On Target 🎯 What's up with the fantasy tight end position this season?

George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers
Vintage George Kittle was on full display in fantasy Week 5. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) (Thearon W. Henderson via Getty Images)

I’ve been around the fantasy game for a while, and the target stat has come a long way, baby.

Targets didn’t become a tracked stat until 1992. Pro Football Reference wasn’t launched until 2003. My early days of fantasy football in the ’90s involved scoring leagues by hand, sitting down in the morning with a pencil, a caffeinated beverage and the newspaper.

The pencil and newspaper are gone from my life now; the caffeine remains.

Receiving stats and analysis have blossomed in the modern era. Heck, this article a decade ago would have been merely about targets, full stop. Today, we have so many additional data points — first-read targets, average depth of target, catchable targets, routes run, red-zone data; the cup feels bottomless.

My goal every Tuesday this season is to analyze wide receiver data and trends, tracking where the puck has been and trying to figure out where the puck is headed. Targets will still factor in plenty, of course.

But remember: we have several different buckets to examine now.

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Week 5 was tight end comeback week for the 2023 fantasy season. Consider the top of the leaderboard. George Kittle (TE1), Dallas Goedert (TE2), Travis Kelce (TE4), Dalton Schultz (TE6), Darren Waller (TE8), and Kyle Pitts (TE9) all had their best games of the season. Mark Andrews (TE11) posted a season-high in targets.

And some early-season trends kept rolling, too. Sam LaPorta (TE3) scored twice, and Cole Kmet (TE7) had his second straight impactful game.

So I’m here to openly wonder: is tight end really so bad for fantasy football? Heck, sometimes there’s a drumbeat to get rid of the position entirely; just lump the players in with the wideouts.

Is that drastic a move necessary?

The fantasy tight end position in 2023

Let’s lump in all tight ends with wide receivers for the last few years, and see how the tight ends track if you ranked them as receivers. We’ll use full-point PPR scoring, since it’s easy to search on Pro Football Reference.

  • 2019: Kelce 12, Andrews 23, Kittle 25, Waller 31, Ertz 35, Cook 37, Hooper 43.

  • 2020: Kelce 3, Waller 12, Tonyan 36, Andrews 43, Hockenson 46, Gesicki 48 (Logan Thomas and Rob Gronkowski were just outside the top 50).

  • 2021: Andrews 6, Kelce 10, Schultz 30, Kittle 32, Gronkowski 38, Knox 39, Henry 41, Goedert 42, Pitts 43, Ertz 47. This was easily the best tight end season of the past five years.

  • 2022: Kelce 6, Kittle 19, Hill* 21, Hockenson 25, Andrews 31, Engram 45, Kmet 47.

  • 2023: LaPorta 19, Kmet 27, Andrews 30, Kelce 31, Kittle 34, Hockenson 44.

So is the tight end glass half-full or half-empty?

The tight end faders will note that there’s a lot of age concern here. Consider the seasonal ages at this position. Travis Kelce is obviously 34, Zach Ertz is 33, Darren Waller is 31 — even George Kittle just turned 30.

But there are also plenty of talented young players at this spot. LaPorta, who’s been a rookie season delight, is 22. Pitts, for all the ups and downs we struggle with, is only 23. Cole Kmet and Jake Ferguson are 24. Obviously, Dalton Kincaid and Michael Mayer are rookies with plenty of draft pedigree; they’re not fantasy options yet, but maybe they will be before the end of the year.

Tight ends are rarely going to be target hogs. Hockenson is the only tight end in the top 20 in targets (and likely keeps moving up with Justin Jefferson set to miss time). Obviously most tight ends carry blocking responsibilities that don’t carry over to wide receivers.

The hope is that touchdown equity makes up for some of that. If you score your league on touchdowns only, four tight ends crack the WR top 20 when we lump those positions together.

Bottom line, I’m always going to argue for keeping tight ends in fantasy. First and foremost, I want my leagues to be more dynamic, to require more decisions made, more analysis required. It adds skill and nuance to the game. But I also think talk of a tight end drought has been mildly overblown. This stuff is so often cyclical. Young tight end talent has entered the league in recent years, to help cover for the star talent we’ve lost recently and will lose in a few seasons.

Let’s close the tight end talk with some buying opportunities.

  • Jake Ferguson, Dallas. We talk him up often in this space. He’s still the runaway position leader in targets inside the 20 (a whopping 11) but has just one touchdown. He’s also been targeted six times inside the 10, also a league-high. It’s coming. Stay patient.

  • Chasing raw-target players without a touchdown is often a good process. This leads you to Evan Engram (37 targets), Waller (34) and Pitts (32).

  • Market share is always worth considering. Five tight ends are seeing 30% or more of their team’s opportunities: Ertz, Andrews, Kmet, Ferguson and the currently hurt Pat Freiermuth. Volume is good.

I don’t want this week’s On Target to be completely without wide receiver talk, so here are some tidbits (mostly about wide receivers) on the way out.

Key WR notes coming out of Week 5

  • Zay Flowers is running a target on 92.3% of Baltimore’s dropbacks (only Ja’Marr Chase and Garrett Wilson track higher). Player development varies from case to case, but Flowers arrived in the NFL close to a finished product. If nothing else, he’s separated himself significantly from the rest of the Ravens receiver room.

  • Puka Nacua’s first game with Cooper Kupp back led to a 7-71-1 line, 11 targets and a route on 92.7% of dropbacks. No worries here.

  • DeAndre Hopkins has the most air yards without a touchdown, a whopping 577. He’s the only no-score player who’s made it past 400 air yards. The Titans can be a difficult watch at times, but Hopkins at least is making an easy par off his summertime ADP, and he has a chance to still turn in a profit season.

  • The slot is a glorious place to work for any pass-catcher, and we like it when tight ends get slot reps — that means they’re running a route and not taking out the trash (blocking). Slot work isn’t always a slam dunk for fantasy value (you probably don’t want to start Jonnu Smith or Juwan Johnson right now, and Patriots like Hunter Henry or Mike Gesicki), but consider the other tight ends who are in the top 10 for this stat: Mark Andrews, Zach Ertz, Kyle Pitts, Luke Musgrave, Dallas Goedert, Dalton Kincaid.

  • Maybe it’s not Drake London’s fault, Take 500. Among qualified wideouts, London ranks last in lowest catchable target rate, a paltry 61.3%. Of course, failure has many parents (just like success), even if no one wants to claim the credit. Assign blame to Arthur Smith and Desmond Ridder as you see fit (and both had better games in Week 5), and accept that London isn’t blameless, either. It’s still an interesting stat. Some other names of note who have seen catchable passes at 70% or lower: Amari Cooper, Jahan Dotson, Tee Higgins, Kyle Pitts, George Pickens, Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

  • Several tight ends are on the plus side of the catchable pass stat, as they’re generally huge targets and their routes tend to be shorter. As for the wideouts, some of the signature receivers seeing high rates of catchable passes include DK Metcalf, DJ Moore, Keenan Allen, Stefon Diggs, Puka Nacua and Mike Evans.

Data from Pro Football Reference, Fantasy Points, and Rotowire was used in this article

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