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Biggest Tight End Surprises of 2021 - Fantasy Football Year In Review

The tight end position is only enjoyed by true degenerates of fantasy football. It’s a wasteland of epic portions. A position filled with landmines where the biggest winner is just the player who managed to lose the least. Outside of our big five, which unfortunately seems to be dwindling, you could make a solid case for literally everyone else to be a surprise performer in 2021. It’s the nature of the beast. You see, what you don’t know because it never made its way to final production, but before Ingrid said “You know nothing Jon Snow”, Snow was actually trying to tell her how he’s figured out the fantasy football tight end position. Like the King of the North, we all know nothing.

We won’t be talking about Mark Andrews in the meat and potatoes section of this article, but he deserves his own shout-out here. Travis Kelce has reigned supreme over the tight end position since 2016. Using half-PPR scoring, during this five-year period Kelce recorded four No. 1 finishes and one No. 2 finish, which came by an only 0.8 points defeat to Rob Gronkowski. Travis Kelce owned the tight end position like Aaron Rodgers owns the Chicago Bears. 2021 signified a slight changing of the guards. Andrews didn’t just best Kelce – as Gronk did in 2017 when he finished with 192.8 points to Kelce’s 192.0 points – no, Andrews bested Kelce by 30.8 points. Kelce still finished as the TE2, but this was a position he had absolutely dominated since 2016 and Andrews didn’t just end up in the No. 1 spot at season’s end, he solidly defeated the field, Kelce included. One could argue it was only a matter of time, right? No one reigns supreme forever, eventually, time gets the best of us all – Tom Brady notwithstanding – but did anyone really expect this year to be the year Kelce fell off his throne? Andrews’ 14.6 point per game average was better than all of Kelce’s 2016-2019 averages; only Kelce’s 2020 point per average was better than the one Andrews compiled this season.

When it comes to picking out surprises from the lot of 2021 tight ends, the question really becomes who were the biggest surprises, right? Because anyone could qualify. Who saw Dawson Knox tying for the most touchdowns among tight ends? No one. Did anyone think Robert Tonyan would fall flat on his face? Okay, so maybe that was a bad one since pretty much everyone thought that to some extent, but that bad? 5.2 points per game flat on his face bad? I mean, I didn’t want any part of Tonyan in 2021, but even I didn’t think he’d be that bad. So if none of these guys are the ones we're tagging as the biggest 2021 surprises, who are they?

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received five total writing awards and 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, tops in the industry! Congrats to all the award winners and nominees including Best NFL Series, MLB Series, NBA Writer, PGA Writer and Player Notes writer of the year. Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!

 

Hunter Henry & Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots

When the Patriots signed both these tight ends in the offseason, the fantasy community largely went buck wild over Smith, while casting Henry to the side. The athleticism the former Titan displayed in Tennessee had everyone enamored with what he could become in an offense that has proven they know how to use tight ends. While Henry had always been solid, he never truly lived up to the high expectations that were set upon him when he entered the league. Now, if you told the hordes of Jonnu Smith fans at the beginning of the season that Henry would outscore the former Titan by season's end, maybe they would've believed you, but if you would've told them the former Charger would best Smith by 86 points? I'm betting they would've been quite surprised.

Maybe what was the biggest surprise was how the Patriots choose to implement their two big-spending expenditures. By season's end, Henry had almost doubled-up Smith in total targets (78 to 43) and receptions (51 to 28). In terms of receiving yards and routes run, the former Charger did double up his new teammate. Henry had 633 yards to Smith's 294, but it was their routes run where Henry took a surprising and huge advantage – 441 to 162.

It's mind-blowing that the Patriots spent $50 million on what essentially equaled nothing more than a blocking tight end. Just as surprising as Smith's blocking role was Henry's complete dominance inside the red zone. Henry finished the season with nine touchdowns, which was third among all tight ends. He commanded a 31.0% target share inside the 10-yard line, which was third among all tight ends and eighth in the entire NFL.

When 2021 finally closed its books, Henry was the TE9 with an 8.7 point per game average, while Jonnu was all the way down at TE34 with a 3.3 point per game average. There were concerns both tight ends couldn't be viable fantasy options and many thought these two tight ends would eat into each other's role in a way that rendered both of them irrelevant. However, if there was one tight end out of the duo to break free, it was Jonnu and that could not have been more wrong.

 

Zach Ertz, Arizona Cardinals

Fantasy football Twitter rarely agrees, but everyone agreed Ertz was on the downswing of his career. In 2020, he finished as the TE32 with just a 5.4 point per game average, which was good for TE24. He averaged just 3.27 receptions and 30.5 yards per game last season, which included just a single touchdown. Many expected Dallas Goedert to take the reins in Philly and when offseason trade conversations for Ertz broke down, he was largely left for dead.

