Fantasy Football: Building the perfect tight end and breaking down the 12 best for 2021

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Ask George Kittle to design the perfect tight end, and the San Francisco star has a pretty good idea of what it would take. Speed is a must. Good route running. Great hands. And the ability to make plays after the catch. Oh, and being good at blocking is important as well — if you’re into that sort of thing.

So how would Kittle come up with this super tight end? He would take all the top attributes from some of the best in the game today — Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and Rob Gronkowski — and turn them into a Voltron tight end. He didn’t forget about himself, either.

“I’ll take my YAC (yards after catch) because I think that’s what I specialize in,” Kittle said during an interview on CBS Sports HQ earlier this year. “I’ll take Darren Waller’s speed. And I’ll take Travis Kelce’s route running. Those are three things that I would take in the pass game, but I’m going to throw my run blocking abilities in there as well — or Gronk’s. I’ll take Gronk’s run blocking also.”

Imagine how good that tight end would be. Fantasy managers would be drafting him in the first round — and maybe No. 1 overall. It would be amazing. But unfortunately that would be a fantasy, and we’re trying to deal in reality when it comes to tight ends.

But if we are living in a dream world, let’s wish for several perfect tight ends and not just one. Or at least let’s get more Fantasy stars at the position. Every year it seems like we say the same thing in the Fantasy community that it’s going to be a great season for tight ends. And every year we come away disappointed because there are about three guys who are stars, a handful of guys who are just serviceable starters and the rest are completely frustrating. 

Right time to be a tight end

Is 2021 going to be different? Kittle said this is a great time for tight ends.

“I think that the position is continuing to evolve and it’s continuing to get better,” Kittle said. “You have dominant tight ends. … There’s some gamers out there. There are guys who show up and play when the lights are the brightest.”

Vikings defensive back Patrick Peterson would agree. He said it’s a nightmare for opposing defenses to face an offense with a standout tight end. Peterson said as a defensive back “you have to have your antenna up” when you’re going against a player like Kelce, Kittle or Waller.

Peterson said it changes the whole defensive game plan, and you’ll see more double coverage and bracket coverage going toward the tight end, which could become a problem. And he sees the NFL heading in that direction as tight ends continue to improve. 

“The tight end position is definitely evolving into guys who have more of a wide receiver-type skillset,” Peterson said. “It’s definitely a great time for the tight end position. If you’re athletic and can create a mismatch then you can have success. It’s the right time to be a playmaking tight end.”

Let’s hope 2021 is the year tight end becomes a robust position for Fantasy managers because that hasn’t been the history of the position. Going back over the past 10 seasons to 2010, it feels like every year has basically been the same for tight ends.

Not once over that span, which is when Gronkowski came into the NFL, has there been a season where more than three tight ends scored at least 15.0 PPR points per game in a year. And five times over the span we’ve had two tight ends or fewer score at least 15.0 PPR points per game, including 2014 when Jordan Reed was No. 1 in this category at 14.1.

To put that in perspective, there were 19 wide receivers who scored at least 15.0 PPR points per game in 2020 alone, and 16 running backs reached that mark last year. Tight ends have accomplished that feat just 26 times in 10 seasons.

There have also been three seasons since 2010 (2014, 2017 and 2018) where if you scored fewer than 10.0 PPR points per game you could have finished as a No. 1 Fantasy tight end. Only 10 tight ends scored at least 10.0 PPR points per game in 2014, nine did it in 2017 and 10 in 2018. Kyle Rudolph (9.9 PPR points per game), Jason Witten (9.2) and Charles Clay (9.0) were all No. 1 Fantasy tight ends on a per game basis in 2017.

So why would this season be any different? Truth be told, it probably won’t, which is why experienced Fantasy managers plan to target Kelce, Waller and Kittle early on Draft Day. Kelce is a first-round pick in all leagues, and Waller and Kittle will be drafted either in late Round 2 or early in Round 3.

