This era of sports fans has access to an overflow of information, which is an excellent tool for increasing knowledge but also often leads to groupthink among fantasy communities. Groupthink in fantasy football leads to the over-valuation of some players and the under-valuation of others. This is where sleepers and busts come in. How can we better identify sleepers to take advantage of our league-mates who are just following the built-in draft rankings? These are the key factors to keep in mind when talking about sleepers in fantasy football, specifically for the tight position:
- How many vacated targets are there within the offense – did a player leave in free agency who was heavily targeted last year?
- How good is the team’s quarterback? Will he pass for a high number of yards/touchdowns?
- How good will the team’s defense be? Will the offense be trailing in a lot of games, forced to rely on the passing attack?
- What does the fantasy football public generally think about that player? The best way to find sleepers is to zig when others are zagging.
In 2019 we saw guys like Darren Waller, Mark Andrews, Jared Cook, Dallas Goedert, Tyler Higbee, and Mike Gesicki finish as top-12 tight ends in PPR leagues despite not being drafted in that range. Which players could repeat that impressive performance this season with a breakthrough fantasy campaign?
For this article, I consider a sleeper to be a player whose ADP (average draft position) is significantly lower than where I see his potential upside. ADP numbers are from the Lineups database. Let’s dive into some potential sleepers at the tight end position.
1. Tyler Higbee, LA Rams
ADP: 138.2, TE16
I don’t understand why Higbee’s ADP is so low. As I alluded to in the intro, he finished as the #8 tight end in PPR leagues despite going undrafted in the majority of leagues. The Rams traded away Brandin Cooks over the offseason, who accounted for 72 targets in the offense last season despite missing two games. Todd Gurley’s 49 targets are also gone. The Rams did draft Van Jefferson at receiver, but he’s coming off a broken foot, so it’s unclear how healthy he will be to start the season. Higbee was on the field for 62% of his team’s snaps last year, but that number jumped up to at least 85% of snaps during the previous five weeks of the season. During that stretch, the Rams’ tight end averaged 8.6 catches on 11.2 targets per game for 104.4 yards and 0.4 touchdowns. Extrapolate those stats to a full 16-game slate, and you’re looking at 137 catches for 1,670 yards and 6.5 touchdowns. Is it unrealistic to expect that type of production throughout an entire season? Absolutely. Tyler Higbee has proven himself as a valuable part of this offense, though, and even if he manages half the production, I just laid out he would be a value in the 12th round. I’ll be looking to grab Higbee in any draft where I miss out on one of the elites (Kelce, Kittle, Ertz) at the tight end position – I have him finishing as the TE8 in my season-long projections.
2. Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
ADP – 153.9, TE19
Hurst is another guy whose ADP is shockingly low, in my opinion. The Falcons averaged 42.8 pass attempts per game last season, which was mostly due to their defense being abysmal. I don’t see that changing significantly this year. Atlanta may have an improved run game with Todd Gurley on board to be fair, but with their defense struggling to keep opponents from scoring, they will likely be reliant on their passing attack late in games once again. Matt Ryan is one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the NFL, and while Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley will undoubtedly be the top passing targets, Ryan has shown a propensity to throw to his tight ends in the past. Austin Hooper saw 97 targets last year and is no longer on the team. Also gone is Mohamed Sanu and his 42 targets from last year as well as Devonta Freeman and his 70 targets. Hurst is much more talented than his limited production in Baltimore suggests as Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle were entrenched ahead of him on the depth chart. The Falcons gave up significant draft capital for Hurst despite their many holes to fill, and he will undoubtedly be involved in one of the pass-happiest offenses in football. I have him finishing with a career-high 61 catches for 655 yards and six touchdowns, which makes him the TE10 in my projections. I doubt he’ll still be the TE19 in ADP in a few months, but he’s a name worth watching if you wait to draft a tight end this year.
3. Jack Doyle and Trey Burton, Indianapolis Colts
ADP (Doyle): 161.4, TE21; ADP (Burton): undrafted
Jack Doyle is far from a sexy name in fantasy, but that shouldn’t warrant his near-undrafted status. Philip Rivers should bring more efficient quarterback play to the Colts than Jacoby Brissett was able to produce, and Doyle should be entrenched as a primary target after Eric Ebron’s offseason departure. The team did recently bring in Trey Burton to compete for targets at the tight end position, but the Colts are a team that runs a lot of two-tight end sets, and Burton has dealt with his fair share of injuries recently. Even if Burton plays a full 16-game slate, we’ve seen both Ebron and Doyle be relevant for fantasy in the past, and I think both could be relevant fantasy options this season. I have Doyle as my TE15 and Burton as my TE19 currently. Neither guy has massive upside in an offense which should be among the more run-heavy units in football, but both can be more-than-serviceable options in a sometimes-dire fantasy landscape at the tight end position. I would be pretty happy to grab either guy with a late-round pick if I wait on the tight end position, and Higbee/Hurst are no longer available.
