Fantasy Football: Will these four TE sleepers go off in 2023?

Get ready for your 2023 fantasy football draft!
Get ready for your 2023 fantasy football draft!

The scandalous secret about tight ends in fantasy football is that every player we draft at this position is nearly indistinguishable from a wide receiver in terms of their usage. All of them, to a man, are running routes on almost every dropback.

Mark Andrews lined up in the slot on 66.3% of passing snaps last season and was in-line only 12.7% of the time. For Travis Kelce, those rates were 44.2% and 25.6%. All the players we're drafting at this spot are professional route-runners and pass-catchers who — while they might be shaped a little differently than traditional wide receivers — are generally just doing all the things that wide receivers do. We're not drafting the guys who block for a living.

Personally, I think it's a little questionable that we allow TE to persist as a distinct position. This roster spot is a relic. Suppose we folded the tight ends into a combo WR/TE position. In that case, we'd still place significant value on Kelce, Andrews, George Kittle and various other elite players, because those guys are among the best pass-catchers in the game.

And then you wouldn't have to mess around with sketchy sleepers like these dudes ever again ...

Hunter Henry, New England Patriots (8% rostered)

As a reminder, our roster percentage threshold in this sleeper series is 33%, so we're not gonna try to pass off Chigoziem Okonkwo, Greg Dulcich, Sam LaPorta and Dalton Kincaid as unknowns. Those guys are definitely getting drafted in competitive, deep-ish fantasy leagues.

Henry is of course a familiar name as well, but no one's touching him at the draft table. Let's just recall that he's a year removed from a season in New England in which he delivered 603 receiving yards and nine spikes while finishing as the overall fantasy TE7. He actually has four top-12 positional finishes to his credit over his seven-year career and he's still just 28. Henry has been a high-buzz player early in camp, a preferred red-zone target for Mac Jones:

This kinda feels like the Kirkland Signature version of last summer's Trevor Lawrence-Evan Engram camp connection, except Jones and Henry already have a respectable history together.

Irv Smith Jr., Cincinnati Bengals (25%)

First of all, congrats to Irv for being named a preseason fantasy sleeper for the fourth time in his heretofore undistinguished career. He's very much on the Jared Cook path. Nicely done.

Smith has repeatedly teased us in the past because he's an athletic tight end, excellent at the college level, who gave us occasional flashes of his fantasy upside while a member of the Vikings. Injuries were obviously a complicating factor during his time in Minnesota; he played only 37 games for the team over four seasons.

But Smith is still only 25 and, as most of you know, it's incredibly common for tight ends to break out on their second contracts following a change of scenery. (This is a fantasy principle known as Ebron's Law.) He landed with one of the league's Death Star offenses, tied to a quarterback who's thrown 69 TD passes over the past two years. Smith has few challengers on the depth chart in Cincinnati, so playing time shouldn't be a huge concern. If he can simply give us 14 games, he can crash the top-12 party at this dreadful roster spot.

Cade Otton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2%)

Here are a few fun facts about Otton, in no particular order:

- He led all first-year tight ends in targets (65) and receptions (42) last season, finishing well ahead of the rest of the rookie class;

- Otton ranked sixth among all players at his position in red-zone targets (17) and tied for fifth in targets inside the 10-yard line (eight);

- You can't even name another tight end on Tampa Bay's roster now that Cameron Brate is no longer with the team.

It's maybe a little weird that other sophomore tight ends — notably Okonkwo and Dulcich — have received all the hype while Otton has gone almost universally undrafted. You might reasonably have your concerns about the Bucs' QB situation, but it's not as if similar worries don't exist with the Titans and Broncos. Please keep Otton on your deep league cheat sheet.

Hayden Hurst, Carolina Panthers (13%)

The bad news is that Hurst is no longer attached to the Death Star offense mentioned above. The good news, however, is that he finds himself in a starless receiving corps in which he can, without question, carve out a significant role. Early reports on his work with Bryce Young seem plenty positive:

Hurst is a sneaky candidate to see 80-90 (or more) targets, which would very likely make him a fantasy-viable option at this terrible non-position.