25 TE Stats from the 2021 Fantasy Football Season
1. Transition of Power: After five years atop the position, Travis Kelce surrendered his TE1 status, sliding all the way down to the TE2 spot. He scored 216.8 points, or 13.5 PPG in games played (16), which was actually better than three of his five previous years (2016, 2017, 2019). Of course, Mark Andrews staked his claim as the new TE1, scoring 247.6 points, or 14.6 PPG. Both players had a similar ‘upside’ this season: they had the same amount of weeks as the overall TE1 (two) and a similar number of ‘boom’, 20+ point games (three for Kelce, four for Andrews). Ultimately, Andrews just had the higher floor. He had five games outside the weekly Top-12 at the position and averaged 6.4 PPG in those games; Kelce had just four games outside the weekly Top-12 but averaged a much worse 3.9 PPG. Andrews also didn’t miss a single game all season, while Kelce had to sit out in Week 16.
2. Two-Man Race: Kelce and Andrews were far ahead of the field. The TE3, Dalton Schultz, scored 3.5 less PPG than Kelce on the year (169.8 vs. 216.8 points season-long). George Kittle, a familiar face, was the TE4, scoring seven points less than Schultz in just 14 games played. This drop-off in points scored was actually similar to RB and WR: there was about a 4.0 PPG difference between RB1 Jonathan Taylor and RB3 Joe Mixon, and WR1 Cooper Kupp and WR3 Davante Adams. This reinforces the ‘value above replacement’ of having a top-tier, uber-elite TE on your roster.
3. Outperformers: Speaking of ‘The Doctor’ (Dalton Schultz), he went virtually undrafted – the TE38 off the board – and thus represented by far the greatest value at the position. This performance replicates Robert Tonyan from 2020, who also went from undrafted to the third-best in the game. Other significant outperformers vs. ADP included Zach Ertz (drafted TE14, finished TE6) who found a resurgence with his move from Philadelphia to Arizona, Hunter Henry (TE16, TE9) who showed a promising connection with Mac Jones and hauled in nine TDs, Dawson Knox (TE24, TE8), also with nine scores, and Pat Freiermuth (TE20 vs. TE13) who was able to shake the defense ‘Luth’ and find the end zone seven times. Oh, and Rob Gronkowski (TE12 vs. TE5) who appears determined to stay relevant until Tom Brady finally hangs up his cleats. Gronk missed near five weeks of the season and scored 12.0 PPG when he did play, just 1.5 PPG short of Kelce’s mark.
4. Underperformers: The biggest TE bust of the year was, unsurprisingly, Darren Waller: he was drafted as the TE2 and finished as TE18. ‘The Walrus’ posted a decent 9.6 PPG in contests he played in, but only made it onto the field in eleven games; what’s worse, he missed Weeks 13-17, the most important stretch of the fantasy season. Against ADP, though, it was Jonnu Smith who won the dubious honor of biggest TE disappointment (drafted TE15, finished TE38); all of the touchdowns seemed to go Hunter Henry‘s way in New England. Finally, T.J. Hockenson let fantasy managers down after a strong start; he finished as the TE15 (drafted as the TE6) after sitting out the last five weeks of the season due to injury.
5. Same Old Song and Dance: It might be tempting to assume that, in an era of high-passing volume and TEs that are utilized as WRs, the ceiling at the position has inched inexorably upwards. Surprisingly, that’s not quite true: the weekly TE1 averaged 23.3 PPG in 2021, which is quite normal compared to the last 15 years. Similarly, the average YPG and TDs per game (102.3 yards and 1.6 touchdowns) of the top weekly performer at the position are relatively average over that span. Yards jumped up around 2010, but have mostly fluctuated around the century-mark. We see the same result for the average scoring of the Top-12 TEs: just about average over the past decade. While surprising, this can be attributed to the storied history at the position: Kelce and Gronk, of course, but also Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Greg Olsen, and Jimmy Graham.
6. Watch the Throne: Thirteen different players finished as the weekly TE1 this year, which is the highest mark since 2017 (although, of course, we did have an extra game this season). This list consists of the usual suspects plus some surprising names: Baby Hands Jack Doyle in Week 12, Noah Fant in Weeks 6 and 17, and CJ Uzomah in Weeks 4 and 7. No player managed the feat more than twice. Interestingly, only 56 tight ends cracked the weekly Top-12, the lowest of the past five years (even with the extra game).
