2021 TE Strategy Guide
Travis Kelce crushed it last year, even by his own lofty standards.
As I mentioned back in my March scoring review of the position, the #1 TE appeared on 19.4% of all league-winning FFPC best-ball rosters for the 2020 season, according to Fantasy Mojo’s data. That was the 2nd highest win rate among all players for the TE-premium format (1.5 points per reception or TEs; 1 PPR for other positions).
Darren Waller fell not far behind, ranking 4th among all players in win rate. No other TE came within 6.5 percentage points of Waller’s rate, and the next 3 TEs on the list all carried ADPs of TE10 or later into the year.
So it makes sense that we should be feverishly chasing Kelce and Waller … right?
Well, Kelce’s PPR total for 2020 marked the largest score at the position since Rob Gronkowski’s 2011 and the 2nd largest ever. Waller’s 2nd-place tally marked the 8th largest ever for a PPR TE. It checked in 3rd-highest among TE2 finishers since 2011, trailing Jimmy Graham’s total from that year and Zach Ertz’s from 2018.
Those historical numbers point to likely regression from the top TE scorers this season. So does the fact that the whole league scored more than usual in 2021.
Check out the annual points per game in the NFL since 2002, when Houston became the 32nd franchise.
We should expect scoring to trend up, of course. The league has showed us with rule changes for years that it wants to encourage points. But last season gave us nearly 3 more points per game than in any other season in the span. The 49.6 points per game in 2020 beat the average for that whole span (44.4) by 5.2 points per game.
So we should probably expect the whole league to score less in 2021. If that happens, TE could feel it more than other positions.
The collective TD rate for TEs spiked in 2020.
Last year’s 9.39% TD rate marked the 2nd highest number for the position over the past 10 years. So it’s almost definitely coming down.
So with all this potential for regression, should we fade the position until later in drafts?
How to Draft TEs in 2021
The 1st real question here is: Should you draft Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, or pass on them at cost?
Although some level of regression in the scoring for each player seems likely, we wouldn’t advocate for fading either of the top 2 TEs.
Kelce has led the position in PPR points for 5 straight years. In a season that found him turning 31 about midway through, Kelce set career highs in receptions, yards and TDs (in 15 games).
Simply: He can regress and still dominate the position. It’s possible that Kelce falls a little short of his 1st-round draft capital. But it’s highly unlikely that he truly lets your fantasy team down unless he gets hurt. So he makes plenty of sense in Round 1.
Waller followed a breakthrough 2019 by becoming even more important to his offense in 2020. His 26.3% target share last season ranked 4th in the league, trailing only Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins. And then the Raiders let their top wideout, Nelson Agholor, walk in free agency.
With his late-Round 2 ADP in 12-team PPR drafts, Waller looks just fine as well.
Our projections say that George Kittle sits much closer to Waller than he does to anyone behind him at the position. So it’s tough to argue with Kittle’s ADP in the 1st half of Round 3. He feels a little less comfy with more change around him that could affect target share than either Waller or Kelce is facing. But we know that Kittle is a top-shelf talent at the position. And we watched him average 5.8 receptions per game over the past 3 years. So it seems a better idea to bet on him than against him.
Beyond the top 3
T.J. Hockenson has been a favorite target of ours throughout draft season.
You’ll notice that he, Kyle Pitts and Mark Andrews sit pretty close together in our projections. Just 0.2 PPR points per game separate the trio. You might also notice that Hockenson sits 1 target closer to #2 Waller than he does to #5 Pitts.
Part of that is being projected for 1 more game played. But target volume looks like a high-upside category for Hockenson. He gets a new QB who has peppered the short and intermediate ranges recently. And Hockenson finds himself surrounded by 1 of the league’s worst WR corps.
The biggest concern right now for Hockenson is a shoulder injury he has dealt with through camp. HC Dan Campbell said this week, though, that he’s not as worried about Hockenson’s situation as he is with D’Andre Swift’s.
"I think he can get to where we need him to get to relatively quickly,” Campbell said. “Especially once he comes off of this AC and we get him back next week.”
Pitts faces the ignominious history of rookie TEs. But it sure seems like this guy will come out as more WR than TE. If we look at it that way, Pitts doesn’t need to make history to become instantly viable in fantasy.
The average PPR total for the 4th TE over the past 10 years has been 206.3 points. That score would have ranked just 27th among all WRs last year, 4th among rookie WRs and 32nd all time among rookie WRs and TEs.
If you draft Pitts as the 4th TE, you’d like him to outscore that spot. But you can settle for him matching it. And 206.3 PPR points last year would have ranked him 3rd at the position -- nearly 30 points ahead of Robert Tonyan. (Check out the TE scoring review for more on what happened behind Kelce and Waller.)
With those 3 close in our rankings but Hockenson 3rd among the trio in ADP -- and more than 1 round behind Pitts -- the Lion remains our favorite target.
If none of our top 4 TEs reach you at a sensible spot in your draft, then feel free to wait another several rounds.
Noah Fant sits 7th in our PPR rankings (and tied for 7th in non-PPR) and comes with an ADP 2 rounds behind Hockenson. Monday’s announcement that QB Teddy Bridgewater will start for the Broncos should help Fant by giving the team a more accurate passer and Fant a short thrower.
Pro Football Reference had Fant at a 6.7-yard average depth of target last year. That was nearly 7 yards shorter than Jerry Jeudy’s and K.J. Hamler’s, and nearly 6 yards shorter than Tim Patrick’s. Courtland Sutton checked in at 14.0 and 11.6 his 1st 2 seasons.
Fant looks a little safer than Tyler Higbee, Dallas Goedert, Logan Thomas and Mike Gesicki, though we don’t project a lot of separation in that group.
Beyond that, things get iffy. That doesn’t mean you can’t find intriguing options. It just means that you can’t expect to find upside without question marks. Evan Engram and Austin Hooper look like solid-to-good targets outside the top 12, and we’ve warmed up to Zach Ertz in that area as well recently.
If you land any of the top 7 TEs in a typical 1-TE league, then don’t feel compelled to draft a 2nd. With anyone from Higbee down, though, an insurance option might be a good idea.