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Fantasy Playbook: Which Emerging Tight Ends Are the Future of the Position?

Beside some old standbys at the top of the NFL leaderboards sit a few new names. From Hunter Henry to George Kittle, let’s look at who may be there to stay.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Six weeks into the NFL season, there’s a handful of familiar names sitting near the top of the statistical leaderboards at the tight end position, with dependable playmakers like Rob Gronkowski (26 catches, 401 yards, four touchdowns), Travis Kelce (33 receptions, 390 yards, two scores), Jason Witten (27 for 229 yards, two touchdowns), and Zach Ertz (34 catches, 405 yards, four touchdowns) all producing for their teams.

But sprinkled in among those established titans, a few tight ends that look like up-and-coming stars have shown up: Rookie Evan Engram has taken up the mantle as the go-to guy in the Giants’ injury-riddled offense, and rookie George Kittle has come on strong for the 49ers. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is having a renaissance with the Jets, and there’s a changing of the guard at the position for the Chargers, with Hunter Henry now regularly out-snapping and outproducing future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates. In Tampa Bay, Cameron Brate may not have gotten the same media attention as rookie teammate and first-round pick O.J. Howard over the past few months, but he’s still the team’s top red zone mismatch.

Are these early-season developments just small-sample-size mirages, or are we seeing the emergence of the next class of great fantasy tight ends? Let’s take a look at the tape, and the numbers, to try to find out.

Hunter Henry, Chargers

It’s not like Henry’s appearance (17 catches, 228 yards, two touchdowns) as an impact player in the Chargers’ passing game was completely unexpected. The former Razorback tied for the league lead among tight ends with eight touchdowns last year, but expectations for major production this year were tempered by the fact that he was still stuck behind Gates as Philip Rivers’s security blanket over the middle. Touchdown total is a high-variance statistic, and based on last year’s numbers—Henry caught just 36 passes (27th among tight ends) for 473 yards (23rd)—the volume of targets he needed for a repeat performance in the scoring category wasn’t likely to be there. At least, not until he took over as the top tight end in L.A.’s passing attack.

Over the team’s first four games, Gates out-snapped Henry (59.3 percent to 53.7 percent) and saw more targets (17 to 10). But over the past two weeks, Henry seems to have jumped past the veteran as the featured tight end in the passing game: In the Chargers’ wins over the Giants and Raiders, Henry saw his playing time take a big hike, out-snapping a healthy Gates 113 to 78 (79 percent to 54.5 percent), and he’s been targeted 15 times to Gates’s four. Henry has turned those 15 looks into eight catches for 132 yards (fourth among tight ends in that stretch) and a touchdown, including this over-the-shoulder grab in the back corner of the end zone last week against New York:

What’s most encouraging about Henry’s explosion of production the past two weeks hasn’t necessarily been just his snap or target counts, though—it’s been the fact that Rivers is looking to him in high-pressure, high-leverage situations. With his team down two points to the Raiders on Sunday with less than three minutes to go, Rivers went to Henry twice on the team’s eventual game-winning drive—the first a back-shoulder bomb up the sideline that picked up 34 yards, and the second, another lob out toward the the right that gained 23 yards and put Los Angeles in field goal range.

That kind of trust indicates that Henry is here to stay as a pillar of the Chargers passing attack. He’s got great size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) and speed at the position and has shown the ability to track the ball over his shoulder and make tough catches on the run. Through six weeks, he’s Pro Football Focus’s fourth-rated tight end (Gates ranks 28th), and he’s got the upside to become one of the most productive pass catchers at his position.

Cameron Brate, Buccaneers

The “Brate Train” (a nickname not yet widely utilized but listed prominently in the title of his Wikipedia page) tied Henry for the league lead in touchdown catches among tight ends (eight) last year, so he too has been on fantasy radars for a while. But Brate’s prospects for an encore performance in that category were weakened by the team’s decision to use a first-round pick on Howard. Add in Mike Evans and the acquisition of DeSean Jackson in free agency, and it was hard to picture Brate carving out a relevant piece of the Buccaneers’ offensive pie.

But after six weeks, Brate just keeps producing. He’s fourth on the team in targets (30), third in catches (21) and yards (281), and leads Tampa Bay with four touchdown catches (thanks to his franchise-record four-game touchdown streak, which he extended on Sunday against the Cardinals). He’s Pro Football Focus’s fifth-rated tight end (Howard currently ranks 54th), and appears to have some staying power as a fantasy player. Brate has matched Evans as the team’s most frequently targeted red zone threat (eight targets), and in fact, going back to the start of last season, only one player (the Packers’ Jordy Nelson) has more touchdown catches inside the 20-yard line than Brate (11).

