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Fantasy Football: Four tight ends poised to break out

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By Jennifer Eakins, 4for4

Special to Yahoo Sports

Tight end is the most feast-or-famine position in the fake football world and doesn’t seem to be getting any more cohesive with each passing season. There is one TE tier that’s relatively consistent from year to year, but each autumn also brings a new crop of breakout stars who potentially can have a direct effect on whether you’re taking selfies wearing that massive championship belt or hanging out in a diner for 24 hours of gluttony.

In this piece, I’ll look at a few statistical categories used to project the breakout potential of TEs for the 2021 season. According to research done by TJ Hernandez on the most predictable year-to-year stats for the TE position, red-zone numbers tend to fluctuate wildly from one year to the next. Studies have shown that only a very limited number of TEs are actually targeted significantly in the red zone, so as a whole, their efficiency numbers are too erratic to include in this article.

The term breakout can have several meanings in the fantasy football universe, much like the real world. Most of the guys mentioned below have had varying success in the NFL thus far and a few have even entered the conversation as a team’s No. 1 tight end. For this article, I’m defining breakout as finishing the 2021 season higher than their average draft position (ADP) would suggest, or metaphorically breaking the tight end tier ceiling.

A Look Back at 2020

Last year we had two breakout TEs that nobody saw coming, Robert Tonyan and Logan Thomas. They finished as TE5 and TE9 respectively in half-PPR points per game with neither one actually leaving boards on draft day. There were no data indicators for either of these two to break out in 2020, other than vacated jobs by Jimmy Graham and Jordan Reed. In Green Bay, drafters bet on Jace Sternberger, while the WFT TE room went totally undrafted last year. Let’s hope we can do a better job of finding those players in 2021.

When searching for that breakout talent at TE, these are the year-to-year stats we tend to lean on in identifying potential candidates, in the order of stickiest correlation:

  • Yards per game

  • Receptions per game

  • Targets per game

  • Half-PPR points per game

Adam Trautman, Saints

Trautman was pretty impressive in his rookie season, hauling in 15-of-16 targets for 171 yards and a score behind Jared Cook. With Cook gone, Trautman should see a huge jump in playing time, and with that comes plenty of opportunities. Not only did New Orleans let Cook go, but they also didn’t re-sign Josh Hill which means they are solid with Trautman as their starting TE.

New Orleans Saints tight end Adam Trautman (82)
The stage is set for Adam Trautman in 2021. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Cook’s numbers were in the fantasy TE2 range when it came to usage and output in 2020, but with the recent news of Michael Thomas missing a huge chunk of the season, Trautman could hit 80+ targets in 2021, giving him fantasy TE1 potential. The Saints receiving options were already pretty sparse heading into the season, so Trautman looks even better right now with a sweet 14th-round ADP on Yahoo. The 24-year old is 4for4’s 13th ranked TE but is being drafted as TE20 according to our multi-site ADP tool, which is a screaming value.

Irv Smith Jr., Vikings

I was a bit more excited about Smith in 2021 before Mike Zimmer was quoted as saying, “I don’t think it’s any bigger role for him whatsoever." To the contrary, Vikings OC Klint Kubiak came out saying Smith “is going to have more opportunities.” Reports from camp have the 22-year-old in excellent shape and with the departure of Kyle Rudolph, it would seem that the third-year TE will be the beneficiary of the long-time Viking's absence.

Last season Smith did produce the most half-PPR points at the TE position (6.4 per game) in Minnesota, and if he does get more red-zone looks without Rudolph playing spoiler, it could propel him from TE25 overall in that category to fantasy TE1 numbers. Smith has seen five or more targets in only six contests in his two-year career, but he averaged 8.6 half-PPR points per game in those matchups, which would have been TE10 last season.

The Vikings will most likely still be run-heavy but that could lead to robust TE sets. Even with a small bump in usage, Smith is in a nice spot to produce as the likely third passing option after Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Drafters are on him though, as Smith is currently being selected as TE14 in Yahoo leagues.

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Blake Jarwin, Cowboys

Jarwin was one of my favorite breakout candidates last season but suffered a torn ACL in Week 1. Dalton Schultz took his place and ended as TE21 in half-PPR points per game, with TE14 numbers in targets per tilt — and that was with Andy Dalton under center for most of the season.

Now recovered and ready to bust out, Jarwin gets an equally healthy Dak Prescott throwing the ball but if he has to split time with Schultz, the 27-year-old could end the season where he’s being drafted, as a fantasy TE2. If Jarwin does emerge as the Cowboys' clear starter he could easily best his 13th-round Yahoo ADP. Keep an eye on training camp to see how things are shaking out before draft time.

Gerald Everett, Seahawks

Free from Tyler Higbee, Everett is now in Seattle and will have to battle Will Dissly for TE snaps. He’s seemingly faster and more athletic than Dissly, but as we all know, the Seahawks will always establish that run and Everett is competing with two ball hogs in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett for what passing plays this offense does execute. I’m not giving up on an Everett breakout though, as it could happen in 2021.

This article originally appeared in its full form on 4for4.com

A proud alumna of the UGA Grady College of Journalism, Jennifer Eakins has been working in the sports industry for well over a decade. She has had stints with CNN Sports, the Atlanta Hawks and the Colorado Rockies. Her first fantasy football draft took place in 1996 where she selected Ricky Watters with the first overall pick, and she has been a fantasy degenerate ever since.

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