Tight End Fantasy Football Exit Interview: Kelce, Waller broke the game, but don't kill the position

Scott Pianowski
·5-min read

Every NFL season is weird, it’s just weird in its own way. So it’s probably important to stay reasonably grounded with any set of results we analyze. Some big name players are always going to fizzle out, and some surprise players are always going to step forward, that’s the nature of the game in such a reshuffle league. Let’s try to decipher what we just saw, but not be too reactionary in our forward spins.

You need some 2020 tight end takeaways, and here we go:

As great as Travis Kelce was, Darren Waller was a viable running mate

Kelce just had the best year of a HOF-qualified career. He set new bests for catches, yards, and touchdowns, and the yardage total was the most in tight-end history. Had the Chiefs needed Week 17, Kelce could have become the first tight end to win a receiving-yardage total. Kelce’s 2020 PPR haul was the second-best return we’ve ever seen (Rob Gronkowski, 2011), and if Kelce saw the field last week, he might have overtaken Gronk.

In short, Kelce is a legendary player, and he just had his best year. When you land a fantasy player who offers weekly upside and floor, thank the gods and enjoy your good fortune.

But Waller’s brilliance wasn’t that far back from Kelce’s. His 107-1,196-9 season checks in as the No. 7 tight end year all time (PPR scoring). It’s third all-time in tight end catches, 10th all-time in tight end yards. There are different ways to frame fantasy value, but Waller’s return off Yahoo ADP 61.7 might have been juicier than Kelce’s smash off Yahoo ADP 18.4.

Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller (83) celebrates after scoring a 2-point conversion against the Denver Broncos during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Darren Waller's amazing season was overshadowed by Travis Kelce's historic campaign. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Value TEs emerged, though some of them weren’t obvious on draft day

Logan Thomas was a nifty find in Washington, and a late kick pushed him into a tie for the TE3 spot (PPR scoring) by year’s end. Nifty stuff, given that the Football Team used four quarterbacks this year, and not one of them graded out at league average or better. Thomas’ career arc is unusual; he was a quarterback in college and had a mere 317 receiving yards before this year, his age-29 season. But I’ll be proactive with him at next year’s draft table.

Robert Tonyan wasn’t a draft target for anyone in the summer. But he popped early (five touchdowns by Week 5) and wound up tied with Thomas at the TE3 slot. The Packers finally have a tight end we can get excited about, even if much of Tonyan’s fantasy value is tied to touchdown equity.

I’d also like to note that Dalton Schultz’s season (TE11) was in line with what some people expected from Blake Jarwin, who tore his ACL in Week 1. Schultz’s statistical output didn’t reach league-winner heights, but if you went with an in-house replacement, you did fine.

A few younger tight ends out-kicked their draft slots; T.J. Hockenson was drafted at TE19 but finished TE5; Jonnu Smith started at TE24, ended as TE11; and Mike Gesicki returned TE7 from the TE16 ADP. To be fair, there wasn’t a massive hit in this area, a George Kittle 2018 or a Mark Andrews 2019, but there were some feel-good stories, too.

Age and injury were common explanations for poor seasons

Zach Ertz fell apart in his age-30 season, making it through just 11 games and struggling to click with slumping QB Carson Wentz. George Kittle missed half the season, and also continued to struggle as a touchdown man; despite his immense ability, he has just 14 spikes in his four-year career, with a high of just five. Surely that has to correct in some coming season.

Tyler Higbee’s smashing end to the 2019 season wound up being a mirage, fool’s gold. Higbee never saw more than six targets in any game — compare this to the 11, 14, 11, and 12-target run he finished with last year — and other than an early three-touchdown game at Philadelphia (more a statement on the sorry Eagles), he was a fantasy flop.

Austin Hooper struggled to get comfortable in a new city, though a midseason appendectomy didn’t help. Hayden Hurst had a year of stops and starts; he had five different games with nine yards or fewer, but six touchdowns and a 56-571 line gave him a credible finishing line. I’ll be proactive with Hurst, expecting a little more in his second Atlanta season.

It’s a reactionary mistake to eliminate tight ends for Fantasy 2021

I get that it wasn’t a banner year for the position in 2020, and it’s funny to see Kelce dominating so much that the gap between him and TE3 is about the same as the gap from TE3 to TE50. A lot of fantasy managers were playing the stream-and-hope game this year and got sick of it, knowing that 19 yards (without a touchdown) were always possible when you punted the position.

But when I enter a fantasy draft, I want options, I want nuance, I want an extended list of possible roster builds. Keeping tight end as a static fantasy position adds nuance to the experience. Are you comfortable drafting Kelce, into an age-32 season, as a first-round pick next year? Will you give Mark Andrews a pass for his mildly disappointing year? Can Hockenson or Noah Fant smash as third-year players? For all the love we commonly throw at first-year backs and receivers these days, be mindful that the learning curve is almost always steeper for a young tight end.

Way too early tight end board for 2021

Note: I don’t think this position is as underwater as some fantasy pundits do.

Tier 1

Travis Kelce

Darren Waller

George Kittle

Tier 2

T.J. Hockenson

Mark Andrews

Dallas Goedert

Robert Tonyan

Hayden Hurst

Mike Gesicki

Rob Gronkowski

Tier 3

Logan Thomas

Noah Fant

Hunter Henry

Cole Kmet

Evan Engram

A Dallas tight end

Tier 4

Irv Smith

Jonnu Smith

Tyler Higbee

We’ll tackle quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in the weeks ahead. Enjoy the players, gamers.