4. Blake Jarwin, Dallas Cowboys
ADP: 188.4, TE 24
The Cowboys were a great offensive unit in 2019 featuring Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Ezekiel Elliott, averaging the 6th-most points per game in the NFL. However, with Randall Cobb (83 targets) and Jason Witten (83 targets) no longer on the roster, there is some receiving work up for grabs. Recent first-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb will undoubtedly take on some of that responsibility, but Jarwin should have the opportunity to increase his 41 targets from last year significantly. Witten’s departure, in particular, should open up opportunities for Jarwin, as the veteran tight end was on the field for 75.38% of the team’s offensive snaps. The majority of that work should go to Jarwin as Dalton Schultz, his primary backup, was active for all 16 games and only saw two targets. With the lack of depth at the tight end position, frequently guaranteed play and target share is all it takes to achieve fantasy relevance. Witten finished as the TE11 last year despite turning 39 this week, and Jarwin has the athletic upside and receiving the ability to finish better than that this season. I have him slated for 56 receptions for 650 yards and four touchdowns, which would put him in the top-12 range at the tight end position.
5. Ian Thomas, Carolina Panthers
ADP: 162, TE22
When you think about the Panthers‘ offense, you probably don’t think of anything close to high octane. Their production was rough last season despite CMC’s herculean effort as Kyle Allen, Will Grier, and the shadow of Cam Newton struggled to get the job done. However, with the accurate Teddy Bridgewater at QB and prolific Joe Brady as the offensive coordinator, they should look entirely different this year. The Panthers also just lost several defensive starters, including their defensive captain and arguable best linebacker in the league in Luke Kuechly. With Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan in their division, it’s easy to envision the Panthers being involved in lots of shootouts this year. That will create the need for an offensive gameplan more heavily featuring the passing attack. Greg Olsen was on the field for 70.98% of the team’s offensive snaps last year, and he’s no longer on the roster, paving the way for Ian Thomas to be the starting tight end for the first time in his career. CMC and D.J. Moore are still likely the top passing options. Yet, with an accurate QB and a defense that should lend itself to positive passing game script, Ian Thomas will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his athleticism and receiving talent. I have him down for 64 catches for 815 yards and four touchdowns, which makes him the TE7 in my season-long projections, but even if his volume is slightly less than that, it’s easy to envision him significantly overperforming his draft range.
6. TJ Hockenson, Detroit Lions
ADP: 132.5, TE14
The Lions were destroyed on offense this season by a variety of injuries, most notably to their starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, and starting running back, Kerryon Johnson. Hockenson also missed four games, though, derailing what was otherwise an auspicious rookie season for him. The Lions selected Hockenson with the number 8 overall pick in the 2019 draft, desperate for tight end help, and while it usually takes a season for rookie tight ends to get acclimated to the NFL, Hockenson put together a decent rookie season. His 16-game pace would have been good for about 43 catches for 490 yards and three touchdowns. It’s important to note that the combination of David Blough and Jeff Driskel started eight games for Detroit last year, and Matthew Stafford should be fully healthy now. Hockenson was only on the field for 48.66% of snaps on average during games he played, and that number should increase significantly this season. Hockenson is likely to be everybody’s favorite tight end sleeper this year, so he may not end up being that great a value in drafts, but I have him down for 60 receptions for 750 yards and six touchdowns, which would make him the TE6 in my projections. He’s a value as long as he’s being selected outside the top ten tight ends.
7. Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans
ADP: 149.6, TE17
Smith is going to get a lot of love in fantasy circles this summer which will spike his draft range. Still, as long as he’s in this range, he’s worth discussing as an incredibly athletic tight end talent who had an elite 78% catch percentage last year and has awesome YAC abilities with his 4.6 40 speed. Delanie Walker is no longer on the Titans’ roster, but Smith already played on 70.81% of snaps last year, and I’m not sure how much of an increase from that I see for him. The Titans also threw less than any other NFL team, ranking last in the league with 26.9 passing attempts per game. Smith can certainly be a serviceable fantasy asset. Still, I’m worried his ADP is going to soar as fans see the improved QB play from Ryan Tannehill and the athletic upside of his top tight end, forgetting the massive offensive share Derrick Henry demands every time the team has the ball.
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