Fitz on Fantasy: 2020 Tight End Rankings, 1-30

Pat Fitzmaurice finished second out of 160 experts in FantasyPros’ 2019 preseason rankings accuracy contest, and he’s now No. 1 in multi-year preseason rankings accuracy for 2017-2019. Fitzmaurice’s full 2020 redraft rankings are posted here, but this series of articles helps explain the thinking behind the rankings. Be sure to check out his already released explainers:

Quarterback Rankings, 1-10

Quarterback Rankings, 11-40

Running Back Rankings, 1-10

Running Back Rankings, 11-30

Running Back Rankings, 31-70

Wide Receiver Rankings, 1-10

Wide Receiver Rankings, 11-30

Wide Receiver Rankings, 31-70

For more personalized advice, be sure to check out Pat’s Patreon page where you can have direct access to Pat for your specific fantasy dilemmas.

1. Travis Kelce, Chiefs

“Zeus” has run his streak of 1,000-yard seasons to four, and he’s topped 1,200 yards in each of the last two years. Among the reasons to love Kelce …

Usage: Last year he finished eighth in the league in receptions (97) and 11th in targets (136). In 2018, he ranked 10th in receptions (103) and eighth in targets (150).

Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes is the best passer in the game, and Kelce’s 2019 numbers could have been even better if Mahomes hadn’t missed 2.5 games with a knee injury.

Durability: Kelce has missed just one game in the last six years, and that was because the Chiefs elected to rest him in their meaningless regular-season finale in 2017.

Also, Kelce is probably due for a TD bounce after combining for 18 touchdowns in 2017-2018 and scoring just five times last year (though he did have four TD catches in three playoff games).

The question is: What’s the buying zone for Kelce in drafts? I rank him 16th overall, behind the top 12 running backs and WRs Michael Thomas, Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill. It’s hard to pass up opportunities to get an RB1 when you can, and Thomas and Adams are such voracious target hogs that I can’t justify putting Kelce ahead of them. Hill vs. Kelce is basically a toss-up.

The top two TEs offer such an enormous positional advantage that some people might even go fishing for one at the end of the first round. That’s a bit rich for me, but you could probably justify taking either Kelce or Kittle at the top of the second.

2. George Kittle, 49ers

It’s impossible not to love this guy. Off the field he’s goofy, fun-loving, engaging, effervescent. On the field he has the disposition of Genghis Khan, raiding and pillaging with reckless abandon. George Kittle is a national treasure.

I’ve probably spent more hours trying to parse the differences between Kittle and Travis Kelce than Sir Isaac Newton spent on the laws of motion. (Such is the excitement of day-to-day life during a pandemic.)

I see it as close to a push.

Kelce plays in a more potent passing attack; Kittle has less target competition. Over the last two years, Kittle has averaged 8.1 targets, 5.8 catches, 81.0 yards and 0.33 TDs per game. Kelce has averaged 8.9 targets, 6.3 catches, 80.1 yards and 0.47 TDs. Kittle has been more efficient with yards per catch and yards per target despite Kelce’s QB advantage.

I give Kelce the slightest edge, mostly based on his longer track record, but I also wonder if Kittle will run routes on a significantly lower percentage of snaps due to the 49ers’ run-heaviness and  Kittle’s exceptional blocking ability. Still, I would happily take Kittle in the mid-second round of a 12-team draft if the top dozen RBs are off the board.

3. Zach Ertz, Eagles

The brilliant Shawn Siegele of RotoViz seems to end up with Ertz on most of his teams, and if Shawn loves Ertz, you probably should too.

Ertz has racked up at least 74 receptions and 816 yards in each of the last five seasons. He’s taken it up a notch over the last two years, with 116-1,163-8 in 2018 and 88-916-6 in 2019. After averaging 109.3 targets from 2015 to 2017, Ertz has averaged 145.5 targets over the last two years.

The concerns that some people have with Ertz are that (1) the Eagles’ Dallas Goedert is the probably the best No. 2 tight end in the league, and (2) Philly’s cupboard was bare at the WR position last year, but they drafted three, including first-rounder Jalen Reagor, and are getting DeSean Jackson back from injury.

Still, wide receiver isn’t exactly a strength for the Eagles, and as talented as Goedert is, Ertz still played 86% of the Eagles offensive snaps last year.

Ertz’s target total is probably due to fall back to 2015-2017 levels, but even with 109 targets, Ertz would almost surely be a top-five TE.

4. Mark Andrews, Ravens

Just as it tough to choose between Travis Kelce and George Kittle for the TE1 spot, it was tough to choose between Andrews and Zach Ertz for TE3.

Andrews is a fascinating player. He had 64 catches for 852 yards and 10 TDs last year despite playing just 44% of the Ravens’ regular-season snaps. That’s crazy. But it shows that whenever Andrews was on the field, Ravens QB Lamar Jackson was looking to feed him.

