Fantasy Football Slack and Forth: How Should You Handle the Tight End Position This Year?

The scarcity of productive tight ends in the NFL makes for a fair, hotly contested argument about when to take them in fantasy football.

In half-PPR formats for 2021, the top pair of tight ends averaged more than 13 fantasy points per game, and just three others had averages in the double digits.

The gap between the TE1 (Travis Kelce) and the TE10 (Dallas Goedert) was more than five fantasy points per contest. But there's also an enormous opportunity cost for selecting Kelce as early as he's going in drafts on FanDuel right now.

Should you pay the piper for a top target, wait a little bit longer for a high-upside alternative, or punt the position until much later? I hit up fellow numberFire editor Austan Kas on Slack to discuss what his thoughts were on fantasy football's trickiest position.

Austin Swaim: Hey, Austan, I was running through mock drafts this weekend gearing up for draft season. Since you said I got to pick this week's topic, I wanted to get your thoughts on what -- to me -- was the hardest part when I was going through them -- the tight end spot. What do you ideally want to do at tight end?

I feel like there are so many different ways to go. You can spend a super early pick on Travis Kelce or Mark Andrews, you can wait a little bit for a guy with a path to TE1 overall, or you can wait a long time and still get a decent flier. What's your go-to strategy so far?

Austan Kas: I almost always wait until the later rounds to get a tight end. If a league is a tight end-premium format, that may push me more toward grabbing one of the top-notch options at the position.

But in normal leagues, I prefer to spend the early and middle rounds stocking up at running back and wideout (in one-quarterback leagues) before taking a flier later at tight end. With that comes the very real chance that I whiff on said flier and wind up streaming the position all year -- which I am cool with -- unless I luck into a quality every-week starter off the wire.

How do you handle the position?

Austin Swaim: Maybe it's something in my zodiac chart, but I can't help but take a swing in finding that league-winning free square at the top.

Last year that was Andrews, who was drafted in the middle rounds and ended up producing nearly as the TE1. Every year, there seem to be a few guys in that range who hold a similar level of upside, and I can't pass them up.

So, naturally, I have to ask you, who is the guy you're taking that flier on this year? If I've got a guy like Kelce or Andrews, who are you countering with from a later round?

Austan Kas: There are a few late-round tight ends I have my eye on. My favorite pick of the bunch is Zach Ertz, who is currently going as the TE10, per FanDuel's Best-Ball ADP.

After being dealt to the Arizona Cardinals last year, Ertz compiled an average of 5.1 grabs and 52.2 yards per game across 11 games. He saw at least five looks in 9 of those 11 games. His role grew with DeAndre Hopkins out the final four regular-season games as Ertz totaled target counts of 11, 13, 9, and 10 in that stretch.

On a Cards team that plays fast -- sixth-fastest pace, per Sharp Football, when the score was within seven points last year -- and will be sans Hopkins for six games to start the year, Ertz can return solid numbers in 2022, especially early on.

If Ertz's role goes down the toilet once Hopkins returns, his ADP isn't such a big investment that I'll feel bad cutting him and streaming the rest of the way, but I think he can be a viable weekly starter all year.

What are your thoughts on him?

Austin Swaim: Honestly, dude...Ertz is one of the reasons I'm less committed to a top-shelf guy than I was last year. Dawson Knox is another.

The whole point of spending a high pick on a tight end is to get an elite target share connected to a functional quarterback. Both Ertz and Knox have a real path to that as they're playing with two of the top quarterbacks going in fantasy football.

In some ways, it feels like having your cake and eating it too. Remember, Hopkins wasn't as effective even when healthy last year, and the Cards lost Christian Kirk. Buffalo lost Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley. It shouldn't surprise anyone if Knox or Ertz has a target share north of 20% this season, and we know they can score touchdowns.

Here's the problem, though -- I saw Ertz and Knox regularly over-drafted in sharper leagues because of this. What about a more traditional flier where you really don't see a clear path to a high target share?

Austan Kas: I'm going to cheat and name two -- Tyler Higbee (ADP of TE16) and Irv Smith Jr. (TE18). Both are basically available as last-round dart throws, and I think each could flirt with TE1 numbers.

For Higbee, the argument is fairly straightforward: he should be on the field a lot for one of the league's best offenses. Higbee logged a snap rate of at least 75% in all but one of his fully healthy games in which he played last season, counting the playoffs. That includes 13 games with a snap rate of at least 90%. Yes, please.

I don't think things will be much different in 2022 as it's Kendall Blanton and Brycen Hopkins -- two holdovers from last season -- listed behind him on the depth chart. And, maybe Higbee gets more looks in the passing game with LA's target totem pole pretty wide open after Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson.

Smith -- a former second-rounder with some good speed -- was someone I was into in 2021 prior to his injury, and I'm back on him again.

