Fantasy Football Tight End Tiers: George Kittle is in line for a monster 2020 season

In my view, fantasy football rankings are taking a linear thought process into an inherently fluid decision-making exercise. I often find there’s a heavy amount of frivolous debate on subjects like, “Why do you have Player-X at No. 12 but Player-Y at No. 15?” I don’t think it does the reader a service to try and take the numerical order as a one-to-one comparison, nor do we learn anything of use or substance about the players or how they will score us fantasy points on a week-to-week basis in the discussion.

For all the hype surrounding the event of the draft, winning weekly is still the name of the game in the vast majority of fantasy formats.

With that school of thought established, I do believe that using tiers by position helps offset some of the uselessness of rankings. They help defend against the frivolity of arguing the difference of a few spots in the order. Most of the players in one tier have roughly the same value, whether they fall first in the set or last. Tiers provide more actionable information for fantasy gamers to use during drafts, specifically in terms of helping us imagine the range of outcomes for players from both a season-long and weekly standpoint. We get too caught up in where we think a player will rank at the end of the season, but tiering can help remind us that the goal soon enough will be all about constructing teams that are best set to win one week at a time.

The most despised position the fantasy world over, tight end in 2020 actually feels like there is some meat in the middle of drafts, thanks to an influx of appealing young players. Tiering really helps bring this position to focus this year. While there are new options here, placing them in tiers helps us narrow our range for each tight end.

TE Tier 1 — Elite players who can be positional difference-makers

George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers
George Kittle could lead the pack in 2020. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
  1. George Kittle

  2. Travis Kelce

George Kittle’s upside is intoxicating. The fantasy hive mind has spent much of the last few months debating which wide receiver will benefit from Deebo Samuel’s foot injury. But what if the answer isn’t a modest boost for Brandon Aiyuk, Jalen Hurd, or another wide receiver? What if the answer is just more George Kittle? He already held a 28 percent share of the team targets last season. If he maintains or adds to that on a team that will throw more in 2020, we’re flying to the moon. I’m taking Kittle ahead of some Tier 2 or 3 wide receivers at the end of Round 2 or early Round 3. He’s in line for a monster, one-for-the-ages type of season.

TE Tier 2 - Stable TE1s

  1. Zach Ertz

  2. Mark Andrews

For what seems like the third year in a row, Zach Ertz is undervalued. Given the still murky nature of the Eagles wide receiver room amid a truncated offseason, it’s hard to see how he fails to clear 130 targets again.

Don’t let touchdown regression scare you away from Mark Andrews. He’s the odds-on favorite to lead an offense captained by the reigning MVP in targets this year.

TE Tier 3 - TE1s with plenty of appeal but question marks

  1. Tyler Higbee

  2. Darren Waller

  3. Evan Engram

  4. Mike Gesicki

  5. Jonnu Smith

  6. Hunter Henry

  7. Jared Cook

  8. Rob Gronkowski

As it is every year, this position is chock full of options but just as many question marks. Your initial thought may be to scoff at later round guys like Mike Gesicki and Jonnu Smith being grouped with solid mid-round selections. What this should tell you, however, is that you may want to pass on surrendering a Round 5 to 7 pick on Darren Waller, Hunter Henry, Tyler Higbee, or Evan Engram and wait for a player going later with a similar path to volume.

Gesicki started to break out late last year and is the lone Miami pass-catcher who won’t suffer too much whenever the ultra-aggressive Ryan Fitzpatrick gives way to Tua Tagovailoa. He can separate over the middle, unlike starting receivers DeVante Parker and Preston Williams.

Jonnu Smith is my favorite late-round tight end in 2020. The Titans are likely to relax their strict 30th-ranked passing-play percentage (51.2 percent) from 2019 when game scripts inevitably flip this year. Smith is the lone pass-catcher beyond A.J. Brown in Tennessee with a yet untapped ceiling.

TE Tier 4 - Breakout picks

  1. Noah Fant

  2. T.J. Hockenson

  3. Austin Hooper

  4. Dallas Goedert

  5. Hayden Hurst

  6. Chris Herndon

The outlook for these players is not drastically different than several of the players in Tier 4. Their volume is just less secure.

Austin Hooper has already broken out but is unlikely to approach 90 targets in Cleveland while sharing the pie with two proven wide receivers in a run-leaning system. The player replacing Hooper, Hayden Hurst, won’t see that raw target total either. Yet, he has plenty of appeal at a reasonable ADP considering the Falcons don’t have any strong No. 3 receivers to push for targets behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.

Chris Herndon fooled us all last year but has a great chance to finish second or third in targets on the Jets. Denzel Mims and Breshad Perriman will enter padded practice behind in terms of building chemistry with Sam Darnold. Herndon still has a ceiling worth throwing a late dart at.

Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson were first-round picks in 2019 and offered hope for bright futures as rookies. The former finished the year on a big-play note with fellow rookie Drew Lock, averaging over 13 yards per target in the final five weeks. There’s a chance Fant is underrated here and belongs in Tier 2 but the Denver offense is crowded now with established stud Courtland Sutton leading the way and exciting rookie Jerry Jeudy also in the fold. Volume was a problem even to end last year, as well.

TE Tier 5 - Less likely breakouts

  1. Blake Jarwin

  2. O.J. Howard

  3. Ian Thomas

  4. Irv Smith

You shouldn’t be as confident this quartet breaks out and pushes for a TE1 season but there’s a story with that ending to be told. You just need to stretch it.

Blake Jarwin walks into the top spot on the Cowboys tight end depth chart, a position that somehow saw 83 targets go Jason Witten’s way. The 6-foot-5 fourth-year player fits the mold we look for in ascendant players at the position. If Dallas had not drafted CeeDee Lamb in Round 1, we’d all be putting him in pen as the tight end sleeper for 2020.

Ian Thomas produced when Greg Olsen was injured in each of his first two seasons with the Panthers. The wideout room in Carolina has a trio of appealing players but Thomas could push to finish ahead of a player like Robby Anderson in the pecking order. He’s more likely an appealing streamer.

TE Tier 6 - Veteran streamers

  1. Jack Doyle

  2. Eric Ebron

  3. Gerald Everett

  4. Dawson Knox

  5. Greg Olsen

  6. Kyle Rudolph

  7. David Njoku

  8. Darren Fells

  9. Jordan Akins

You know what you’re getting into here. None of these players has a path to every-week fantasy usage. Still, you can bet there will be weeks you’ll want to chase a floor performance with a guy like Jack Doyle or want to roll out Eric Ebron in a game where the high-flying Steelers offense has a projected high team total.

Dawson Knox is the only player here who carries the profile of an athletic breakout pick at tight end. He flashed as a rookie and brings size and speed to the position. Still, if he establishes himself as a fine starter, it’ll just have a bigger impact on Josh Allen’s fantasy outlook, rather than Knox as an individual. Too many other players in Buffalo need the football.

TE Tier 7 - Not sure if I should care yet

  1. Jimmy Graham

  2. Jace Sternberger

OK, so I definitely don’t care about Jimmy Graham. Jace Sternberger does intrigue me, however. His next NFL catch will be his first but he fits the mold of a move tight end and averaged 17 yards per catch in his final college season. With a barren pass-catching depth chart after Davante Adams in Green Bay, Sternberger could make some noise — he just has a long hill to climb.

Stay tuned for the rest of Matt’s positional tiers

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