Tight Ends: Buy, Hold, & Sell
Tight end can be a tricky position to predict but can pay off in a big way. Hitting on one can give you an edge in your league, especially in a two-tight-end league.
Rookies often struggle to adapt to an NFL offense, while talented veterans have long-lasting value at the position. However, we do see occasional breakouts that come out of nowhere. Do they really come out of nowhere, though? Sometimes there are signs to predict a breakout, whether that’s an athletic pass catcher coming into an opportunistic situation, like Darren Waller, or a rising talent paired with the right quarterback in a good offense, like Mark Andrews.
On the other hand, some tight ends fall off and lose value very quickly, but sometimes it also can be identified early on. Let’s take a closer look and identify the players you should be targeting, looking to move, and a few guys you might want to hang on to and see what you have.
Chris Herndon is entering his third year in the NFL, though we only have one season to evaluate him on. Herndon impressed in his rookie season, registering 502 yards and 4 touchdowns. His 502 yards were more than five of six rookies drafted before him, including Hayden Hurst, Mike Gesicki, Dallas Goedert, Jordan Akins, and Ian Thomas. We’ll get to some of those names later on, but Mark Andrews was the only rookie tight end to total more yards, as he finished with 552. Andrews produced his breakout season last year, while Herndon played in one game and saw two targets before breaking his rib and missing the remainder of the season. Prior to this injury, Herndon was suspended for four games and battled a nagging hamstring injury that kept him sidelined.
Herndon didn’t really get going until week six when he topped 50 yards for the first time and scored his first touchdown. From then on out, he saw four and a half targets per game, averaged over 41 yards-per-game, and recorded all four of his touchdowns. Herndon was just under a 70% catch rate in his rookie season but was at a 93% true catch rate, good for first in the NFL amongst tight ends. He also ranked seventh in target quality rating. This far exceeds expectations of any rookie tight end, let alone a fourth-round draft pick.
At 6’4” and 253 pounds, Herndon possesses great size along with the athleticism to succeed in the NFL. This, along with his promising rookie season generated some buzz heading into his second season. The four-game suspension eventually slowed down that buzz, however. Herndon owners who stuck with him were left disgruntled when he battled injuries and contributed next to nothing to their teams. This undoubtedly left a sour taste in many fantasy owners’ mouths. However, it has certainly not left a sour taste in Sam Darnold’s mouth.
So far in camp, Herndon’s name has been in the headlines quite often. Seriously, google his name and you will be flooded with reports out of camp that Herndon is Darnold’s favorite target and that the two are flashing a crazy amount of chemistry. Jamison Crowder, perhaps the Jet's top wide receiver, recently said that Herndon reminds him of Jordan Reed and that he will “have a huge impact.” In an offense lacking quality pass-catchers, Herndon will stand out this season.
His current ADP is tight end 20 according to Dynasty League Football. I have laid out many reasons why he should be higher, but why is he going as tight end 20? Seriously, I don’t get it, what kind of question marks does this guy have? Is it that he’s coming off an injury? He’s healthy now. He’s not in a great offense? Somebody must catch the ball for the Jets. Adam Gase? Okay, I’ll give you that one. But still, it makes no sense that he is going behind guys like Blake Jarwin and Ian Thomas who have hardly shown that they can produce at the NFL level. Herndon is very cheap right now, and his price will only go up throughout the 2020 season.
Austin Hooper finished the season fourth among tight ends in targets per game. He finished sixth amongst tight ends in overall targets despite missing three games. He finished seventh in fantasy points at the position in standard scoring, and fourth in the per-game average. In addition, Hooper was third in red-zone targets for tight ends last season and 12th amongst all players. Austin Hooper now plays for the Cleveland Browns. Meanwhile, the Falcons went out and spent a second-round pick to acquire Hayden Hurst from the Ravens.
Just because Hurst was behind Mark Andrews on the depth chart, it doesn’t mean he is not a good player. We saw what Andrews was able to do last season, not many tight ends in the league would be getting quality run if they were on the same team as him. The Ravens drafted Hurst in the first round, in the very same draft in which they selected Andrews two rounds later. Regardless of what’s happened in the past, Hurst is a better prospect than Hooper was, and is stepping into a major role vacated by Hooper. When opportunity meets such raw talent, special things can happen.
(Photo Credit: Player Profiler)
(Photo Credit: Player Profiler)
Hurst is currently going as tight end 14 in dynasty leagues but is going from a backup role on the lowest volume passing offense in the league to a featured player on the offense with the highest passing volume in the league. The official team website recently stated that Hurst will be an every-down tight end for the team, and he should be an every-week staple in your lineup as well.
