It’s preseason fantasy football rankings season here at TDN! On Wednesday, June 9, I released my Preseason Top 35 Tight End Rankings, which can be found here. Once the rankings became public, there were a number of questions asked and some shade thrown. Let’s address a few of the most common questions/reactions to the initial release of my 2021 preseason quarterback rankings and dive into deeper explanations about why the players ranked where they did. As a reminder, my full stat projections will be released here at TDN later this month.
A rookie (Kyle Pitts) cracks your top 5? Any concern about that lofty ranking?
There is always concern ranking and projecting a player who’s never played an NFL snap, but the combination of opportunity and skill set should make Pitts an immediate fantasy contributor—especially with Julio Jones now out of Atlanta. Tight ends received about a 27% target share over the last two seasons in Tennessee, the team new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith is coming from. The top tight end (on a per-game basis) received roughly 60% of those shares. Projecting a slight bump to that number as Pitts quickly becomes the No. 2 pass-catching option in Atlanta, a 100-plus target season is well within reach. I believe a 75/850/7 season is not only doable but enough to make him a top-five tight end.
Where did Tyler Higbee’s top-10 ranking come from?
When I set out on this massive projections and rankings project, Higbee wasn’t really on my TE1 radar after underperforming last season. However, the more I evaluated the situation, I couldn’t deny that he’s in a much better position for success in 2021 than he was in 2020—the addition of Matthew Stafford and no Gerald Everett are two major pluses.
If you look at Higbee’s target share in Los Angeles over the last two seasons and combine it with how often Stafford targeted T.J. Hockenson last season, Higbee could be in line for 100 targets this season. Even a modest dip in catch percentage and yards per target from Higbee’s recent averages would still allow him to be a double-digit fantasy points per game player. He’d be ranked higher if we had seen consistent production for stretches longer than four games in the past.
Is Irv Smith Jr. ready to be a TE1 with Kyle Rudolph gone?
I believe so. His nose for the end zone and a lack of a true trusted WR3 in Minnesota opens up an opportunity for Smith to be quite productive. With Rudolph out last season, Smith had a 13.07% target share, an equal number to what I projected for him this season. That works out to just under 70 targets over 17 games. If he reaches that mark, given his average catch percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown rates with Kirk Cousins, that should result in a 50/580/8 season that has him inside the top 12 at season’s end.
Why is Robert Tonyan ranked outside of TE1 territory?
A massive regression in touchdown rate is coming. Tonyan had a ridiculous 18.64% touchdown rate on his targets last season, a number that is completely unsustainable. For context, Travis Kelce’s touchdown rate over the last three years is 6.03%, and the three-year average touchdown rate for the top 10 tight ends in the NFL in that statistic is 6.77%. Tonyan, even with a potential Aaron Rodgers return, is far more likely to be in the 4-6 touchdown range in 2021 than returning to double-digits. Don’t pay for last year’s touchdown production.
Why are Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry ranked so low?
These two high-profile free-agent additions will cannibalize each other’s fantasy value, and the state of the New England Patriots offense isn’t all that exciting to begin with. If we throw out last season and go all the way back to the 2016-18 period of the Bill Belichick/Josh McDaniels offense, the Patriots’ top two tight ends averaged about 6.65 targets per game. Even if we add one additional weekly target, once it gets split between Smith and Henry, they both come out somewhere in the 60s over a 17-game season—that’s simply not enough to be fantasy-relevant. I have only two players (Tonyan, Smith Jr.) ranked among my top 19 tight ends that are projected to have fewer than 70 targets—and both have more touchdown upside than either of these New England pass-catchers.
If you have any specific questions or want to know more about what I think of certain players, follow me on Twitter (@JaimeEisner) or Instagram (@JaimeEisnerTDN). I’d be happy to chat with you! Also, be sure to tune in to the TDN Fantasy Podcast for in-depth audio breakdowns of these rankings, my projections, and all the latest fantasy football news throughout the 2021 football season.