TE Tier 1 – Unique advantage
1 – Travis Kelce
If you want Travis Kelce in 2021, you’re going to need to really want him.
The Chiefs’ tight end carries a first-round ADP across just about every platform. No other player at the position even comes close. Of course, we all know why that’s the case. He brings a unique advantage to whoever rosters him.
Kelce tied for the league-lead in both targets (145) and touchdowns (11) at the position. As that demonstrates, while some players could approach the weekly ceiling or season-long floor of Travis Kelce, no one can truly present the easy-to-project combination that he brings to the table.
He’s a Hall of Fame talent playing with the best quarterback in the league who captains an annual top-five offense. You probably didn’t need this much of an explanation.
Travis Kelce stands alone. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
TE Tier 2 – Difference-making elite TE1s
2 – Darren Waller
3 – George Kittle
If you end up with these two players instead of Travis Kelce, you don’t need to cry too many tears. You’re still locking in a likely top-five tight end.
I have Waller ahead of Kittle this year. While the Raiders receiver corps should be better this year given John Brown’s addition, Henry Ruggs’ possible improvement, and Bryan Edwards’ emergence … you can still confidently project Waller for a bigger slice of his offense’s pie. In Kittle’s case, I am ahead of consensus on Brandon Aiyuk and believe he will emerge as a true alpha receiver for an already run-heavy offense that’s going to constrict the target upside of other players.
That said, the fact that I have Kittle in Tier 2 is meant to demonstrate my belief he still possesses an elite touchdown ceiling if Trey Lance eventually boosts the efficiency of this entire unit.
TE Tier 3 – Bankable TE1s
4 – Mark Andrews
5 – T.J. Hockenson
6 – Kyle Pitts
7 – Tyler Higbee
The third tier of tight ends comprises a group that can be your weekly starter at the position but doesn’t possess the same elite target potential or ceiling projection to be true difference-makers.
The history of rookie tight ends tells us Kyle Pitts as a top-six draft option is insane. Pitts’ ultra-clean yet somehow otherworldly college profile and path to opportunity makes it perfectly rational, however. The rookie should easily finish second on the Falcons in targets and play 80-plus-percent of the snaps in Arthur Smith’s multi-tight-end offense.
Tyler Higbee isn’t usually ranked in this area but he’s deserving. Gerald Everett is gone, leaving Higbee as the lone proven tight end on the depth chart. Players like Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are projected to get efficiency boosts with Matthew Stafford coming to town. Higbee should get that same bump and is in line to see more targets than he did in 2020.
TE Tier 4 – Volatile TE1s
8 – Robert Tonyan
9 – Dallas Goedert
10 – Logan Thomas
This tier represents an inflection point in rankings where the rest of the options here can’t truly be counted on as weekly ones. However, this trio will offer drafters the potential for a high weekly ceiling. The problem for them is simply volume — which is not unusual at the position.
Robert Tonyan might have a better path to volume than I am giving him credit for. Perhaps he builds on a legitimate breakout season in 2020 and establishes himself as the clear-cut No. 2 pass catcher in Green Bay. He could enter Tier 3 territory in that scenario.
Dallas Goedert might have slotted in at TE7 had the Eagles traded Zach Ertz. No one expected him to be on the Eagles Week 1 roster. Yet, Ertz is still there and no change appears to be on its way.
TE Tier 5 – Will give you starting weeks
11 – Noah Fant
12 – Jonnu Smith
13 – Gerald Everett
14 – Mike Gesicki
15 – Rob Gronkowski
16 – Hunter Henry
17 – Irv Smith
The good news is that I can map out a story for each member of this tier to find their way to weekly usability. The bad news? The path for each to get there is extremely narrow.
Noah Fant might belong in Tier 4 but as I mentioned in my wide receiver tiers, it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where Drew Lock/Teddy Bridgewater supports the current ADPs of Jerry Jeudy, Cortland Sutton, and Fant on an offense that’s likely to be run-heavy, considering their elite defense. I could be wrong here but right now I’m fading Fant the hardest of that trio.
Jonnu Smith and Gerald Everett, however, are my favorite late-round tight ends right now.
Smith has flashed truly electrifying skills both in the open field and in the red zone. He didn’t land in the highest upside spot as a free agent but there’s still a chance he could lead the Patriots in targets. Hunter Henry’s training camp injury could only increase those odds.
Everett’s ceiling isn’t being baked into his wildly low TE20 ADP. While the Seahawks will remain a wide receiver-focused passing game their tight ends still accounted for 20.1 percent of the team targets. Giving Everett a 14 percent share of that pie feels reasonable. That’s enough to work with while playing with an efficient passer.
TE Tier 6 – Intriguing fliers
18 – Adam Trautman
19 – Cole Kmet
20 – Evan Engram
21 – Austin Hooper
22 – Anthony Firkser
Adam Trautman hasn’t seen much action as a receiver but has some interesting traits and plays on a team bereft of wide receiver talent as long as Michael Thomas is on the shelf. We’d like the quarterback position to be a bit better in New Orleans but those are a few of the ingredients we look for in breakout tight ends.
Anthony Firkser is another appealing name here. The Titans threw to their tight ends at the fourth-highest rate (29.6 percent) last year. Granted, there’s been a coordinator change and the addition of Julio Jones will boost their wide receiver target share but the departure of Jonnu Smith still opens up a huge vacuum. Firkser could be a direct beneficiary of Tennessee’s annual passing efficiency — and he’s mostly going undrafted.
TE Tier 7 – End of best-ball teams
23 – Zach Ertz
24 – Jared Cook
25 – Blake Jarwin
26 – Hayden Hurst
27 – Donald Parham
28 – Mo-Alie Cox
29 – Dawson Knox
30 – Eric Ebron
31 – Dan Arnold
Obviously, there’s not much to see here. A couple of guys I do find interesting, however …
Donald Parham is dripping with talent, size, and a beefy XFL resume, for what that’s worth. If he can clearly beat out Jared Cook for the tight end spot with the Chargers, I’d jump him up a full tier. I just want to be a little conservative for now.
Hayden Hurst is still on the Falcons roster after a middling 2020 season. Obviously, Kyle Pitts will usurp him. However, Arthur Smith ran a two-tight end offense in Tennessee and that could keep Hurst with a decent playing time spot. While everyone just wants to copy/paste Russell Gage’s role from 2020 with Julio Jones gone, this is a new coaching staff. Hurst could be a key figure here.
Dan Arnold got a decent bit of money from the Panthers. No team threw to their tight end at a lower rate (7.8 percent) last year and they are a three-wide-receiver-based offense. Arnold has flashed some downfield ability and perhaps his signing might have signaled a change in their approach.