7. Highs and Lows: The best single-game TE performance of the year was, unsurprisingly, Travis Kelce in Week 15 against the Chargers. Zeus had 191 yards and two TDs – including the game-winner in overtime – to kick off what turned out to be a brutally low-scoring Week 15. The worst performance belongs to Gerald Everett, who had four catches for seven yards and two fumbles (-1.3 fantasy points) in Week 13. The performance was so bad that it decreased his PPG on the season by 0.5 points.
8. Overachievers: We can get a sense of ‘efficiency’ or ‘overachieving’ by calculating how much a TE should have scored vs. what they actually scored. To do this, I build a simple regression model that takes into account the number of receptions, air yards, and defensive prowess against the position (worse defenses should mean more fantasy points), and find the ‘expected’ score for each player. Here was the TEs that most overachieved:
Many top tight ends – Kelce, Kittle, Andrews – are on this list, as expected. They are great players who make the most of their opportunities, something we expect to be ‘sticky’ over the years. I am less convinced about the year-to-year consistency of Dawson Knox, who saw half of the targets of Travis Kelce (71 vs. 135) yet scored the same amount of receiving TDs (nine). Hunter Henry slots into second place with similar numbers: 75 targets, nine scores. These players performed incredibly this year, but it’s worthwhile to question if their touchdown rate may regress a bit; as it stands, about 30% of Dawson Knox‘s points (40 of 140) were ‘above expectation’ this year.
9. Overachievers: The other side of the coin is, of course, underachievers. These are players who scored far less than their workload would predict; here are the standouts:
Cole Kmet is a really interesting case. He saw 93 targets – four more than Gronk – which is a great mark for tight ends, but only managed a TE21 finish on the year. Part of this was bad touchdown luck: he had zero scores while Jimmy Graham, or Grampa, siphoned off three TDs. The QB carousel of a rookie Justin Fields and aging Andy Dalton didn’t help matters, and Kmet is worth monitoring going forward in the post-Matt Nagy era. If he just scored at his expectation, he would have been a strong TE1 on the season.
The next three on the list, Mike Gesicki, Darren Waller, and Kyle Pitts, also saw huge workloads and faced bad touchdown luck. Gesicki and Waller had two scores, Pitts just one; Gesicki even had a week with seven targets and no catches. Hopefully, this trio will enjoy some positive regression in 2022.
10. Rookie Wonders: Speaking of Kyle Pitts, he was in a difficult position in the fantasy landscape. Despite TEs traditionally struggling in their first year, Pitts was drafted as the TE4 after the Atlanta Falcons took him fourth overall in the NFL draft (also a record-high pick for a rookie TE). Although it feels like Pitts was a bust this year, he returned decent value: 68 receptions, 1,026 yards, and a respectable TE7 finish. In reality, Pitts was just a point behind Gronk and Zach Ertz (the TE5 and TE6) on the year. The lack of touchdowns – just one score – was what hurt the overall performance, but he still had a decent season.
The other notable rookie TE this year was, of course, the Muth (Pat Freiermuth). He was drafted as the TE20 and finished as the TE13, hauling in seven touchdowns along the way.
11. Steady Eddy: Among TEs that scored at least 100 points this year, Jared Cook was the lowest variance player. That didn’t necessarily equate to fantasy greatness – he finished the TE16 – just that there weren’t many ups and downs. He was never a Top-3 weekly TE and only scored less than 4.0 points four times. Tyler Conklin and Pat Freiermuth were next on the list of most consistent TEs.
12. Wild Willy: George Kittle had, by far, the highest variance year of any TE. He had five terrible outings (TE24 or worse) and six great ones (TE5 or better). What’s more, these performances were interspersed: he had a stretch where he was the TE38, TE1, TE1, TE6, TE31, TE29. Rostering Kittle this year was a roller-coaster.
13. Good, Clean Football: I often like to look at players that draw a lot of Defensive Pass Interference (DPI) penalties; these plays aren’t rewarded fantasy points, but they mean that the receiver was thrown a catchable ball and the defender had to foul them to prevent a reception. We can then estimate how many fantasy points were ‘wiped out’ by the DPI (using a regression model that takes into account air yards and defensive skill), and get a sense of ‘hidden points’.
However, incredibly, tight ends drew zero – absolutely zero – DPI calls this regular season. They run fewer routes than WRs, certainly, but this is still a surprise. Perhaps TEs are just too big and strong for fouls to be blatant enough to call!
14. Proud Alumni: ‘Tight End U’ in 2021 was, for the second year in a row, the University of Iowa. The Hawks scored the most of any alumni group in the NFL led by, of course, George Kittle. Other notable contributors were Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson; Parker Hesse of the Atlanta Falcons also chipped in 6.8 points. Stanford was the school leader in 2019, led by Zach Ertz and Austin Hooper.