He flashed at times in 2019 and 2020, scoring seven total touchdowns on 66 catches and 676 yards across those two seasons. We might see a more pass-happy Vikings offense this year, and there should be some targets up for grabs after Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen get theirs.

I'm at least intrigued by Smith, and even if I don't draft him, he's someone whose role I will be monitoring closely in the early weeks.

Am I being too optimistic with those guys?

Austin Swaim: I definitely don't think so with Irv.

In my Justin Jefferson piece, I documented that this is an offense that could see a massive boost across the board, and in terms of yards per reception, Smith might actually have more upside in that department than Thielen, who leans heavily on touchdowns for his fantasy production.

At the end of the day, I think I'd still struggle a lot if I made the playoffs and was counting on either of them to go toe-to-toe with the best at the position.

Austan Kas: Fair enough. So you said you like guys going in the middle rounds. Which tight ends are you most into?

Austin Swaim: Well, the whole reason I wanted to ask you this question is that it felt like I could never stray away from Kyle Pitts in the fourth round.

Pitts' rookie season felt like a disappointment, and he was just the second tight end ever with more than 1,000 yards receiving in his inaugural campaign. It's largely because he scored just once despite 6.1 expected scores, per PFF's expected fantasy points model. His role was there, but a wild season for Cordarrelle Patterson was the reason he fell short.

Plus, I actually like Pitts' quarterback situation this year. Some of Marcus Mariota's key flaws haven't hurt his ability to get the ball to tight ends. He supported a TE4, TE5, and TE6 season for Delanie Walker during the first three years of his career. If Desmond Ridder is an improvement over that, Pitts should be just fine.

A lot of folks aren't interested in Pitts because he profiles to be clearly behind Kelce and Andrews, being drafted as the TE4. But if Pitts' weekly yardage totals are there, I still will take it.

However, he's not even my dark horse for TE1 overall. I'm not sure the Falcons' offense can support it.

Austan Kas: Well, now I gotta ask -- who is your dark horse for the overall TE1 spot?

Austin Swaim: I think it's actually Dalton Schultz of the Cowboys.

Amari Cooper is out of town, vacating 104 targets. They're not all going to CeeDee Lamb, who you and I both expressed our love for a few weeks ago. Schultz checks every single box if he can siphon a few more looks and eclipse a 20% share from Dak Prescott.

He was already playing 89.0% of the snaps with a three-down role, and he scored 8 touchdowns on 18 red zone targets. He also tallied a pair of two-point conversions. Schultz is arguably Dallas' best scoring threat given Lamb's so-so start to his career in that area of the field, and we know how talented Dak is.

Of the top tight-end producers last year, most of them have added competition except Kelce and Andrews. Schultz is one of few who should have a better target share.

By the way, say you're just getting insane value on Kelce or Andrews in the same draft...which one do you prefer?

Austan Kas: I like the Schultz call, by the way.

And between those two, I side with Kelce -- though both should be in for an excellent season.

Kansas City had a 62.4% pass rate last year while the Ravens' pass rate was only 56.4% -- but Andrews actually had 20 more targets than Kelce did. However, the Ravens' 2021 pass rate was up significantly compared to their 2020 clip of 45.0%, which was the lowest in the league (by a healthy margin).

It stands to reason the Ravens could be in more positive game scripts this year if Lamar Jackson stays healthy, possibly resulting in a more run-heavy attack. Plus, KC's passing offense will likely be much more efficient, as well, with Patrick Mahomes at the helm. I would be happy with either, though.

What about you?

Austin Swaim: I've drafted both in mocks as Kelce -- somehow -- tumbled to the late second round, but overall, I'm siding with Andrews comfortably at his ADP.

As you said, it's so close because they already had such dominant roles in offenses that have since traded their top wideout. However, I feel like the loss of Tyreek Hill will be a bigger blow to the KC offense than losing Marquise Brown is for Baltimore. Not having Hill might hurt KC's offensive ceiling overall, and Kelce's offense will need to be special to justify the usual opportunity cost of selecting him -- a top-shelf running back or wideout.

Andrews isn't going nearly as high, and he has two guys with target shares north of 20% in 2021 (Brown and Sammy Watkins) now out of his offense, so it is just him and the unproven Rashod Bateman on the perimeter for Lamar.

As we're talking through this, isn't it starting to feel like there's not really a super wrong answer to any of these methods? They all could absolutely result in the right pick.

Austan Kas: Yeah, I agree. I think there are a few viable routes you can take, and depending on how your draft unfolds, you should be able to justify grabbing a tight end at a few different spots in the draft.

Austin Swaim: Value above all is the key. Hey, next week you pick the topic, by the way. I was brainstorming ideas around second-year quarterbacks last Thursday, and Zach Wilson promptly got injured. It's too close to football season for me to hex another team!

Austan Kas: Will do! I think I've got something good.