That logic was, for the most part, sound. Through the first six weeks of the season, Ertz was averaging just 6.7 points per game, which amounted to TE21. That's when the trade to the Cardinals happened and everything changed. In Weeks 7–18 following the trade, Ertz averaged 7.4 targets per game, which was the fourth-highest in the league. During that time he was the TE4. After largely being left for dead following the 2020 season and the first six weeks of 2021, the former Eagle completely turned back time.

It only got better as he became more comfortable in the Arizona offense and Kyler Murray wasn't afraid to utilize him. When DeAndre Hopkins went down in Week 13, Ertz turned into an absolute target monster. From Weeks 14–18, Ertz averaged 10 targets per game, which was second to only Mark Andrews. Despite the increased target share, he was unable to find the end zone a single time – a product of bad luck more than anything else.

He managed to finish as the TE5 on the season despite the first six weeks of the season largely being a waste. If we extrapolated his stats during his time with the Cardinals, Ertz would've finished with 127 targets, 87 receptions, 884 yards and 5 touchdowns. In half-PPR, that would have equated to 161.9 points, which would have been pretty much on par with TE4 George Kittle. There was optimism that if Ertz was traded, he might be able to command enough of a target share in his new environment to provide high-end TE2 numbers, but a top-five was incredibly surprising based on what he showcased in 2020 and early this season.

 

Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

Did Kyle Pitts breakout? Did he bust? Maybe he didn’t do either of those things. Now certainly, analysts can make the argument his ADP going into 2021 was too high. There was no way to justify taking a rookie tight end as high as he was going because of the history. Trust me, the history is pretty damning and because history tends to repeat itself there was plenty of reason to avoid Pitts at cost, but I was willing to make an exception. It’s no mystery his 2021 season didn’t quite live up to the insanely high expectations drafters had for him, but was the process wrong or was his final finish somewhat surprising based on his utilization numbers? Let’s take a look at Pitts’ rookie season.

The former Gator finished with the fifth-most targets among all tight ends, which fits perfectly with the preseason opinion of him immediately being a highly targeted option in the Atlanta passing game. That much was true. In his first season in the NFL, the rookie tight end finished with 1,026 receiving yards – good enough for third in the NFL and second all-time among rookie tight ends. He averaged the fourth most air yards among all tight ends and had the highest average depth of target among tight ends who averaged at least two targets per game. His 23.6% market share ranked third and his 29.7% market share of his team’s air yards was second to only Mark Andrews. He finished with a 15.1 yard per reception, which was also first among tight ends who averaged at least two targets per game. If fantasy managers had the power of hindsight and were only given that information, Pitts might have been drafted even higher, but it isn’t debatable that this information more than justifies his preseason ADP. So what went wrong? How did a player’s utilization that screams top-3 tight end finish as the TE7?

That’s it, just touchdowns. Despite having 110 targets, Pitts managed to find the end zone just one time. How insanely rare is that? Well, let’s take a look…

Tight End  Red Zone Targets   Total Targets   TD Rate   Total TDs 
Mark Andrews 20 153 5.9% 9
Travis Kelce 16 134 6.7% 9
Dalton Schultz 14 104 7.7% 8
George Kittle 8 94 6.4% 6
Zach Ertz 18 112 4.4% 5
Rob Gronkowski 12 88 6.8% 6
Kyle Pitts 15 110 0.09% 1
Dawson Knox 19 71 12.7% 9
Hunter Henry 17 75 12.0% 9
Dallas Goedert 6 76 5.2% 4
Mike Gesicki 12 112 1.8% 2
Noah Fant 16 90 4.4% 4

What you’ll see is not only does Pitts have the lowest TD rate among the top-12 tight ends of 2021, but he could double his TD rate and he’d only just be tied for last with Mike Gesicki. Despite having the seventh-most red zone targets and the fifth-most overall targets, Pitts ended up dead last in touchdowns. That is incredibly surprising. Among non-running backs who had at least 70 targets, only Kenny Golladay, Laviska Shenault Jr., Cole Kmet and Cole Beasley had a worse TD rate than Kyle Pitts, in the whole league.

