What We Learned in 2020: Tight End

A look at every fantasy relevant tight end's ADP and finish, what happened, and what we learned

Before we move forward now that the 2020 NFL season is over, we should look back one more time to capture whatever wisdom we can glean from the ride through this "season like no other" before the distance in the rearview mirror gets farther and the particulars get blurred. Let's look at where every fantasy-relevant tight end was drafted (based on an aggregate of sources), where they finished (approximate because of variation in scoring systems), what happened, and what we learned.

Most Important Tight End Takeaways

  • It’s Travis Kelce’s world, we’re just living in it.
  • Darren Waller didn’t hit in 2019 because the Raiders didn’t have anything at wide receiver. He got even better in 2020, and better as the season went on.
  • Tight end is a world of haves and have nots in fantasy, which can lead you to taking one early, or just punting and playing the late sleeper/waiver wire game, as the divide makes both viable.
  • TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant look like they will be TE1 mainstays

Fantasy Draft TE1s

Travis Kelce, KC

  • ADP: Second Round (TE1)
  • Approximate Finish: TE1
  • What Happened: Kelce set career highs across the board at age 31 and ended up being one of the most valuable players in fantasy football.
  • What We Learned: Kelce still has plenty left in the tank and he’ll cost you a first-round pick in 2021.

George Kittle, SF

  • ADP: Second/Third Round (TE2)
  • Approximate Finish: TE3 on a point-per-game basis with eight missed games (Knee/Foot)
  • What Happened: Kittle missed Weeks 2 and 3 with a knee injury and went on injured reserve in Week 9 with a foot injury. He was a boom/bust play with big booms in between the injury and came back for Week 16 despite the 49ers being out of the playoff hunt.
  • What We Learned: Kittle is a warrior and still one of the tight ends worth taking early despite falling prey to the injury bug in 2020.

Mark Andrews, BAL

  • ADP: Fourth Round (TE3)
  • Approximate Finish: TE4 with two missed games due to covid
  • What Happened: Andrews was supposed to take a step forward for fantasy with Hayden Hurst gone, but his target rate didn’t go up significantly and Lamar Jackson’s passing efficiency took a big hit in 2020. He actually scored more points per game in 2019 and was a disappointment despite finishing in the top five tight ends.
  • What We Learned: Lamar Jackson’s passing efficiency was indeed unsustainable and we shouldn’t assume vacated targets will be redistributed in the same position the following year.

Zach Ertz, PHI

  • ADP: Fourth/Fifth Round (TE4)
  • Approximate Finish: TE26 on a points per game basis with five missed games due to an ankle injury.
  • What Happened: A preseason news item about the Eagles not giving Zach Ertz an extension after the two sides had a difference in opinion about his value should have been our clue that a decline may be imminent. The entire Eagles offense collapsed, but Ertz’s lack of production was more of a cause than an effect of that development.
  • What We Learned: Ertz could milk out some late-career production like Jimmy Graham has in recent years, but his prime is over and his time with the Eagles probably is too.

Darren Waller, LV

  • ADP: Sixth Round (TE5)
  • Approximate Finish: TE2
  • What Happened: Waller was successful coming off of his breakout year with about a 2-1 good-game to floor-game ratio through Week 12, then in Week 13 he had one of the top 10 all-time fantasy tight end games and he also finished the year with a three-game streak of 100+ yards.
  • What We Learned: Waller is an elite fantasy tight end no matter who the Raiders have at wide receiver and he’ll inspire a debate between him and George Kittle for the TE2 spot.

Evan Engram, NYG

  • ADP: Sixth/Seventh Round (TE6)
  • Approximate Finish: TE18
  • What Happened: Engram’s target rate dropped off from 2019 and he was used in a monotonous and unimaginative way in the Jason Garrett offense. He played in 16 games for the first time in his career and had his worst fantasy season by a good margin.
  • What We Learned: It’s no fun to have talented downfield receivers that play in a Jason Garrett offense. We’ll see how much of a Garrett discount Engram’s fantasy stock has in 2021.

Rob Gronkowski, TB

  • ADP: Sixth/Seventh Round (TE7)
  • Approximate Finish: TE14
  • What Happened: Gronkowski started slow after he returned from retirement as OJ Howard was the primary receiving tight end, but after Howard went down, Gronk’s big play and touchdown profile came back into focus and he was TE6 for the remainder of the season.
  • What We Learned: Gronkowski’s NFL contributions are bigger than his fantasy contributions now, but he will still have some fantasy relevance if he plays next season.

Hunter Henry, LAC

  • ADP: Seventh/Eighth Round (TE8)
  • Approximate Finish: TE11 with one missed game (covid)
  • What Happened: Henry’s boat wasn’t lifted by the rising tide that came with Justin Herbert. He did have a career-high in targets and catches, but his yards per catch was the lowest of his career and he tied his career-low in touchdowns.
  • What We Learned: Did Henry become a more pedestrian target or did his usage become more pedestrian? He’ll likely be on a new team next year and only be worth a bench pick, if that.

Jared Cook, NO

  • ADP: Eighth/Ninth Round (TE9)
  • Approximate Finish: TE23 with one missed game (groin)
  • What Happened: Cook’s hyperefficient 2019 was followed by a less efficient 2020 that failed to produce the ceiling games and big plays that made him a TE1 in 2020 drafts.
  • What We Learned: Cook on the decline. He’ll likely be on another team in 2021 and fall out of fantasy drafts.

Tyler Higbee, LAR

  • ADP: Eighth/Ninth Round (TE10)
  • Approximate Finish: TE21 with one missed game (hand)
  • What Happened: Higbee wasn’t central in the pass offense after ruling the fantasy world in December 2019. He still looked like the same player, but the volume just wasn’t there for the tight ends in a more balanced offense as Gerald Everett actually got more targets than Higbee in 2020.
  • What We Learned: Higbee was a waste in 2020 drafts, but he just got a new quarterback in Matthew Stafford and Gerald Everett is likely to leave in free agency. Be on the lookout for a post-hype breakout season.

