I think I have an edge with projecting tight ends versus the field. It's a complicated position, as they essentially play some offensive tackle and some receiver. There are a variety of body types and skillsets under the "TE" label, meaning there are some draft picks that could smash while others literally don't have a chance of breaking out in a meaningful way.
I wrote this column looking at Which Stats Matter for TEs. As usual, it's best to just sort by last year's yards per game as the baseline for next year's projections. But there are some descriptive stats that go overlooked, including:
Pass Block Rate - The % of passing snaps that a TE stays in to block. We want TEs to run routes, not block.
Inline Rate - The % of all snaps that a TE is attached to the offensive line. We want our TEs to line up in the slot or out wide.
1-TE Set Route Rate - The % of team snaps in 1-TE sets that a TE runs a route. We need our TEs playing in 11-personnel because that's the base grouping in the NFL. The threshold I found to break into every-week TE1 conversation is 68%, and the elite TE1s sit above 75%.
2-TE Set Route Rate - The % of team snaps in 2-TE sets that a TE runs a route. We need our TEs playing in 12-personnel because there are some TEs who stay in to block in this grouping, as it's a typical play action look. The threshold I found to breaking into every-week TE1 conversation is 60%, and the elite TE1s sit about 84%.
aDOT - The average depth of target. We'd like our TEs to see some downfield targets because those are the most valuable targets, aside from red zone targets. It's not that predictive, however, so don't put too much stock here.
Yards Per Catch - Like aDOT, it's better to have a high yards per catch, but it's not that predictive.
Let's put the research to work by looking at 2023 ADPs...
Travis Kelce - He's good. He's in an ideal role. You knew this. The only two concerns are Kelce's age and the opportunity cost of Round 1 TEs.
Mark Andrews - He has the second best odds (by a wide margin) to finish as the TE1 because of his route rates and talent. He has the highest route rate at the position, only staying into block on passing snaps less than 1% of the time. Because he lines up inline only 14% of the time, Andrews runs a route in 2-TE sets at an elite 90% clip. This is fantasy greatness waiting to happen, especially with a more pass-heavy play-caller now in Baltimore.
T.J. Hockenson - So far, his receiving grades and efficiency have been good, not great. He also doesn't hit the elite thresholds with his role. He plays inline on a too-high 48% of his snaps, leading to a too-high 10% pass blocking rate. He plays in the right type of offense to be a top-5 fantasy TE despite these numbers, but unless he takes another leap on tape, he's likely looking outside of the truly elite TE1s because of his blocking value and role.
George Kittle - Only Kelce finished ahead of Kittle in PFF receiving grade last year, so the only thing preventing him from being a truly elite TE1 is his role. A savage blocker, Kittle has a too-high 57% inline rate and a too-low 87% route rate. He does clear thresholds with 77% route rates in both 1- and 2-TE sets, however, so there's a path to closing the Kelce gap if the 49ers simply pass more as a team. That has been a Niner issue for years.
Kyle Pitts - There were two primary issues last year. One, only 56% of his targets were catchable because of QB play. Maybe that improves with Marcus Mariota gone. Secondly, he only ran 21 routes per game because of the Falcons' run first offense. Maybe that improves with coach Arthur Smith saying he wants to be "more balanced" this year. Pitts' role is solid otherwise. He only plays inline on just 26% of his snaps, with an elite 13.7 average depth of target when he finally gets the ball. His 85% route rate in 2-TE sets is also strong, so the last hurdle for him is to not get subbed out as often in 1-TE sets, which likely was because of his in-development blocking skills. Ultimately, there are paths to a freaky ceiling. A lot of things do have to go right, however.
Dallas Goedert - Undeniably good at the game, Goedert's issue simply is target competition. He runs routes in all formations (91% route rate overall), but footballs go towards A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith more often. If one misses time, Goedert should eat. If there was anything to nitpick, it'd be his 45% inline rate, which lowers his average depth of target (only 5.9 yards downfield) as a larger chunk of his targets likely come on short routes to the flat or off of play action.
Darren Waller - His 75 PFF grade last year was much lower than his baseline, and he didn't force a single missed tackle last year. I'm worried about him being washed up after some injuries, but the role and target competition remain favorable. He ran a route on 93% of his passing snaps last year, and they were usually (valuable) seam-stretching routes leading to a position-high 14.0 average depth of target. I see the Giants using him similarly. Will he hold up? Does he still have juice? Those are the things to asign probabilities to.
Evan Engram - He had some sweet yards after the catch plays last year because of play design and his speed. Some of those play calls will be geared towards Calvin Ridley now, but Engram's role is totally fine. He ran a route on 91% of his passing snaps and cleared 1-TE set thresholds by running a route on 77% of those looks. Where he's slightly limited is in some 2-TE looks where he can be subbed out due to lackluster blocking skills. With a good (not great) role and a ton of target competition, Engram likely has a slightly worse 2023 season while playing on the franchise tag.
David Njoku - Because of Deshaun Watson and better WR depth, the Browns offense could lean more pass- and 1-TE-set heavy in 2023. That's good news for Njoku, who had to play inline on a too-high 52% of his snaps last year. Give me the higher on 29 routes per game. Even if this offense stays balanced, Njoku still runs routes on an elite 93% of the team's 2-TE set dropbacks. Perhaps as important as his solid role, Njoku happens to be a true grown ass man and rare athlete.