After that, there are likely four tight ends who have the chance to average more than 15.0 PPR points per game this season, including T.J. Hockenson, Mark Andrews, Kyle Pitts and Dallas Goedert, and those guys will be drafted between Rounds 4 and 8. Hockenson and Goedert are two of my top breakout candidates this year (assuming Zach Ertz is gone from Philadelphia as expected for Goedert) because they fit the type of tight end I’m looking for as the potential lead option in the passing game.

Opportunities for Hockenson, Pitts, Goedert

Hockenson should lead the Lions in targets this season, and Goedert could do the same with the Eagles, although rookie receiver DeVonta Smith will have a say in that. Waller is the focal point of the passing game for the Raiders, and I spoke with him about leading his team in targets and what that means.

“It’s definitely a great position to be in,” Waller said in an interview on CBS Sports HQ earlier this year. “But it requires a lot of me. It requires me to know every position on the field and run a concept from any position. It requires me to not get frustrated when I may be receiving a lot of attention (from the defense), things like that. I just have to stay focused on doing what I need to do and knowing that in the end it will separate me and will allow me to make plays for the team. It’s a great position to be in. I have a lot of respect for being the guy that this team wants to go to and make things happen. I try to prepare in order to do so.”

Andrews could lead all tight ends in touchdowns like he did in 2019 when he scored 10, and Pitts is a wild card because of his upside as a rookie with the Falcons. He’s risky, but he could be a star, especially playing for a former tight ends coach in Arthur Smith and with a quarterback who historically has loved his tight ends in Matt Ryan. Julio Jones leaving Atlanta for Tennessee via trade in June definitely helps the outlook for Pitts.

After that group of seven, two other tight ends who have plenty of upside include Irv Smith and Noah Fant, and both are worth targeting between Rounds 8 and 10. Hopefully, Fant can build off a solid sophomore campaign in 2020, and I like the potential of Smith with Kyle Rudolph now playing for the Giants. Smith expects to be a breakout tight end this season.

“I have the utmost confidence in myself,” Smith said in an interview with CBS Sports HQ. “The work’s been put in, and it’s still being put in. That’s my main focus is to keep my head down and do what I have to do. At the end of the day, I have a lot of confidence in this team and Kirk (Cousins) and our offense, and I feel like we’re going to be at the top of the list this year for sure.”

The rest of the top 12 is rounded out by Logan Thomas, Adam Trautman and Robert Tonyan. Thomas and Tonyan have bust potential, but Trautman is among my favorite sleepers. These tight ends are worth taking in the double-digit rounds.

Tonyan was the No. 3 PPR tight end last year and tied Kelce for the most touchdowns with 11, but he only had 59 targets from Aaron Rodgers, which makes relying on Tonyan’s touchdowns again a little shaky. Thomas was the No. 4 PPR tight end, but I’m worried about the quarterback change from Alex Smith to Ryan Fitzpatrick hurting him, as well as the addition of Curtis Samuel in Washington. As for Trautman, he steps into the starting role for the Saints vacated by Jared Cook, and there’s a lot to like about Trautman in his sophomore campaign.

You can read about all of these tight ends below in my top 12 breakdown. If you don’t like these tight ends as the No. 1 options, some other guys to consider include Tyler Higbee, Mike Gesicki, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Cole Kmet, Ertz, Gronkowski, Blake Jarwin and Evan Engram.

I wish we could say 2021 is the year of the tight end, but history tells us that isn’t likely to happen. You just have to hope the guys at the top are again elite, and maybe we can get one or two other guys — Hockenson, Pitts or Goedert, for example — to break out. Then it’s just a matter of everyone else having a tight end perform at an above average level throughout the season so you’re not chasing the position each week.

Kittle described what the perfect tight end can look like. But when it comes to Fantasy tight ends, it’s hard to find perfection. Frustration is the more likely description, and that’s what Fantasy managers without Kelce, Waller or Kittle might be dealing with again in 2021.

Here is the breakdown of my top 12 tight ends heading into the season.

