Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke: Which surprising tight ends have staying power?

Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet (85). (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet has been a big hit for fantasy, as he's the TE5 through Week 9. Will he remain one of the most valuable players at this difficult position? (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

We could focus on the negative here, belaboring yet another week of subpar performances by Tony Pollard and Davante Adams or cursing the off weeks of Travis Kelce, Ja’Marr Chase, Kenneth Walker III, Bijan Robinson, Adam Thielen … need I go on? It was a rough one for some of us, but not those of us desperate enough to flex a second TE or two!

Most of the league appeared to take National Tight Ends Day (Oct. 22) to the next level by suddenly realizing that these tall, strong, often-open football players can actually be used in a real NFL game. Near or in the end zone, too! What a revelation.

Tight ends I once had the highest fantasy hopes for — but have long since given up on — did what they obviously were meant to do: catch TD passes. In Week 9, 18 running backs and 19 wide receivers scored double-digit half-PPR fantasy points, while 15 tight ends have achieved that mark (going into Monday Night Football). Typically, we see 5-10 TEs with over 10 fantasy points in any given week, though Week 8 also gave us 12 players hitting that mark. What made Week 9 really unique is that Kelce wasn’t among the fantasy leaders at his position.

Coming off so many exciting TE performances, we must keep a level head because it’s so easy to fall back into believing in a certain player. For me, that’s Irv Smith Jr.

I drafted him with all his rookie hype in a TE-premium expert dynasty league and I still want to believe I was right to do so. Dynasty leagues really require you to be vigilant about management and investment biases, which serve to protect your ego when evaluating your suboptimal decisions.

Tight end is notoriously volatile for fantasy, and much of what we saw and celebrated in Week 9 won’t be seen again this season. Our goal is to pick out those TEs with the most potential staying power and leave the random flukes on the waiver wire. Since Mark Andrews and T.J. Hockenson are every-week starters who scored over 10 fantasy points, we don’t need to touch on them (but do watch for more on Hockenson’s rib injury). Let’s get to the rest of them.

Dalton Kincaid, Buffalo Bills

The Bills’ version of Travis Kelce is here to stay. If he wasn’t already, Kincaid has to be an every-week starter going forward (72% rostered in Week 9 Yahoo leagues). Buffalo is loyal to a fault (see Cole Beasley), but the injury to Dawson Knox has opened up possibilities via Kincaid that this team desperately needed. In the past three weeks, Kincaid has 23 catches on 26 targets with one receiving touchdown, showing himself to be exactly whom they drafted him to be.

Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears

Remarkably, Kmet is rostered in only 78% of Yahoo leagues despite being fantasy’s TE5 on the season. Among the top-10 TEs, he has the second-highest catch rate (82%) and second-most touchdowns (five). Both Justin Fields and Tyson Bagent have gotten him involved as he scored three times with Fields against Denver and Washington. Bagent targeted him 18 times in the last two games, resulting in 16 catches and two scores. Four of Kmet’s touchdowns have come from inside the red zone. Not that there’s anything wrong with a big breakaway scoring play, but having your QB looking for you in the end zone is a more reliable predictor of future performance. Keep an eye out for practice reports though, as he missed Monday’s walk-through with a knee injury designation.

Jake Ferguson, Dallas Cowboys

That’s a fair segue to Ferguson, who is the league leader in TE targets within the 10-yard line (eight, of which he’s caught three for two touchdowns) and the red zone (14 targets, eight catches, three scores). He hasn’t been as efficient as Kmet, but the usage in scoring situations is outstanding. Dallas as a team has been up and down offensively, but the pass game is hot right now, which gets Ferguson in this position on a regular basis. If he increases his catch rate even a little bit his fantasy value would be through the roof. Rostered in 78% of leagues, he’d make a fine fill-in for Kelce or Dallas Goedert in Week 10.

