2022 TE Sneaky Sleepers
A great TE is perhaps the most overlooked fantasy position. Problem is, you have to spend an early pick to guarantee one. Nothing's guaranteed in the later rounds, but this will help you find a potentially great TE without sacrificing a top RB or WR.
It's wild to think that a former top 2 TE has become a sleeper. But this is 2022, and Zach Ertz is clearly slept on. PPR averages since his rookie season:
2013 - TE9, 6.7 PPG
2014 - TE6, 9.0 PPG
2015 - TE9, 11.4 PPG
2016 - TE3, 13.1 PPG
2017 - TE3, 14.5 PPG
2018 - TE2, 17.5 PPG
2019 - TE4, 14.4 PPG
2020 - TE27, 7.1 PPG
2021 - TE11, 10.6 PPG
The 3x Pro Bowl TE has been a TE1 every year besides 2020. In 2020, Dallas Goedert became the full-time starter. Ertz took a backseat. His targets per game were the lowest since 2014. It's also worth noting that the Eagles passing game was atrocious in 2020. Philly was 28th in yards per game, 31st in passer rating, 32nd in yards per attempt.
Ertz's 2021 split stats give a clearer picture of what to expect in 2022. He played six games as the Eagles TE2 in 2021, averaging 8.2 PPG as the league's TE20. He was traded to the Cardinals in mid-October, and rejuvenated his career. From Week 7 to 18, he averaged 12.0 PPG and was the league's TE4 during that span.
At 31, Ertz is one of the oldest TEs in the league. But he's been playing an "old man" game his entire career. He's never relied on chunk plays. There's literally a Twitter page called "Did Zach Ertz Break A Tackle?" Ertz doesn't win with YAC. He wins with perfect routes, understanding leverage and finding holes in the zone.
DeAndre Hopkins is suspended the first six weeks this season. Ertz will be the team's #2 passing option to start the year. He'll be a top four TE in the first six weeks, and will likely remain a TE1 after that. He's being drafted as the TE10 with a 9th round ADP. You might have to draft another late round TE in case his targets fall off a cliff when D-Hop returns, but that's what this list is for.
After a 562 yard rookie season in 2019, Noah Fant averaged 10.0 PPG as the TE11 in 2020, and 9.9 PPG as the TE14 in 2021. Now entering his fourth season, Fant is a breakout lottery pick. Unlike Ertz, Fant has elite athleticism. At 6'4" 249 lbs with 33 1/2" arms, Fant ran a 4.50 40 yard dash, ranking in the 98th percentile among TEs. His size to speed score is 97th percentile. His burst score is 97th percentile. His agility score is 96th percentile. His catch radius is 99th percentile. PlayerProfiler's best comparable player is fellow Iowa TE George Kittle. Physically, Fant is as elite as it gets.
Fant was completely misused as a short yardage YAC option. He was only 19th among TEs in average depth of target, yet finished 10th in TE receiving yards. And despite being 17th in target rate, he was 7th in TE receptions. He received just 7 deep targets last season, 10th among TEs. Target separation is a criticized metric, but it's worth noting that he was the #1 TE last year with 2.52 yards of separation per target. And it's not like he's untrustworthy. He had just 3 drops last year, and was 4th in catch rate.
Nobody's expecting Fant to surpass DK Metcalf and Tyler Locket in target share. But even if Fant remains in the 90 target range as he achieved in 2020 and 2021, Seattle likes to throw the ball downfield. Not to mention, he has some carryover chemistry with Drew Lock in Denver.
Tight ends take some time to develop. Fant has all the tools for a breakout season. I expect his ADOT to improve, as should his receiving yards and fantasy points. He's just 24 years old and is being drafted at his floor as the TE14, with an 11th/12th round ADP. If you're going to wait to draft a TE, Noah Fant needs to be on your roster.
David Njoku was re-signed this off-season to a polarizing contract: 4 years, $56M. Many were puzzled, considering he's been top ten in PPG just once in five seasons. However, Njoku was re-signed for his potential, and potential he has in spades.
Njoku has a nice combination of athleticism and ability to pluck contested passes away from defenders. 85th percentile in his 40 yard dash, 81st in speed score, 97th in burst score, 81st in agility score, and 94th in catch radius.
Just 25th in targets, target share and target rate, Njoku made the most of his opportunities in 2021, finishing 4th in yards per reception, 5th in yards per target, 6th in fantasy points per target, 7th in QB rating per target and 12th in yards per route run. And yes, his contested catch rate was 61.5%, 5th among TEs.
Now in Cleveland, there's no Odell, no Jarvis, no Hooper. It's Amari Cooper and Njoku. And as good as Cooper is, here's his WR target rates from the past five seasons: 45th in 2021, 46th in 2020, 28th in 2019, 52nd in 2018, and 39th in 2017.
The only true alpha receiver on the Browns is David Njoku. *If* that sick freak Deshaun Watson is allowed to play in 2022, Njoku's legitimately a sleeper pick to lead the league in TE receiving yards. And if the NFL does the right thing and Watson's suspended, or hopefully, banned, Njoku is still in line for a career year minus three target hogs. And with a 13th round ADP as the TE16, drafting Njoku based on his future potential, not his previous stats, is a slam dunk pick.