Watching Pitts do what he did in regards to his sheer volume and receiving yards compared to the history of rookie tight ends, his overall performance could surely be considered surprising. Even though there wasn’t any question about his insane talent, you were still betting against years and years of history. And then, once we appreciate how truly special his rookie season is, we’re once again surprised by how much better it could have been with just a halfway decent touchdown rate. With just three more touchdowns, Pitts would’ve finished ahead of George Kittle for a TE4 finish and this still would’ve left his TD rate at just 3.6%, which would’ve been 11th among top-12 tight ends. If he had four more touchdowns, he’s likely TE3, moving ahead of Dalton Schultz and his TD rate would’ve been just 4.5% – still in the bottom half of the top-12. The fact he lived up to the hype is surprising and the fact he disappointed despite living up to the hype is even more surprising. All you need to know entering 2022 is to buy Kyle Pitts, he’s only going to get better. The touchdowns, they’ll come – I guarantee it.

 

Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders

Darren Waller had a somewhat disappointing season in 2021. He finished as the TE18 after missing six games, but finished seventh in terms of points per game. Still, even when he was on the field, fantasy managers were often left wanting more, so what gives?

Almost all of his per game averages ranked in or close to the top-five among tight ends and yet he wasn’t able to come close to replicating the elitism fantasy managers loved in 2019 and 2020. The seventh-year pro averaged 11.0 points per game in 2019 and 14.1 in 2021 before falling considerably to 9.6 this season. That wasn’t due to a decrease in targets, however. He averaged 7.8 targets per game, which was ranked third in the NFL among tight ends. That was only down slightly from 9.0 targets per game average in 2020. The problem was his overall efficiency, which fell off a cliff.

His catch rate was 77% in 2019 and 74% in 2020. That number plummeted down to just 59% this season – a 15-point decrease from last season. That resulted in Waller averaging two fewer receptions per game than what he did in 2020. That lack of efficiency impacted every aspect of his fantasy game. His yards per game dropped from 71.5 (2019) and 75.7 (2020) all the way down to 55 in 2021.

That drop in efficiency from such a talented player, especially one who had been so efficient in recent seasons, was certainly surprising. Some might want to blame quarterback Derek Carr, but his completion percentage increased in 2021 from 2020 and was still a very good, 68.4%. His yardage also increased from 4,103 to 4,804.

Looking forward to 2022, fantasy managers should expect Waller to get back to something that more closely resembles his 2019 and 2020 seasons. The Raiders look to be short-handed in regards to pass-catchers once again in 2022, which should make Waller Carr's favorite target once again.

 

Dalton Schultz, Dallas Cowboys

No one saw Dalton Schultz coming this year. Entering the 2021 season, the Cowboys were absolutely stacked with highly talented pass-catchers. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup were widely viewed as one of the best trio of receivers in the league entering 2021. Schultz played well in 2020 following Blake Jarwin’s torn ACL in Week 1, but Jarwin was back after having signed a big contract the year prior and many thought he’d be the No. 1 tight end for the Cowboys. It became pretty early that wasn’t the case. Schultz became one of Dak Prescott’s favorite targets. In fact, his 104 targets were tied for second among all Cowboys with Cooper and Lamb, who led the Cowboys in targets (and they only had 120). Schultz was a huge part of the passing game, which should be viewed as a pretty big surprise within itself considering the number of mouths they had when the season started.

What he did with those targets was really the biggest surprise. He ended up as the TE3 finishing behind only Mark Andrews and Travis Kelce and he was a waiver-wire add in most fantasy leagues. Talk about value. He finished sixth in targets, but was able to finish third in total receptions among tight ends. His final stat line also included 808 yards with eight touchdowns. He had six games of 14 or more points and was incredibly consistent, only scoring below six points four times. The four-year pro provided fantasy managers nine weeks of top-12 production. The consistency is what was really surprising.

Entering this season, fantasy managers were worried about whether there might be too many mouths to feed in Dallas. For Schultz specifically, where would he fit in and how many looks would Prescott be able to give him with all the other weapons on the team? Unfortunately, Michael Gallup ended up missing the first five weeks of the season, which helped open additional targets for the fourth-year pro. For most of the 2021 season, it was anyone’s guess as to which Dallas pass-catcher would wind up with the best game. Dalton Schultz incredibly asserted himself into the same group of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb and he made his home there for most of the season.

The biggest question for 2022 now becomes, what was 2021? Was it a breakout or a one-hit wonder? Schultz and Gallup are both free agents and Cooper could become a cap casualty. There’s a lot to sort out and more than a few dominoes to fall before we can really get a feel for what might be in store for Schultz in 2022. There are some concerns that he might have just had his “Austin Hooper” season, a big season in a contract year and those concerns are legitimate and yet, there’s no denying what he was able to accomplish. Say what you will about Lamb not being a true alpha or Cooper starting to decline, but these are still two talented receivers and Schultz earned his targets right up there with them. It’s hard to imagine where a new team would offer more target competition than the group he was competing within Dallas and so there’s hope, but it still requires some caution for fantasy managers.