Buy But Be Patient
Dallas Goedert is a perfect target for a two-tight-end league, or for any rebuilding team. He finished as tight end 10 overall last year in standard scoring, and could certainly be a tight end one again, but as a backup on his own team is a very quality tight end two. The Eagles have a potential out on Zach Ertz’s contract after this season. They would be facing over $7 million in dead cap, so I’m not saying that this will happen, but it is possible they move on from him or that Goedert simply overtakes him.
Goedert was a second-round pick, coming into the fold while Ertz was already on the roster. They obviously intend to continue the high usage of both tight ends. Even with Ertz ahead of him on the depth chart, Goedert managed to finish the season ninth in tight end targets. He finished top 10 in the league among all tight ends in receptions, receiving yards, yards after the catch, red zone receptions, and total yards.
The Eagles led the league in tight end targets last season with a whopping 235, which is 55 more than the next closest team. With a lack of weapons on the outside, this number figures to be very high again this season. This offense has and will continue to support two quality tight ends. Goedert is going as tight end 10 in dynasty leagues, which is fair, but if/when he takes over Ertz’s role he will be one of the top tight ends in the game.
Irv Smith Jr
Irv Smith Jr. had a nice rookie season after being selected by the Vikings in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He finished the season with 311 yards and two touchdowns. That might not seem like a ton, but keep in mind that he came in trailing Kyle Rudolph on the depth chart. While Rudolph is not going anywhere, Smith will almost certainly become the primary tight end before long.
In the four seasons prior to last year, Rudolph averaged 92 targets per season. Last season that number was nearly cut in half, as Rudolph saw just 48 targets to Smith’s 47. Smith is another tight end that is a perfect target in a two-tight end league, or on a rebuilding team. Although we can’t be certain of his future role with the team, he is trending up while the incumbent starter is trending down.
Smith, currently going as tight end 15 in dynasty leagues, will far surpass this value in a couple of seasons, you just might have to be patient with him.
Mike Gesicki runs a 4.54 40-yard dash while standing at 6’6” and 247 pounds. This guy is probably the best tight end in the game in terms of his measurables. The Dolphins took him with the 10th pick in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft, and frankly, I’m surprised he lasted that long. To be fair, the only tight end that went ahead of him is our beloved Hayden Hurst.
(Photo Credit: RotoViz)
Gesicki got off to a slow start in his NFL career, posting just 202 yards and 0 touchdowns in his rookie season. He was sharing the tight end workload with Nick O’Leary (who?), so it’s not like he was playing behind a veteran pass-catcher. However, tight ends often don’t hit their stride until their second or third year in the league. Last season, Gesicki’s second in the league, he showed much more promise going for 570 yards and 5 touchdowns, finishing as tight end 11.
Finishing fifth in total target distance amongst tight ends, and fourth in contested catch rate, he has shown the ability to get downfield and make big plays. Entering his second season playing with the gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick, Gesicki should continue to ascend. Eventually, he will start seeing passes come his way from the southpaw, Tua Tagovailoa. While we do not know what Tua’s future holds, this is a promising outlook from a quarterback perspective and should lead to increased efficiency from Gesicki. He is however battling for targets with two quality receivers in DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, but the team boasts little firepower outside of those two, especially with Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson opting out of the upcoming season.
Gesicki is currently going as tight end 11, right between Dallas Goedert and Austin Hooper. This is a fair price, and so far we have seen flashes from Gesicki but haven’t seen a real breakout from him. Many are touting him as a breakout candidate, and his price is probably going to be hefty in the trade market. He’s a guy I’d hold on to and see how he progresses but wouldn’t go out and buy unless a good offer comes my way.
Like Mike Gesicki, Darren Waller possesses elite size and measurables. Unlike Gesicki, Waller has already experienced his breakout campaign. Waller entered the NFL as a wide receiver, so you know he has the receiving chops to succeed in the league. He started his career with the Ravens in 2015, before being let go and missing the entire 2017 season due to opiate and cocaine addiction. Waller received a second chance, this one coming from the Raiders, where he had little impact in the 2018 season playing behind veteran Jared Cook. After being heavily featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks, Waller was getting plenty of buzz heading into the 2019 season and he delivered.
Waller finished the season with 1145 yards and three touchdowns, good enough for the fourth-best fantasy tight end last year in standard scoring. Waller finished near the top of the tight end class in just about every category imaginable, except touchdowns. He was second in receptions, yards, and yards after the catch. He finished third in targets, fourth in target share, and fifth in deep targets. There’s not much to dislike about Waller, especially considering his incredibly inspirational and feel-good story. But the Raiders did add a bevy of pass catchers to the squad this off-season. The team invested high draft picks in receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, and also added Nelson Agholor in free agency. They added a questionable amount of pass-catching running backs, drafting Lynn Bowden Jr., and signing free agents Devonte Booker and Theo Riddick. Not to mention they brought back Jalen Richard. Seems excessive if you ask me, but the point is that Waller is far from guaranteed to see the massive target share that he did last season when he posted 117.