That snap share should rise now that former first-round draft pick Hayden Hurst has left for Atlanta. The Ravens added a couple of wide receivers in the draft but probably didn’t make themselves appreciably better at the position.

One concern – and this was ultimately why I ranked Ertz a spot higher – is that Andrews has Type 1 diabetes. People with diabetes have a greater chance of experiencing serious complications from COVID-19, according to the American Diabetes Association, but Andrews has said he didn’t consider opting out of the 2020 season. Still, it’s fair to wonder whether Andrews might reconsider if there are outbreaks in NFL locker rooms during the season.

OK, I don’t want to end on a sour note, so let me bring up a point that I made when writing about Lamar Jackson earlier in this series. The Ravens went 14-2 in the regular season and outscored their opponents by an average of 15.6 points per game. That was one of the reasons they attempted a league-low 440 passes. If things don’t go as smoothly this year for Baltimore in the 2020 season, that passing volume is going to rise, and Andrews’ could really cash in.

5. Darren Waller, Raiders

Waller was a usage monster for the Raiders last year. With 90 catches for 1,145 yards, he was able to finish TE3 despite scoring only three TDs.

I’m avoiding Waller nonetheless. His target totals started to ebb over the second half of last season as WR Hunter Renfrow became more involved in the offense. Then the Raiders spent early draft picks on WRs Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards. They also annoyingly signed the primordial Jason Witten, who could put at least a minor dent in Waller’s snap totals.

Waller is terrific, but he’s a trap play in fantasy this year.

6. Evan Engram, Giants

Engram’s yardage totals have declined year over year since he entered the league in 2017, but his yardage per game has actually increased every year, reaching 58.4 ypg in 2019. That’s because he keeps getting hurt.

During his three-year career, Engram has had two concussions; a sprained ankle, two knee sprains, a strained hamstring, and last year a mid-foot sprain that required Lisfranc surgery. 

That inked-up medical chart makes Engram a classic risk/reward proposition. The appeal is that he’s basically a wide receiver playing tight end, bringing 4.4 speed and freaky athleticism to the position. Also, the Giants may need to be pass-heavy this year since their defense is probably going to be a sieve.

Engram just needs to stay healthy, but what are the odds?

7. Tyler Higbee, Rams

I’m so conflicted.

Through the first 10 games of 2019, Higbee had played less than half of the Rams’ offensive snaps and had 21 catches for 192 yards and one TD. Then fellow TE Gerald Everett hyperextended his knee, and Higbee went berserk, cramming a season’s worth of numbers into the last five games, with 43 catches for 522 yards and two TDs. 

So is the genie out of the bottle and ready to keep granting fantasy wishes in 2020, or was Higbee’s December rampage a small-sample fluke?

The optimist’s view is that Higbee was SO good down the stretch last year that it couldn’t have been a mirage. Those were freaky numbers – the best five-game run by a TE in NFL history. The Rams broke out of a horrible midseason offensive slump by using more two-TE sets, so it stands to reason they’ll use the 12 formation often in 2020. And it’s not like Higbee completely came out of the ether. He was only targeted 34 times in 2018, but he generated a fantastic 116.3 passer rating on those targets.

The pessimist’s view is that Higbee was the No. 2 tight end until Everett got hurt, and now Everett is back. A lot of Higbee’s catches last December were manufactured and sort of gimmicky. Instead of splitting seams like Travis Kelce, Higbee was doing a lot of his damage on bubble screens. Two of his last five games were against the Cardinals, who were lousy at defending TEs, and two were against the Cowboys and Seahawks, whose TE defense was also subpar.

Early in the offseason when the best-ball rooms opened up, I liked the price on Higbee and eagerly scooped up shares. But lately I’ve had cold feet, and I’m not sure I’ll end up with him in any of my home leagues.

8. Hunter Henry, Chargers

A career average of 8.9 yards per target speaks to Henry’s talent level. Unfortunately, ever since scoring eight touchdowns as a rookie in 2016, Henry has been waylaid by injury after injury – a lacerated kidney in 2017, a torn ACL in 2018, a tibia plateau fracture in 2019. Even though the latter cost him four games last year, he still had 55-652-5.

The Chargers’ passing volume is going to come down this year, and the passes are going to be thrown by either Tyrod Taylor or Justin Herbert instead of Philip Rivers. Henry’s talent might not be able to overcome an unfavorable ecosystem.

9. Hayden Hurst, Falcons

Overshadowed by Mark Andrews in Baltimore, Hurst will now get to spread his wings in Atlanta. (Actually, Falcons have smaller wingspans than Ravens, but never mind.)

