HSAC’s Fantasy Football Sleepers & Busts: Tight Ends

by Danny Blumenthal

While tight ends tend to be overshadowed compared to other positions, there are still players who could come out of nowhere and put together outstanding seasons. Here are HSAC’s sleepers and busts at the tight end position, and if you’re looking for more fantasy football advice, check out our previews for quarterbacks and running backs.

Tight End Sleepers

Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (ESPN ADP: TE1, Pick 18.8)

As the best tight end in the league, Travis Kelce should not surprise anyone. However, Kelce is included in the “sleepers” section because of the scarcity of top-tier players at his position. Unlike for quarterbacks, there’s a major drop-off after the top-tier tight ends. Over the past few years, the top three tight ends have put up about 15 PPR points per game. Meanwhile, TE4 through TE17 have been almost indistinguishable, all averaging about 10 PPR points per game. Therefore, the wisest options are to either select an elite tight end early or to wait until the end of the draft. 

As for Kelce himself, he is far and away the top tight end available. He plays in an offense built around the pass, while George Kittle’s 49ers ran the ball more than they threw it in 2019. In addition to his significant volume, Kelce has more big-play ability. His average depth of target (aDOT) of 9.0 yards indicates that he is more of a deep threat than the conservative Kittle (5.9 yards).

Kelce has ranked as the top-scoring fantasy tight end in four straight seasons, racking up over 110 targets and 1,000 receiving yards in each. Even still, he may have been unlucky last year. He missed out on star quarterback Patrick Mahomes for two and a half games, and some of Kelce’s worst fantasy performances occurred when Mahomes was hurt. In addition, Kelce underperformed his touchdown expectations last year. With better touchdown luck and 16 games with the NFL’s top quarterback, Kelce could be even better in 2020. Therefore, he should be a high-upside pick in the 2nd round. 

Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns (ESPN ADP: TE14, Pick 137.6)

Austin Hooper was sensational in 2019, piling up 10 games with at least 10 PPR points. Only Travis Kelce and George Kittle, the top two tight ends, recorded more. As a result, Cleveland rewarded him with a $42 million deal – the (momentarily) largest contract for a tight end. 

Despite this major deal, Hooper is not being drafted as a TE1 in fantasy football. Many fans are wary of how he will do with his new team, especially since the Browns have strong receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. While these players might eat into Hooper’s target share, he is used to playing with top-tier receivers. Even as he played with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in Atlanta, only 3 tight ends had more receptions per game than he did. In addition, Beckham and Landry should occupy opponent’s top defenders, meaning that Hooper will see a lot of single coverage and have the opportunity to rack up some big plays.

Another concern is the presence of tight end David Njoku, who did well in 2018 before missing much of 2019 with injury. However, new coach Kevin Stefanski’s play-calling could assuage fans’ concerns. Only one team used two-tight end sets more often than Stefanski’s Vikings last year. And since Hooper was given that major contract, he should be the clear #1 tight end on the team. Talentwise, Hooper belongs as a top option at tight end. While the Browns’ crowded offense diminishes his potential slightly, grabbing Hooper late in the draft is a steal. 

Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh Steelers (ESPN ADP: TE18, Pick 162.0)

Although he is only being drafted in 33% of ESPN leagues, Eric Ebron could emerge as a top-tier player by the end of the year. The Steelers should throw the ball often, ranking 2nd in pass percentage in 2018, which was the last season Ben Roethlisberger was under center. If Roethlisberger is fully healthy, Pittsburgh could light up the scoreboard as well. Ebron could then see a lot of scoring opportunities, especially compared to players on worse teams, such as Mike Gesicki (TE15).

Roethlisberger also loves throwing to his tight ends. In 2018, the Steelers’ tight ends were among the league leaders in fantasy points, and now that Antonio Brown is gone, he will likely lean on his tight ends even more. When he is healthy, Ebron can serve as a consistent, reliable option for Roethlisberger. In fact, Ebron is one of only five tight ends to rack up 50 or more targets in each of the last five years. Finally, Ebron faces an easy schedule this year. The Steelers have the league’s 7th-easiest schedule and will be playing the NFC East, which hosts three of the bottom ten teams in fantasy points allowed to tight ends. Now that he has recovered from his ankle injury, Ebron could make a valuable waiver wire pick-up and emerge as a top-ten tight end.

Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders (ESPN ADP: TE5, Pick 57.8)

Darren Waller was a major surprise last year, finishing as TE3 despite barely seeing the field before 2019. And while the Raiders revamped their receiving corps, drafting Henry Ruggs III and signing Nelson Agholor and Jason Witten, these additions should not harm Waller’s target share too much. Derek Carr tends to throw short, ranking 2nd-to-last in deep passes in 2019 and last in 2018. That bodes well for Waller, who ranked 131st in the league in aDOT last year. Since both Ruggs and Agholor tend to go deep, they shouldn’t hurt Waller’s target share. Witten poses more of a threat, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he won’t have as much time to get integrated into Jon Gruden’s complex offense

Even if Waller does see a decline in targets, he could counter it with an increase in touchdowns. Last year, Waller underperformed expectations and only caught three touchdowns. As the Raiders’ young offense develops, they should reach the red zone more often and facilitate more scoring opportunities for Waller.

Finally, the tight ends ahead of Waller might regress in 2020. Mark Andrews, ESPN’s TE3, should see a decline in his incredible touchdown percentage (10.2%). Zach Ertz, the TE4, should see fewer targets with growth from tight end Dallas Goedert and better health for players like DeSean Jackson. In addition, both Andrews and Ertz have significant injury risks. Ertz has missed time with fractured ribs and concussions, and suffered an upper-body injury early in training camp. Mark Andrews has Type 1 diabetes, and could face severe consequences if exposed to COVID-19. Since Ertz and Andrews have higher risks of missing time this year, Waller should not be going nearly two whole rounds after them.

Tight End Busts

Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints (ESPN ADP: TE9, Pick 96.5)

Jared Cook was incredibly reliant on touchdowns last year, and only two out of 127 players scored a higher percentage of their fantasy points from touchdowns. Meanwhile, Cook only ranked 15th in targets among tight ends. Given that targets are a better predictor of future performance than touchdowns, Cook should decline in 2020. 

Even as his 2019 performance was unsustainable, Cook could fall even further due to the Saints’ offseason additions. The team signed Emmanuel Sanders (aDOT of 10.4 yards), who excels out of the slot and occupies the same types of spaces on the field as Jared Cook (aDOT of 10.3 yards). New Orleans also traded up for Adam Trautman, and the rookie should compete with Cook for playing time at tight end.

Tight end is quite a deep position, with lots of value late in the draft. Since ESPN’s projection for Jared Cook (149.9 fantasy points) is comparable to players like TE11 Noah Fant (143.8), TE12 Hayden Hurst (143.3), and TE13 T.J. Hockenson (142.0), it doesn’t make sense to grab Cook two or three rounds earlier than them. 

Evan Engram, New York Giants (ESPN ADP: TE6, Pick 71.3)

When Evan Engram has been on the field, he’s shown consistent success. Engram was targeted at least five times in every game he played last year, and he finished as a top-10 tight end in five of the eight weeks he played. However, he has major injury concerns. Engram missed the second half of the 2019 season with a foot injury, and he missed five games the year before that with an assortment of maladies. This heightened injury risk means that people who draft Engram will have more of a reason to invest in a back-up tight end. If they reach for a player in this category, they could be passing up valuable players at other positions. 

Even if he is on the field, Engram could take a step back in 2020. He will likely not see as many targets, since the Giants have receiving options like Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard returning to full health. Engram also tends to run short routes, and his aDOT of 5.8 yards limits his big-play ability. As mentioned above in the Travis Kelce section, mid-tier tight ends rarely turn into valuable selections. Rather than taking Engram in the 7th or 8th round, it makes more sense to take a player like Kareem Hunt (ADP of 72.8) or DeVante Parker (ADP 75.5) at that point and wait on a tight end.

Looking for more fantasy football advice? Check out HSAC’s sleeper/bust columns for quarterbacks and running backs.

Editor’s Note: If you have questions about this article (or about fantasy football in general), please reach out to HSAC over Twitter at @Harvard_Sports or over email at harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com.

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