(Photo Credit: Player Profiler)
I’m not sure that Waller can maintain his place as the fourth-best fantasy tight end considering his likely dip in targets, but he should hopefully see some positive regression in the touchdown department, and even if he slides a bit, it won’t be far. He’s currently going as tight end six behind Zach Ertz. I’d rather have Waller for the long term than Ertz, but I also don’t love the idea of paying a premium for a guy who has one season of production while being the only consistent target in his offense, when the team has added so many pass-catchers around him. Waller’s a hold for me until I see a bit more from him.
Tyler Higbee is coming off a breakout season in which he totaled 734 yards and 3 touchdowns, which is more yardage than he registered in his first three seasons combined. Higbee is an average athlete across the board, while his teammate Gerald Everett, whom the Rams drafted two rounds higher, is a superior athlete.
Higbee finished the season as tight end 9 in standard scoring, but Everett was outplaying Higbee until he went down with an injury. In fact, Everett was seemingly experiencing his own breakout campaign earlier in the season. From weeks 4 to 10 Everett was tight end 8 while Higbee was tight end 41 during that span. Everett missed weeks 13 through 15, and while he returned in weeks 16 and 17, he was limited. However, in the 11 weeks in which Everett and Higbee shared the field, prior to week 13, Everett averaged 36 yards per game, while Higbee averaged 19. During this time, Everett played 55% of the offensive snaps, while Higbee played 54%.
Granted, this was prior to Higbee’s breakout. He was a monster the last five weeks of the season, topping 100 yards in four of them and going over 80 in the other. Everett however is back and healthy, ready to go this season. Even if you project Higbee to take over more of the load this season, Head Coach Sean McVay may not see it that way. Earlier in the off-season, the head ball coach said “I think Gerald Everett’s a guy that I’ve got to do a better job of utilizing his skill set because he’s a difference-maker. But he’s got to get the opportunities and I think that starts with some of the things I know I can do a better job of.” Doesn’t that make you a bit nervous if you are a Higbee owner? To be fair, the Rams figure to use more 12 personnel this season (two tight ends with one running back) with Brandin Cooks now donning a Texans uniform. Both guys should see opportunities, but the Rams still have a dynamic duo at wide receiver between Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Higbee is currently going as tight end 13 in dynasty leagues, right behind, you guessed it, Hayden Hurst. Everett meanwhile is going all the way down at tight end 32. I’m looking to sell Higbee at this price point.
Remember the massive volume we discussed that Austin Hooper received in Atlanta last year? Well, his new team, the Cleveland Browns targeted tight ends at the fourth lowest rate in the NFL. Brown's tight ends saw just 69 targets last season, while Hooper himself saw 97. Cleveland has revamped their entire coaching staff, and we don’t have a great understanding of how the tight ends will be used in the new offense. However, new Head Coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense last year in Minnesota saw his tight ends receive just 105 targets, and he had two very good players at the position in Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr.
Hooper has been trending up since he entered the league in 2016, so we know the talent is there. He has not however shared the tight-end reps with talent as he will in Cleveland. The Browns paid Hooper a pretty penny to come to Cleveland, so he will obviously be the primary target at the position, but it’s worth noting that they picked up the fifth-year option on former first-round pick David Njoku, and also drafted tight end, Harrison Bryant, in the fourth round a few months ago. Not to mention the Browns have two target magnets on the outside in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The duo saw a combined 271 targets last season. Again, new coaching staff, but that won’t change a whole lot. In addition, the Browns boast a very strong running game, and a second running back who figures to see tons of targets himself. Kareem Hunt saw 44 targets last year in just 8 games, which put him on pace for 88 in a full 16 game season. That’s more than the tight ends in Cleveland received as a whole. There is word out of Brown's camp that Hunt has been spending time in the receiver’s room, along with the running backs, so it wouldn’t be crazy to see that target total go up.
Austin Hooper is being drafted as tight end 12 in dynasty leagues after finishing as tight end seven last year, fourth in per-game average. There is some regression baked into that cost, but it’s no guarantee he will finish as a tight end one, and I’d be looking to sell him if you can find somebody who is expecting the results that Hooper delivered last season.
Other names to consider selling
I was going to include Jared Cook on this list, but it’s a bit more obvious. He can still be useful, but he’s going to see major touchdown regression after scoring 9 last year and finishing as tight end six in standard scoring. Plus, Cook is ancient, and the Saints drafted Adam Trautman in the third round of the draft. If you can spin him off to a contender who is desperate for a tight end, do it before the regression kicks in. Zach Ertz is another name to consider selling. It may be a bit early for this, so I’m fine holding him as well, but as mentioned above, Goedert is on the rise and will eventually take the lead role over. It all depends on which direction your team is headed in, as Ertz can still deliver high-end numbers, but if you don’t need that right now and can get a premium for him, I say go for it.