Tier 1: George Kittle, Travis Kelce
Tier 2: Mark Andrews, Zach Ertz
Tier 3: Rob Gronkowski, Darren Waller, Evan Engram, Tyler Higbee, Hunter Henry, Noah Fant, Jared Cook
Tier 4: TJ Hockenson, Hayden Hurst, Austin Hooper, Mike Gesecki, Chris Herndon
Tier 5: Jonnu Smith, Dallas Goedert, Greg Olson, Jack Doyle, Blake Jarwin, Jace Steinberger
Analysis & Draft Strategy:
Entering 2020, San Francisco 49ers’ tight end George Kittle has taken the mantle as the league’s top tight end, both in real life and in fantasy, while Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end sits a close second. The tier 1 duo will fly off draft boards starting as early as round 2. Whether you should join the fray in drafting the duo early will be discussed below.
Tier 2 represents a significant dropoff from tier 1, with Mark Andrews and Zach Ertz finding their way onto teams starting in round 4. The best value at TE this year resides within tier 3, as there’s a minimal dropoff from tier 2 but with a substantial price discount in terms of required draft capital to snag the tier 3 options. From Gronk all the way through Jared Cook, you’ve got high ceiling options at a fraction of the cost of the higher tier TEs. Among this group, we’ll take a closer look at Broncos’ tight end Noah Fant below.
Tight end runs deep this year, as evidenced by the players in tiers 4 and 5. Lions’ tight end TJ Hockenson was one of the most highly touted TEs to ever enter the NFL, and he has become an afterthought just one year later. New Falcons’ TE Hayden Hurst (see more below), and the man he’s replacing, new Browns’ TE Austin Hooper, both comprise solid starting options as well. Keep an eye on Cowboys’ TE Blake Jarwin and Packers’ TE Jace Sternberger as well if you play in a deeper league.
So should you draft the tier 1 or 2 tight ends? With so many solid options in the lower tiers, the recommendation here is to let others overpay for the early tight ends, and grab your TE as the tier 3 options start to thin out. Instead, focus on fortifying your RBs and WRs – and even your QB - with your first several picks. Except for prime Gronk, tight ends just don’t produce the value that the other skill positions do. Look at Kittle and Kelce’s 2019 statistics, in which they combined for 11 TDs. The delta in statistics between the top TEs to the mid-tier options falls short of the same in comparison to the top RBs and WRs versus the mid tiers. Even tier 4 has options that can fill the TE position just fine. So wait on your TE and snag a tier 3 player in the mid rounds, or even a tier 4 option – you’ll be fine.
Finally, quick hits on two TEs whom I expect will outperform their ADP, and therefore reflected higher in my rankings:
Noah Fant, Denver Broncos – While Iowa tight end TJ Hockenson was the first tight end off the board in the 2019 NFL draft, it was his collegiate teammate, Noah Fant who had the more promising rookie season. Fant finished the 2019 season with 40 receptions, 562 yards and 3 TDs. Looking closer at his game log, Fant had two games where he crossed the 100 yard threshold and another two with over 50 yards. On the flip side, Fant also had four games with under 10 yards receiving, so he had inconsistent performance – not unusual for a rookie. So why will Fant take off in this, his second season? His athleticism shined throughout the 2019 season, as evidenced by his 14.1 yards per catch, with a significant portion of which consisted of yards following the catch. Also importantly, the Broncos have stabilized their offense, with Drew Lock hardwired at the QB spot and Courtland Sutton (whom defenses will focus on) and Jerry Jeudy starting at WR this year. With the knowledge gained from year 1, his freakish athletic skills and defenses having to account for the balance of the Broncos’ skill position players, Fant will become Lock’s safety blanket and will improve on each of his counting stats. Target Fant as early as rounds 8-9, depending on how early your league has a run on the tier 3 TEs.
Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons – We now turn to the Baltimore Ravens’ first 2018 first round draft pick. No, not QB Lamar Jackson, who was the team’s second 2018 first round pick. Instead, we are talking about new Falcons’ tight end Hayden Hurst, who takes over the spot vacated by Austin Hooper. Hurst has good hands and can run, but just fell behind Mark Andrews in the Ravens’ TE pecking order. The Falcons offer a very tight-end friendly situation as well, with QB Matt Ryan a frequent thrower to his tight ends. With top WRs Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley drawing all sorts of attention from the defense, look for Hurst to accumulate plenty of targets from Ryan, with a 50 – 60 reception season within reach. If you decide to sit out the earlier wave of tight ends, then target Hurst in the later rounds and enjoy the ROI.