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Scott "The King" Engel issues his full Week 5 lineup rankings in PPR, Half-PPR, and Standard formats. He also includes analysis of key players at each position. The rankings will continue to be updated as news breaks prior to Sunday's games. Following the positional analysis below you'll see the rankings widget. Enter KING at checkout to... Read More


Trevor Lawrence - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

NFL DFS Value Plays: Week 5 Bargain Bin for DraftKings, FanDuel and Yahoo

Welcome to the Week 5 Sunday main slate edition of RotoBaller's NFL DFS Bargain Bin, where the goal is to touch on some potentially mispriced players across the industry that find themselves in favorable match-ups and/or suddenly expanded roles. Each week I’ll give you my thoughts on where there may be some value spots to... Read More


Start Em, Sit Em - Fantasy Football Week 5 Starts/Sits

Starts/Sits for RBs, WRs, TEs, QBs - Fantasy Football Week 5: Dalton Schultz, Rhamondre Stevenson, Rashaad Penny, Diontae Johnson

Our START EM SIT EM for fantasy football Week 5, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks. Joey and Dave give their must-start and must-sit options in Week 5 to help fantasy football managers make tough lineup decisions. RotoBaller's fantasy football start/sit advice is here to help you set winning lineups for each week... Read More


NFL DFS RB and WR Anchors For Week 5 (Premium Content)

All other Week 5 Premium Tools and Content can be accessed on the premium dashboard. In this piece, we're looking at the top running backs or wide receivers to build your cash or tournament lineups around. Most weeks I am going to recommend two running backs and two wide receivers who you can use as... Read More


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NFL DFS Lineup Sleepers for DraftKings, FanDuel - Week 5 Value Picks Include Ryan Tannehill, Kareem Hunt, Garrett Wilson, Dallas Goedert

One-quarter of the NFL season is already over, which is hard to believe. 1 month into the season we now have enough data and history to go on to hopefully make some accurate predictions for the rest of the year. As each week goes on we have a better understanding of new coaches, offensive schemes,... Read More


Michael Pittman Jr. - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

Colts vs Broncos Start 'Em Sit 'Em: Russell Wilson, Jerry Jeudy, Melvin Gordon, Nyheim Hines, Mike Boone, Mo Alie-Cox, Alec Pierce

I hope you all survived last week. With monster weeks from lots of second-tier players such as Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, and Jamaal Williams, some of the teams with slow starts might have gotten their revenge.  This week, we have two veteran quarterbacks who are looking to turn their new teams around. Thankfully, both QBs... Read More


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Snap Counts, Touches, and Usage Analysis for Fantasy Football Week 5

Welcome to Week 5 of the fantasy football season. This article series takes the recent snap and touch history of skill players into account, and now that we have three weeks in the books there is a bit more of a sample to work with. Week 4 saw a litter of players across the league... Read More


Jonathan Taylor - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

Fantasy Football Running Back Trade Targets - Buy/Sell for Week 5

In this article, we'll take a look specifically at running backs you should be buying and selling ahead of Week 5. Here at RotoBaller, we also have a recurring trade targets article for all positions that can be found here. We'll dissect the running back landscape by looking at opportunity share. That can help us... Read More


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Finding Tight End Breakouts for Fantasy Football – Cracking the Code for Week 5

Holy T.J. Hockenson! With Amon-Ra St. Brown, D.J. Chark, and D'Andre Swift all out of the lineup, Hockenson was given 12 targets from quarterback, Jared Goff. He turned those targets into 8 receptions, 179 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Opportunity and volume continue to be king for this position. It's not something most tight ends are... Read More


Mike Evans - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

Rest of Season Half-PPR Rankings: Fantasy Football Top 200 for Week 5

Four weeks of the 2022 NFL season are down, the fantasy baseball has wrapped up, and autumn is in the air as we proceed with some Rest-of-Season ranks! We aim to assess players moving forward as if we drafted today to help orient you to build winners through waivers or trades, so today we present... Read More


Tee Higgins - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

Wide Receiver Snap Counts and Target Trends - Risers and Fallers for Week 5 (2022)

You are already aware that wide receivers will play a critical role in the success of your teams. The undeniable volatility that exists with the running back position has also presented an increasing rationale for prioritizing wide receivers when you build your rosters - both at the onset of your drafts and as you manage... Read More


Melvin Gordon - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

Timeshare or Position Battle? Breaking Down Running Back Committees: Fantasy Football 2022

