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Early 2023 Fantasy Football Breakout Tight Ends: Greg Dulcich, Trey McBride, And More

Jerick McKinnon - Fantasy Football Rankings, Waiver Wire Pickups, Draft Sleepers

The NFL draft is less than two months away, best ball tournaments are in full swing, and free agency begins on March 15th, making it the perfect time to look at early breakout candidates for next season.  

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 received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!



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 have, a talent-laden receiving corps with a steep dropoff after Treylon Burks. The depth chart after Burks features Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Kyle Philips, neither of whom is a real threat to Okonkwo. It's also the opinion of his new offensive coordinator Tom Kelly, who recently spoke about wanting to use him more.


Speaking of Kelly, his 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.

One of the unknowns is the quarterback position; however, the new general manager, Ran Carthon, expressed an interest in keeping Ryan Tannehill under center.

Even if it isn't Tannehill, it's hard for it to be any worse than rookie Malik Willis, who had just 25 completions in his first three starts total, forcing the team to turn to Joshua Dobbs. You can expect Tennessee to either stick with Tannehill or upgrade the position through free agency or the draft.

The last sign is in the metric referenced in the introduction, yards per route run. Okonkwo finished with 2.61, pacing 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.

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.

As with Okonkwo, 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. He's a prime candidate to make the sophomore leap and level up this season.

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 have a lot to figure out between now and Week 1, particularly at the quarterback position. Assuming Murray misses time, who takes over as the starter will be important. However, it can't be any worse than the trio of backups McBride played with to end the 2022 season. Furthermore, Ertz is also questionable to be ready for the start of the season, making it possible that McBride opens as the starter.

Another factor here is that the Cardinals expressed a willingness to trade away DeAndre Hopkins, whose no-trade clause was voided as a result of his suspension.

If Hopkins is dealt, there will be a lot of vacated targets, which could provide a bigger role for McBride. There are several ways he could take the leap to that next tier, making him an intriguing player to take a shot on, especially while his value is lower because of the unknown variables.

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 has already spoken about finalizing an extension before the season starts, indicating their interest in 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.

Chicago is one of the most receiver-needy teams in the league, so they'll definitely add someone, if not multiple players, from the draft or free agency. However, the most appealing part of Kmet's game is his red zone prowess. He has the size to be a focal point in that area of the field.

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. 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+ touchdowns.


Deeper Options

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.

Granson is a free agent, meaning he could be absent from the group. Additionally, Parris Campbell, whose yards per reception was only 9.9, acted as their high-volume and lower-depth of target option and is expected to leave in free agency. The team has two solid receivers, including Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce, but very little behind them. Woods is a massive individual who finished 15th in yards per route run at the position.

The biggest question for Woods is who is under center in 2023. Indy currently has the No. 4 overall pick but has been linked to trades with Chicago at No. 1 and Arizona at No. 3. Regardless of where they pick, they'll likely grab a new signal-caller to take over. Depending on who that ends up being, it could very well be an upgrade for Woods, who dealt with a struggling Matt Ryan and rookie Sam Ehlinger. Woods is a deeper tight end with a top 12 potential.

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 recently announced they plan to release Brate.

With those two gone, Ko Kieft would be the only remaining tight end. Kieft was a fellow rookie taken in the sixth round, earning only 10 targets. Thus, Otton appears headed to a starting role, at least as of this moment.

The other possible movement would include trading away Mike Evans or Chris Godwin if they decide to enter a rebuild. It would save cap space and provide them with additional draft picks, but management has expressed a desire to stay competitive and "run it back."

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 unlikely to be an upgrade. The Buccaneers pick 19th, which is too late to draft one of the big four, meaning they'll need to acquire someone via trade or free agency. If they sign a proven veteran like Jimmy Garoppolo or Jameis Winston, Otton will become more intriguing, but until then, he remains a sleeper.

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 did and still does lack 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 a 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 is also in the midst of a heated negotiation with Lamar Jackson, who is a definite upgrade over everyone else they have on the roster, even pro bowler Tyler "Snoop" Huntley. The team franchise tagged Jackson while they attempt to work out a long-term deal.

The uncertainty at quarterback creates another potential hurdle for Likely to overcome.

The last thing to note here is the change in the offensive coordinator. The team moved on from Greg Roman in favor of Todd Monken, who many are excited about. 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.

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