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Early 2022 Tight End Sleepers for Fantasy Football

Fantasy managers know all about the cream of the crop when it comes to tight ends. We all hear about Travis Kelce's dominance, the generational talent of Kyle Pitts and the emergence of Mark Andrews. These things are no mysteries. The problem is there are so few names at the top and the talent drops off sharply. The top tier of tight ends is easy to predict because we know the volume is going to be there. It's no secret Darren Waller and George Kittle is going to be a big part of their team's offensive game plan. We all know that much.

When it comes to sleepers at tight end, we're trying to identify players who can average six targets per game. Prior to 2021, this would mean 96 targets by season's end. Now with the 17th game, we're looking for 102 targets. Over the past six seasons, 2021 included, there have been 35 tight ends to reach that mark. Of those 35, 30 of them ended him finishing in the top-six. The five who didn't have abysmal touchdown rates. Rates so low fantasy managers shouldn't read anything more into other than bad luck. Mike Gesicki had a 1.7% TD rate and Pitts was at 0.09% in 2021. In 2020, it was Evan Engram with a 0.09% rate. We all know how important touchdowns are at tight end and scoring just 1–3 touchdowns on the season is going to be a killer.

However, touchdowns are impossible to predict, especially when it comes to the player pool we're looking at. Fantasy managers know who is at the top of the food chain, we're trying to find the next group of tight ends that are being slept on and have a much higher value than they're being associated with right now. Every year tight ends come out of nowhere to surprise us. In 2020, we had Robert Tonyan who rode the coattails of an insanely high TD rate, but this season we had Dalton Schultz who racked up 104 targets. Predicting touchdowns is a fool's errand, but we can attempt to predict some good value plays based on volume potential.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy football rankings for 2024 fantasy football drafts:

 

Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears – TE17

Cole Kmet should be on everyone's sleeper list entering the 2022 season for two reasons – target share and positive regression. The second-year pro finished with 93 targets in 2021, just nine off the number we're looking for. There's reason to be optimistic he's able to get over the hump next season. Allen Robinson will be gone, and while he didn't have as large of a target share as he has in years past, his exit opens the door for Kmet to be the No. 2 option in the Bears' passing offense.

He earned 5.5 targets per game last season and finished with a 17% target share. We often see tight ends truly breakout in their third year as the position takes a little more time for collegiate athletes to become accustomed to the NFL game. The positive aspect for Kmet is his total targets jumped from 44 as a rookie up to 93 in his sophomore campaign. With Jimmy Graham's long overdue exit, the former Notre Dame star will be the primary tight end for Chicago. That was already mostly the case last season, but Matt Nagy was hell-bent on using the veteran tight end far more than he should've in the red zone.

While Kmet out-snaped Graham by 672 and out-targeted him overall by 70, their red-zone targets were much closer than they should have been. In fact, 35% of Graham's total targets came in the red zone as opposed to Kmet's 15%. The increased red zone utilization Kmet will likely see due to Graham's departure should not go unnoticed. Despite sharing far too much work much near the end zone with the ghost of Graham, Kmet still finished with a 19.4% target share inside the red zone. That ranked 10th among tight ends.

His overall utilization numbers really do look excellent, especially considering he's a year early from the typical third-year breakout season we generally associate with tight ends. Based on his targets and red zone work, his overall finish as TE21 looks incredibly disappointing. Truthfully, it's almost unbelievable, but touchdowns drive the tight end position and Kmet, unfortunately, had none. This, of course, brings us to point No. 2 – positive regression.

Only Laviska Shenault Jr. had more targets than Kmet without scoring a touchdown. Among tight ends, the next closest tight end in targets with zero touchdowns was Dan Arnold with 52 – 41 less than Kmet. Fantasy managers should absolutely be counting on Kmet scoring more touchdowns next season, especially if he commands some of Graham's old red zone usage. Among tight ends who finished with at least eight red-zone targets – there were 30 of them – only four had a worse catch percentage than the former second-rounder. It wasn't just the red zone where Kmet struggled. He finished with just a 67.4% overall catch percentage. Among tight ends with at least 55 targets, this ranked 18th out of 23 qualifying players.

