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Tight End Breakouts for 2022 Fantasy Football

Fantasy managers are always on the lookout for the next big thing, the next breakout. These are the guys that are typically found in the middle to later rounds of your fantasy drafts and they are often coined with the term – league winner. These can be difficult to predict; after all, we're attempting to predict a player doing something they haven't done yet in their careers.

Breakouts can come in all shapes and sizes. Last season, we saw Deebo Samuel and Cooper Kupp go from quality WR2s to elite WR1s. These kinds of breakouts are rare, but certainly way more coveted. Predicting tight end breakouts is even more difficult because the reality is only the top-10 matter and that might even be generous. The tight end position is bleak, only five players averaged 10 half-PPR PPG last season. There were another 12 guys that averaged between 7–9.9 points.

The margin for tight ends actually mattering is extremely small. Going from TE20 to TE13 isn't really what we're looking for because it simply doesn't move the needle. Here we're going to be identifying a few tight ends who have the potential to break into the top-10 and become someone fantasy managers can feel comfortable starting in their lineup on a weekly basis.

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David Njoku, Cleveland Browns

The former first-round pick entered the NFL in 2017 with a lot of promise and upside. He was extremely athletic and put up 698 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior at the University of Miami. Unfortunately, he struggled to make much of an impact with the Browns in five seasons. His best season was in his sophomore season when he finished with 56 catches, 639 yards, and four touchdowns. He finished as the TE9 on the season, but a PPG average of just 7.7 left much to be desired and like so many tight ends, didn't really move the needle. There were 10 other tight ends who scored between 6.7–8.0 PPG.

However, he spent his five seasons in Cleveland catching passes from DeShone Kizer, Tyrod Taylor, and Baker Mayfield. He's also played with three different head coaches and offensive coordinators in five seasons, so there's never been a whole lot of consistency for Njoku. After struggling for the first three seasons with injuries – he missed 12 games in his third season – and general ineffectiveness, the Browns signed Austin Hooper to a big contract prior to the 2020 season. In two seasons, he has 780 receiving yards total, so needless to say he's struggled as well.

Going into the 2022 season, however, Njoku was slapped with the franchise tag, and Austin Hooper was released. It looks as though the Browns are finally going to give the former Miami standout a chance to be the No. 1 tight end. It couldn't have come at a better time either. There's plenty of criticism to go around regarding the addition of Deshaun Watson, but there's no debating the kind of on-the-field benefits he brings to the team at quarterback. Mayfield has a career 87.8 quarter rating, while Watson is all the way up at 104.5. He's going to make a considerable difference for the whole offense.

The Browns traded for Amari Cooper, but the wealth of pass-catchers behind him leaves a lot to be desired. It's not out of the question, at least right now, that Njoku could end up being No. 2 in total targets. He'll be competing with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz, which isn't exactly imposing. At some point, however, it's on Njoku to take advantage of his opportunity and the 2022 season will likely be his last chance to seize this chance.

Among tight ends who had 50 targets last season, Njoku was fifth in yards per reception and was one of only five tight ends with more than one reception of 40 or more yards. He also ranked fifth in yards per target among tight ends and averaged 2.02 fantasy points per target, which ranked sixth.

The problem for the fifth-year player wasn't his efficiency, but rather his opportunity. His route participation rate was just 56.6%, which ranked 23rd among tight ends, which fell mostly in line with his 26th-ranked target share at 11.4%. If given the opportunity to start for the Browns in 2022 and allowed to be a play-maker in the passing game, the efficiency metrics he posted in 2021 could lead to a breakout season if he's able to increase his volume. In Cleveland, he'll have ample opportunity to do that and for the first time in his career, he'll be playing in an elite offense. The touchdown upside alone should have fantasy managers intrigued, but if he can become Watson's No. 2 target behind Cooper, he'll easily outplay his ADP.

 

Albert Okwuegbunam, Denver Broncos

The Russell Wilson trade was one thing fantasy managers were going to be excited about Albert O because of that alone. Add to it that Noah Fant was moved to Seattle and fantasy managers have officially claimed their anonymous late-round breakout tight end. Similar to Njoku, the former Missouri standout was incredibly efficient last season. The issue for him was a lack of playing time and a mediocre offense. Both issues were taken care of in one transaction.

