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Fantasy Sleeper Tight Ends: Get to Know Albert Okwuegbunam

Like Denver’s receivers, ‘AO’ will benefit from having Russell Wilson under center.

I don’t like tight ends—O.K., fine, I’ll explain. I’m only speaking about how the position relates to fantasy. It’s nothing personal, of course.

It boils down to there being a few elite tier players and beyond that, it’s the wild west. Yes, tight ends emerge and bust every year. I suppose every position does, but the blowups seem to be more severe. However, I believe the juice is rarely worth the squeeze. When discussing wide receiver sleepers Wednesday, I highlighted the strengths to WR scoring that make it more robust, more reliable than running back scoring. Well, even RB scoring is more reliable than tight ends.

Last year’s TE1, Mark Andrews, scored 301.1 fantasy points. The TE12, Noah Fant, scored about half that, 159.0 points. This was also true in 2020 (TE1 Travis Kelce 312.8 points, 20.9 ppg vs. TE12 Hunter Henry 145.3 points, 10.4 ppg) and 2019 (TE1 Kelce 254.3 points, 15.9 ppg vs. TE12 Mike Gesicki 136.0 points, 8.5 ppg). You get the idea.

So with this information in mind, I approach the position as such:

In TE-premium leagues, I’ll reach for first tier tight ends like Kelce, Andrews, George Kittle and Kyle Pitts. If I miss on them, I will overdraft the position in Round 6 and beyond, take as many as three total and hope to get lucky that one of them has a big year.

In redraft leagues, I will draft a first-tier TE if they fall to me. This year, that means Kelce (~2.01), Andrews (~2.07), Pitts (~3.10) and Kittle (~3.12). If I miss them? Again, I will overdraft the position in Round 10 and beyond, take as many as three total and hope to get lucky that one of them has a big year.

Since most tight ends don’t see volume targets, excluding the elite options, their fantasy point totals are even more reliant on touchdowns compared to other positions. Without that steady diet of receptions and yards, there's no scoring consistency. Touchdowns are notoriously fickle, especially when we’re talking about the average TE being the third- or fourth-best playmaker in their team’s offense. 

We can do a deep analytical dive on a particular tight end's red zone snaps and targets every week, teams with quarterbacks that rarely run for touchdowns, teams lacking a tall, big-bodied receiver to go up for jump balls in the end zone—and so on—all in an attempt to zero-in on our best TE options. But all we’d be doing is divining an opinion derived from which way the wind blows. It’s the illusion of choice. The position is inherently illogical! A pox on it!

Ultimately, we want volume—snaps and targets. Touchdowns come and go, so we have to collect players who have the best chance to touch the ball at a high rate.

Before we dive in, I’d like to clarify what is a sleeper in the first place. Sleeper, to me, doesn’t mean a player nobody has heard of that comes out of nowhere to succeed. I believe that’s more of a fantasy "breakout" than sleeper. Instead, a sleeper is a player who will significantly outperform his current average draft position value.


Sleepers: QB | RB | WR | TE

Fantasy Sleeper Tight Ends

Albert OkwuegbunamDenver Broncos

I’m going back to the well, the Russell Wilson well. In my sleeper WRs article, I highlighted Courtland Sutton.

I actually wrote about AO about a month ago, let’s review:

The third-year tight end is a strong sleeper candidate given the boost provided by Wilson at quarterback and more consistent opportunities as the team’s TE1. This offense also has one of the most promising running backs in Javonte Williams, so there’s a lot trending in the right direction here on paper.

Last year, Fant saw 15 red-zone targets, producing 11 receptions for 91 yards and four touchdowns. I’d say you can now slot those to AO and with a more consistent offense, we can anticipate a potential breakout for a tight end ranked as the consensus TE16. I expect his ranking to approach TE10 by the late summer.

Fantasy managers also were giddy to hear Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett say in late March, “[Okwuegbunam is] going to be one of those move tight ends. He’s going to be more of a receiver right now.”

Coach-speak isn’t something to hang your hat on; however, a big increase to Okwuegbunam’s playing time and the presence of Wilson make him a clear-cut sleeper candidate.

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Irv Smith Jr.Minnesota Vikings

Sigh—you see what this position makes us do! We must stoop so low.

Smith has done very little in his young career, and yet that’s not his fault. I’d argue entering his fourth season, this will be the first season that Minnesota will really explore what he can do.

The 2021 NFL season was supposed to be his coming-out party but a torn meniscus kept him sidelined all year. The stats prior to that weren’t promising either. In the 2019 and ’20 seasons, he posted 36-311-2 and 30-365-5, respectively.

We really need the planets to align around him to facilitate a big year. First, he needs to stay healthy—that’s a given. We need Adam Thielen to continue down his career slide. He’s scored 24 touchdowns over the last two seasons and we hope he can share some of those with Smith. Last year’s surprise waiver wire play, K.J. Osborn needs to not break out after posting 50-655-7.

There is some room for optimism. Smith is big, tall, strong and fast. He was a size-speed prospect who was rough around the edges coming out of Alabama. That’s why he didn’t do much to start his career. We have to remember that Kyle Rudolph was the TE1 ahead of Smith in 2019 and ’20.

The ball is in Smith’s court because Minnesota’s leading TE last year, Tyler Conklin, is now with the Jets. His departure frees up 87 targets. There is no clear backup on the depth chart so there is nothing but clear skies--snaps and targets abound for Smith, who turns just 24 in August.

Austin HooperTennessee Titans

Back in 2018 and ’19, Hooper had himself a couple of really good seasons—Pro Bowl caliber seasons.

He finished as the seventh-best fantasy TE in both those years and in fact, Hooper averaged 14.8 points per game in 2019, good for third-best behind Kelce and Kittle. Then that potential, at least for fantasy managers, vanished. The Cleveland Browns signed him as a free agent and his usage declined.

Now he’s the No. 1 tight end with the Titans and I’m calling a comeback. The Titans traded away A.J. Brown and their most-established receiver is Robert Woods, who’s coming off a torn ACL. They drafted a rookie receiver, Treylon Burks out of Arkansas, and while promising, not every rookie hits the ground running.

Hooper’s ineffectual last two seasons have tanked his ranking and ADP (TE26, 18th round). That’s typically undrafted. Given the exceedingly low expectations, I’m happy to take him at the end of drafts as a flier. The Titans used 12 personnel (two tight end sets) most of any team in 2020, and they dialed it back last year after losing Jonnu Smith to New England. I believe they’ll return to it in 2022, to Hooper’s benefit.

Honorable mentions: Mo Alie-Cox (IND), O.J. Howard (BUF)

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