The overall offense should be much better in 2022. Justin Fields will be the full-time starter, which will likely spark a big improvement from the overall play of Andy Dalton and Nick Foles. While Fields may have struggled a bit as a rookie, some of that should have been expected considering the dynamics he was forced into in year one. With Luke Getsy coming over from Green Bay to work as the new offensive coordinator, fantasy managers should expect a more well-refined offense, one that will do a better job of utilizing Fields' talents.

When you factor in the likely improvement from not only the quarterback position, but the overall offense with the target share and positive regression in regards to Kmet's overall and red zone catch percentage, you have a recipe for a third-year breakout season. Last season, Kmet finished seventh among tight ends with the most unrealized air yards with 371, assuming Fields and Kmet can be more in sync in 2022, fantasy managers are going to want the Bears' tight end on their roster.

 

Evan Engram, Free Agent – TE19

Trust me, I know. Look, I get it. Engram has burned you. He's burned me too. I'm not sure there is a fantasy manager out there that has not been burned by Evan Engram. Here's the thing though, it's crucial to not hold grudges in fantasy football. I mean, you could chalk that one up to a life lesson, but deciphering the landscape of tight ends is difficult enough, so let's try to keep this as simple as possible.

First off, one of the tags Engram often gets slapped with is being injury prone and it's important we focus on that right away. He's been in the league for five seasons, which means if he had played in all of them, he'd have 81 starts to his name. He has 65, which is not nearly as injury-prone as his reputation would suggest. Using the new 17-game season, based on his career average, fantasy managers should expect him to play anywhere from 13–14 games. That really isn't that bad. In those five seasons, he's played in 15, 11, 8, 16, and 15 games. Again, it really isn't that bad. Now that we have that out of the way, let's move on to the good.

Remember the number we're looking for? Six targets per game. Well, Engram has hit that average in three out of five seasons and he has a fourth where he averaged 5.82 targets. The other three years where he crossed the threshold, he didn't just cross the threshold, he just about hopped and skipped past. In those three seasons, he averaged 7.67, 8.50 and 6.81 targets. This is exactly what should excite fantasy managers about Engram – target share potential. He's proven it in the past and there's a reason for that.

Engram has been treated like a big slot receiver ever since being drafted. He's still an extremely gifted athlete, one whose speed can be too much for linebackers and his size too much for safeties and cornerbacks. It can be safely assumed no matter where Engram goes, the team won't be signing him to block defensive ends. No, they'll be signing him to catch passes. The other fairly safe assumption fantasy managers can make is wherever he goes, he's likely to get better quarterback play than the kind he's received in New York. He's had to deal with the culmination of Eli Manning's career and now, with Daniel Jones who could only be described as atrocious last season.

There's no point in speculating as to where Engram will land once free agency opens up, but he's still young and he has the profile of a tight end who is going to be used in the passing game. The one area where the fifth-year pro has struggled is – finding the end zone. He has just 16 career touchdowns on 429 targets, which is good for a miserable 3.7% TD rate. One could blame Engram for that, but it would be unfair. In his five seasons with the Giants, they've finished 31st, 31st, 18th, 16th, and 31st in overall scoring.

He has the target share potential fantasy managers should be looking and it's highly likely wherever he ends up in free agency, the grass will be greener than it was in New York. Don't fall prey to the overcorrections and labels that can get in the way of recognizing a good value. Engram has plenty of potential to outplay his current 2022 ranking of TE19.

 

Brevin Jordan, Houston Texans – TE32

Well, when we talk about volume potential, there might not be a sleeper with more of that than Brevin Jordan of the Texans. He is currently the 2022 starter by default and there is only one other tight end under contract for the following year – Paul Quessenberry (who?). The depth chart at receiver isn’t really any better. The primary starters are currently slated to be Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins. Early offseason rumors suggest a Cooks trade is “inevitable”. Should that happen, the cupboard of pass-catchers on Houston’s depth chart is incredibly bare.

