another tight end block while they wait on the sidelines. As a result, the ‘routes run’ statistic can be a very informative metric. Hockenson, Engram, Freiermuth and Everett were all running 35+ routes a week when they were performing at their best. This is particularly useful when considering waiver wire moves during the season. Look for high-route runners and pick them up before others get there without being overly swayed by target counts.
- Wide receiver injuries/trades
Unsurprisingly, tight ends get more targets when the elite pass catchers around them are injured or traded away. This was certainly the case for Pat Freiermuth (Chase Claypool leaving), Tyler Higbee (Cooper Kupp’s injury) and Gerald Everett (Keenan Allen and Mike Williams injuries). Sadly, this isn’t often predictable in advance, but occasionally you can strike when a tight end has very little wide receiver competition, and this isn’t reflected in their ADP (though it usually is).
- Gambling on every down tight ends.
There’s a limited amount of every down tight ends in the league, with 14 teams using a restrictive level of tight end committee. Players in committees will very rarely finish as a top tight end (though there are rare exceptions, which usually regress), meaning it’s worth gambling on guys who play on every down, ideally with limited blocking responsibilities on passing downs. This isn’t always easy to predict, but it’s something to look out for when preparing for your drafts.
Now it’s time to look at the guys who disappointed in 2022, the busts. Here they are in all their mediocrity:
Mark Andrews -TE4, drafted as TE2 (late second round)
Kyle Pitts – TE23, drafted as TE3 (mid-third round)
Darren Waller – TE9, drafted as TE5 (mid-fifth round)
Dawson Knox – TE15, drafted as TE10 (mid-eighth round)
Hunter Henry – TE31, drafted as TE13 (mid-eleventh round)
Mike Gesicki – TE36, drafted as TE14 (mid-eleventh round)
Let’s look at what caused their disappointing season. Here are some factors as I see it:
- Beware pass catching competition
A new pass-catcher can make a big difference to the effectiveness of tight ends, who are often already feeding on scraps. This was the case for Darren Waller (Davante Adams), Kyle Pitts (Drake London), Hunter Henry (Devante Parker) and Mike Gesicki (Tyreek Hill). While this isn’t always the case when a new star receiver arrives in town, it’s certainly a major factor if the new arrival doesn’t lead to a significant improvement in the passing offense.
- Quarterbacks matter
Pocket passers will often rely on their tight ends as a safety valve, while other quarterbacks will prefer using their legs to get out of trouble. Meanwhile, other quarterbacks just prefer looking to their wide receivers. A change in quarterback style can mean trouble for a tight end. This was certainly the case for Mark Andrews (with Tyler Huntley) and Kyle Pitts (with Marcus Mariota) while others like George Kittle, David Njoku, Tyler Conklin and Logan Thomas saw plenty of passer-related variation. Look at a quarterback’s history for a guide on how they use their tight ends. While this will often be scheme- or tight end talent-related, it is still a factor to consider.
- Beware of a drop in routes run
After playing on most passing downs, Kyle Pitts dropped to under 20 routes run in many games last season. That’s entirely unsustainable for quality fantasy production. Hunter Henry saw this big drop, too, and Mike Gesicki was running under a dozen routes at times during the season. Mark Andrews, Cole Kmet, Robert Tonyan and Dalton Schultz all saw major issues here too. Meanwhile, Dawson Knox, Hayden Hurst and Daniel Bellinger could all provide Evan Engram-like target regression based on what we saw in 2022.
Tight ends were one of the more predictable positions to rank in fantasy football last year, and most variance can be put down to randomness or things that can’t easily be categorized. Nevertheless, I hope these ideas help you when drafting players this coming season. Check out my rankings at ffdfantasyfootball.com, or if you have any thoughts or questions, you can find me @thefantasyfirstdown on Instagram (where I answer all questions) and @fantasyfirstdwn on Twitter. In two weeks, I’ll be back with a new series of articles.