By Mikey Ostrowski

Whether we’re talking about redraft or dynasty, there’s always at least one tight end that greatly outplays his average draft position (ADP). In 2018, we had Austin Hooper. 2019 was Mark Andrews. Then, in 2020, we got two tight ends with Robert Tonyan and Logan Thomas, followed by Dalton Schultz in 2021. But who will be that guy in 2022?

What you should look for:

There are two main attributes that you’re going to want to look for when finding next season’s breakout tight end. The first one is going to be the opportunity to produce. When looking for this, you want to find offenses with vacated targets, quarterbacks who prioritize tight ends (typically “mobile” or younger quarterbacks) and someone who has previously earned a bit of extra field time. There are always going to be a handful of players that fit the bill here, but we’ve gotta narrow it down even further.

If you go purely off of opportunity, it likely would have led you to take a chance on Adam Trautman or Ian Thomas over the last couple of years… and obviously neither of those worked out for anyone. To narrow down our selection, we want to look for talent as well. I saw a tweet the other day… and it was genius:

Just because a player is one of the only options available, doesn’t mean that player will be chosen to lead an offense. When assessing talent, you should look at a handful of things: draft capital (even if they’re a few seasons removed from the draft), previous efficiency, and whether or not they are more gifted than the other pass-catchers in an offense. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, especially at the tight end position, but a little research can go a long way.

Stories of the past:

Not many expected a big breakout year from Austin Hooper in 2018, but it was always in the cards. Drafted in 2016, Hooper was a 3rd-round draft pick. In most cases, the best tight ends are drafted prior to round four. Typically, if a tight end is going to breakout, it’s going to happen in their third year and coincidentally, 2018 was Hooper’s 3rd season in the NFL. The Falcons were also looking for a crutch that they could lean on to bolster the offense. Obviously, they had Julio Jones in his prime, but an offense cannot thrive with only one weapon. His first two seasons were respectable, as he averaged double-digit yards per catch and managed 6 touchdowns on 68 receptions over those two years. He had proven to be a capable blocker with reliable hands and a larger role in his 3rd season seemed likely.

Mark Andrews (also a 3rd-round pick) had a rare 2nd-year breakout, but it was still something that was easy to spot if you were paying attention. As a rookie, he posted a 34-552-3 stat line and seemingly had an increased role every single week. He also had little competition from Baltimore’s receivers and quickly showed chemistry with Lamar Jackson. Jackson has always had question marks around him when it comes to his ability to throw the ball, so we had to have known that Andrews could become a very popular and reliable “crutch” for him on offense. Funny story, I was so confident in a Mark Andrews breakout that I sent Dallas Goedert in a 1-for-1 trade in my dynasty league ahead of the 2019 season. While both have evolved into solid options, I can’t help but smile every time I think about that trade.

Logan Thomas and Robert Tonyan were anomalies that were very hard to predict. Tonyan had shown almost nothing to us ahead of the 2020 season, but the opportunity was there. Aaron Rodgers needed a red zone target (to pair with Davante Adams) and he found that with Tonyan. If you were betting on talent, you likely would not have landed on Tonyan, but if you blindly followed opportunity, you may have gotten lucky. Logan Thomas was in the exact same boat. He had very little to show for in his NFL career, but arriving in Washington was one hell of an opportunity, as he basically became their 2nd-best receiver option overnight. However, if you did bet on someone that had both talent and opportunity, you likely had landed on Jonnu Smith in 2020. Delanie Walker had finally exited Tennessee, and after years and years of watching the Titans hyper-target their tight end, Smith seemed to make the most sense. He was a 3rd-round pick that had back-to-back seasons of 20+ catches, 12.5+ yards per catch and 3 touchdowns despite playing in a dreaded TE2 role on that offense. While not as fun to own as Tonyan or Thomas, Jonnu still posted respectable enough numbers to come in as the TE16 overall on the season.

Dalton Schultz was screaming at us ahead of the 2021 season and anyone who headed the call was rewarded in a big way. While filling in for an injured Blake Jarwin in 2020, Schultz managed a 63-615-4 stat line and was the TE11 in PPR leagues. We knew that this Dallas offense was high-powered and would continue to be one of the best fantasy-producing offenses in the entire league. Sure, there were concerns over a loaded receiver room, but if Schultz was able to put up that 2020 stat line with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup all on the field, there was absolutely no reason to think that he couldn’t do it again. He broke out with a TE4 overall performance and is likely to be one of the top-8 tight ends drafted for the 2022 season.

So, who is it gonna be in 2022?

