With the lack of reliable tight ends in fantasy football, each year will see at least a few breakouts rise from the lower depths of the rankings to claim a top-12 fantasy finish. Last season, Robert Tonyan finished as the TE3 in standard and PPR formats. (Don’t pretend like you knew who Tonyan was coming into the season.) Remember Jared Cook charting a career year (TE5) in ‘18 at 31? If you need more evidence, we can go back further. See none other than Delanie Walker, then a long-time 49ers backup. In 2013, He signed a four-year deal with Tennessee for an average salary of 4.4 million dollars — chump change for an NFL player. And what did he do with that opportunity? He became a reliable upper-tier fantasy starter for the next five seasons, finishing as high as TE2 in PPR formats. All of these players were barely on the sleeper radar, never mind highlighted on draft cheat sheets.
So, now that it’s been established sleeper tight ends emerge every season, it’s important to figure out how to identify them. Sometimes, TEs set to see an expanded role in an offense, perhaps because another TE or key WR left or because a new offensive coordinator is in town, are prime sleeper targets. You could also look at TEs who got a QB upgrade in the offseason. New opportunities can yield new results — even for old players.
This year’s list features Irv Smith Jr., Anthony Firkser, and Adam Trautman, all of whom figure to step into a more significant roles in their respective offenses. Blake Jarwin and O.J. Howard, who are more or less afterthoughts due to major injuries sustained last season, also merit watching as they try to bounce back. Someone like Cole Kmet isn’t necessarily in a “new situation,” but we still expect him to take a big leap forward in his sophomore season and overtake Jimmy Graham as Chicago’s primary TE.
If you’re in a shallow league, most of these guys won’t even be on your radar. It’s more likely someone like Dallas Goedert, Tyler Higbee, or Jonnu Smith/Hunter Henry would be considered “sleepers,” but for most leagues, the tight ends below are the players to target in the middle and late rounds. That’s where these types of TEs will be patiently waiting to be claimed.
That’s the beauty of the position — many of these sleepers are still cheap! If they don’t plan out, your season isn’t lost. Even if you take a “good” starter earlier, it’s still smart to take a flier on the sleeper tight end late. Remember, there are only a handful of players at the position who can be trusted every week, so giving yourself options makes sense.
2021 Fantasy Football TE Sleepers: Potential tight end breakouts, steals
Irv Smith Jr., Vikings. Kyle Rudolph is out after a long career with the Vikings, and Smith showed promise last season with 30 catches on 43 targets, 336 yards, and five touchdowns. The Vikings were obviously comfortable enough with Smith to let Rudolph leave town. Outside of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, there’s a lot of targets up for grabs in Minnesota in 2021. Smith plays more like a big wide reciever than a traditional tight end and could be used in many different positions in the offense, giving him a lot of potential avenues to a 2021 breakout.
Blake Jarwin, Cowboys. Jarwin has the potential to destroy his APD (TE26, per FantasyPros) in a high-powered Cowboys offense. It may sound contradictory with all the mouths to feed in Dallas, but there will be plenty of targets and scoring opportunities to go around in a high-volume passing attack, shown by Jarwin’s backup Dalton Schultz ranking ninth among TEs in targets last year (89) while filling in. Dak Prescott’s return to the Cowboys offense is good for everyone involved. The only concern is Schultz eats into Jarwin’s playing time after last year’s solid showing.
Anthony Firkser, Titans. The Titans possess a star-studded offense in 2021, but don’t forget to keep an eye on this guy. Firkser has done nothing but produce when given the opportunity, and he’s just now getting a chance to take over the starting tight end role in Tennessee. According to PlayerProfiler.com, Firkser ranked No. 2 at the position in “hog rate” at 18.3 percent — one spot ahead of Travis Kelce. Hog rate represents targets per snap. In other words, Firkser saw a target on 18.3 percent of his offensive snaps, showing Ryan Tannehill trusted him when he was out on the field. With an expanded role, he’s worth a stab in the later rounds.
Cole Kmet, Bears. Kmet is poised to take over the keys from Jimmy Graham at TE1 in the Bears offense. While Kmet didn’t see a ton of volume last year (44 targets), he ranked fourth at the position in true catch rate at 94 percent. True catch rate is the total number of receptions divided by total number of catchable targets. With Andy Dalton or Justin Fields on the field, passing volume and catchable targets are likely to point upward. Chicago traded Anthony Miller to Houston, opening up more potential targets for Kmet. If Fields is as good as the Bears think he can be, Kmet may serve as a reliable target in an emerging offense.
Adam Trautman, Saints. Trautman came into the league with an impressive prospect profile filled with production. During his college career at Dayton, he compiled 3,000 yards and 31 receiving touchdowns. With Michael Thomas (ankle) sidelined early in the season, targets are up for grabs in the New Orleans offense. Trautman has all the opportunity in the world to take advantage, making him an intriguing deep sleeper.
Dawson Knox, Bills. Knox remains TE1 in one of the most explosive and pass-happy teams in the league. Last season, he ranked second at the position in target separation (2.26). The main thing holding him back is the excess of solid weapons in Buffalo, but if he can draw more targets in 2021, his potential in fantasy football is sky high. At the very least, he’s a good TD-or-bust candidate every week when you’re searching for streamers on the waiver wire.
O.J. Howard, Buccaneers. This is Howard’s fifth-straight year on sleepers lists, which, for most players, means it’s time for us to give up. We’re willing to give him one more chance based on his talent and the offense around him. Howard is coming off a torn right Achilles’, so he might not be the same player he once was, but if Tampa decides to take it easier on Rob Gronkowski and save him for the postseason, Howard could be a cheap source of yards and TDs some weeks. He’s probably not worth drafting, but it’s certain worth watching his snap counts early in the season.