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Biggest Surprises of 2019: Tight End


The 2019 NFL season was anything but predictable. I mean, the Tennessee Titans made the AFC title game! Andrew Luck retired right before the season! [Insert one of many, many other things here, because all lists need three items but I couldn't decide between all the possible third options.]

One position where things at the very top weren't surprising was the tight end position. Through Week 16, three of the top four tight ends in scoring were exactly who you expected them to be: Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz. Of course!

There were some surprises -- both good and bad -- in 2019, though. Below are the four tight ends whose final placement surprised me the most, with some analysis on why.

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Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens - TE3

Andrews was a popular sleeper pick last year and someone I targeted in the mid-to-late rounds of a lot of my fantasy drafts, so I don't want to say I was shocked by his 2019 season. But I would have guessed he'd end up something like TE7 or TE8 if you'd asked me preseason to make a prediction.

Instead, the Ravens offense went wild, with Lamar Jackson -- whose 2019 breakout I wrote about earlier this month -- taking major steps forward.

Baltimore's offense was interesting because tight ends mattered so much to it. They don't really have a high-end wide receiver on this roster, though maybe Marquise Brown can become one, so they had to rely on their talented pair of second-year tight ends, Andrews and former first-round pick Hayden Hurst. Andrews was the biggest beneficiary of Baltimore's offensive scheme, catching 64 passes for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Will he repeat this next season? Maybe, but Andrews could see his target share drop if the Ravens try to bring in a more reliable wide receiver to help spread the field out even more. The NFL Draft and free agency have a chance to hurt Andrews' stock more than the stocks of the other top tight ends, so keep an eye on that situation.

 

Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams - TE8

The Rams underperformed expectations in a tough NFC West, and we saw their offense shift down the stretch. In 2018, the Rams relied heavily on their three receivers -- Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods -- but last year, concussion issues took Cooks out of things. The Rams started throwing more to their tight ends, but Gerald Everett dealt with wrist and knee issues, so if you had him pegged as your "Rams breakout tight end" candidate, you were wrong on that pick.

Instead, it was Tyler Higbee who emerged down the stretch. He had four straight 100-yard games, and over the final five games of the season, he grabbed 43 catches for 522 yards and two touchdowns. Higbee took firm control of the position, with Everett not able to carve out any role once he returned.

Next year, Higbee is probably going to wind up with an ADP somewhere around TE5 based on how he ended the year. Can he live up to that? It might depend on if/how Cooks returns, as there are a limited number of targets to go around in Los Angeles. But if Higbee's got the same role he had to end 2019 and is getting double-digit targets per game, he'll be putting up strong numbers again in 2020.

 

Darren Fells, Houston Texans - TE16

As a Houston Texans fan, I consistently expect nothing from the team's tight end position, but Darren Fells (TE11 in standard, by the way!) managed to do something that I'm not used to: He scored some fantasy points as a tight end in Bill O'Brien's offense.

Fells wasn't consistently good, but at a position where "IDK, just play a guy and hope he finds the end zone" isn't the worst fantasy plan you can have, Fells had value, which is more than you can usually say for this team's tight end.

In his sixth NFL season, Fells caught 34 passes for 341 yards and seven touchdowns. The receptions and yardage numbers aren't great, but Fells showed a good rapport down near the goal line with Deshaun Watson, which helped Houston win the AFC South.

2019 was probably Fells' ceiling, though, and I'd caution anyone against drafting him as their TE1 next season. But hey, he did some good stuff this year!

 

O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers - TE28

Oh boy.

I'm not even sure what to say about O.J. Howard's 2019 season.

The biggest surprise here is that we were surprised, as we thought Howard's talent would overcome the whole "Bruce Arians doesn't use his tight ends" thing. In retrospect, I think we should have assumed Howard would have a down year.

But, like...this much of a down year? In 14 games, Howard caught 34 passes for 459 yards and a touchdown. He was on the field a lot -- over 80 percent of the offensive snaps in nine of Tampa's games -- but was targeted four or fewer times eight times. He had two games where he played significant snaps but wasn't targeted a single time, including Week 17, when Howard played 39 snaps (a 75 percent snap rate) on a team that had no Mike Evans and no Chris Godwin and didn't get a single one of Jameis Winston's 24 pass attempts.

I really don't know what to think about Howard going forward. If he stays in Tampa, there's no way I touch him in fantasy next year, even with how much this team throws the ball. But if Howard is moved, I'm still a believer that he's got the talent to make it work in an offense that does want to use a dynamic tight end. Howard's not David Njoku (who I don't see ever breaking out at this point). He can be productive in the right offensive scheme, though it would need to be a scheme where he actually gets targeted. His offseason is one of the things that I'm most intrigued by right now.

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