15. Team TE: Although Mark Andrews had the best single-player performance, it was actually the Kansas City Chiefs that had the most TE points as a team this year. Kelce led the group, obviously, but Blake Bell, Jody Forston, and Noah Gray added nearly 50 more points to bring the Chiefs (barely) past the Baltimore Ravens. The Carolina Panthers had offensive woes in general, but especially at the TE position: they were last in the league by a long shot (New York Jets were second to last). This has been a sore spot for the Panthers for multiple years; they were second-worst in 2020 to the New England Patriots, who remedied the issue with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith this past offseason.
16. Teams to Target: The Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers were neck-and-neck in competing for the NFL team to allow the most fantasy points to TEs. On aggregate, tight ends scored about as many points against these teams as Andrews scored all season. This is not a perfect comparison – you couldn’t replicate Mark Andrews by streaming TEs against the Eagles – since there are multiple TEs on a single team, but it’s still a telling statistic. On the flip side, the New England Patriots were the stoutest against the position, with the Arizona Cardinals righting their wrongs of a few years back as the second toughest TE defense.
17. All that Running for Nothing: I mentioned above that Cole Kmet had an inefficient year; he racked up 621 receiving yards and no TDs, the most among scoreless TEs this year. Dan Arnold and Durham Smythe were second and third on that list, with 408 and 357 yards, respectively. Among players with TDs, Kyle Pitts was the leader of this dubious stat: he had 1,026 yards to go with his single score.
18. Go Long: Kyle Pitts, who was often used as a WR by the Falcons, led all TEs with 15.1 yards per reception. Dallas Goedert was second with 14.8, benefitting from the lack of Zach Ertz in the second half of the year. Funnily enough, the other rookie TE of note, Pat Freiermuth, had the lowest YPC number (8.3), with Evan Engram in second place (8.9).
19. Go Really Long: David Njoku can lay claim to the longest play by a TE this year: a 71-yard touchdown from Baker Mayfield against the aforementioned Chargers. The shortest TE play was poor Will Dissly; ‘Big Montana’ lost six yards on a throw from Russell Wilson.
20. Paying the Price: Pharoah Brown, the Houston Texans TE, was the most penalized player at the position, costing the Texans 72 yards on offense. These were mostly offensive holding and false start calls, but there was a facemask and even an offensive pass interference penalty thrown in. Noah Fant lands in second place with 52 yards of penalties.
21. Game-changers: George Kittle is synonymous with big plays. He had the highest ‘win probability added’ for his team in a single play: a 48-yard, tight-rope touchdown against the Seahawks. This play came with under two minutes left when the 49ers had a 3-point lead, effectively closing out the game for San Francisco. The reverse of this play (among TEs) was when Foster Moreau stopped short in his route and Derek Carr threw an INT that turned into an 85-yard pick-six against the Miami Dolphins.
22. Diet and Exercise: If we take a weighted average of player height and weight by fantasy points they score, we find that the average TE is about 6′ 5″ and weighs a trim 251 pounds. Both of these results are extremes, the tallest and lightest marks on record (since 1999). This is not surprising: TEs are starting to look and play more like WRs, with the 6′ 6″, 247-pound Kyle Pitts as a leading example.
23. Drawn and Quartered: Mark Andrews dominated the mid-game: he led all TEs in second-and third-quarter yardage, with the second quarter being especially prolific (451 receiving yards). George Kittle, however, started strong and led TEs in the first quarter, while Kyle Pitts racked up enough fourth-quarter desperation yardage (288) to give him the lead. Kelce was the overtime leader with 61 yards, most of it on that walk-off TD against the Chargers.
24. Devil is in the Details: If you look at the TE yardage leaders in plays coming out of shotgun formation, the list is what you would expect: Andrews, Kelce, and Pitts. In fact, Andrews caught all 1,361 of his yards out of shotgun formation! The big surprise, though, is out of non-shotgun formation: Tyler Conklin led all tight ends with 294 yards (Kittle was second with 286). This may change with the turnover in the Minnesota Vikings‘ front office, but still an interesting note for Conklin (and for defenses opposing him).
25. Mixing Things Up: Jonnu Smith, despite his disappointing year, led all TEs in rushing yards in 2021 with 40 (Gerald Everett and George Kittle were second with 20 each). Indeed, Jonnu has the most rushing yards of any TE over the past 20 years (122). Three TEs scored a rushing touchdown: Travis Kelce, Eric Ebron, and, naturally, Tommy Tremble. Incredibly, not a single tight end completed a pass in the regular season (Kelce’s touchdown throw came in the Wild Card round of the playoffs)! Seems like a real opportunity for an innovative coach…