We’ve got a handful of options to choose from this year, and there definitely is the possibility of seeing at least two tight ends make their way into the top-12 at the position. Evan Engram is one of those guys, as he’s going to Jacksonville on a “prove it” deal. Head coach Doug Pederson has never shied away from featuring tight ends in his offense, and with Engram arguably being a top-2 receiver option on that roster, he could be in line for a big role. He’s disappointed in recent years, but we can’t forget that he gave us the best rookie tight end fantasy season in history (until Kyle Pitts came along this year). Engram is a solid choice, but he’s not my top choice.

We also have David Njoku, who has finally found himself all alone in the Browns’ tight end room. He was a first-round pick in 2017 and started his career with a combined 88 catches for 1,025 yards and 8 touchdowns throughout his first two seasons. In 2019, Njoku went down with injury and then by the time he was healthy in 2020, found himself sharing the load with previous breakout tight end, Austin Hooper. Well, Hooper is gone, and the opportunity is finally back. The opportunity is there, the talent is there, the lack of competition from receivers is also there (only real competition is Amari Cooper at this point) … it could all come together for Njoku. He’s an excellent candidate, but he won’t get my vote to be the next Mark Andrews.

Albert Okwuegbunam (this is the first time I’ve successfully spelled his name without looking it up first) will be another top choice for many, but I’d advise against that one. He was a 4th-round pick, didn’t do much in college and hasn’t done much as a pro. His 2nd-year numbers were respectable (33-330-2), but the offense was damaged. Sure, you could make a Jonnu Smith-esque argument for Albert O… he’s had a solid enough start to his career, and he will finally be given the team TE1 role, but we can’t ignore the other factors. The receiver room is crowded… insanely crowded. Albert O will be competing with Jerry Jeudy, Cortland Sutton, Tim Patrick, KJ Hamler and Javonte Williams for targets. It’s also worth mentioning that Russell Wilson has yet to favor tight ends over his top receivers. Speaking of Wilson, he’s a much better quarterback than Denver has had recently. Wilson is not the type of player that needs a short-range crutch on offense and it’s safe to assume that he’s going to air the ball out as often as he can which won’t really bode well for a tight end. Okwuegbunam is going to be a popular breakout candidate, but he won’t be on my list.

Alright, so who is it actually?!

In 2021, there was a 2nd-year tight end who had an incredible season. The touchdowns weren’t there, but if they were (and they will be), he’d easily be in the top-8 conversation in any format. That player is Cole Kmet. The talent is definitely there, and he fits the bill that we’re looking for. As a junior at Notre Dame, Kmet put up a 43-515-5 stat line to bolster his draft stock. He then was a 2nd-round pick by Chicago in 2019. As a rookie in the NFL, Kmet played in a TE2 role behind Jimmy Graham, but still commanded 44 targets along the way. For rookie tight ends, 44 targets are nothing to be upset about. In 2020, Kmet stole the starting role away from Graham and commanded 93 total targets from Andy Dalton and Justin Fields. He caught 60 of those balls for 612 yards but did not find the endzone a single time. 

The opportunity that he has in front of him is immense. His only real competition for targets this year is going to be Darnell Mooney and whoever Chicago takes in the NFL Draft. Regardless, the Bears won’t be able to take one of the top pass-catchers this year, so it’s safe to assume that Kmet will be able to outplay the newcomer. Kmet also has a struggling Justin Fields throwing him the ball… and Fields fits the bill perfectly for a quarterback that’ll lean on a tight end for those short-range throws. 

Cole Kmet had zero touchdowns in 2021 and that blows, but positive regression (some may call it “progression”) is bound to happen. Let’s look at a hypothetical from the 2021 season. Let’s pretend that every single tight end in the league had zero touchdowns and we only received fantasy points from their receptions and yards. We have our obvious guys at the top, such as Andrews, Travis Kelce and Kyle Pitts, but we do have some surprising TE1s. The most surprising? Young stud Cole Kmet.

The only thing missing from his game is the touchdowns, and they WILL come. Even if he had managed to tag just 5 touchdowns in 2021, he would’ve come in as the TE12 on the season. With Allen Robinson gone, there are even more targets to go around this offense and I think we can confidently project Kmet to see triple-digit target totals in 2022. The safest bet for any fantasy player is always the opportunity and the yardage. Touchdowns, whether it’s a running back, a receiver or a tight end, are extremely hard to project… so let’s bank on the guys that have proven they can handle a big workload.

Cole Kmet will be THE breakout tight end of the 2022 NFL season.

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