Travis Kelce, Chiefs

  • 2020 stats: 145 targets, 105 receptions, 1,416 yards and 11 touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: He’s been the No. 1 PPR tight end in total points for five seasons in a row. … His 20.3 PPR points per game in 2020 was better than all but two running backs (Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook) and two wide receivers (Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill) who played at least five games. … He is the only tight end in NFL history with two seasons of at least 100 receptions (2020 and 2018), and he holds the record for most receiving yards in a season for tight ends with his performance last year. 
  • The breakdown: Kelce will be a first-round selection in most Fantasy leagues, and it’s justified. His track record speaks for itself, and he has an elite quarterback in Patrick Mahomes and play-caller in Andy Reid. The only concern would be if he starts to slow down as he enters his ninth season at age 31, but you have to take that risk given his upside. He is the difference maker at the thinnest position in Fantasy.

Darren Waller, Raiders

  • 2020 stats: 146 targets, 107 receptions, 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: In the past five seasons, only Rob Gronkowski (2017), Kelce (2018 and 2020), Zach Ertz (2018), George Kittle (2018) and Waller (2020) averaged more than 16.0 PPR points per game. … Kelce (202 receptions and 2,645 yards) is the only tight end with more receptions (197) and yards (2,241) than Waller over the past two seasons. … Waller had 64 more targets than the No. 2 target for Derek Carr, Nelson Agholor, in 2020, and 46 more targets than Hunter Renfrow in 2019.
  • The breakdown: I have Waller as the No. 2 tight end because I expect him to dominate targets once again from Carr. While John Brown should be an adequate replacement for Agholor, and hopefully Henry Ruggs III does better in his second year, the passing game flows through Waller. He has the chance for at least 90 catches and 1,100 yards for the third year in a row, and I would expect no less than six touchdowns if he’s healthy. Waller is worth drafting as early as Round 2 in all leagues.

George Kittle, 49ers

  • 2020 stats: 63 targets, 48 receptions, 634 yards and two touchdowns in eight games
  • Stats that grab you: Kittle has averaged at least 14.9 PPR points per game in each of his past three seasons. Kelce is the only other tight end to match that over that period of time. … Kittle’s 1,377 receiving yards in 2018 was the record for tight ends until Kelce broke it in 2020. … Kittle averaged 7.9 targets per game in 2020. Only Kelce (9.7) and Waller (9.1) averaged more. Kittle averaged 7.6 targets per game in 2019, which ranked fourth behind Ertz (9.0), Kelce (8.5) and Evan Engram (8.5). And Kittle was at 8.4 targets per game in 2018, which ranked third behind only Ertz (9.8) and Kelce (9.4). 
  • The breakdown: Kittle could easily be No. 2 on this list and get drafted ahead of Waller, but I like the setup for Waller better. We know his quarterback situation with Carr, but Kittle could have to deal with a change after San Francisco selected Trey Lance at No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft and still has Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster. Kittle also has more competition for targets with the emergence of Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. That said, you know the upside for Kittle in this offense, and hopefully he can finally score more than five touchdowns in a season. He’s worth drafting as early as Round 2.

T.J. Hockenson, Lions

  • 2020 stats: 101 targets, 67 receptions, 723 yards and six touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: Hockenson had 11 games with at least five targets in 2020, and he scored at least 13 PPR points in seven of them. … Hockenson tied for No. 8 in targets per game among tight ends last season at 6.3. … Over the past two seasons with the Rams, new Lions quarterback Jared Goff had 13 outings where he targeted Tyler Higbee at least five times in a game. Higbee scored at least 12 PPR points nine times over that span and averaged 15.6 PPR points per game when he had at least five targets. 
  • The breakdown: Goff may lean on Hockenson quite a bit this season with a receiving corps that features Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Quintez Cephus, and we would love that for a tight end with this much upside. While Hockenson still has plenty to prove to justify drafting him as a top-five tight end in all leagues, the potential is there given this offense. And Goff showed in 2019 that he can feature his tight end when Higbee closed the season with five games in a row with at least eight targets, seven catches and 84 yards, along with two touchdowns. Hockenson is one of my favorite breakout candidates this year, and he’s worth drafting as early as Round 5 in all formats.

