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How To Find Elite Tight Ends in Fantasy Football

How to Find Tight Ends Fantasy Football

Tight end has generally been the most difficult position to crack in fantasy football until now. This article analyzes the past 10 years of tight end fantasy production, delivering the blueprint to help you find elite fantasy options for 2023.

Together, we’ll walk through how I’m defining a difference-making fantasy tight end, along with the important factors we need to consider each season at the position. The end of this article features my 2023 fantasy targets and fades at the tight end position.

Which Tight Ends Were Studied

Looking back at the previous 10 NFL seasons (2013-2022) there were 75 qualified tight end stat lines — at least eight games played while averaging 11.5 PPR fantasy points per game or higher. We can think of these tight ends as the difference-makers and should expect 7-8 of them per season.

Among all 75 difference-makers, this was their average stat line.

Tgt is targets, Rec is receptions, RecYds is receiving yards and RecTD is receiving touchdowns.

Games Tgt Rec RecYds RecTD
Difference-Makers 14.1 104 71 865 6.9

In 2022, Mark Andrews and George Kittle closely resembled this profile from a fantasy points perspective.

It’s important to note less than 12 tight ends are putting up meaningful fantasy production annually, which is why I generally take issue with people who use the expression “fantasy TE1” to describe any Top-12 option at the position. Dawson Knox was the TE12 per game in 2022, putting up 9.0 PPR points on average, but in no way was he helping you win most weeks. He was not a difference-maker.

Fantasy football leagues generally have 12 participants, so simply trotting out the 12th best tight end among 12 teams implies you are faring the worst at the position among your league mates.

For the elite tight ends, I set the bar at 14 fantasy points per game, roughly the same production you can expect each year from a fantasy WR2 (Top-24 option). There have been 31 instances of a tight end putting up 14 or more PPR points per game while also appearing in at least eight games. This averages out to roughly three elite tight ends per season.

Among the 31 elite tight end seasons, this was their average stat line.

Note this is essentially a sub-sample of the difference-makers — all 31 of these tight end seasons appear in the larger sample above.

Games Tgt Rec RecYds RecTD
Elite 14.7 119 82 1033 8.6

Zach Ertz compiled multiple elite seasons during the prime of his career for those wanting a more tangible way to visualize what these 31 tight ends look like. Travis Kelce has reached this 14 PPR per game threshold each of the past six seasons, though most of his seasons were towards the upper end of this group of 31.

Depth Chart Matters

Target competition does matter at the tight end position, and understanding their spot on the depth chart gives us insight into their realistic chance of finishing as a difference-maker (11.5 PPR per game) or elite (14 PPR per game) fantasy tight end.

For this exercise, I simply included everyone who appeared in at least eight games and ranked these skill players by targets per game. You can see the 2022 Jacksonville Jaguars below to understand better how I’m defining place on the receiving depth chart.

Player Position Targets Per Game Depth Chart Rank
Christian Kirk WR 7.8 1
Zay Jones WR 7.6 2
Evan Engram TE 5.8 3
Marvin Jones WR 5.1 4
Travis Etienne RB 2.6 5

Thirty-four of the 75 difference-makers finished the season as the No. 1 target earner in their offense, while 25 finished the season as the No. 2 target earner. In total, 79 percent (59 of 75) of all difference-making fantasy tight end seasons required a Top-2 option in their respective pass game. Put another way, four in five difference-makers were near or at the top of their team’s passing depth chart.

Nine of 75 (12 percent) were the third option, and the remaining seven tight ends were the fourth or fifth option in their pass attack and generally ran extremely pure with touchdowns. Julius Thomas’ 2013 season for the Broncos is a great illustration of this, as he scored 12 times on just 65 receptions.

Turning to the elite fantasy tight ends, 19 of 31 were the No. 1 target earner per game, and another 10 were the second option. With 94 percent of the elite seasons coming from top two options, we shouldn’t expect any tight ends that are third or fourth in their team’s passing game to break fantasy football at the tight end position.

2023 Tight Ends

The table below illustrates where all the fantasy-relevant tight ends stack up on their respective depth charts. Targets share, targets per route run, and draft capital were analyzed to piece together how each team’s 2023 pass game will likely shake out. Tight ends appear in italics.

