Fantasy Football: Non-Top 5 TEs to Target in 2021

By Ravi Krishnan (@masalaESPN)

In fantasy football, tight ends (TE) are hard to bank on, and there only are 3-5 dependable contributors every year. Travis Kelce is a perennial stud and has always offered, at worst, a WR2/RB2 value.

Slightly below him in recent seasons is an all-time legend, Rob Gronkowski. Zach Ertz has had a few elite seasons, and then there is the potent duo of George Kittle and Darren Waller, both of whom are season-influencers at the position.

Other than these guys, there have always been effective contributors in recent years — Evan Engram, Delanie Walker, Mark Andrews, Austin Hooper, Hunter Henry, to name a few. Even within this relatively scarce skill span, the 2020 fantasy football season was an absolute nightmare. Kittle got injured, Engram dropped almost as many balls as he caught, Hooper dealt with niggles, and Andrews was inconsistent.

Kelce remained Kelce though, and in fact, he raised his game to a level where he is now seen on par with elite WRs/RBs, and in some ways, is a more impactful value-changer than anyone else in any other position. Waller was elite as well and was the lone rival to Kelce in terms of a stud TE.

Despite the sparse season for TEs, it was not all doom and gloom. Among those springing surprises were Rob Tonyan, TJ Hockensen, Logan Thomas, and Mike Gesicki. The emergence of these value TEs has led me to my latest article.

My piece today looks at players at the TE position whom you can wait on beyond the first six rounds but could bring you high-end value by the end of the season. What this means is that you will NOT find the Kelce/Kittle/Waller/Andrews/Henry/Hockensen group, nor will we look at other usual names who we always rate as starters, like Engram, Hooper, Hayden Hurst, and Eric Ebron.  Instead, we will focus on potential golden nuggets at the next level and beyond.

Noah Fant

Final 2020 Half-PPR Ranking Among TEs: #12

Projected TE ADP in early-2021 Mock Drafts: #8

Potential 2021 Ranking: Top Seven

The Denver Broncos offensive makeup is likely to look much different in 2021 as the team will look to upgrade at the QB spot. The same goes for the coaching staff/system that hopefully will implement more of a ball-control offense that leverages its duo of running backs (Gordon and Lindsay) and wide receivers (Jeudy & Sutton). The wild card in this system is Noah Fant. This is the one guy whose reputation came out unscathed this past season.

He was the most consistent pass-catcher on an average offense; under a better QB, his stock should rise even higher. In the last three games of the regular season, Fant was targeted 26 times (93 for the whole season). That is a sizeable volume at TE, and again, with a more accurate QB at the helm, Fant has the chance to be among the top-seven TEs in 2021.

Robert Tonyan

Final 2020 Half-PPR Ranking Among TEs: #3

Projected TE ADP in early-2021 Mock Drafts: #11

Potential 2021 Ranking: Top Five

The unheralded Tonyan was a scoring machine, grabbing 11 TDS. The problem was that he caught only 52 catches overall, so volume was an issue. Clearly, his TD conversion ratio is not sustainable. Still, the reason for my optimism is that his 52 catches came off 53 targets, for a league-leading 98.2% catch-rate. In Green Bay, you thrive if and only if you earn Aaron Rodgers’ trust. Tonyan did that in heaps and bunches this past season.

Four of his TDs came on 3rd and Goal situations, so it was clear that Tonyan was sought out by Rodgers as their most reliable pass-catcher after DeVante Adams. If and when the target share goes up, Tonyan can be a bonafide top-five player at his position.

Mike Gesicki

Final 2020 Half-PPR Ranking Among TEs: #7

Projected TE ADP in early-2021 Mock Drafts: #8

Potential 2021 Ranking: Top Ten

Ok, so this is admittedly a bit unfair — Gesicki is more of a WR than a TE. In fact, he was on the field running far more pass-routes than any other TE in the league. In terms of opportunity, here is a prime candidate to be a truly elite player. To further substantiate this opportunity, Gesicki had some ridiculous games in 2020. He had three games of over 20 fantasy points. So, what’s the issue? It is two-fold, actually.

One, Gesicki is still rather inconsistent. He makes the craziest of catches look easy, and then runs the wrong route and/or drops a dolly all in one game! Second, there was a clear bifurcation in his productivity in games quarterbacked by Tagovailoa versus Fitzpatrick. The latter was a blessing for Gesicki, as Tagovailoa had a tough time finding his bearings as an NFL-level thrower in 2020.

The hope for 2021 is that Tua elevates his own passing game, as that will enable Gesicki to realize his potential to match the aforementioned opportunity.

Irv Smith

Final 2020 Half-PPR Ranking Among TEs: #22

Projected RB ADP in early-2021 Mock Drafts: #20

Potential 2021 Ranking: Top Ten

Not too many fantasy league owners felt the need or desire to add Irv Smith off waivers in 2020. Even fewer are targeting him in next season’s draft. And that might be a mistake, in my humble opinion. Smith is an uber-talented pass-catcher and a fair route-runner. He has improved in blocking as well. His main obstacle thus far in his NFL career has been the presence of Kyle Rudolph to split his role. The Vikings coaching staff continued their undeterred loyalty to the steady Rudolph in the first half of 2020, but things started looking up for Smith in the second half.

In the first seven games of last season, he averaged just 3.1 fantasy points per game. In the last four games, the average shot up to almost 12 points per game. Often, the future value of pass-catchers can be gauged by the last quarter of the prior NFL season. In this vein, Irv Smith promises to be a game-changer for the Vikings and for your fantasy teams in 2021.

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