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Finding This Year’s George Kittle: 3 Breakout Tight Ends for 2019

Tight end is arguably the most interesting fantasy position as 2019 fake-football draft season ramps up. Do you snag one of the three elite options — Travis KelceZach Ertz, or George Kittle? Do you take one from the next tier — Evan Engram or O.J. Howard — or do you punt the position entirely?

If you do punt at TE this year — which, according to math, about half of you will have to do,1 then which potential breakout tight ends should you be targeting?

I’m turning to the RotoViz Projection Machine to evaluate which late round tight ends have the best chance of turning into top-six fantasy TEs in 2019. One of them could be this year’s Kittle, who was drafted in the 11th round last year and ended up setting the TE record for most yards in a season.

Trey Burton, Chicago Bears

Drafters are targeting Trey Burton in the 11th round — exactly where Kittle was being drafted a year ago. He has been Mitchell Trubisky’s most efficient receiver over the last two seasons:

His head coach, Matt Nagy, also has a track record of heavily utilizing tight ends. Nagy was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator from 2016-2017, and Kelce commanded an 18% team target share over that span. Using the Projection Machine, let’s see what happens if we project Burton with 18% of Chicago’s targets:

Burton would move from 11th in our TE projections up to sixth — just behind the five guys we mentioned at the start of the piece. A Kittle-like 1,377-yard explosion might not be within Burton’s grasp, but a jump to the top-half of the fantasy TE conversation certainly is. Burton is one of this year’s best TE breakout candidates.

Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins

Jordan Reed is currently being drafted in the 14th round of redraft leagues, which means he is essentially free and may go undrafted in plenty of leagues this year. We witnessed Reed’s fantasy ceiling back in 2015, when he caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in just 14 games. Among all late round TEs, Reed may have the best chance of topping 1,000 yards and double-digit TDs.2

Of course, injuries have plagued Reed’s career. But, he’s apparently “way stronger” and more explosive than he was a year ago. Positive health reports haven’t been common for Reed, so it’s a promising sign that they are now.

In that magical 2015 season, Reed commanded 21% of Washington’s offensive targets while earning 10.94 yards per reception (YPR) and a 13% TD rate. His YPR has stayed about the same, but his TD rate has dropped each year since then. His target rate has stabilized around 17%.

But, what happens if Reed’s usage approaches his 2015 production? Let’s imagine that Reed achieves a 21% team target share,3 a 10% TD rate, and 10.8 YPR:

After adjusting these numbers, the Projection Machine shows us that Reed would slot in as a top-five fantasy TE in 2019. His current ADP has not properly accounted for his top-five fantasy upside.

David Njoku, Cleveland Browns

David Njoku is going in the ninth round, so he’s hyped a bit more than Kittle was heading into last season. But, he’s also going several rounds after the players we mentioned in the opening paragraph. So, it’s fair to say expectations aren’t too high for Njoku. Nonetheless, he definitely has a chance to be one of this year’s breakout tight ends.

Last season, Baker Mayfield averaged 7.91 AYA when targeting Njoku, which ranked second-best on the team.4

Njoku commanded 16% of the team’s targets and scored on 7% of his receptions — down from his 12% TD rate in 2017. There are plenty of mouths to feed in Cleveland — including alpha Odell Beckham Jr. and chain-mover Jarvis Landry — so we currently project Njoku for a 15% team target share.

But, what happens if that rises to 18%, at the expensive of Rashard Higgins, Antonio Callaway, and the running backs? If Njoku achieves that target share, plus an 11.5% TD rate and a new career high in YPR (12.8), then here are Njoku’s new projections:

How to Play It

All eyes are on Mayfield, Beckham, and Nick Chubb in Cleveland, but is the fantasy community overlooking 2017 first-round pick TE David Njoku?

Of this trio, Njoku is my favorite to break out and turn into a truly elite fantasy TE. His offense is on the up, he’s entering his third year, and the hype in Cleveland has (mostly) escaped him. He’s cheap in drafts as a result. Don’t be surprised if Njoku becomes the 2019 George Kittle.

Image Credit: Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Jordan Reed.

  1. Five elite tight ends and 10-12 league spots means there’s not enough to go around.  (back)
  2. Not saying it’s likely to happen, but we know he’s good enough.  (back)
  3. This is not hard to envision, given that the Redskins have no strong receiving threats outside of Reed.  (back)
  4. This AYA mark also ranks first among the Browns’ returning players for 2019.  (back)

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