Mark Andrews, Ravens

  • 2020 stats: 88 targets, 58 receptions, 701 yards and seven touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: Andrews has 17 receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons, which is the most among tight ends over that time frame. Kelce is second with 16. … Even though Andrews only had 88 targets in 2020 and 98 targets in 2019, that still represents 22 percent of the Ravens total targets in each season. By comparison, Kelce got 23 percent of the Chiefs total targets in 2020 and 2019. For Andrews, it would be nice if the volume was the same. … Andrews only has four games over the past two seasons (19 games) with double digits in PPR points without scoring a touchdown. 
  • The breakdown: Despite the low volume of pass attempts from the Ravens (406 in 2020 and 440 in 2019), Andrews is still clearly a focal point for Lamar Jackson, which is why he’s ranked this high. It would be great if Andrews could get north of 120 targets, but that doesn’t seem likely, especially with Baltimore adding Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace this offseason. But Andrews is great at finding the end zone, and another season with at least seven touchdowns seems realistic. If he can somehow get near 75 catches and 1,000 yards then he could crack the top three tight ends with ease. Andrews is worth drafting in Round 5 in all leagues, with his value slightly higher in non-PPR formats.

Kyle Pitts, Falcons

  • 2020 stats: 65 targets, 43 receptions, 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games at the University of Florida
  • Stats that grab you: He did not drop a pass in 2020. In 2019, he had only four drops on 80 targets. … Of his 43 receptions last year, 39 went for either a first down or a touchdown. … In the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, Pitts had seven catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
  • The breakdown: Falcons coach Arthur Smith was the Titans tight ends coach before becoming the offensive coordinator from 2019-20, and that’s exciting for Pitts. “I know coach Smith does a great job of getting his tight ends fed — so I’m eager to see,” Pitts said. It’s rare that rookie tight ends make an immediate Fantasy impact, but Pitts is worth buying into because of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, who also has a strong history of using tight ends, including Tony Gonzalez, Austin Hooper and Hayden Hurst. With Julio Jones now in Tennessee, Pitts is the No. 2 option in the passing game behind Calvin Ridley, which makes Pitts worth drafting as early as Round 6 in all leagues.

Dallas Goedert, Eagles

  • 2020 stats: 65 targets, 46 receptions, 524 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games
  • Stats that grab you: Goedert was the No. 10 PPR tight end in 2019 when he had 87 targets, 58 catches, 607 yards and five touchdowns while playing in tandem with Ertz. … Goedert played four games in 2020 with Ertz injured, and Goedert scored at least 18 PPR points in two of those outings. … In three starts with quarterback Jalen Hurts, Goedert averaged just 7.0 PPR points per game. 
  • The breakdown: Ertz is still on the Eagles roster, but he’s expected to be traded or released prior to the season. Now, if something changes and Ertz stays in Philadelphia, Goedert won’t be ranked this high. But if Goedert does ascend to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart as expected then you should expect the Eagles to feature him prominently in the passing game, even with the addition of rookie receiver DeVonta Smith. Don’t be alarmed that Hurts and Goedert didn’t connect on a high level in three starts together because Goedert still had 14 targets in the first two starts with Hurts. Goedert is another one of my favorite breakout candidates, and I plan to draft him in Round 6 or 7 in all leagues.

Irv Smith, Vikings

  • 2020 stats: 43 targets, 30 receptions, 365 yards and five touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: Smith had two games with at least 16 PPR points in the final four games of last season when Kyle Rudolph was out with a foot injury. … Smith had seven games in 2020 with at least four targets, and he scored at least 10 PPR points in five of them. … The Vikings have scored at least seven touchdowns from their tight ends in each of the past two seasons.
  • The breakdown: Smith has the chance for a breakout campaign in 2021 with Rudolph now playing for the Giants. He showed his ability when Rudolph was out for the final four games last season with 15 catches for 183 yards and three touchdowns on 20 targets, and hopefully more targets are coming in his direction from Kirk Cousins. Now, he has to share the field with three standout playmakers in Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and hopefully there are enough targets to go around. But I’m buying Smith as a tight end to target in all leagues with a mid- to late-round pick, and he should be a weekly starter in all formats this year.

