1. Travis Kelce
The bottom line is Kelce is maybe the top target in the league’s top passing offense (a potential NFL first for tight ends), so that kind of says it all.
The last time Travis Kelce did not finish a season as the top-scoring fantasy TE, Patrick Mahomes was still a year away from declaring for the NFL draft.
Kelce has led the TEs in fantasy points for 5 consecutive seasons, ranking no lower than 4th at the position in routes, targets, receptions, and yardage each year.
Furthermore, he could be playing his way into the NFL Hall of Fame as last season he became the 1st TE in NFL history with not five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (in fact, no other TE has even had 5 over their entire career).
Kelce’s 82 receptions last season also made him only the 3rd tight end ever—alongside Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten—with 5+ seasons with at least 80 catches. Moreover, he shattered the NFL’s single-season receiving yardage record for a TE and is the only tight end in history with multiple seasons with 100+ receptions.
Beyond his role, he has phenomenal awareness which gives him a knack for beating zone coverages consistently. Plus he’s a mismatch for most linebackers due to his quickness and most DBs due to his size.
Check out this nasty double move on a (granted, Browns) defender for a brief clip of his route-running:
Beyond his route-running, hands, and knack for finding holes in defenses, Kelce also has a running back-like mentality much like George Kittle once he’s got the ball in his hands.
He’s especially hungry near the goal line, and plays like the GIF above give a glimpse of his willingness to hurdle his body in whichever direction and towards whatever defenders to get the ball over the goal line.
In 2020, Kelce set career high marks in a number of categories including catches (105), receiving yards (NFL-record 1,416), TDs (11) and fantasy points (313) in 2020. He posted a top-five fantasy week in 13 of 15 appearances, finishing lower than 9th just once.
Mahomes. Kelce. Touchdown.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 7, 2020
As a final note, Kelce lead TEs in catches of 15+ yards last season, exhibiting rare explosiveness and deep-threat ability for a tight end. He’s the clear #1 lock for this year’s top TE, but he’ll likely cost you a 1st rounder with his constant dominance.
2. Darren Waller
If the Chief’s offense wasn’t so absurd (along with Travis Kelce’s 2020 performance), Waller would be the clear #1 tight end.
Instead of taking a step back from what seemed like an unsustainable 2019 performance, Darren Waller actually put up 60 more fantasy points than he put up last year.
Furthermore, he really is used like a receiver in the Raiders’ offense, and he uses his body that way.
He often opts for falling down to secure the first down or catch when in highly-trafficked areas like he does on this play when he sees the second Saints defender out of his periphery:
This play style leads to less injuries than some of the other elite TEs in the top-5 like George Kittle (who acts more like an RB when he has the ball, which can lead to more points but often leads to more injuries).
His 11 top-10 fantasy weeks trailed only Travis Kelce (14) and were 3 more than the next-closest TE.
Waller improved in every key fantasy category last season, but his biggest step forward was in the TD department. After scoring just 3 times in 2019 (3.7 OTD), he jumped to 9 last season and a 7.8 OTD.
Waller has finished no lower than 5th amongst TEs in snaps, routes, targets, receptions, and yardage each of the past 2 seasons. He’ll be in the same system with the same QB, and with another low-rent WR room full of unproven young players and veteran cast-offs.
Expect Waller to get targeted like the Raiders’ top wide receiver once again in 2021.
3. George Kittle
George Kittle is the last of the “Big 3” tight ends, as there’s somewhat of a drop-off from his target share and talent level to the next tier of TEs below. The great thing about Kittle is (much like Waller and Kelce) he is likely the #1 receiver on his team when healthy.
He’s an outstanding run-blocker as well, and because of that trait he’s on the field for basically every snap for the 49ers.
Additionally, his toughness and willingness to block is a larger symptom of his hulk-like strength and determination, especially once he has the ball in his hands. Maybe the grittiest TE on this list, Kittle shows an unmatched determination to gain extra yardage that scares defensive backs and fantasy opponents alike.
Although, Kittle comes in just after Waller on this list because while his penchant for plowing through defenders for extra yards often yields fantasy points, it is that same RB-like mentality that occasionally gets him injured.
