The tight end position is essentially the polar opposite of wide receiver. This is undoubtedly the most top-heavy position in fantasy football, with a significant gap between the first and second tiers. For example, the No. 3 TE in FantasyPros’ 2021 standard average draft position (ADP) is Darren Waller (28.8). The next closest tight end is Kyle Pitts at an ADP of 51.1. That shows why it’s important to have more than just a set of rankings or a few names highlighted on your cheat sheet heading into a draft. A sound draft strategy — with ways to adapt — can help you maximize value while searching for the best TE option.
In many cases, some of the middle-of-the-road starting tight ends will be drafted after running back handcuffs. Some people only roster one tight end, waiting until the late rounds in hopes of finding of a sleeper; others like to go with back-to-back sleeper picks, figuring at least one will work out. Still others just grab Travis Kelce right away and get it over with. Any method can work, but some tend to work better than others.
There’s really not that big of a difference in tight end production after the first couple tiers, so looking for value is the way to go about the position if you don’t land a Tier 1 or 2 guy. If you know which TEs are more likely to “make the leap” into a higher tier, then all the better. Either way, in-season streaming at this position is common for all but a few owners, so don’t worry too much if you’re one of the last owners to get your starter.
2021 Fantasy TE Tiers: Who are the best fantasy football tight ends?
Rankings and tiers based on standard, non-PPR leagues. PPR leagues could have different tiers, which is highlighted throughout text below.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2021 Cheat Sheet
1 Travis Kelce, Chiefs
2 George Kittle, 49ers
3 Darren Waller, Raiders
Tier 1 — the creme of the crop; the bona fide fantasy studs. You can press the draft button on these guys and expect production right up there with some of the premier wide receivers. It feels good to have one of them, and provides an excellent edge at the position.
As much as we all love Kelce, opting for a tight end at his first-round ADP isn’t always fun. Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, and Aaron Jones are usually available at the point Kelce is being selected (9.0). Kittle and Waller currently reside in the early to middle third round in ADP, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both go before that in actual drafts. If you’re set on a first-tier tight end, those are your guys. Depending on your draft position, you may be able to land them after two studs at other positions.
4 Mark Andrews, Ravens
5 Kyle Pitts, Falcons
6 T.J. Hockenson, Lions
Tier 2 usually sees a significant decrease from Tier 1 in fantasy production. That’s not to say a Tier-2 TE can’t break through to finish the season in the top tier, but it’s tough to predict. To paint the picture of the ultimate differences between Tiers 1 and 2, note that last year Waller finished as TE2 but had 47 total fantasy points more than TE3, Robert Tonyan. Nos. 3-19 were closer together in total points than TE2 to TE3. Obviously, you don’t want to rush to smash the draft button on a Tier-2 tight end immediately after you see Waller or Kittle come off the board.
Kyle Pitts’ ADP of 51.1 is just too high right now. He’s tough to comfortably acquire in the range where players like Robert Woods are going. Mark Andrews comes in with an ADP of 56.3, and T.J. Hockenson checks in at 64.0. Hockenson feels like the brainiac move in this tier. As the main target hog in Detroit, he has the best chance to to join Tier 1, especially in PPR leagues.
2021 Fantasy Draft Strategy: When should you draft a TE?
7 Noah Fant, Broncos
8 Tyler Higbee, Rams
9 Dallas Goedert, Eagles
10 Mike Gesicki, Dolphins
11 Logan Thomas, Washington
12 Robert Tonyan Jr., Packers
With the fluidity of the tight end position, it’s likely that a least one of these guys finishes in the top six, while another one or two will fall down into the fringe top-20 category. That’s just the nature of the position.
Just half of these players finished in the top 12 in standard formats last season: Tonyan (3), Gesicki (6), and Thomas (7). Those three will likely see a return to the middle of the pack after breakout seasons, but touchdown luck will have a lot to do with that.
Miami brought in Hunter Long in the third round (relatively early draft capital) in the 2021 NFL Draft. While Gesicki will maintain the starting tight end role, it feels like the Dolphins are planning to incorporate Long into the offense, grooming him to be the starter with Gesecki’s contract expiring. Tonyan’s TE3 finish will likely be looked back on like an outlier. He caught an absurd 52-of-59 targets in his breakout campaign and was highly touchdown dependent. Still, he remains ranked in the top-12 tight ends with Aaron Rodgers set to return as the signal-caller in Green Bay. Thomas had a fantastic breakout season, one that seems a little too good to be true. While he saw a QB upgrade in the offseason, Washington improved their wide receiving corps. Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries, and Dyami Brown are all upgrades from what WFT trotted onto the field last year and will likely Thomas below his 6.6 targets/game from 2020.
Coming off the board as the No. 7 tight end (27 spots after Hockenson), Goedert feels risky at this point in the preseason. His ADP has been rising, along with the hype around him. However, most fantasy owners assumed Zach Ertz would be traded, as we’ve been led to believe for much of the offseason. It’s now looking like Ertz will remain in Philadelphia for at least 2021. Don’t get it twisted, Goedert will step into the primary starting tight end role, but his upside is now limited with a three-time Pro-Bowler competing with him for snaps.