Hayden Hurst, ATL

  • ADP: Ninth Round (TE11)
  • Approximate Finish: TE19
  • What Happened: Hurst wasn’t a complete bust, but his role in the Falcons pass offense wasn’t as big as Austin Hooper’s was in 2019, and he wasn’t that efficient or explosive.
  • What We Learned: It wasn’t just the "Atlanta tight end" role that created fantasy value. Hurst will be on the fringe of 2021 drafts.

Austin Hooper, CLE

  • ADP: 10th/11th Round (TE12)
  • Approximate Finish: TE22 with three missed games (knee/appendix)
  • What Happened: Hooper’s target volume took a huge hit from Atlanta levels, although he did have a couple of sustained multi-week stretches of production to help needy teams.
  • What We Learned: Hooper isn’t an every-week fantasy starter or even clearly rosterable fantasy tight end outside of Atlanta.

Notable Bench Picks

Noah Fant, DEN

  • ADP: 10th/11th Round (TE13)
  • What Happened: Fant started out hot but fell off because of an ankle injury that affected him after he returned following only one missed game. He finished as TE12 and wasn’t a true hit, but he should be a target in 2021 drafts if his ADP doesn’t go up significantly.

T.J. Hockenson, DET

  • ADP: 11th/12th Round (TE14)
  • What Happened: Hockenson was one of the most-consistent fantasy tight ends outside of the top three and actually finished as TE5, but he was only one point per game better than TE11 and he fizzled out in the fantasy playoffs. His offseason will include a change a quarterback, but also a downgrade in competition for targets from the wide receiver position with Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr entering free agency.

Mike Gesicki, MIA

  • ADP: 12th Round (TE15)
  • What Happened: Gesicki was a boom/bust play, but actually had two of his three big games with Tua Tagovailoa in at quarterback to create some hope for a better 2021 if the Dolphins don’t make a change at quarterback. He finished as TE9 on a point-per-game basis.

Jonnu Smith, TEN

  • ADP: 13th/14th Round (TE16)
  • What Happened: Smith started the season with a flurry of touchdowns and was actually TE3 after five weeks. Then injuries and the vagaries of a low-volume pass offense brought him and he was only a marginal contributor to fantasy lineups for the rest of the season.

Blake Jarwin, DAL

  • ADP: 13th/14th Round (TE17)
  • What Happened: Jarwin tore an ACL in Week 1 and missed out on what surely would have been a breakout year when we look at what a much lesser receiving talent - Dalton Schultz - got in terms of opportunity in 2020. He’ll be a popular sleeper pick and could actually have a higher ADP than he did last year.

Dallas Goedert, PHI

  • ADP: 14th Round (TE18)
  • What Happened: Goedert looked ready to overtake Zach Ertz in Week 1, but an ankle injury cost him four weeks. He started to regain form in the second half of the season and should be going off of the board in TE5-8 range, assuming Ertz is gone and fantasy drafters see his upside accurately.

Eric Ebron, PIT

  • ADP: 14th Round (TE20)
  • What Happened: Ebron meshed well with the horizontal Steelers pass offense and had two three-game stretches of double-digit PPR fantasy point games. Ebron is due six million this year and could be a cap cut for a Steelers team that will have trouble getting under the covid-lowered number in 2021.

O.J. Howard, TB

  • ADP: Late Rounds (TE22)
  • What Happened: Howard was a viable, if unexciting fantasy tight end through four weeks with Tom Brady before rupturing his Achilles. If he has a good recovery and is on track to be ready for Week 1, he’ll be on our late-round tight end target list.

Irv Smith, MIN

  • ADP: Late Rounds (TE24)
  • What Happened: Smith was an afterthought in the Vikings offense through four weeks but was TE7 on a point-per-game basis from Weeks 5-16 with three missed games. His arrow is pointing up and he’ll be a strong pick at ADP if Kyle Rudolph is let go, or maybe even if Rudolph isn’t let go.

Undrafted Contributors

Logan Thomas, WAS

  • ADP: Undrafted
  • What Happened: Thomas came out of nowhere to be the starting tight end for the Football Team, and by Week 6 he was up to speed. Thomas was TE4 from Weeks 6-16 through numerous quarterback changes and his game blossomed as the season went on. He’ll be a value pick outside of the top four tight ends next year.

Robert Tonyan Jr, GB

  • ADP: Undrafted
  • What Happened: Tonyan burst on the scene with a Monday night three-touchdown game while Davante Adams was sidelined and was consistent enough to be an every-week fantasy tight end option in a down year at the position. He’ll be drafted as a TE1 next year, but monitor 2019 third-round pick Jace Sternberger’s development.

Jimmy Graham, CHI

  • ADP: Undrafted
  • What Happened: After we all moved on from Graham, his penchant for scoring touchdowns actually made him a TE1 for the first half of the year and he was the TE2 in Week 16 if you happened to plug him in by accident.

Dalton Schultz, DAL

  • ADP: Undrafted
  • What Happened: Schultz replaced Blake Jarwin and was the starter for basically the whole season. He was only TE20 on the season, but he was TE4 in the three weeks that he and Dak Prescott both started and finished the game. This is a reminder to draft Blake Jarwin.

Jordan Reed, SF

  • ADP: Undrafted
  • What Happened: Reed surprised everyone by making the 49ers roster, and when he replaced George Kittle in Week 2, he had one of the best tight end games of the year. And then he got hurt in Week 3. He returned to the lineup in Week 9 and had a few more decent fantasy lines for old time’s sake.

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