Despite him missing 8 games last season, Kittle deserves to be the #3 TE this year unquestionably. He’s the 49ers top playmaker, and he’s got a deceiving combination of speed, size, and athleticism that often goes unnoticed.
His absurd target share (for a tight end) is hard to come by as he averaged a monstrous 7.9 per game. His efficiency was great as well as he was a top-5 TE in yards per target (YPT) and RAC for the 3rd straight season. He was also top-3 in fantasy PPG among tight ends for the 3rd consecutive season.
While Kittle has never had over 5 TDs in a single season, the 27-year-old’s heavy volume and knack for RAC ensure a top-5 finish as long as he stays healthy.
4. Mark Andrews
Mark Andrews’ spot here makes sense for a few reasons. First, while he doesn’t receive the target share of the Big 3 TEs, he is still the #1 TE in one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses. This means plenty of opportunities to slip quietly behind the defense for big gains and touchdowns.
Second, Andrews is more athletic and skilled than the casual fan would know, and he shows it often with speedy gains or spectacular grabs.
Sometimes Andrews doesn’t seem to use his body well and plays seemingly smaller than he looks, but that’s the only critique I could possibly have for this man’s game.
If the Ravens continue to treat him like one of their top offensive talents from a game planning and organizational perspective, the rest of the league (and my own rankings) better watch out because the sky is the limit for this underrated athlete.
Finally, while he might not be likely the #1 receiver on the Ravens, he could be the #1 receiver depending on how the season plays out, and he has been Lamar Jackson’s top target the past two years as Hollywood Brown has proved to be more of a deep threat than a true #1.
Coming into his 4th NFL season, Andrews has now posted back-to-back top-6 fantasy seasons. The former third-round pick has never finished a season better than 19th among TEs in routes, but he benefits from a massive target share (25% in both 2019 and 2020) and the TDs I mentioned that come with top TEs in great rushing offenses.
His explosiveness and athleticism has translated to the stat sheet as well, as evidenced by his lofty 13.5 yards per catch average throughout his career and by his 26 receptions of 20+ yards or more over the last 2 seasons.
Mark Andrews’ 17 TDs over the past 2 years are tied for 1st among tight ends, and his 15.1 opportunity-adjusted touchdowns (OTD) ranks 2nd while his 23 end zone targets ranks 1st.
Despite sitting out a pair of games, he still tied for 3rd among TEs with eight top-10 fantasy weeks last year. Expect more of the same in 2021 as long as the Ravens don’t have any breakout WRs.
5. T.J. Hockenson
There were some rumblings about T.J. Hockenson coming into the season, but he really burst onto the scene and into fantasy relevance last year.
Hockenson finished no lower than 5th among TEs in fantasy points, targets, receptions, and yardage each week he was active in 2021, and no lower than 10th in routes, TDs, and end zone targets.
With hands as good as any receiver, Hockenson could benefit from a dump-off happy Jared Goff and a Kenny Golladay-less Detroit squad.
His supreme route-running often leaves him wide-open against both linebackers and defensive backs, and his strength gives him an opportunity to capitalize on any 50/50 ball.
Look for him to climb even higher and maybe prove me wrong with a top-3 showing if he ends up taking a significant portion of Golladay’s target share.
6. Kyle Pitts
It is incredibly rare for a rookie to be universally projected this highly across fantasy media, let alone a rookie tight end, given the NFL’s notorious record against hyped rookies at the position.
In spite of that notorious record, if there was ever a TE prospect that could break the mold, it is Kyle Pitts. Many scouts (including Pro Football Focus) rated him as the greatest TE prospect ever, and generational talent:
His hype shows on film and on the stat sheet. I could watch the guys’ grabs all day:
With Julio Jones gone, Kyle Pitts will immediately step in to fill the WR2 shoes behind Calvin Ridley. The fact that the Falcons dished Julio away gives some insight into their expectations for Pitts too.
With an elite combination of height (6-foot-6), athleticism, ball skills, crazy speed (4.44 40 yard dash), and hands (no drops in 2020) we may have never seen at the TE position, Kyle Pitts could be in line for the greatest rookie season in TE history.
Did I mention he’s only 20 years old? Pray for NFC South linebackers for the next decade if his pre-draft hype pans out.