Fant is going off the board just before Tonyan and Thomas. Talent alone, Fant is a far superior tight end than those two. He hasn’t quite seen his breakout season, but he’s a volcano ready to blow up at any point. Take Fant in that same range of players.
Higbee (ADP 135.3) feels like the best value of the entire bunch. Yes, he burned fantasy owners last year after a huge wave of hype, but fellow TE Gerald Everett is gone and rocket-armed QB Matthew Stafford is in. Higbee has shown the ability to be explosive, with a three-TD game in Week 2 of 2020. All signs point upward for Higbee, and at value, he’s a low-risk/high-reward player as your TE1.
Targeting one of these TEs in the early-middle/middle rounds is what most owners will do. There’s nothing wrong with that, as it allows you to acquire elite talent and build your depth at other positions while still getting a solid tight end who could be better than almost everyone else’s. The main thing to remember if you’re going with this strategy (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is not to reach.
Sure, there will be a point where you have your starting RBs and WRs and Fant is staring at you on the draft board, but if he’s not the best overall player available (and he likely won’t be), then you don’t need to draft him. Continuing to get high-upside depth at RB or WR and still being able to draft someone like Thomas or Gesicki a round or two later (or someone like Jonnu Smith several rounds later) probably makes more sense. Unless Fant or Goedert (or whoever) is “your guy,” let the TEs in this tier come to you. There truly isn’t a big difference between any of their outlooks.
Fantasy TE Rankings Tiers: Sleepers, breakouts, and bounce-backs
13 Jonnu Smith, Patriots
14 Hunter Henry, Patriots
15 Jared Cook, Chargers
16 Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers
17 Blake Jarwin, Cowboys
Every player in Tier 4 has a wide range of outcomes. A top-10 finish or an outright bust season is in play.
Jonnu and Henry are likely to cap each other’s ceilings, but each of them could be elite options at the position. With a significant chunk of the Patriot’s payroll headed into these guys’ pockets, it’s safe to assume they’re going to be heavily used, but it’s tough to say which will be the primary tight end in passing situations. That being said, both can have top-12 value, especially with Smith likely picking up some cheap points as a runner from time-to-time.
Cook (166 ADP) and Gronkowski (123.8) are 34 and 32, respectively. However, Cook has enjoyed his best seasons in the late part of his career. Justin Herbert presents more upside for his pass-catchers than a washed Drew Brees did. If Cook can establish himself in the good graces of Herbert, he once again has top-10 potential at the position.
As “past his prime” as Gronkowski looked at times last year, he still finished top eight at the position in 2020. However, with O.J. Howard stepping back into the Buccaneers lineup, we’ll likely see a regression from Gronk. He’s still going to be on the field, but he’s an unselfish and willing blocker. At his ADP, it’s tough to pass on a number of WRs with decent value. However, if you do draft him, just keep your hopes to a reasonable level. Tampa has too many other weapons for Gronk to really go off.
Engram has failed to live up to the hype in just about every season as a pro. Why would this year be any different? He’s had the chance to be a target hog with the lack of weapons around him, but that won’t be the case this year with Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, and a healthy Saquon Barkely stepping onto the field (plus Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard still around). There’s a huge case to be made against Engram, but again, it’s the tight end position, and anything can happen with his elite profile. (Update: Engram has dropped a tier due to a calf issue that is likely to keep him out the first few games. Everything written here still applies to him when he’s healthy.)
Jarwin has the potential to be the biggest steal out of the entire lot of tight ends. His 219.0 ADP puts him undrafted in a large portion of leagues. That’s right, you can land him with your last pick in the draft. Do it. He’s going to be a part of one of the most pass-happy, explosive offenses in the entire NFL. All you can search for that late in the draft is opportunity and upside. Dallas has a realistic chance to lead the league in passing attempts, and Jarwin looks to slide into the No. 1 tight end role. After a season-ending knee injury for Jarwin in Week 1, Dalton Schultz stepped in and produced a TE17 season with Andy Dalton. It’s tough to project Jarwin doing any worse than that if he’s the primary TE. If you’re someone who likes to play the waiver wire steamer game at tight end, wait until the end of your draft, select Jarwin, and enjoy the explosive weeks. He’s so cheap that if he does bust, it won’t cost you anything, and you can drop him and play waivers like you intended in the first place.
Getting one of these TEs as your starter doesn’t feel great on draft day, but given the potential value they all provide in the latter portion of your draft, they’re not bad targets. Many will target two with back-to-back picks, with the logic being at least one will work out. That doesn’t always come to fruition, but if you’re getting a starter from this tier, it is good to give yourself at least one other option.