The Texans hold eight overall picks and four in the first 80 picks of the NFL 2022 Draft. They’re also looking at just under $20 million in salary cap space. A lot of that could change if Laremy Tunsil, Deshaun Watson and/or Brandin Cooks are traded. They’d acquire significant cap room and certainly would add a bevy of draft capital. The question becomes would tight end be a position they’d be looking to upgrade?

The simple answer is the Texans should be looking to upgrade every position, that’s how bad their roster is. The reality is they simply won’t have the resources to do that in one off-season, even assuming those three trades go down. Their receiver room would need significant upgrades, as does the running back group and most importantly, their offensive line. The defense needs a complete revamping. They finished 27th in points allowed and 31st in yards. Needless to say, almost every position there needs a talent influx.

Jordan played well to close the season after being inactive for the first seven games – maybe well enough to have earned a shot at the starting gig in 2022. He was just in his rookie season and he was a fifth-round pick, so it’s no surprise he was brought along slowly, but he had a productive college career. He started 11 of 12 games as a true freshman at Miami and earned second-team all-conference that season. As a sophomore, he elevated his game even more. This time he made first-team all-conference and finished as a Mackey Award finalist. In his last season he college, he finished with 576 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing three games.

He finally saw his first game action in Week 8, but the playing time was minimal – below 30% snap count. From Weeks 12–18, his snap count increased, never dropping below 36% and capping out at 60%. During those seven weeks, he was the TE19 in terms of PPG – an impressive showing despite the still very low snap count and it being his rookie season.

Jordan missed Week 15, but in the other six weeks to close out the season, Jordan complied three top-14 weekly finishes with a high of top-six. During those six weeks, the Texans threw the ball 194 times and ran 149 routes, which means he was in a route on 77% of the team’s passing plays. That’s a healthy number for a rookie. He was on the field for 165 of those pass plays, which means he was in a route 90.3% of the time – that’s excellent. We don’t want tight ends staying in to block and when Jordan almost never did that. Those are good signs for 2022.

Almost all of Jordan’s sleeper potential is centered around how the Texans fill out their incredibly depleted roster. Fantasy managers should be looking for volume potential at tight end and depending on how the Texans attack their off-season, the former Hurricane could be looking at a starting role in 2022, one with minimal target competition. Should the defense continue to be as bad as it was in 2021, the Texans’ offense will be forced to throw the ball, increasing the number of targets available. Fantasy managers will need to pay attention to the off-season moves in Houston, but Jordan’s cost of acquisition is very cheap for someone who could be looking at a fairly stable number of targets should no major additions be added to his position.

 

Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings –TE34

Irv Smith was one of my favorite tight end value plays heading into the 2021 season and nothing has changed this year except a dramatic decrease in the cost of acquisition. Smith missed the entire 2021 campaign after requiring knee surgery early in the year, but should be fully healthy for the 2022 season. The best part, all of the reasons to like him as a sleeper still exist.

Smith wrapped up his second season in the NFL as the TE22 in PPG after the 2020 season. Unfortunately, he was still splitting time and targets with former Viking, Kyle Rudolph. However, during the last four weeks of the season where Rudolph was inactive, the former Alabama tight end absolutely exploded. He finished as the TE4 over those last four weeks of the season, averaging 11 PPG.

He had 183 receiving yards during that time, which ranked sixth-most in the NFL. He also averaged five targets per game during that stretch, which is just one off the number we’re looking for our tight ends to be at. Now, the sample size is incredibly small and small sample sizes should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s no mystery most tight ends need 1–2 years in the NFL before they truly solidify their role. For Smith, he was left working behind a capable veteran tight end in Kyle Rudolph.