Team Option 1 Option 2 Option 3
Chiefs Travis Kelce Kadarius Toney Skyy Moore
Ravens Mark Andrews Rashod Bateman Zay Flowers
Vikings Justin Jefferson TJ Hockenson Jordan Addison
49ers Brandon Aiyuk Deebo Samuel George Kittle
Falcons Drake London Kyle Pitts Bijan Robinson
Eagles AJ Brown DeVonta Smith Dallas Goedert
Giants Darren Waller Parris Campbell Isaiah Hodgins
Jaguars Calvin Ridley Christian Kirk Evan Engram
Browns Amari Cooper Elijah Moore David Njoku
Steelers Diontae Johnson Pat Freiermuth George Pickens
Bills Stefon Diggs Gabe Davis Dalton Kincaid
Titans DeAndre Hopkins Treylon Burks Chigoziem Okonkwo
Broncos Jerry Jeudy Courtland Sutton Greg Dulcich
Texans Nico Collins Dalton Schultz Robert Woods
Bears DJ Moore Darnell Mooney Cole Kmet
Rams Cooper Kupp Tyler Higbee Van Jefferson
Jets Garrett Wilson Allen Lazard Tyler Conklin

Darren Waller, Kyle Pitts, Pat Freiermuth, Dalton Schultz and Tyler Higbee are higher on their respective depth charts than their fantasy ADP gives them credit for. There is potential for Greg Dulcich, Dalton Kincaid and Tyler Conklin to emerge as their team’s No. 2 pass-game option.

Kittle and Dallas Goedert go quite early for how buried they are on their team’s depth chart.

Raw Target Volume

The depth chart is important, but it doesn’t always capture pure target volume, given that not every NFL team throws the same number of passes per game. Below, you can see how many targets per game (along with the 17-game pace) these tight ends had.

The 25th percentile represents the 25 percent of tight ends in the group that fell below the average. Think of the 50th percentile as roughly the mean or median. Consider the 75th percentile as well above average.

Group 25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile
Difference-Makers 6.4 tgt/game (109) 7.4 tgt/game (126) 8.1 tgt/game (138)
Elite 7.6 tgt/game (129) 8.0 tgt/game (136) 8.9 tgt/game (151)

In 2022, just five tight ends reached at least 6.4 targets per game (109 target pace over 17 games):

  • Travis Kelce – 8.9 targets per game
  • TJ Hockenson (with the Vikings) – 8.6 targets per game
  • Mark Andrews – 7.5 targets per game
  • Zach Ertz – 6.9 targets per game
  • Tyler Higbee – 6.4 targets per game

While all the above aside from Ertz look poised to repeat in 2023, Waller almost certainly joins the list. Freiermuth reached 6.1 targets per game last season, and the Steelers likely pass more with an improved offensive line and Kenny Pickett heading into Year 2.

Pitts averaged 6.5 per game as a rookie before dropping to 5.9 targets per game last year in an extremely run-heavy scheme with Marcus Mariota at quarterback. While the Falcons aren’t likely to turn into a pass-first attack, it’s realistic for Pitts to experience a slight target volume increase as head coach Arthur Smith puts more trust into Desmond Ridder heading into Year 2.

Other candidates include Schultz playing in a barren Houston pass attack and Dulcich, who quietly saw 5.5 targets per game (17 percent target share) as a rookie.

Touchdown Production

Touchdowns obviously matter in fantasy football and fortunately, we don’t actually need more than five or six touchdown receptions to have a difference-making or elite fantasy tight end season.

Reminder for all tables, we are looking at the past 10 NFL seasons. Difference-makers averaged at least 11.5 PPR per game (min. 8 games played) and elites averaged at least 14 PPR per game (min. 8 games played).

Minimum 25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile Maximum
Difference-Makers 2 5 6 9 16
Elite 2 6 8 11 16

The best way to predict touchdown scoring is to look at the team’s offensive environment.

Offensive Environment

To capture the offensive environment, for each year, I charted whether a team was ranked top 10, 11-20, or bottom-12 in the NFL in pass attempts, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. There is a table included at the bottom of this article for you to see where every team ranked in all three categories in 2022, ordered by pass attempts.

Top-10 Offenses (2013-2022 Seasons)

Group Top-10 PassAtt Top-10 PassYds Top-10 PassTD
Difference-Makers 35 of 75 (47%) 36 of 75 (48%) 33 of 75 (44%)
Elite 17 of 31 (55%) 18 of 31 (58%) 17 of 31 (55%)

All three factors are of roughly the same importance, and nearly half of the difference-making seasons and just over half of the elite seasons came in Top-10 offensive environments.

