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Fantasy Football Draft Preview: Tight Ends

By C. H. Herms 10:03pm EDT 8/19/23

Tight Ends Are A Massive Headache

Outside of leagues with kickers or defenses, the position that drives fantasy managers crazy most often is TE.

Unless you have one of the elite guys, it’s tough to pick the right player.

We’ve combed through several NFL seasons' worth of data to help provide you with the best information for drafting TEs in 2023.

Read along as we outline the best strategy for drafting TEs.

Historical Evidence

Dating back to 2016, 56% of TEs drafted in the top-12 of preseason ADP eventually finish as top-12 PPR scorers.

Spin that over to PPR points per game, and that number only goes up to 58%. We’ll revisit this fact in a little while…

But if we visualize where these TEs hit relative to their ADP, the picture becomes a little clearer:

The top three TEs in ADP are generally your safest bets.

Former Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski and his long track record of injuries skew this information, but the players that are taken early almost always pan out — especially the TE1.

You’ll gain a massive advantage by taking TE1, who this year (as he has been for the last several) is the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce.

The odds of landing a top-3, or even top-6, TE fall off dramatically once you get past the high-end players.

As you can see, the middle range between may still net you a usable fantasy asset, but their odds to be elite fantasy scorers are low. The further down in ADP you go, the lesser your chances of drafting a difference-making TE.

Here’s another way of visualizing that information:

There’s a range approximately between TE4-TE7 (we’ll call those the mid-TEs) that have an okay chance of ending up somewhere near their pre-draft ADP, but they’re not league winners.

Beyond the mid-TEs, it’s a crapshoot.

Oddly enough, the preseason ADP TE11 seems to have a strong track record, but there’s a greater than two-thirds chance that a player drafted as TE8 or later fails to live up to their billing.

Through The Lens of Points Per Game

Now, we know injury is a significant factor in football. Especially when we’re talking about TEs. 

In fact, 17 of the TEs in this data set who were drafted within the top-12 TEs played fewer than ten games in a given season.

That’s 20.2% of them, to be exact.

Want to Know Which TE Injury Risks You Should Avoid?

Our Injury Predictor uses historical data and projected touch volume to project injury risks for every relevant fantasy player.

Some of these TEs played well before they got hurt. So let’s try to account for that a bit by looking for the correlation between preseason ADP vs. their eventual PPR points per game finish:

From this view, the top players are still pretty stable assets.

However, the mid-TE group becomes an even more fragile group.

An even closer look will show that, on average, most TEs have difficulty finishing anywhere close to where they were drafted. Once again, this position is a crapshoot once the elite players are gone.

Is There A ‘TE Dead Zone’?

The short answer is yes. You could argue it's anyone past the elite guys.

The longer answer, as you learned, is a little more complicated.

Essentially, fantasy managers need to accept that unless you take an elite player, spending the season digging on the waiver wire for TE will likely be vital to success.

You can anchor your team with a TE1 being drafted toward the back-end of ADP to give yourself someone to start when the season begins, but the return on investment is about the same there as it is from the mid-TE players.

Our best advice would be to avoid that mid-TE range unless you can draft one at a discount. If there’s such a thing as the ‘TE dead zone,’ it’s there.

How To Draft Tight End In Fantasy Football

The best way to go about picking a TE for your fantasy team:

  • Draft an elite, top-3 player
  • Punt as long as you can, scoop value, and stay active on waivers

An all-or-nothing approach is the optimal move for this position -- at least based on the last seven years of data.

Don’t bother reaching on a non-elite player or selecting them at cost simply so they can occupy a spot in your starting lineup. That’s a great way to lose value unless you play in a TE-premium scoring format.

Now, this advice is for what’s *generally* true. Your league’s scoring will help guide you toward the correct answer. Make sure you check the settings before you make any hasty decisions.

See How TEs Are Valued in YOUR Fantasy League

The Draft War Room is a dynamic, value-driven fantasy football cheat sheet.

A better practice would be waiting until the end of your draft for a back-end TE1 and then handcuffing them to a higher-upside player being taken outside of the top-12.

Remember: only 58% of the top-12 preseason ADP TEs finish top-12 in PPR points per game.

Oversimplification says you loosely have a 42% chance of hitting on a TE if you scoop some random player later. Granted, that’s neither perfect math nor exact science, but pairing TEs is a sound plan.

But enough about strategy. Let’s talk about some specific TE outlooks for 2023:

Check out where these TEs appear in our award-winning fantasy football rankings

 

Fantasy Football Draft Preview: Tight Ends

Attack The Big Four

These are the elite difference-makers we’re talking about.