As the season rolls along, we're starting to get a better idea of how some running back committees have gone. Some of those committees have turned out to not be committees. James Robinson has dominated the Jaguars backfield and left Travis Etienne with a minimal role, for example. And some have been even more committee... Read More


Stefon Diggs - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

WR/CB Matchups to Target and Downgrade - Week 5

Welcome to Week 5 of the WR/CB Matchup chart. As the year goes on, the PPGA metric will become more and more predictive. Results from a small sample usually tell more about how talented a CB's opponents have been rather than the difficulty of the matchup going forward. It is not advised to use this... Read More


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Fantasy Basketball Breakouts, Busts, And Locks - Charlotte Hornets 2022 Outlook

Welcome to a new series that we are debuting here at RotoBaller in order to start getting you ready for the 2022-2023 fantasy basketball season! If you play fantasy football, you'll probably recognize the format here as we had a series of preseason NFL articles that followed the same outline. The idea here is to... Read More


Five Teams To Target In 2022-2023 Fantasy Basketball

A lot of content focuses exclusively on which players you should draft (or not draft) and when. But what about specific teams? Should we target certain teams more heavily than others? While you don't have to stack up players from one team onto your teams (and in fact, it's probably a bad idea to put... Read More


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Fantasy Basketball Risers, Rookies and Draft Sleepers (Central Division) - Khris Middleton, Myles Turner, DeMar DeRozan, Donovan Mitchell, Jaden Ivey

The regular season is inching closer by the day, and most offseason moves have already been completed – barring a surprising Russell Westbrook trade, or the pending Jae Crowder deal when/if Phoenix finds a proper partner before tip-off day. Each team's depth chart is mostly complete, so it makes sense to start analyzing how it... Read More


Daily NBA Injury Roundup for October 6th, 2022

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily NBA injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy basketball (DFS) lineups, every day of the NBA season. Below is our updated list of injured NBA players for October 6th, 2022. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Fantasy Basketball Breakouts, Busts, And Locks - Sacramento Kings 2022 Outlook

Hey there, NBA fans, I hope you are enjoying the new series that we have been debuting here at RotoBaller in order to start getting you ready for the 2022-2023 fantasy basketball season! If you play fantasy football, you'll probably recognize the format here as we had a series of preseason NFL articles that followed... Read More


Fantasy Basketball Risers, Rookies and Draft Sleepers (Northwest Division) - Collin Sexton, Josh Giddey, Anfernee Simons, Mike Muscala

The regular season is inching closer by the day, and most offseason moves have already been completed – barring a surprising Russell Westbrook trade, or the pending Jae Crowder deal when/if Phoenix finds a proper partner before tip-off day. Each team's depth chart is mostly complete, so it makes sense to start analyzing how it... Read More


Daily NBA Injury Roundup for October 5th, 2022

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily NBA injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy basketball (DFS) lineups, every day of the NBA season. Below is our updated list of injured NBA players for October 5th, 2022. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Fantasy Basketball Risers, Rookies and Draft Sleepers (Southeast Division) - LaMelo Ball, Dejounte Murray, Paolo Banchero, Kristaps Porzingis, Bam Adebayo

The regular season is inching closer by the day, and most offseason moves have already been completed – barring a surprising Russell Westbrook trade, or the pending Jae Crowder deal when/if Phoenix finds a proper partner before tip-off day. Each team's depth chart is mostly complete, so it makes sense to start analyzing how it... Read More


Daily NBA Injury Roundup for October 4th, 2022

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily NBA injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy basketball (DFS) lineups, every day of the NBA season. Below is our updated list of injured NBA players for October 4th, 2022. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


DraftKings Daily Fantasy Basketball Picks (10/3/22): Preseason NBA DFS Lineups

NBA DFS is back! Yes, we still have two weeks until the season officially tips off, but that doesn't mean we can't get ahead of the field by playing some NBA Preseason DFS! Is it risky? Absolutely! Can it be fun and possibly lucrative? Also, yes! Preseason rotations are never easy to figure out and... Read More


Third-Year Fantasy Basketball Breakouts: The Time Is Now

Not every player can set the world on fire as a rookie. Or as a second-year player. Sometimes, young players take time to develop. A lot of star players take a leap in year three, but there are also players who aren't stars but become solid role players in that third season. Anthony Edwards is... Read More


Thunder Dan's 2022-23 Fantasy Basketball Rankings and Draft Analysis

I am quite possibly more excited for this NBA season than I have been for any previous season since I was a kid. I grew up watching the golden age of the NBA in the '80s and '90s and have been an NBA fan ever since. But this season is hopefully going to be like... Read More