Pat Freiermuth - I think he's an emerging player and all of his offensive teammates are young, so there's some breakout appeal here if his role gets smoothed out. Freiermuth played inline too much (58% snaps) and only ran a route on 65% of the Steelers' 1-TE set dropbacks. Those need to get 10-20% better for him to get more than 27 routes per game, which has kept him on the TE1-2 border. Third-round rookie Darnell Washington likely only plays in 2-TE sets as a blocking type, which doesn't effect Freiermuth much as he runs a route on a strong 83% of 2-TE dropbacks. Essentially, he is strong enough to block in 1-TE sets and athletic enough to run routes in 2-TE sets. That's a good sign. Please get creative Matt Canada. We need it.
Dalton Schultz - Limited athletically, Schultz has been a quality zone beater with limited YAC skills. That won't change in Houston, but will his actual role be different? Perhaps! He likely keeps up his strong 80% route rate in 1-TE sets because he's a mediocre blocker and the Texans don't have strong WRs, but there's a lot of room for 2-TE set improvement. With the Cowboys, he only ran a route on 51% of 2-TE set dropbacks because there were finesse TEs behind him on the depth chart. Houston's backups are pure blocking types, so when they do go to 2-TE sets, Schultz's route rate could jump up from his poor 51% clip that he had las year. In general, he'll be a bigger focal point of the offense out of necessity. That means he'll largely cancel out the downgrade from Dak Prescott to rookie-year CJ Stroud with a slightly better role.
Cole Kmet - He's a full-blown fade for me. First off, he's a very forgettable receiving talent, but his role is iffy and could get worse with new weapons surrounding him. Kmet only ran a route on 84% of his passing snaps, which were already low because of Justin Fields' dual-threat skillset. He also only ran a route on 71% of 2-TE set dropbacks because he's a better blocker than receiver. That could get worse with finesse-skilled Robert Tonyan coming into town. Even if I'm wrong with this role change, it'll be harder to get the rock with D.J. Moore and Chase Claypool around. I fear his ADP has remained high because early-round Field drafters are reaching for stacks.
Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox - The Bills only had 35 dropbacks in 2-TE sets last year. What exactly is their plan with first-rounder Dalton Kincaid around? Simply put, Dawson Knox is screwed. He didn't perform on a per-route basis last year, and his routes will tank. He ran a route on a league-leading 94% of his 2-TE set dropbacks, but those all will go to Kincaid, the much more exciting receiver. At the same time, Kincaid is unlikely to unseat Knox in 1-TE sets, where Knox's fine blocking skills are better. The primary path to either TE being relevant in fantasy (aside from injury) is if Kincaid is actually viewed as a slot WR. This trope is usually a trap. It's rare for a TE to be better than a slot WR at pass-catching, but Kincaid just might be the exception. That's up to your evaluation to figure this out, at least until training camp reports help us out. If you think Kincaid is good enough to essentially be Mark Andrews, then draft him. If that's too rich, then he's an easy fade. I'll probably only draft Kincaid on Bills' stacks.
Chigoziem Okonkwo - The Titans really have nobody to throw the ball to, but there are "Anthony Firkser" concerns here. By that I mean Okonkwo might not have enough blocking skills to be a near full-time player, which led to Firkser busting as a fantasy TE2 years ago in this offense. He only ran a route on 20% of the Titans' 1-TE set dropbacks last year, while the threshold I look for is 68%. He also only ran a route on 71% of 2-TE set dropbacks because this offense historically is very play-action heavy where TEs stay into block at outlier levels. Okonkwo's YAC skills are sweet, but his YAC and efficiency numbers from last year in a small sample scream "REGRESSION". He simply won't lead the position in yards per catch (14.0) on a mediocre 8.0 average depth of target, even if he's a fun receiving type. I'll be grinding news to see if this 238-pounder will actually play in the role he's being drafted at in fantasy land. His backups are definitely bigger: Trevon Wesco (268 pounds), Josh Whyle (6'7/248). For now, I'm fading.
Greg Dulcich - A fun seam-stretching receiving prospect, Dulcich ran 32 routes per game with a super high 12.7 average depth of target as a rookie. He only blocked on 4% of his passing snaps, but that's because he's a below-average blocker. That's the concern. New coach Sean Payton may want a more traditional TE in this run-heavy offense. In fact, he immediately signed elite blocker Chris Manhertz in free agency and then traded for Adam Trautman, who Payton drafted while in New Orleans. There's a path to fun, but Dulcich easily could be relegated to fewer 1-TE sets than we'd like.
Juwan Johnson - He is my underrated TE2. The Saints' depth chart features Johnson, Taysom Hill (51 inline snaps last year), and undrafted players. Johnson, who is a converted WR-to-TE, should play more inline snaps with Adam Trautman traded. Last year, he only had 23 routes per game but with a worse depth chart and Derek Carr likely making New Orleans more pass heavy, Johnson's route volume likely ticks up. His 9.8 average depth of target is a function of his WR background, too. I like his odds of boom-bust TE2 production at cost.
In an upcoming column, I'll go over my favorite sleeper TEs using this data. In the meantime, dodge some of the traps that I discussed above.