7. Logan Thomas
Those who follow Logan Thomas know he’s had a remarkable NFL journey. Initially a backup QB for the Cardinals, the converted TE used his 6′ 6″ height to box out LBs and DBs alike on his way to a mouth-watering 2020 campaign.
With Ryan Fitzpatrick brought into the fold in the offseason, look for Washington’s offense to sling it around a ton in 2021. If Fitzpatrick’s tenure around the NFL has shown anything, it is that he’ll throw the ball anywhere, anytime, and he loves big targets.
Last season, Logan Thomas finished as fantasy’s TE3, so I could definitely understand the argument for him being ranked too low here.
He ended up leading all tight ends in snaps and routes, and finished no lower than 7th in targets (108), receptions (72), yardage (670), and end zone targets (9) in 2020.
LOGAN THOMAS MOSSED HIM.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 4, 2021
If everything goes according to plan in Washington, Thomas could very well end the year 4th on this list behind the Big 3 as he’ll likely accrue more targets than Andrews if any Ravens WRs take a step forward, Hockenson could have a mediocre year with a mediocre QB, and Pitts could have the sub-par year that is all too common for 1st-year TEs.
8. Dallas Goedert
Any Eagles fan knows Dallas’ potential; however, his low ranking here is a result of Eagles fans also knowing there’s good reason to fear the coaching staff and organization being so incompetent that we’ll see Dallas Goedert vastly underutilized.
Like Mark Andrews, Goedert is faster and more athletic than the average fan or media member gives him credit for.
He played at least 80% of the Eagles’ snaps in 9 games last season. He also handled a 19% target share (6.8 per game avg) those weeks, posted a 42-479-3 receiving line, and had the 3rd-most fantasy points at the position.
Goedert missed 5 games due to injury in 2020, but he’s now finished top-11 in fantasy PPG each of the past 2 seasons. Entering just his 4th NFL season, Goedert looks to be the new #1 TE in Philly as Ertz was unused and unhappy last season.
Throw in one of the league’s lower-tier WR rooms (no offense to Devonta Smith or Jalen Reagor, they are just unproven) and Goedert has definite top-10 fantasy potential with a top-5 ceiling.
9. Robert Tonyan
Robert Tonyan is one of the most underrated tight ends of 2021 if not the most underrated. His ability is understated, and with Aaron Rodgers throwing every pass like it could be his last, Tonyan will get his opportunities.
Tonyan owners know he was a top-5 TE most of the year, and picking him this year offers relatively little risk considering his ADP.
With Rodgers almost treating Robert Tonyan as the Packers’ WR2/WR3, he enjoyed a breakout season in 2020, finishing as fantasy’s No. 4-scoring TE.
While Tonyan’s 59 targets tied for fewest by a top-12 fantasy TE over the past 12 seasons, Tonyan also led TEs with an 88% catch rate and 18.6% TD rate. If Rodgers continues where he left off in 2021, Tonyan will make me eat this prediction and ranking with another top-5 finish instead of here, towards the bottom of the top-10.
10. Jonnu Smith
I would rank Jonnu higher if only he was a more proven talent; however, he makes the list for the talent he has displayed and the numbers he’s put up in his brief playing time.
It is almost hilarious that the the Titans had two offensive skill position players as hulking as Derrick Henry and Jonnu Smith. Smith looks like LeBron on the field, and frankly I would be terrified to cover or tackle him if I was an opposing DB.
Smith’s four-year, $50 million contract with New England shows the Patriots believe in the big playmaker. For what it is worth, Smith’s 65 targets, 41 receptions, and 448 yards last season were all career highs.
First TD: Jonnu Smith (+1800) ???
Smith scores the first touchdown of the game on what is surely going to be one of the best catches of the postseason. Congrats to those that had him! #TENvsBAL (Video: @NFL) pic.twitter.com/CJyJCzcHTs
— FOX Bet Sportsbook (@FOXBet) January 12, 2020
He scored 9 TDs last season and showed what his big body can do against defenders. Jonnu Smith’s post-catch production has been tremendous as well as he’s ranked no lower than 7th among TEs in RAC each of the past 3 seasons.
Cam Newton’s past rapport with Greg Olson shows the QB loves a good security blanket at the TE position, and the Patriots might just have the worst WR room in the NFL.
Jonnu is one of the best gambles on late tight ends.