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Tight end is one of the four major positions in fantasy football, but it’s probably the position we think about the least.
Running backs are always prominent in our thoughts — even if you’re one of the managers who doesn’t want to draft them early — and a quarterback’s play has fingerprints over his entire offense. Wide receivers are often the dynamic playmakers within an offense, and you’ll find plenty of divas there, too.
As we get the Exit Interview series started — my fantasy post-mortem for the 2021 season — let’s give Tight Ends some love. You’re slotted for the leadoff position.
Mark Andrews grabs the yellow jersey
After watching Travis Kelce outscore every tight end for three years running, Mark Andrews grabbed the No. 1 spot in 2021. The Andrews breakout season was primarily about opportunity, as most of his efficiency metrics were similar to his prior seasons. After landing on 50, 98, and 88 targets through three years, he exploded for 154 looks in 2021. Andrews was 20 targets clear of Kelce, and only six tight ends broke the 100 mark.
To be fair, it’s possible the Ravens could view Andrews as a genie out of the bottle — although some target regression is likely for 2022, Andrews has proven to be worthy of a heavy market share going forward. The Ravens also threw more than they wanted to in 2021, but perhaps the most impressive thing about Andrews was that he shined no matter who Baltimore used at quarterback. Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley, Josh Johnson, it simply didn’t matter.
The four faces on League Winner Mount Rushmore this year were Cooper Kupp, Jonathan Taylor, Deebo Samuel, and Andrews. Heck of a year, No. 89.
Age is just a number at tight end
Career arcs are radically different with the four main fantasy positions. It’s not uncommon for old quarterbacks to play well — Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers will take home an MVP in about a month. Running back production seems to skew younger and younger every season. Wide receiver is another spot where we have to be careful when players hit the wrong side of 30.
Tight ends don’t have quite the longevity of quarterbacks — the position is too physically demanding, and they don’t receive the hands-off treatment that the glamour boy QBs do. But unlike the backfield, we can draft second-contract or even 30-something tight ends and feel good about it.
Kelce finished as the No. 2 tight end in his age-32 season. His last six years are ridiculous: TE1, TE2, TE1, TE1, TE1, TE2. It was merely his third-best year in this run, but Kelce made back his ADP, despite an uneven year from the Kansas City offense.
Rob Gronkowski had 12 dynamic games for the Buccaneers, finishing TE5 in overall scoring and TE3 if we switch to a per-game model. He’s still a delicious soundbite and a joie de vivre player on the field. And at this point, Gronk and Brady can finish each other’s sentences.
Props to Zach Ertz, who moved to Arizona midseason and was the team’s market-share leader by the end of the year. His tank isn’t empty at age 31.
It’s probably just a coincidence, but several of the trendy Year 3 tight end breakouts encountered turbulence. T.J. Hockenson dealt with injuries, Noah Fant was sunk by poor quarterback play. Irv Smith Jr. was hurt before the season. Dawson Knox was the surprise breakout from the Class of 2019, and Foster Moreau had occasional moments as the Darren Waller replacement.
What’s the verdict on Kyle Pitts 1.0?
Pitts ended the Yahoo draft season as the TE4, commanding an ADP around 47. Mark Andrews was about three picks cheaper in the average league. I feel bad for anyone who was tempted by both of these players but ultimately chose Pitts. Andrews proved to be a league-winner, Pitts surely was not.
That established, it’s possible to frame Pitts in a positive or negative light for his first season. Choose your own adventure.
On the plus side, he finished as the TE9 in standard leagues and TE6 in full-PPR leagues. That doesn’t sound too bad. It wasn’t what you wanted for his ADP, but it shouldn’t have crushed you. His 1,026 receiving yards are the second-most all-time for a rookie tight end.
But Pitts skeptics will shake their head and note that Pitts’s respectable final ranking is heavily influenced by survivor bias. He played in all 17 games, after all. If you view the PPR rank on a per-game basis, he falls out of the Top 10.
The biggest problem with Pitts this year was in the red zone — although he received 15 targets inside the 20 (tenth at the position) and seven opportunities inside the 10, he only scored once. It’s open to the reader to decide how much of the blame for the touchdown deficit lies with Pitts, how much lies with quarterback Matt Ryan, and how much lies with Arthur Smith and the coaching staff.
We likely have to accept that Ryan is average at best in his late-30s; most of his indexed QB metrics were under league average. That’s going to be a drain on Pitts. But Pitts also came into the NFL at a tender age — he didn’t turn 21 until October — and I refuse to accept that every glowing scouting report from last spring was off base. His touchdown count had plenty of bad luck attached to it.
I’ll try to draft Pitts proactively next season.
Other tight takeaways from 2021
Dalton Schultz had a useful season, though a midseason slump from the Dallas offense might have pushed some managers off the scent ... Mike Gesicki became allergic to the end zone ... Pat Freiermuth became a Pittsburgh favorite overnight, and a handy red-zone guy ... Darren Waller had a star-crossed season ... Dallas Goedert kept teasing us with awesome potential, though he had two smash games in December ... Hunter Henry piled on the touchdown deodorant.
Way-Too-Early Tight End Ranks for 2022
Sketch these in with pencil. So much will be different between now and when fantasy draft season opens.
1. Travis Kelce
2. Mark Andrews
3. George Kittle
4. Kyle Pitts
5. Dallas Goedert
6. Darren Waller
7. T.J. Hockenson
8. Rob Gronowski
9. Dalton Schultz
10. Dawson Knox
11. Pat Freiermuth
12. Noah Fant
13. Mike Gesicki
14. Zach Ertz