The team appears to recognize Brate’s reliability as a pass catcher and his nose for the end zone. His snap count has increased as the year’s gone on, and over the past two games, he leads Tampa Bay in targets (17), receptions (11), yards (a three-way tie at 144, interestingly), and touchdowns (two). He’s a subtle master on the seam route, as ESPN’s Matt Bowen points out, with excellent body control to turn, find, and catch contested passes in traffic.

Against the Cardinals, he ran a look-and-go up the hashes, turning at the last second to reel in the needle-thread throw from Ryan Fitzpatrick. He caught a touchdown pass in double-coverage against the Patriots, too.

Brate’s target and snap-count share may decrease as Howard develops in the Tampa Bay system, but that may take a season or more. For now, Brate remains the team’s top tight end, and his toughness, route-running ability, and talent for looking the ball in even when he’s surrounded by defenders make him a candidate to turn into a long-term fantasy option.

Evan Engram, Giants

There’s little doubt that Engram’s on the track to stardom. The first-rounder out of Ole Miss is more of a big receiver than a true tight end, and, through six weeks, he’s caught 24 passes for 282 yards and two scores. His production’s likely to take a big jump going forward with the team’s injury situation at receiver, too. In the Giants’ first win of the year on Sunday against the Broncos, he was targeted a team-high seven times, catching five passes for 82 yards and a score. He led all players at the position with 3.9 yards per route run, and with his 4.42 speed, he showed how dangerous a catch-and-run threat he can be for Eli Manning over the middle of the field:

Engram also showed his route-running chops in the red zone, catching this rub-route score early in the second quarter.

With 41 targets on the year, the rookie is the league’s third-highest-targeted tight end so far, behind only Ertz and Kelce. With a dearth of playmakers in the Giants’ offense, Manning could make Engram the top-targeted tight end in the NFL by the time this season is over.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jets

Coming into the year, Seferian-Jenkins looked like he could be a bust. He never caught on in Tampa Bay after being selected in the second round of the 2014 draft, and the team released him following a DUI arrest in September of last year. He landed in New York shortly after, but caught just 10 passes for 110 yards in seven games; it didn’t help either that the Jets offense was a mess and didn’t seem to care much for the tight end position in general. In March, Seferian-Jenkins was suspended by the league for two games for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.

Seferian-Jenkins reportedly checked into rehab, changed his lifestyle, and lost over 30 pounds in the offseason. After serving his suspension, he has emerged as a talented playmaker for this surprising Jets team. The former Mackey Award winner has prototypical size and athleticism for the position, boasting excellent body control and quickness in his routes and after the catch. He’s developed some chemistry with veteran signal-caller Josh McCown, and over the last three weeks is tied for the team lead in targets (23), is first in catches (18) and touchdowns (2), and is fourth in yards (121).

His size makes him a natural red zone target, and McCown found him in the back corner of the end zone on a fade route in Week 5 against the Browns.

He also has the speed to create mismatches with linebackers and safeties across from him. Against the Patriots, he got away from New England linebacker Elandon Roberts to score an early touchdown, and he nearly added a second when he carried a pair of defenders over the goal line in the fourth quarter (it was overturned when the officials ruled he fumbled into the end zone).

It’s still too early to say that Seferian-Jenkins has officially arrived; he still needs to prove that he can go out and play with consistency. But he’s showing all the traits that helped make him a star at Washington: He’s big, he can move, and he can go up and catch the ball. The Jets may have found themselves an impact player.

George Kittle, 49ers

Over the last three weeks, the Niners’ rookie pass catcher has racked up 20 targets (sixth among tight ends), 13 catches (tied for fourth), 164 yards (fourth), and a touchdown. With former Iowa teammate C.J. Beathard taking over as the team’s starter at quarterback, the familiarity and chemistry there could mean Kittle’s numbers jump. The 6-foot-4, 249-pounder is a fierce blocker in the run game and has the speed to get behind a defense (he ran a 4.52 at the combine). That makes him dangerous as a threat up the seam, like on this play from Sunday, when he reeled in a pass from C.J. Beathard for a 31-yard gain. That catch helped set up a touchdown just before the half.

Kittle has already earned the trust of the 49ers coaching staff, too. Trailing by a touchdown, head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan dialed up a rub-route play to the rookie on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line with 24 seconds to go. Kittle ran a quick slant, caught the pass, and muscled his way into the end zone.

Kittle dropped a pair of catchable balls in the Week 6 loss to the Redskins—he’s second in drops among tight ends with four on the year—so the reliability of his hands is a slight concern. But if he can clean that issue up, the fifth-rounder is going to end up being a steal for the Niners.