NFL Draft Daily: The NFL’s tight end revolution

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. After all, there are only 116 days until the 2022 NFL draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

Kelce has the highest receiving yards per game average by a tight end in NFL history. (Wikimedia Commons)

The tight end position has drastically changed in the NFL over the past 10 years. As the league has leaned into its passing revolution, tight ends have become legitimate receivers in just about every offense. Honestly, the NFL might be in the midst of its tight end heyday, at least so far. With Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Darren Waller, Mark Andrews and (somehow) Rob Gronkowski leading the charge, we could be watching several future Hall of Famers right now.

That being said, the league still seems to be adjusting to the concept of receiving-specific tight ends. In the past, blocking has been a requirement. The best tight ends in the league are still excellent blockers. Kelce, Kittle and Gronkowski are all known for their receiving prowess, but what sets them apart is their blocking ability. They are well-rounded superstars. That prototypical player is still going to be the most coveted for the position.

However, we’ve seen a more recent rise of these wide receiver/tight end hybrid players. Waller, Andrews, Mike Gesicki and Kyle Pitts all headline this group. Waller is a converted receiver who lines up all over the place on offense. Andrews leads all tight ends in receiving yards this season and has been Baltimore’s top target for the past three seasons. He is not quite in the same tier as Kelce, Kittle and Gronkowski as a run blocker, but he is better than most of these receiver-only guys. Gesicki is basically a big slot receiver in Miami. He is almost always flexed out or lining up on the perimeter. Then, there is Pitts, who many expect to be one of the best tight ends to ever play the game. He has basically been the opposite of the traditional tight end. He dominates as a receiver between the 20s, but his one touchdown so far this season points to some struggles in the red zone.

Despite battling through injuries and previously retiring, Gronk is still one of the league’s elite tight ends. (Wikimedia Commons)

What’s significant about this is that these players are rarely if ever asked to block. Teams are essentially just using them as a mismatch option in the passing game. That’s why these players are successful. Arthur Smith is not keeping Pitts in to block on running plays or to chip edge rushers on third down. He’s using Pitts as the receiver he is.

However, there have been far too many cases of teams simply not knowing how to use these uber-athletic receiving tight ends. Prominent ones that come to mind are David Njoku in Cleveland, Irv Smith Jr. in Minnesota and Evan Engram in New York. Maybe even O.J. Howard should be in this conversation. None of these players have been able to get off the ground. Some of it is due to injuries, but a lot of it is the schemes they play in.

Engram, who is a huge liability as a blocker, has struggled to transition to the NFL. People will point to a 2020 Pro Bowl appearance, but that was a questionable selection. His talent is undeniable, but it feels like the Giants simply have not found a way to maximize his potential. An anemic pass offense and archaic play calling under Jason Garrett didn’t help matters, but it is time for him to join a different offensive system. It will be interesting to see if he lands in a more pass-happy offense that is willing to let him play as a big receiver on the outside.

Meanwhile, Smith Jr. and Njoku were buried on the depth chart by much less athletic tight ends. Kyle Rudolph was the incumbent in Minnesota and Smith Jr. could not unseat him for the starting job. He likely would’ve had a chance to be the featured target at the position, but injuries cost him the entire 2021 season. Njoku struggled with consistency and eventually lost his starting job to Austin Hooper. He also plays in a run-heavy scheme that does not put him in a position to succeed.

Engram has not topped 700 receiving yards in a season since his rookie year in 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

The book is still largely unwritten on Smith Jr.’s time in Minnesota, but time is up for Njoku and Engram. They will be looking for new homes in 2022. Howard is done in Tampa Bay after this season, too. There is a chance he simply isn’t cut out for the NFL either. Howard’s inconsistency and lack of durability has him as the third tight end in Tampa Bay.

All of these players struggling to transition definitely begs the question: is the NFL using these players properly, or are we in the media overvaluing these athletic move tight ends? We are enamored by the athleticism, speed and receiving ability by these players on the college stage. All of them were top-50 selections though, with three of them going in the first round. Clearly, the NFL believed in their playmaking ability translating as well.

So what went wrong? Players bust in the NFL all the time. Perhaps, these are three (maybe four, jury is still out on Smith Jr.) players that just could not live up to the hype. However, I think it might also be that these teams misused all of these players. Gesicki and Pitts are great examples of how to deploy this type of player. You can flex them out and play them out wide on the boundary to create mismatches.

