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7 Tight End Breakout Candidates for Fantasy Football Drafts - Greg Dulcich, Trey McBride, Cole Kmet, more

Trey McBride - Fantasy Football Rankings, Waiver Wire Pickups, Draft Sleepers

Preseason football has been filled with interesting takeaways, big plays from backups and rookies, and just enough highlights to tie us over until Week 1 kicks off on September 7th. In the meantime, fantasy drafts are afoot in all formats, making it a great time to hone in on potential 2023 breakouts. 

Every year, there are players that exceed their previous career highs, leveling up to the next tier. Accurately identifying those players is very valuable because you can trade for or draft them at their current value, which will be a discount compared to their final production. While there is no crystal ball or a time machine to know for sure who will fit that description, there are some indicators that we can look for, including youth, opportunity, past production, draft capital, and underlying metrics such as yards per route run.

This article will focus on tight ends, the position that is the most difficult to get production and consistency from. Below, we have four names with a strong path to breaking out and reaching that next tier in 2023, along with three deeper options.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers won two writing awards and received 12 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. A big congrats to our very own Byron Lindeque (Golf) and Jordan McAbee (NASCAR) for both winning Writer Of The Year awards! Be sure to follow RotoBaller's analysis and advice all year long, and win more. Win More With RotoBaller!


2023 Fantasy Football Breakouts

Greg Dulcich, Denver Broncos

Dulcich garnered some preseason hype after being drafted 80th overall in the third round, but it was Albert Okwuegbunam who most people projected to be the starter. Dulcich missed the first five games before hauling in a touchdown in his Week 6 debut. He followed that up with back-to-back productive outings of six receptions for 51 yards and four receptions for 87 yards.

He struggled with consistency, largely because of the low offensive output from the Denver offense, but put together a couple of good games before missing the final two weeks. In the 10 contests he was active, he generated 33 receptions for 411 yards and two touchdowns, which would pace out as 56 catches for 699 yards and three touchdowns.

The Broncos offense was abysmal, ranking dead last in points per game. While the jury is still out on Russell Wilson for 2023, their passing attack is almost guaranteed to improve. Additionally, they made arguably the biggest coaching hire, trading for Sean Peyton, who has had great success in the league, especially on offense.

Despite their other offensive weapons, Dulcich proved he could earn targets and succeed, finishing third on the team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards behind only Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, despite only playing in 10 games. Furthermore, he was a deep threat, earning the third-most downfield targets (20-plus yards) among all tight ends with a 95.8 grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

The team did draft Marvin Mims at wide receiver and acquire Adam Trautman at tight end, but they also lost Tim Patrick and K.J. Hamler to injury, creating a nice opportunity for him to remain the third option. He's a prime candidate to make the sophomore leap and level up this season, making him a solid pick at his current ADP of 130 overall.

Trey McBride, Arizona Cardinals

McBride led the class in draft capital as the first tight end selected at 55 overall. It was a landing spot with more long-term upside because Zach Ertz was the starter. Ertz went down in Week 10 with a season-ending knee injury, opening the door for McBride. It took him a few weeks to get going, in part because Kyler Murray was injured. Murray only played one game during the final eight weeks, forcing the team to lean on Colt McCoyTrace McSorley, and David Blough, none of which are worthy of being an NFL starter. McBride did blow up in championship week, hauling in seven receptions for 78 yards and a score, showcasing his upside.

The Cardinals' win total sits at 4.5, meaning they're not going to be winning many games this season. However, that will also put them in a negative game script, forcing them to throw the ball more. They're currently on track to trot out Colt McCoy to begin the season unless Clayton Tune can steal the job. They're likely to get Murray back at some point in 2023, it's really just a matter of when.

Additionally, the team elected to cut Hopkins, who is now a member of the Titans, confirming he won't be a part of the roster this year.

It does appear Ertz will take the field in the near future, but the team is so void of proven weapons, there's still an opportunity for McBride, who typically goes undrafted at 221 overall. He's a player to monitor in shallow leagues and grab late in deeper ones.

Chigoziem Okonkwo, Tennessee Titans

Okonkwo is an exciting young tight end that was drafted late in the fourth round in 2022 and flashed potential in the latter part of his rookie season. He took on a larger role over the final seven games, earning four-plus targets in all but one. He also totaled 24 catches for 278 yards and two scores during that stretch. That production paces out to 58 receptions for 675 yards and five touchdowns, which would have made him the TE7 in half-PPR scoring last season.

Also working in his favor is that the Titans had, and still have, a talent-laden receiving corps after the aforementioned DeAndre Hopkins and sophomore Treylon Burks. The depth chart after Burks features Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Kyle Philips, neither of whom is a real threat to Okonkwo. The good news from the arrival of Hopkins is that the team is committed to winning in 2023, which means it will once again be Ryan Tannehill under center.

The team also elected to bring in a new offensive coordinator in Tim Kelly, whose presence could mean good things for the passing attack as a whole, which really struggled in 2022, ranking 28th in passing touchdowns and 30th in both passing attempts and passing yards. It's unlikely they turn into a top-10 passing offense, but simply ascending to the league average would mean more opportunities and production for Okonkwo.

The last sign is in the metric referenced in the introduction, yards per route run. Okonkwo finished with 2.61, pacing all NFL TEs as the only player other than Travis Kelce to finish above 2.0. He's also the only rookie other than Kyle Pitts to clear that mark in the past five years. It's worth noting that he was 30th in targets and 41st in total routes, but it's a clear sign of his talent and big-play ability, which is hard to get from your tight end. He's being selected at 118 overall, but the upside is most definitely there.

Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears

As a popular breakout candidate entering last season, Kmet again warrants a spot on this list. Despite being in his fourth year in the NFL, he's still only 24 years old. It's also important to remember he was drafted early in the second round, 43rd overall. Furthermore, the team signed him to a four-year extension, making him an integral part of their offense.

Most people are familiar with the story of the Bears season, which is essentially the story of Justin Fields. He outperforms Trey Lance in Week 1 during a monsoon. He was improperly utilized by the team for several weeks. He then goes nuclear, breaking records on the ground. It was around Week 6 the team started putting him in a position to optimize his skill set.

Kmet's wild touchdown streak began in Week 8, finding the end zone fives times in three games. Fields then got hurt, Darnell Mooney went down with a season-ending injury, and the passing attack evaporated. The team traded for Chase Claypool, but that was a bust, ending any chance Kmet had of completing the breakout he started. He still finished the year with 50 receptions for 544 yards and seven touchdowns as the TE7 in half-PPR scoring.

In 2022, 69.2% of his targets were in the red zone, accounting for five of his seven touchdowns. It provides him with a path to being a top-10 tight end even if the volume is volatile. Additionally, he was deployed downfield frequently, earning the sixth-most deep (20-plus yards) targets among all tight ends and the third-most yards per reception on those targets with a 95.8 grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

The other factor to consider is the progression of Fields and the passing attack, particularly after the acquisition of DJ Moore. Chicago was dead last in pass attempts, finishing with 38 fewer attempts than the next-lowest team. They were also last in passing yards, averaging only 130.5 yards per game while totaling only 19 passing touchdowns. Much like Denver and Tennessee, even a small improvement would go a long way to increasing the opportunities for Kmet, who has a top-five ceiling because he could finish with 10-plus touchdowns, making him worth the shot at 126 overall.


Deeper Breakout Candidates

Jelani Woods, Indianapolis Colts

Woods was part of a three-player rotation at tight end in Indianapolis that featured Kylen Granson and Mo Alie-Cox. It's difficult for a rookie tight end to make an impact, especially when they're playing limited snaps. Woods played the lowest number of offensive snaps at 334, trailing both Granson at 408 and Alie-Cox at 586. Despite a lesser role, he produced the most receiving yards, tied for the most targets and receiving touchdowns, and finished second in receptions of those three. Also, similar to McBride, Woods had his moment in the sun with eight receptions for 98 yards in Week 12.

Parris Campbell, whose yards per reception was only 9.9, acted as their high-volume and lower depth of target option and left in free agency to the Giants. The team has two solid receivers, including Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce, with question marks in rookie Josh Downs. At 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, Woods is a massive individual who finished 15th in yards per route run at the position.

The team drafted Anthony Richardson to be their starting quarterback in 2023, which has its drawbacks in terms of passing capabilities but could prove to be better for the offense than the combination of starters they boasted in 2022. Woods will need to overtake Granson and Alie-Cox but is a deeper tight end with top-12 potential that you can wait to acquire late or on waivers given his discounted price tag of 229 overall.

It's worth noting Woods has been dealing with a hamstring injury this offseason, but he's expected to be ready to go when the regular season kicks off.

Cade Otton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Next up for sleepers is Otton, who shares a similar situation to Woods. He was splitting time with Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate. However, Rudolph is a free agent, and the team released Brate.

With those two gone, Ko Kieft and Payne Durham are No. 2 and No. 3 behind him in the depth chart. Kieft was a fellow rookie taken in the sixth round last year, earning only 10 targets, while Durham is a fifth-round selection in 2023. Thus, Otton is locked in as the team's starter.

His production was sporadic, finishing with zero or one reception five times while hauling in four-plus catches in five of his games. His overall volume was promising, but that has a lot to do with Tom Brady throwing a record-breaking 733 passes in 2022. The quarterback transition is primarily what keeps him in the deeper options section because the passing attempts will take a massive hit, and the replacement is either veteran Baker Mayfield or former second-round pick in 2021, Kyle Trask. Neither inspires a ton of confidence, but the distribution of targets should be consolidated between Otton and their two wideouts, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, especially after Russell Gage went down. He's another player you can stash or monitor given his ADP of 239.

Isaiah Likely, Baltimore Ravens

The last tight end we'll cover is Likely. He put himself on the map in the preseason when he made eight catches for 100 yards and a score, stealing the show. Everyone in the fantasy world jumped on the hype train, calling him the No. 3 option behind Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman in an offense that lacked capable receivers. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition as he played more than 45% of the offensive snaps only three times all season, including the game Mark Andrews got hurt and the two games he missed.

His production during those games was fantastic, finishing with six receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown, one catch for 24 yards and a touchdown, and eight grabs for 103 yards. However, in the other 13 games he played, he totaled just 21 receptions for 172 yards and one touchdown. It's clear he has top-five upside when he's the starter, but barring injury, that's not a role he can earn in 2023, limiting him to more of an insurance tight end.

Baltimore managed to work out a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, ensuring he'll be leading this squad for several more years, which is great news for Likely and Co. The team also elected to move on from offensive coordinator Greg Roman in favor of Todd Monken, who many are excited about. He's already shown a desire to increase their pace of play, providing more plays for everyone in their receiving corps, an area of emphasis this offseason.

It's possible he deploys Likely differently, enabling an opportunity to be on the field more and earn more targets, but that's a long shot. Overall, Likley is an intriguing deeper option who, under the right conditions, can win you a week, something not many tight ends can do, plus he's being drafted at 236 overall.

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