It’s not clear whether Hurst is actually good, but his new role should be meaty. Austin Hooper finished TE6 in half-point PPR scoring in each of the last two years, averaging 92.5 targets a season with the Falcons over that stretch. With that sort of a target share and decent efficiency, Hurst should finish in the TE1 range.

Hurst’s ADP is TE13, according to FantasyPros, and he looks like a solid buy.

10. Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers

Gronk is 31 and his body has been through the wringer, so to expect him to step out of retirement and return to the Gronk-Smash days of yore seems a bit far-fetched. Then again, he’s been reunited with Tom Brady, and maybe the Florida sun will warm their old bones.

I suspect the Buccaneers will limit Gronkowski’s snap share and use O.J. Howard quite a bit. But Gronk still figures to on the field when the Buccaneers are close to the goal line, since he and Brady obviously have red-zone chemistry. 

There’s not a chance in hell Gronkowski is putting up 1,000 yards, even if he somehow plays 16 games. But with reasonably good health he could probably get to 600 yards, and it’s not hard to imagine him scoring 7-8 touchdowns.

11. T.J. Hockenson, Lions

The elite TE prospect from Iowa exploded* out of the gate with six catches for 131 yards in Week 1 (*disclaimer: it happened against the Cardinals), and it seemed like his NFL career was off and running. But from Week 2 on, Hockenson had 26-236-1, averaging a woeful 4.7 yards per target.

There are reasonable excuses. Hockenson sustained a concussion, a shoulder sprain and an ankle sprain (the last of which cost him four games). QB Matthew Stafford got hurt Early in the season there were a few just-missed connections between Staff and Hock that probably turn into completions in Year 2.

Rookie TEs almost never click anyway, and Hockenson is now cheaper than he was last year. Stafford is healthy again, and the Lions will probably have to throw a lot since their defense looks lousy on paper. 

I’ve been an avid Hockenson buyer this year.

12. Mike Gesicki, Dolphins

Gesicki is big, fast and freakishly athletic. Last year he led all TEs in routes run out of the slot by a wide margin. He thrived in his “big slot” role after WR Preston Williams tore his ACL, freeing up additional targets. But will the increased usage stick now that Williams is healthy?

Chan Gailey is now running the Miami offense. Tight ends haven’t fared especially well in Gailey’s offenses over the years, though it’s worth noting that Tony Gonzalez had 155 targets, 96 receptions, 1,058 yards and 10 TDs in 2008, Gailey’s lone season as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. But just as Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy (hat tip, Lloyd Bentsen), Mike Gesicki is no Tony Gonzalez.

I’m still somewhat interested in Gesicki if the price is right, and he often falls into the TE2 range in drafts, at which point he’s a pretty attractive buy.

13. Noah Fant, Broncos

A first-round pick in 2019, Fant has 4.5 speed and elite athleticism, and he showcased it last year in big games (3-115-1 and 4-113-1) against the Browns and Texans. 

Thing is, the Broncos have a green QB, second-year man Drew Lock. There’s also a lot of target competition, with WRs Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler all looking to be fed. The Broncos even drafted Lock’s tight end at the University of Missouri, Albert Okwuegbunam.

Fant averaged just 2.8 targets in Lock’s five 2019 starts. I want to bet on Fant because he’s such a remarkable athlete – and really showed it off at times last year – but with the usage picture so opaque, I’m not reaching.

14. Dallas Goedert, Eagles

Goedert managed to finish TE10 in half-point PPR scoring last year even as the Eagles’ No. 2 tight end. He saw 87 targets last year, and he probably won’t see that many this year if Zach Ertz stays healthy and the Eagles’ receivers don’t all get hurt or fall on their faces. But Goedert has a TE2 floor, and he would become an immensely valuable asset if Ertz were to go down.

16. Jonnu Smith, Titans

The first three years of his career have been a slow burn, but it feels like he’s been building up to something bigger. Smith is a terrific athlete, and last year he was remarkably efficient, averaging 10.0 yards per target. The problem was that he only saw 44 targets.

Smith should get more work this year, but maybe not that much more. The Titans are hell-bent on playing 1970s football, running on a big percentage of their offensive snaps. There are few reliable pass catchers in Tennessee other than A.J. Brown, so Smith could carve out a decent target share for himself. Unfortunately, a decent share target share doesn’t count for much if there are only 24 or 25 targets to go around.

16 Jared Cook, Saints

Let Jared cook (said no one ever).

Actually, Cook was pretty good to fantasy managers in 2019, scoring a career-high nine TDs and finishing TE7. But a reckoning is coming. Cook averaged 10.8 yards per target – the best mark of his career by far – and scored touchdowns on 13.8% of his targets.

Cook is going to be grossly overdrafted this year. Don’t be the fish in the room.