I wonder if we could see a second-half renaissance for any of these players if they land in better situations. The Chargers, Titans, Bengals, Saints, Panthers and Packers all could use an upgrade at tight end this year. Each has a good history of utilizing receiving tight ends. Imagine Engram hauling in passes from Aaron Rodgers or O.J. Howard toasting a linebacker to catch a score from Justin Herbert. This is all speculation, but it is something I will be watching closely this offseason.

Bottom line, the NFL is still figuring out how to best deploy these hybrid players. The same can be said on defense, with players like Isaiah Simmons, Derwin James and the upcoming Kyle Hamilton challenging a lot of traditional positional tropes. It will be interesting to see if receiving tight ends like Jahleel Billingsley, Jalen Wydermyer and Isaiah Likely will fare as the latest group of prospects to arrive in the NFL. In the right system, any one of them could have a Waller or Gesicki-like impact on an offense. The league is still just scratching the surface on how it utilizes tight ends.

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Fantasy Football 2020 Waiver Wire Pickups: Plenty of replacement options for Dak Prescott

I’m back with some fantasy content this week. I had to pass on writing my waiver wire column last week because life just got a bit too busy. I guess that’s what happens though when you are buying a house.

Now that I’ve got a bit more free time on my hands, I am able to dive deep into that available players tab and help you find the best players to add to your roster for this week.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, MIA
For the fourth straight week, Ryan Fitzpatrick put up 20-plus fantasy points. He trailed only Patrick Mahomes in Week 5 among fantasy quarterbacks. Somehow, he is available in 80% (!!!!!) of ESPN leagues. If you are refusing to pick him up because Tua Tagovailoa could take over, you are missing out. He continues to put up huge numbers and heads into a Week 6 matchup with the Jets of all teams. While New York has had some success against Philip Rivers, Nick Mullens and Brett Rypien, that defense has given up 27.2 points per game when facing Josh Allen and Kyler Murray. Expect Fitzmagic to be closer to those two.

Tannehill looked sharp in the Titans’ return from an unexpected bye week. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ryan Tannehill, QB, TEN
There are a lot of streaming options/potential Dak Prescott replacements for your lineup this week. Tannehill dazzled on Tuesday Night Football with three passing touchdowns and one more on the ground. It was against a Bills defense missing it’s best defensive player in Stephon Gilmore, but a good sign nonetheless. He faces a middle of the road Texans defense in Week 6 as well. I wouldn’t expect him to replicate his 29-point outing again, but should fill in nicely for the week if you are desperate for a new quarterback.

Justin Herbert, QB, LAC
This rookie came to play. Herbert put up big numbers again against the Saints, topping 22 points for the third time in his four career starts. Now his upside is capped a little bit by the Chargers tendency to run the ball a lot, but he also tends to take a few shots downfield every game. He is heading into a bye in Week 6, but has a ton of value when he returns to action. Herbert’s next five games after the break are against the Jaguars, Broncos, Raiders, Dolphins and Jets. That is about as favorable of a fantasy stretch as you can ask for. He is still available in about 65% of ESPN leagues, but after his showing on Monday Night, he won’t stick around long.

Andy Dalton, QB, DAL
There are a lot of quarterback options this week. Dalton stepped in for the injured Dak Prescott. He will be Dallas’ starter going forward. Even if he is not as talented as Prescott, Dalton has arguably the best receiving corps in the league to work with and a workhorse running back. Given that the Cowboys’ defense can’t stop anyone either, he is going to be throwing the ball a lot. He faces a tough Washington front seven behind a battered offensive line, but I still think Dalton will point up points right away.

Goff has been a bit inconsistent this season, but has three games with over 20 fantasy points. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jared Goff, QB, LAR
Turns out I recommended Goff a week too early. After a lackluster performance against the Giants, he tuned up Washington’s defense with 309 yards passing and three total touchdowns. It is hard to know which version of the Rams offense is going to show up at this point, but Goff faces a favorable matchup in Week 6 against the 49ers. Hard to imagine the 49ers being a team you want your fantasy quarterback to face, but their defense is ravaged by injuries. Ryan Fitzpatrick carved up the Niners’ secondary for the second-most points in fantasy this past week. If you are looking for a streaming option at quarterback, you could do much worse than Goff.

Alexander Mattison, RB, MIN
For those of you who drafted Mattison and hung onto him this long, your patience might be rewarded. Dalvin Cook went down with a groin injury early in the second half against Seattle. Mattison finished with a staggering 20 carries, most of which came in the second half. Minnesota ranks fourth in rushing yards and third in attempts under Gary Kubiak. If Cook misses any time at all, Mattison is a borderline RB1 for every week he does. He is probably best in standard scoring leagues, but he can catch a few passes out of the backfield as well. He faces the Falcons in Week 6, who are giving up the second-most points in the NFL. If he is available, go get him.