2021 Fantasy Tiers: TE deep sleepers and streamers
18 Anthony Firkser, Titans
19 Gerald Everett, seahawks
20 Cole Kmet, Bears
21 Zach Ertz, Eagles
22 Evan Engram, Giants
23 Chris Herndon, Vikings
24 O.J. Howard, Buccaneers
25 Eric Ebron, Steelers
26 Austin Hooper, Browns
27 Adam Trautman, Saints
28 Tyler Conklin, Vikings
29 Dalton Schultz, Cowboys
30 Hayden Hurst, Falcons
31 Dawson Knox, Bills
These options aren’t pretty (at least until Smith Jr. is healthy), but they’re at very least worth streamer consideration. At least one will have a good year and be a reliable starter, but which one is very much up for debate.
Before the Julio Jones to Tennessee trade, Firkser would’ve likely moved into Tier 4. However, he still is an attractive option at the top of Tier 5. Tennessee has proven to feed their tight ends, and Firkser is a crisp route runner who has commanded targets when he’s on the field.
Kmet and Howard look to break out and supplant the future Hall-of-Fame tight ends that share a position room with them. They both have the tools to do it, but we can’t be 100-percent certain until we see them getting regular snaps and targets. Like Kmet and Howard, Ertz might be a 1B tight end in his offense. However, Philadelphia doesn’t have much outside of Goedert and DeVonta Smith, so it’s definitely possible for two tight ends to eat in that offense, especially with the lack of deep accuracy from Jalen Hurts.
Ebron and Hooper have both netted fantastic fantasy seasons in the past, but those now seem like mere outliers. Ebron is heavily touchdown dependent, and Hooper’s passing offense isn’t prolific. Plus, he has Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, and Kareem Hunt to compete with, who all operate in the middle part of the field.
One of Herndon or Conklin figures to have a good season with Irv Smith Jr. (knee) likely out for the year. Herndon has disappointed in the past, so he’s tough to trust, but Conklin is completely unproven and has dealt with a hamstring injury in the preseason. Watch both early on and be ready to pick up whoever is getting more snaps/targets.
Trautman is the Tier-5 version of Jarwin. He has the potential to be no worse than the No. 3 option at pass-catcher in New Orleans. Sure, Alvin Kamara will eat 100 targets, but with Michael Thomas out indefinitely after ankle surgery, Marquez Callaway and Tre’Quan Smith are the only receivers that remain with real potential. Those guys are largely unproven. It will be an all-out war for targets, and who’s to say Trautman can’t win it? At an ADP of 196.3, he’s certainly worth a flier.
Everett, Hurst, and Knox just won’t have heavy volume. Hurst is obviously hindered by Kyle Pitts, but could still see usage with Pitts lining up at a variety of positions in Atlanta. Seattle hasn’t proven to allocate enough targets to tight ends for great fantasy relevancy. Everett hasn’t exactly been a target magnet, so it’s tough to see why that would change. Knox has the most upside of these three, but he only has 94 targets in his two NFL seasons. In college, he charted a mere 39 receptions. He’s not someone you want to rely on week-to-week, as he’s more of a high-upside TD-or-bust option.
32 Jimmy Graham, Bears
33 Tyler Kroft, Jets
34 Dan Arnold, Panthers
35 Kyle Rudolph, Giants
36 Jack Doyle, Colts
37 Juwan Johnson, Saints
38 Pat Freiermuth, Steelers
39 Jordan Akins, Texans
40 Will Dissly, Seahawks
41 C.J. Uzomah, Bengals
42 Mo Alie-Cox, Colts
43 Albert Okwuegbunam, Broncos
Unless you’re playing in the deepest of the deepest leagues, these guys will be sitting in waivers at the start of Seek 1. They all may have some DFS relevance at their cheap prices, but they’re only worth keeping an eye on in redraft leagues.
Graham’s and Rudolph’s prime came and went. We enjoyed their ups and dreaded their downs. In 2021, sure we should monitor them, but you don’t want to get stuck relying on them.
Arnold is in a position battle with Ian Thomas, so it’s tough to evaluate his prospects. Either way, he’s probably the fifth option in the Panthers passing attack if he wins the job. Johnson is in a similar battle with Adam Trautman in New Orleans, but given his background as a wide receiver, he has major upside if he wins the job. Kroft has the chance to be Zach Wilson’s security blanket, but that’s purely hypothetical.
Doyle and Freiermuth are likely to serve as time-share tight ends this season. Alie-Cox is gaining momentum to take more targets for Indianapolis, and Ebron still resides in Pittsburgh. Freiermuth is attractive in dynasty, but he’s probably going to be a makeshift offensive lineman in his rookie season.
Akins will look better if Deshaun Watson is his quarterback, but he hasn’t been spectacular with Watson in the first place. Monitor his position battle with rookie Brevin Jordan before considering him on waivers. Dissly and Okwuegbunam are both injury-watch players, specifically Okwuegbunam. If something were to happen to Fant, Okwuegbunam has the profile to be at least a top-15 tight end.
Again, don’t spend your draft picks on any of these guys, but keep your eyes peeled for any chance of an uptick in opportunity and production.
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