Kelce (Chiefs), Hockenson (Vikings), Goedert (Eagles), Kincaid (Bills), Evan Engram (Jaguars), Dulcich (Broncos) and Conklin (Jets) are the most likely fantasy-relevant tight ends to be part of the top-10 pass attacks in 2023.

11th-20th Offenses (2013-2022 Seasons)

Group Top 11-20 PassAtt Top 11-20 PassYds Top 11-20 PassTD
Difference-Makers 18 of 75 (24%) 27 of 75 (36%) 26 of 75 (35%)
Elite 7 of 31 (23%) 10 of 31 (32%) 11 of 31 (35%)

Once we exit the premium pass attacks, we can see the importance of passing yards and touchdowns. The intention is good (pass attempts), but the results (yards and touchdowns) are better. If we add these numbers to the ones above for the Top-10 passing offenses, we see that around 80 percent of difference-makers and 90 percent of elites are in Top-20 passing offenses based on results.

Notable tight ends with an uphill battle to reach this Top-20 group include Andrews (Ravens), Pitts (Falcons), Okonkwo (Titans) and Schultz (Texans).

Bottom-12 Offenses (2013-2022 Seasons)

Group Bottom-12 PassAtt Bottom-12 PassYds Bottom-12 PassTD
Difference-Makers 22 (29%) 12 (16%) 16 (21%)
Elite 7 of 31 (23%) 3 of 31 (9.7%) 3 of 31 (9.7%)

The Blueprint

Kelce is the only tight end to check every box and should once again outscore all other fantasy tight ends by a comfortable margin. He’s a viable pick in Round 1 of fantasy drafts.

Kittle finds himself buried on a talented 49ers depth chart and was only fantasy-relevant last year because he scored a touchdown once every 5.5 receptions in 2022 (11 TDs on 60 receptions). He’s a fade in Round 5 of fantasy drafts.

Pitts will live and die by the Falcons’ passing situation, but he could sneak into the TE2 overall conversation should the Falcons creep toward Top-20 pass volume.

Goedert does not look like a great option to bet on in 2023 because he’s clearly behind AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith on a team that ranked 23rd in pass attempts last season. The Eagles passed for the eighth-most yards and 14th-most touchdowns, but his depth chart placement and overall lack of passing volume suppress my interest. He’ll need at least one injury to Brown or Smith to pay off at his current draft position.

Waller is my favorite tight end target because he usually goes in Round 7 or Round 8. The New York Giants don’t project to be a pass-heavy team, but he checks every other box and posted elite fantasy production in 2019 and 2020. He should probably be the fourth tight end off the board after Kelce, Andrews and Hockenson.

Kincaid and Dulcich are interesting late-round options if you miss out on the top tight ends. Kincaid has the team environment on his side and has an outside chance to usurp Gabe Davis as the team’s No. 2 target earner.

The two concerns for him are his inexperience and the presence of Knox — though Kincaid should play more slot while Knox probably stays in-line more often. Dulcich is on a Broncos team that could rebound in 2023, and he nearly reached some impressive benchmarks as a rookie despite playing in only 10 games due to injury.

Higbee is always available toward the end of fantasy drafts and quietly meets all the necessary criteria. Assuming Matthew Stafford stays healthy, Higbee should operate as the No. 2 option in a good Rams pass attack and already met the target benchmarks last season. He’s a great target if you miss out on the elite tight ends.

Cole Kmet is a popular sleeper, but he doesn’t really check any requisite boxes heading into the 2023 season. He should be off your late-round fantasy radar.

List of 2022 Team Passing Stats, Ordered by Pass Attempts 

Team PassAtt Rank PassYds Rank PassTD Rank
TB 1 5 12
LAC 2 3 12
MIN 3 2 5
ARI 4 17 25
KC 5 1 1
NYJ 6 14 31
CIN 7 6 2
IND 8 20 25
JAX 9 12 14
DET 10 7 8
LV 11 11 9
MIA 12 4 5
HOU 13 25 18
BUF 14 9 2
SEA 15 10 5
DEN 16 15 23
PIT 16 24 32
GB 18 19 11
DAL 19 18 9
WAS 20 22 16
CLE 21 23 20
NE 21 21 20
PHI 23 8 14
LA 24 26 29
NYG 25 27 25
NO 26 16 16
SF 26 13 5
BAL 28 30 20
CAR 29 28 29
TEN 30 29 29
ATL 31 31 25
CHI 32 32 20

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