Noah Fant, Broncos

  • 2020 stats: 93 targets, 62 receptions, 673 yards and three touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: Fant closed the season with 26 targets in his final three games and scored a combined 40 PPR points over that span. … Fant had seven games in 2020 with at least seven targets, but he only scored more than nine PPR points in three of those outings. … Fant was top 10 in targets per game among tight ends in 2020 at 6.2.
  • The breakdown: Fant had some positive moments in 2020, and hopefully he can build off his sophomore campaign in Year 3. The Broncos have a crowded receiving corps with Courtland Sutton (knee) expected back at 100 percent, and he will join Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and Tim Patrick. But Fant should still be a popular target for either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater, and Lock should provide more upside for Fant if he wins the starting job as expected. It was a little disappointing that Fant didn’t play better in 2020 despite his target share, but that should provide some level of optimism heading into this year. I plan to draft Fant with a mid-round pick in all leagues.

Logan Thomas, Washington Football Team

  • 2020 stats: 110 targets, 72 receptions, 670 yards and six touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: Thomas was third in total targets and fourth in targets per game (6.9) among tight ends in 2020. … He closed last season with at least 12 PPR points in five of his final six games, and he averaged 15.8 PPR points per game over that span. … Prior to 2020, Thomas had 64 targets, 35 receptions, 317 yards and two touchdowns over six seasons.
  • The breakdown: There are certainly reasons to fear drafting Thomas as a starting Fantasy tight end. The former college quarterback didn’t have a breakout season until he was 28, and he did that with a quarterback in Alex Smith who loves leaning on his tight ends. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the same kind of passer. Washington also added receivers this offseason in Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and Dyami Brown to help Thomas and Terry McLaurin, and that could impact Thomas in a negative way. But it wouldn’t be a shock to see Thomas approach 100 targets again, and he’s still worth drafting as a low-end starting option with a late-round pick.

Adam Trautman, Saints

  • 2020 stats: 16 targets, 15 receptions, 171 yards and one touchdown
  • Stats that grab you: He had 70 catches, 916 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019 at Dayton. … He’s slated to replace Jared Cook as the starting tight end for the Saints, and Cook had 16 touchdowns in 29 games over the past two seasons in New Orleans. … During the past two seasons, the Saints tight ends have 21 touchdowns as a group. 
  • The breakdown: Trautman is among the most unproven players on this list after a suspect rookie season, but he also has plenty of upside as he becomes a full-time starter. He would likely benefit with Jameis Winston starting at quarterback ahead of Taysom Hill, but the Saints could use Trautman as the third option in the passing game behind Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. The hope is Trautman can find the end zone as much if not more than Cook did, and Cook scored at least 11 PPR points in four of his final five games last season. You should be able to draft Trautman as a bargain with a late-round pick, but he has top-10 upside heading into his sophomore campaign.

Robert Tonyan, Packers

  • 2020 stats: 59 targets, 52 receptions, 586 yards and 11 touchdowns
  • Stats that grab you: Over the past five seasons, only Jimmy Graham (2017), Eric Ebron (2018), Kelce (2018 and 2020), Andrews (2019) and Tonyan have scored double digits in touchdowns among tight ends. … Tonyan closed the 2020 campaign with a touchdown in six of his final seven games. … His 3.7 targets per game in 2020 were No. 30 among tight ends. 
  • The breakdown: Aaron Rodgers remains with the Packers, but if he’s somehow traded then Tonyan won’t be ranked as a starter. It’s difficult enough to trust Tonyan given his low volume of targets, and that’s not expected to change, even if Rodgers stays in Green Bay. Tonyan could be the No. 2 option in the passing game behind Davante Adams, but he’s going to have to approach double digits in touchdowns to help Fantasy managers again. He’s risky, but if he’s a favorite option for Rodgers then Fantasy managers should buy into him again with a late-round pick in all leagues.

So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen’s huge season, and find out.





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