The king among them is Travis Kelce

Since 2016, Kelce has recorded 675 receptions, 8,607 receiving yards, and 59 TDs.

No other TE is within 3,000 receiving yards, 100 catches, or 20 TDs of Kelce in that timeframe.

If you want a significant edge over your league mates, draft him.

He’ll turn 34 this year, but we’re not betting against Kelce being the TE1.

Mark Andrews in a tier of his own

Andrews doesn't project nearly as well as Kelce -- but he also projects way ahead of every other TE.

Andrews' finishes in PPR points per game the last four years:

  • 2019: fifth
  • 2020: fourth
  • 2021: first
  • 2022: third

Yes, he faces tougher target competition this year with the additions of WRs Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham. But Baltimore also figures to throw it significantly more under new OC Todd Monken.

T.J. Hockenson and Darren Waller also high-end TE1s

Hockenson enjoyed a breakout second half in a Vikings’ offense that ranked top 5 in pass rate and pass attempts. Bet on another pass-happy offense, which sets up well for the TE.

Waller has been climbing our TE rankings all offseason. He's a good bet to lead the Giants in targets.

The Mid TEs

This is the range where you don't necessarily want to overpay or draft these guys at cost.

But if one of these players falls to you at a good value, go ahead and dig in.

Kyle Pitts is an uber-prospect who has had difficulty putting forth fantasy consistency through two NFL seasons.

That said, it’s hard to ignore any TE who has posted a 1,000-yard rookie season.

His success will come down to whether the Falcons throw the ball more (32nd in pass rate in 2022) and how good QB Desmond Ridder will be.

Kittle, Njoku, and Goedert must contend with strong surrounding talent in their offenses. Kittle also has an extensive injury history to worry about.

These players aren't likely to kill your lineup but might struggle for weekly consistency.

Later TEs and Beyond

Here is the optimal territory to take a TE at value.

Each player has a reasonable chance to post good numbers week-to-week, and it won’t cost you too much to draft them.

Freiermuth emerged as a favorite target for QB Kenny Pickett in the second half of 2022 after the team traded WR Chase Claypool to the Bears.

From Week 9 on, he led the Steelers in targets per route run rate (23%), ranked sixth among all TEs in targets per game (6.2), and ranked seventh in target share (20.9%). He accomplished that all while ranking just 22nd in snaps per game among TEs (47.8) during that stretch.

Freiermuth will be a top-three option in Pittsburgh again this year.

 

Later Draft Targets

Tyler Higbee, Rams

Higbee set career highs last year with 108 targets and 72 catches, but he only managed to haul in 3 TDs. It didn’t help that QB Matthew Stafford missed eight games (half of a ninth) due to concussion and spinal cord injuries.

Higbee still finished as a top-12 PPR TE in seven games.

The Rams have a young pass-catching corps beyond Higbee and WR Cooper Kupp, which helps the TE's chances of securing another large target share.

Unlike the remaining TEs on this list, Higbee appears in the top-12 of our TE rankings.

Hayden Hurst, Panthers

The former first-round NFL draft pick signed a three-year, $21.75 million contract to join the Panthers this offseason.

He’s only had one TE1 finish in his career thus far, but the financial commitment and lack of experience on the Panthers’ depth chart give him a solid chance to be a key contributor in 2023.

The Athletic's Joseph Person reported in late July that HC Frank Reich is installing a "tight end-friendly offense that features the position prominently in the passing attack.”

Hurst is a quality low-risk/high-reward swing to take later in drafts.

Sam LaPorta, Lions

This rookie has been making a strong impression at Lions training camp this offseason.

The Athletic's Colton Pouncy said in late July that he’s “trying [his] best not to write about LaPorta every day, but it’s hard not to when he looks as dialed in as he has,"

Pouncy added that "not a day goes by when LaPorta doesn’t make a standout play." And the positive reports on LaPorta have continued throughout August.

TIP

Track the latest updates on camp reports and fantasy football news here at Draft Sharks.

LaPorta converted from WR to TE at Iowa. A bad passing offense limited his numbers, but LaPorta posted back-to-back seasons of 600+ receiving yards while leading team market shares. Then Detroit drafted him 34th overall.

WR Jameson Williams' six-game suspension -- plus a hamstring injury -- helps LaPorta's chances of being a top target right away.

 

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(We call these DMVP values.)

And these values update throughout your draft to help you make the best pick every time.

Don't believe us? 

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