Smith played 13 games over the course of his 2020 campaign. He had seven games where he had four or more targets. In those seven games, the second-year pro averaged 3.43 catches, 40.71 yards and 0.71 touchdowns per game. Across a 17-game season, that would amount to 58 catches, 692 yards and 12 touchdowns. What that shows is that when he’s received targets, he’s been quite successful with them. Which brings us to the next and most pivotal question – what does his target share look like in 2022?

The big question will be how the new head coach, Kevin O’Connell divvies up the work between Tyler Conklin and Irv Smith. He was previously the offensive coordinator for the Rams from 2020–2021. Last season, the Rams only had Tyler Higbee at tight end, but in 2020, they employed both Higbee and Gerald Everett. The split between them rendered them both mostly irrelevant for fantasy, at least in terms of weekly consistency. There is some fear a similar workload split could be used in Minnesota in 2022, but prior to this past season, Conklin had been nothing but a blocker. Below is a table that shows the total stats of each team’s tight ends during Kirk Cousins’ tenure in Minnesota and O’Connel’s stint as offensive coordinator for the Rams.

Targets

Receptions

Yards

Touchdowns

Vikings (2018-2021)

101

75

755

6.7

Rams (2020-2021)

110

78

753

5.5

You’ll see the volume is there, but Smith will have to command 90% of it. During Smith’s sophomore season, he was in a route on 87% of the pass plays he was on the field for. That’s an elite rate and it’s the kind of number we’re looking for fantasy success. During his rookie season, that number was 89%. Conklin on the other hand, only ran a route on just 66% of his pass play snaps in 2019 and 82% in 2020. This tells us we should expect Smith to function as the primary pass-catching tight end in 2022.

Over the past three seasons, fantasy managers have begun to see a slight decline in Adam Thielen’s production, specifically as it relates to his targets and yards, but he’s still a red-zone beast. What kind of decline are we talking about? Well, from 2016–2018, Thielen averaged 129 targets, 91 catches, 1,205 yards and 6 touchdowns. From 2019–2021 those numbers have dipped to 103 targets, 70 catches, 850 yards and 12 touchdowns. His per-game averages were used to calculate his 16-game averages for the last three seasons as he did happen to miss a few games during that time period, where he played all 16 during the first three-year window.

He’ll be 32 entering the 2022 season and fantasy managers should expect his now, three-year decline to continue. That could present a scenario where Smith is able to carve out a bigger piece of the proverbial target pie. The former second-round pick is now entering his third season, a year tight ends have typically broken out in the past. He’s proven to be an effective and efficient pass-catcher during his first two seasons despite minimal target volume.

 

Honorable Mentions

  • Gerald Everett, Seattle Seahawks –TE20
    • This is mostly if Everett stays in Seattle where he started to solidify himself as the No. 3 target in the Seahawks' passing offense. With the addition of Shane Waldron as offensive coordinator, fantasy managers should finally expect to see a slight uptick in passing volume.
  • Blake Jarwin, Dallas Cowboys – TE28
    • Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson and Dalton Schultz are all free agents. Gallup tore his ACL in Week 17 and Amari Cooper could become a cap casualty. Depending on who stays and goes, Jarwin could be a sneaky good value.
  • David Njoku, Free Agent – TE41 
    • Njoku hasn't lived up to his potential since being drafted, but he's still a fairly young tight end with elite athleticism. If he falls in the right spot, there's yet some untapped upside.



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Sometimes the term slot receiver brings up a negative connotation, but that should be the case, especially considering the context. We know context matters like whether the team runs a high rate of 11 personnel, a team's pass rate, and a player's efficiency in the slot position. Sometimes offenses will move their best offensive weapon... Read More


FFPC Fantasy Football Best Ball Rankings: Tight End Premium Leagues

Fantasy football Best Ball league players are very busy already, as they have been actively participating in drafts since the NFL Draft concluded. There are various ways to compete in the format, many of which are featured on the Fantasy Football Players Championship (FFPC) platform. No matter the type of seasonal league you choose to... Read More