Damien Harris, RB, NE
Didn’t pick up Harris last week? It’s not too late, but you are running out of time. He had an expected bye week after his game against the Broncos was postponed, which means he will be playing the rest of the season. He has a chance to be the feature back, or as close as the Patriots will ever come to having one. He will now face the Broncos in Week 6. With Cam Newton likely to return, he could lose out on some carries, but Harris will still see enough attention to be fantasy relevant.

Chase Edmonds, RB, ARI
If you are in PPR leagues, Edmonds might already be off the waiver wire. If he is still there though, he could have some spot flex value for your team. He picked on a weak Jets defense in Week 5 and faces a below average Dolphins one in Week 6. Only earning eight total touches is a bit concerning, but he was definitely the more effective running back in the Cardinals’ backfield. I will be curious to see if his role continues to increase with Kenyan Drake struggling. He is worth stashing on your roster, just in case he claims lead back responsibilities.

Chase Claypool, WR, PIT
Where in the world did that come from? Destroyer of defenses Chase Claypool put up 11 more points than the next-highest scoring PPR receiver in Week 5. When Dionte Johnson went down with an injury, which has been a frequent occurrence this season, Claypool stepped up. Ben Roethlisberger seems to trust him already. While it is unlikely he will score four touchdowns again at any point this year, or maybe ever, Claypool carries value in fantasy. Even if Johnson does return for Week 6, Claypool is a big-play and red zone threat. He looks like a matchup-specific flex play at the very least.

Travis Fulgham, WR, PHI
Speaking of the next highest-scoring receiver in fantasy… Proceed with caution on this one. Travis Fulgham was on exactly 0.2 percent of rosters heading into Week 5. He had a monster week though against the Steelers. With 10 catches for 152 yard and a touchdown on 13 targets, Fulgham put up WR1 type production. But was it just a flash in the pan? Desean Jackson, Jalen Reagor and Alshon Jeffrey should eventually return to action. Until they do though, Fulgham should hold flex value, especially in PPR leagues. You might have to sit him against the Ravens, but you could consider starting him against the Giants and Cowboys after that.

Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Jacksonville
It might be time to get to know Laviska Shenault Jr. The rookie from Colorado has earned at least six targets in three straight games. He racked up seven catches for 79 yards in Week 5 while facing the Texans. What makes Shenault appealing is his consistency. He has scored at least eight points in every contest under PPR scoring. D.J. Chark is battling an ankle injury, which should open up even more targets heading Shenault’s way. If he can start finding his way into the end zone, this will be a guy you want starting in your lineup every week.

Mecole Hardman, WR, KC
With Sammy Watkins set to miss some time due to injury, Hardman has an opportunity to step up. He is best-suited for standard leagues given his big-play nature. Few teams can take the top off a defense like the Chiefs can. However, he is definitely a boom-or-bust type play. He has not had more four targets in four of his five games this season. If you are willing to roll the dice on him in Week 6, he should have a slightly higher floor given that his targets should increase with less competition for Patrick Mahomes’ attention.

Mike Williams, WR, LAC
Williams got healthy and put up a huge statline against the Saints. He became the focus of the passing game when Keenan Allen exited with back spasms. Williams is always intriguing at his size from a fantasy perspective. He tends to draw a solid number of targets in the red zone, which creates a good floor for him. However, if Allen misses time, Williams becomes hugely valuable. However, with Los Angeles heading into a bye, Williams is nothing more than a roster stash that could help you when your other receivers are on a bye.

Eric Ebron, TE, PIT
If you are in a PPR league, Ebron does carry some solid value as a high-floor tight end. For the the third straight game, he earned at least five targets. Unfortunately, he has not picked up too many yards and only managed one touchdown. Ebron does get a favorable matchup with a Browns defense allowing the sixth most points to tight ends in PPR. What would really help Ebron’s fantasy prospects would be holding onto the football. He has fumbled twice in his past three games. As far as spot starters go, Ebron is a decent option.

Irv Smith Jr., TE, MIN
If you are in deeper league or look for a deep sleeper at tight end this week, Irv Smith Jr. could be a sneaky play. After back-to-back games without a catch, Smith had four for 64 yards on five targets against the Seahawks. Given how little he has produced up to this point, counting on him replicating those numbers is foolish, but he gets a great matchup with a Falcons defense allowing the second most points in fantasy to opposing tight ends. They are still 8.7 points worse than the average after allowing zero points to Panthers tight ends in Week 5 (because the Panthers don’t have a pass catching tight end they feature in this offense). He is my favorite boom-or-bust candidate of the week at the position.