Irv Smith Jr.
Bye bye, Mike Zimmer and Tyler Conklin. Hello, Kevin O'Connell and Irv Smith Jr.
The Vikings new head coach Kevin O'Connell has a history of featuring tight ends. He was the Rams offensive coordinator in 2020 and 2021. In 2021, Tyler Higbee led TEs in red zone targets and was 2nd in snap share. Rams offense was 10th and 12th in pass attempts. With Smith, the Zimmer-led offense was just 27th in pass attempts. O'Connell's gone on record saying Smith Jr. will be a "major part" of the Vikings offense.
Smith Jr. is just 23 years old. A meniscus injury kept him off the field in 2021. In 2020, he was 2nd in points per target, 2nd in QB rating per target, 8th in yards per target, and 8th in yards per reception. He was only 34th in targets, yet finished 22nd in points per game. Now, in his third year, he will see the targets he deserves, he's no longer splitting snaps with Conklin, and will be better utilized with an offensive-minded head coach. With a 12th round ADP, the TE20 is guaranteed to out-perform his draft position. Get breakout TEs late. Get Irv Smith Jr.
Like Zach Ertz, Evan Engram is another rare case of finding a top four TE late in the draft. And like Ertz, Engram's fantasy points largely dropped due to circumstances. His PPR averages since his rookie season:
2017: TE4, 11.6 PPG
2018: TE7, 11.3 PPG
2019: TE7, 13.7 PPG
2020: TE18, 8.8 PPG
2021: TE23, 6.8 PPG
Engram had Eli Manning as his QB in 2018 and 2019. Daniel Jones joined the team in 2019, and frequented the TE heavily as a rookie. But Engram suffered a sprained MCL and a sprained foot that caused him to miss more than half of the 2019 season. Engram wasn't the same in 2020 and 2021. A calf pull, and later, a strain, limited his explosiveness. His target rate declined to career lows. His average depth of target went from 8.7 yards as a rookie to 7.2 in 2020 and bottoming out at 5.6 in 2021.
Jacksonville's offense is revamped yet again. Trevor Lawrence was a first overall pick for a reason. Urban Meyer proved to be completely incompetent at the NFL level, so we can chalk up Lawrence's rookie year as a mulligan. Most QBs improve in their second year, especially "generational talent" QBs. His target competition is Christian Kirk, who, admittedly, is an underrated WR. But he's never reached 1000 yards receiving, and just 10 of his 103 targets last year were red zone targets (44th among WRs). Jags target leader Marvin Jones has reached 1000 yards just once in ten seasons (2017), and is 32 years old. Zay Jones has reached 600 yards just once in five seasons, and had 1 TD on 70 targets last season. Laviska Shenault has been a complete bust, losing playing time to career special teamer and former NFL defensive back Jamal Agnew. Engram has been featured as a slot receiver this off-season, and very well could cut into these receiver's playing time.
Journeyman JAG Dan Arnold played seven games for Jacksonville last season, and had at least 7 targets in four of those seven games. I promise you, Evan Engram is more talented than Dan Arnold.
Injury risk is always factored into his seasonal outlook. He's had two right MCL sprains, and two concussions since being drafted. Draft Sharks has his chance of injury in 2022 at 93%. Definitely don't draft him as your TE1. However, if you're drafting TEs late, Engram can certainly return to a high-upside pick. TE23 with a 16th round ADP is my definition of low-risk, high-upside. I want TEs who have a chance to lead their team in receiving. Engram has that chance.
These are the five late-round TEs I love the most right now. That's not to say I didn't have other names in mind.
After Gronk's retirement, I'd add Cameron Brate to this list, but I assume his TE29 ADP will rise very quickly. Brate's a solid red zone threat, but he is not the YAC threat Gronk was, even in his swan song. And who knows if the Bucs sign Eric Ebron or Kyle Rudolph.
I'm a big Cole Kmet fan, and will certainly be drafting him quite a bit this year. Kmet actually led the Bears in red zone targets, but had zero TDs. Despite having the 6th most deep targets, 8th most targets and 10th highest ADOT, he was just 17th in yards per route run, 17th in yards after catch, 23rd in yards per target, 26th in points per route and 29th in points per target among TEs. I'm not sure how much gamebreaking juice he has. He can be second on the team in targets and still just be a TE2.
Robert Tonyan could lead the Packers in receiving TDs, but he is currently a PUP candidate and could miss a third of the season. He's played in 51 games, and never reached 100 yards (including five games that Davante Adams was out).
There's others I like as well, such as Albert Okwuegbunam and Mo Alie-Cox. I could even talk about rookie sleepers such as Trey McBride, Jelani Woods, Greg Dulcich, Jeremy Ruckert, Cade Otton, Chigoziem Okonkwo, and Daniel Bellinger.
I love tight ends. I played tight end for most of my nine seasons. My friends will begrudgingly tell you that I was Most Outstanding Junior Tight End at the University of Oregon Football Camp. I could literally talk about tight ends for hours. But I know attention spans are shorter, so I'll leave it how I always leave it. Trust your board, trust your intuition, get your guys.