As a true freshman at Missouri, he racked up over 400 yards and 11 touchdowns, an incredibly impressive feat for a rookie tight end. He followed that up with two other seasons of at least six touchdowns. He fell to the fourth round after sophomore and junior seasons where his progression seemed to stall out. However, much like his freshmen season at Missouri, Albert O showed out when given the chance as a freshman for the Broncos.

His 1.94 yard per route run average ranked fifth among tight ends with at least 40 targets. He ranked higher than Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, T.J. Hockenson, and Darren Waller. There are always some concerns with such a small sample size, but his efficiency was otherwise impressive. His 82.5% catch rate ranked first among tight ends with 40 targets and he also ranked second with a 7.5 yard after the catch per reception average.

For fantasy purposes, he ranked fourth, averaging 0.57 points per route run. He also averaged 1.90 fantasy points per target, which ranked 13th. With a starting role in the Denver offense and with Russell Wilson behind center, Albert O will find himself as one of the favorite breakouts among the fantasy community, which will, unfortunately, raise his ADP, but the upside is clear.

 

Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears

Unlike the other two players on the list so far, Kmet was not efficient – not even close. However, to be fair, no one on the Bears was efficient. Matt Nagy bounced between Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, and Justin Fields. The offense never got on track. For all intents and purposes, it was an unmitigated disaster. What shouldn't be lost in all of that dysfunction was the sizable role Kmet held in the offense.

While he didn't rank in the top-10 in many efficiency metrics, from a pure volume standpoint, there's a lot to like about Kmet heading into 2021. For starters, the depth chart in Chicago is laughably bad. Right now, Equanimeous St. Brown and Bryon Pringle are slated to be starting receivers in an 11-personnel package. Justin Fields won't have very many options behind Darnell Mooney or Kmet and it will likely lead to a high target share for both players. The stats below are courtesy of PlayerProfiler.

Metric  Total TE Rank
Snap Share 83.7% 6th
Slot Snaps 253 5th
Routes Run 395 14th
Route Participation 72.9% 14th
Air Yards 737 9th
Average Target Distance 7.9 10th
Deep Targets 9 6th
Target Rate 23.5% 12th
Unrealized Air Yards 371 7th

Fantasy managers should expect the Chicago offense to be slightly better in 2022. With Nagy gone, the expectation is the offense will be better fitted to Justin Fields' talents. While expecting the offense to be efficient would be a long-shot bet, they should be better than last season. Any improvement in regards to the quarterback play could pay huge dividends for Kmet, especially with such a heavy workload incoming.

 

Honorable Mention

Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings

Smith missed all of 2021 due to a knee injury and it allowed Tyler Conklin to be the full-time starter. He racked up 87 targets, 61 receptions, 593 yards, and three touchdowns. That amounted to just a 6.6 PPG average in half-PPR scoring, but 87 is a healthy target total for a tight end. With his 4.63 40-yard dash time, Smith has more upside than Conklin due to his speed. With Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen in Minnesota, it'll be tough for Smith to command a large enough target share to really breakout, but Thielen is getting older and older each season. With a new head coach, Kevin O'Connell, coming over from the Rams, the Vikings may shift to a more pass-heavy approach.

Brevin Jordan, Houston Texans

Jordan received more and more playing time as the season went on and he ended the 2021 season with a solid streak of games despite being a rookie who was inactive for the beginning of the season. Right now, the Texans are desperate for playmakers in their offense and if Jordan is able to distinguish himself from Nico Collins and company, Jordan could become a target-driven tight end. With the expectation the Texans will once again field a below-average offense, Jordan is unlikely to score enough touchdowns to truly breakout. However, Logan Thomas had a huge year in 2020 despite playing for the ever disappointing Washington franchise. The volume pays off at tight end and Jordan could find himself with a lot of it.

Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers

Freiermuth was a TE1 last season, but that came off the back of seven touchdowns on just 60 receptions. His 11.7% touchdown rate will be hard to duplicate and with Mitchel Trubisky at quarterback, fantasy managers are likely worried about how many fantasy-relevant receivers he can support, which is a fair concern. However, in PPR leagues, Freiermuth could become someone that is able to provide fantasy managers with a steady flow of targets each week.



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