Dalton Schultz, Houston Texans

Former Cowboy Schultz took part in the record-setting day C.J. Stroud and Houston had in Week 9. With 10-130-1 he led all TEs in Week 9 and was the sixth-best flex player in half-PPR scoring. Even a lost fumble didn’t ruin his managers’ good times on Sunday. The Texans are averaging more points per game than KC (23.4 to 23.1 PPG) and Stroud is consistently putting them in position to win. The Texans haven’t had a blowout loss since Week 1 in Baltimore. That’s a recipe for TE success and a big reason Schultz is going to be started in a lot more than 37% of leagues in Week 10.

Note: Cincinnati (Houston's Week 10 opponent) is the most generous team in fantasy points allowed to tight ends.

Cade Otton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In that same game, Otton posted his best numbers of the season, catching six of nine targets for 70 yards and two touchdowns. That was more than double any previous outing this season and against a Houston defense that has been stingy to opposing wide receivers (third-fewest fantasy points allowed to opposing WRs) feels more fluky. I fully expect Mike Evans and, to a lesser extent, Chris Godwin, to be the focal points of the passing offense as the Bucs host Tennessee, a much better fantasy matchup for them. Also, Rachaad White is proving to be a true dual-threat back, siphoning between 4-7 targets per game over the last three weeks. Let someone else chase Otton’s Week 9 stat line.

Jonnu Smith, Atlanta Falcons

On the topic of investment biases, I have to admit I’m so glad to have never been in the position to roster Kyle Pitts. His dynasty managers and even seasonal or DFS believers have been wounded over and over again. There is only one game this season in which Pitts has outscored Smith by five or more fantasy points (Week 5). Either they’re both bad-to-mediocre or Smith has been the better Falcons’ tight end. Smith’s Week 9 line of 5-100-1 was exceptional among Falcons’ skill players, but a lot of that came on a 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown play. I can’t recommend starting Smith on the basis of this performance, but neither can I recommend starting Pitts. If you were forced to choose one, it’d be Smith, and I do think that Taylor Heinicke, while not perfect, is a more stable leader for the fantasy receivers on this team (especially vs. Arizona in Week 10).

Luke Musgrave, Green Bay Packers

Musgrave has been a victim of near-missed big plays or touchdowns several times this season. The Packers may be a tough team to figure out fantasy-wise, but they have at least shown the desire to get Musgrave involved. He leads all tight ends in target separation (distance from nearest defender when the pass arrives, 2.83 yards) and has only one drop on the season. His true catch rate (total receptions divided by total catchable targets) is 93.2%, placing most of the blame for his lack of productivity on Jordan Love. Whether you can continue to start Musgrave depends on the strength of the rest of your roster. I do believe he will have some big games in the second half of the season. Pittsburgh is a fantasy-friendly pass defense, putting Musgrave in play for Week 10.

Hunter Henry, New England Patriots

Henry has had three decent games for the Patriots this season (Weeks 1, 2 and 9) thanks to scoring a touchdown in each. He doesn’t even have the best TE line among Patriots tight ends, however (Pharaoh Brown), and hasn’t exceeded six catches or 56 yards all season. Only the deepest of leagues would have someone starting Henry against the average pass defense of the Colts in Week 10.

David Njoku, Cleveland Browns

Njoku sneaks into the double-digit club with 4-26-1, a not-very-impressive line. The Browns were all about Amari Cooper in Week 9, so while it’s nice to see Njoku have decent games in back-to-back weeks, he’s generally not going to push your fantasy squad into the W column. If you’re desperate, he’s a guy, but I’d look elsewhere than Njoku in Baltimore for Week 10.

Final notes

Sad as it makes me, Irv Smith Jr., Drew Sample and Juwan Johnson, who round out the top 14, are the most obvious flashes in the pan. We know Johnson will have a couple big games every season; his five catches in Week 9 were a season-high. Popular start Trey McBride fell short of expectations with Clayton Tune leading the Cardinals. He’s still a fringe starter depending on individual rosters, but expect McBride to resurge with Kyler Murray set to start in Week 10. Isaiah Likely caught all four of his targets in the Ravens’ big win, which is a reminder to prioritize picking him up if anything were to happen to Andrews.