17. Austin Hooper, Browns

The move from the Falcons to the Browns probably won’t do much good for Hooper’s numbers, but I’m sure he can find some solace in a four-year, $42 million contract. The Browns will likely throw a lot less often than the Falcons did, and they might use Hooper and David Njoku together in a lot of two-TE sets, which would dilute Hooper’s target share.

Fade Hooper this year.

18. Blake Jarwin, Cowboys

With Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb at wide receiver, there might not be many targets left for the Cowboys’ new starting tight end. Then again, Jason Witten has the movement skills of a cadaver these days, and Witten still managed to finish as a low-end TE1 last year.

19. Chris Herndon, Jets

My friend Michael Salfino of the Athletic is convinced that Herndon is THE best buy among all tight ends. Salfino notes that Herndon was very good as a rookie (9.0 yards per target), and that Sam Darnold seems eager to throw to his TEs. (Journeyman Ryan Griffin was briefly a fantasy stud last year while Herndon was sidelined with hamstring and rib injuries.)

Salfino makes some good points, and it’s not as if the Jets are loaded at wide receiver. I may bump up Herdon a spot or two in the days to come.

20. Jack Doyle, Colts

Some fantasy managers might remember Philip Rivers’ longtime rapport with Antonio Gates and think Rivers might click with his new tight end. I’m skeptical.

The Colts are probably going to be run-heavy. Doyle is slow, he’s averaged 9.0 yards per catch for his career, and he’s never scored more than five touchdowns in a single season in a season. The Colts also have Trey Burton, who was a washout in Chicago but might be ready to live up to the potential he showed in Philadelphia a few years ago now that he’s healthy again.

21. Irv Smith Jr., Vikings

Smith’s rookie numbers were lackluster, but his snap counts rose as the season wore on, and he could become a bigger factor in 2020. The Vikings aren’t deep at receiver, and TE Kyle Rudolph is in the dusk of his career. Smith is a good athlete, he had a terrific final college season at Alabama, and he was a second-round draft pick. His time may be coming soon.

22. Eric Ebron, Steelers

What a strange, unpredictable career this gentleman has had. It was only two years ago that he had 13 TD catches for the Colts, yet that seems like it happened in 1996.

I’m not very bullish on Ebron since the Steelers are loaded at wide receiver and probably won’t need to be pass-happy since their defense is so good. But this guy always seems to pop when you least expect it.

23. Ian Thomas, Panthers

He’s big and athletic and has shown flashes of promise over his first two seasons. But even in a starting role, Thomas probably isn’t going to get a lot of targets with Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson around. 

24. Greg Olsen, Seahawks

He’s going to be cheap in draft because he’s 35, but Olsen knows how to play, and he’s teaming up with one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Russell Wilson might really enjoy having this dude around. I’ve taken Olsen as my second or third TE in multiple best-ball drafts.

25. Gerald Everett, Rams

Everett was the Rams’ top tight end for most of last season, and in Week 5 he had a 136-yard game against the Seahawks. Tyler Higbee went nuts after Everett injured his knee late in the year and wound up finishing TE8, while Everett finished TE26. That’s roughly how I have them ranked for 2020, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their fantasy finishes this year were more like TE13 and TE16. 

Everett is the better athlete, was the higher draft pick and was the incumbent starter before he got hurt. Yes, Higbee was a revelation and has earned a bigger role, but the Rams used a lot of two-TE sets late last year, and Everett isn’t going to disappear.

26. O.J. Howard, Buccaneers

He’s an afterthought in fantasy drafts now, but let’s not forget that Howard was one of the best TE prospects to come out of the college ranks in years. He still has the freaky measurables and athleticism, and this is only Year 4 for him, so there’s still time. 

Howard is only going to be drafted in the deepest of leagues, but keep his card handy in your waiver wire Rolodex.

27. Dawson Knox, Bills

The arrival of Stefon Diggs doesn’t bode particularly well for Knox. The Bills are probably going to be run-heavy, and now that they have a pair of good WRs in Diggs and John Brown, Knox could be caught in a target squeeze. But he’s a plus athlete and flashed potential as a rookie, so he could be waiver-worthy.

28. David Njoku, Browns

Like O.J. Howard, Njoku was an elite TE prospect who has yet to fully pan out. His 4.6 speed and massive wingspan are good reasons to keep him on the radar.

29. Jimmy Graham, Bears

I have no idea what inspired Bears GM Ryan Pace to give Graham a two-year, $16 million contract with a $6 million signing bonus. This once-elite tight end was simply awful for the Packers last year. But, well, he’s the Bears’ No. 1 tight end now, which might translate into marginal fantasy value.

30. Jace Sternberger, Packers

This is supposed to be his big chance now that Jimmy Graham has left Green Bay, but Aaron Rodgers reportedly hasn’t warmed to the young TE (uh-oh), and there’s been talk in camp that Robert Tonyan could edge out Sternberger for the starting job.