damien-harris.jpg
USATSI

Preseason football is here and that means it's crunch time for Fantasy Football draft prep. The tight end position feels more about the haves and haves not than ever before heading into prime drafting season. It seems like there is a clear Tier 1, and they're likely worth investing in, but positional scarcity is also pushing up the Tier 2 TEs and they may not be worth the investment. As you dig deeper down the rankings, that's where you might find value. We'll be tackling different position groups in the coming weeks, and this week we are focusing on the tight end position.

Today, we're tapping the Fantasy Football Today team to gauge their favorite tight end breakouts for the 2021 season. Without further ado, let's dive into it.

Tight end breakouts

Jamey Eisenberg's picks

T.J. Hockenson, Lions

I'm fine calling Hockenson one of my guys this year, and I'll happily draft him as a top-five tight end in all leagues. He's a tremendous breakout candidate in 2021. Some of the best tight ends in recent years have come from guys who were the best receivers in their respective offenses with little competition for targets, including George Kittle, Darren Waller, Mark Andrews and Zach Ertz. Hockenson could be that guy for the Lions this season when looking at their receiving corps, which features Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Jared Goff should lean on Hockenson quite a bit, and hopefully we get similar production from him like Goff got from Tyler Higbee to close 2019 for the Rams when Higbee had five games in a row with at least eight targets, seven catches and 84 yards, along with two touchdowns. Last season with Matthew Stafford, Hockenson had 11 games with at least five targets, and he scored at least 13 PPR points in seven of them. While Hockenson still has plenty to prove to justify drafting him as a top-five tight end in all leagues, the potential is there given his role in this offense. He's worth drafting as early as Round 5.

Irv Smith, Vikings

Smith might not crack the top five Fantasy tight ends in 2021, but he could be a top-10 option. That's what I'm hoping for with Kyle Rudolph now gone in Minnesota. There are too many mouths to feed for the Vikings to feature Smith, with Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen on the same roster. But in 2020, Rudolph missed the final four games of the season with a foot injury, and Smith scored at least 16 PPR points in two of those outings. He could prove to be a valuable weapon for Kirk Cousins in the red zone, and Smith had two multi-touchdown games last year. His price tag on Draft Day should be cheap enough that you can wait on Smith with a late-round pick, and his ADP in August is at 119.88 overall as the No. 13 tight end off the board. I'll be buying a lot of stock in Smith given the upside, and he has the chance to emerge as a weekly starter in all leagues.

Dave Richard's picks

T.J. Hockenson, Lions

Never pass up the chance to draft a tight end who might lead his team in targets. The Lions receiving corps is ugly, opening the door for Hockenson to be the new best buddy for Jared Goff in Motown. That's an excellent opportunity since the Lions figure to play from behind a bunch this season. Hockenson was actually close to a breakout year in 2020, scoring at least nine PPR points in 12 of 16 games but ultimately finishing with a 10.4 PPR average. That was on a 17.3% target share in a Lions offense with plenty of other good receivers. It would be a stunner if Hockenson didn't expand on the 6.3 targets per game he had in 2020, which itself was a jump from his rookie year (4.9 per game). The Lions have a tough schedule and plenty of losses staring them in the face, but it's the stats that matter in Fantasy and Hockenson's should rise in his third year.

Kyle Pitts, Falcons

Rookie tight ends have traditionally struggled, but if you consider Pitts as more of a wide receiver who we get to use as a tight end in Fantasy, you'll be open to his prospects in his first year. Pitts is built like Calvin Johnson -- tall, rangy and strong, but with bigger hands than Megatron. That helped him capture a 66.1% catch rate with the Gators in 2020, turning 43 receptions into 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. Do the math -- it's a score every 3.6 grabs! Falcons coach Arthur Smith utilized tight ends frequently in Tennessee and will most certainly take advantage of Pitts' ability. The track record of second-best target-getters in Atlanta isn't great -- between 81 and 109 targets over the past five years -- so if you take Pitts you're hoping he can finish closer to 100 looks from Matt Ryan and be a major factor in the red zone. The good news is that defenses will make some difficult choices defending him and Calvin Ridley, so there should be ample opportunities all season for Pitts to find nice numbers. He's worth the Round 5 risk.

Heath Cummings' picks

Noah Fant, Broncos

Fant averaged 11.5 PPR Fantasy points per game last year in the 12 healthy games he played with a quarterback. That would have been good enough to be TE5 last year. Considering he had miserable quarterback play and an abysmal 3.5% touchdown rate, there's room for upside from there. Especially considering he won't even turn 24 until November. The return of Courtland Sutton could be a problem, but there are enough vacated wide receiver targets for Sutton to absorb. If Drew Lock takes a leap this year, Fant could be a top-four tight end.

Irv Smith, Vikings

There's little doubt Irv Smith is going to have a career year, it's just a question of whether he'll break out enough to be a Fantasy starter. Basically, he needs his targets from last year and Kyle Rudolph's, or he needs to absorb some of Adam Thielen's role. Over 17 games, 90 targets is a possibility, which is exactly how many Smith has for his career. He's turned those targets into 66-676-7, which would be plenty to make him a low-end starter. 

Chris Towers' picks

Noah Fant, Broncos

There's no question in my mind that Noah Fant has the talent to be one of the best tight ends in Fantasy. He's a massive target with elite athleticism and has shown elite ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. In fact, he was behind only George Kittle in average yards after catch in 2020, and he leads all tight ends since the start of 2019. One of the great differentiators at the tight end position is the ability to turn those short, safe plays in the middle of the field into big plays, and Fant has that. There are concerns about the level of quarterback play in Denver as well as his place in the receiving hierarchy alongside Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, but if you want to bet on talent after the top six at the position are gone, he's the obvious bet. 

Kyle Pitts, Falcons

I'm honestly having some trouble coming up with a second breakout for the position. Irv Smith and Jonnu Smith both have the potential, but I don't actually feel all that confident in their chances to do so in their offenses. So I'll go with what will probably end up being the default pick. Rookie tight ends generally don't produce enough to be Fantasy relevant, but rookie tight ends generally don't get drafted in the top five of the NFL Draft. And tight ends generally don't have 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games as 20-year-old juniors in the SEC. Pitts will need to be an outlier among rookie tight ends to justify his draft price, sure. But here's the thing: He's already an outlier.

So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen's huge season, and find out.