Tight end is one of the most frustrating positions in fantasy football. Outside of the top few guys in the rankings at the position, there are rarely top contributors that can be found in the later rounds of the draft. That's not to say that the occasional draft-day sleeper doesn't pan out, but it's rare to find any sort of consistent production outside of the top one or two tiers of players. That's part of the reason that George Kittle and Travis Kelce have seen their respective draft statuses ascend in recent seasons and why many fantasy owners are rethinking their draft strategies regarding TEs.
Picking a tight end early isn't always an easy choice. For one thing, it means passing on top-tier running backs and receivers, so having a team thin at those spots can become an issue. And if you are going to pull the trigger early on a tight end, you have to decide if you're going to target Kittle or Kelce in the early rounds.
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For your sake, we're breaking down the choice between Kittle and Kelce and also taking a look at what might happen if you wait on a tight end. Here are the pros and cons of each scenario as you look to solidify your draft strategy with 2020 fantasy football drafts approaching.
Fantasy TE Rankings: George Kittle vs. Travis Kelce
The truth of the matter is that you're unlikely to go wrong with either of these tight ends. They're both insanely talented and play for very good teams that just met in the Super Bowl. However, when comparing the two, one does have a slight edge on the other.
In our book, that would be Kittle. The reasoning is simple. Kittle's floor is slightly higher than Kelce's because Kittle figures to be the true No. 1 target in the San Francisco offense. With Deebo Samuel (foot) set to either miss time early or start the season at less-than 100 percent and first-round rookie Brandon Aiyuk nursing a hamstring injury, the 49ers are short on legit receiving weapons. That could allow Kittle to see even more targets out of the gate than usual.
Meanwhile, Kelce led the league in tight end targets last year with 136, but he has a plethora of offensive weapons around him that could take key touches. Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman are all highly regarded receivers and deep threats; Demarcus Robinson is also a capable pass-catcher, as well. Rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire could also factor into the passing game, and he might be the biggest threat to take away some over-the-middle and underneath targets from Kelce.
Kittle checks the box for having less competition. He's also younger than Kelce and won't turn 27 until October. Kelce is four years older and is set to turn 31 just days before Kittle's 27th birthday. Kelce's age might not end up being a problem yet, but it still is a factor to keep in mind, as NFL players can begin regressing at any point in their 30s.
The final factor is their stats. Kelce outplayed Kittle last year, logging 157.3 standard fantasy points while Kittle logged 137.5. However, Kelce played two more regular-season games than Kittle, so they each averaged 9.8 fantasy points per game (FPPG). Per 16 games the past two seasons, Kittle has averaged 92 catches, 1,296 yards, and five TDs while Kelce has averaged 100 catches, 1,282 yards, and eight TDs. That's a slight edge to Kelce, but it's a small one that Kittle can make up with some better TD luck.
Some will argue that because Kelce plays with the better quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, that he should be the No. 1 option. That's definitely fair, but when looking at the competition for targets, the statistical similarities, and the age factor, Kittle still holds the slight edge here. It's close, but if you're looking to take a tight end in the late second-/early third-round range, try to grab Kittle over Kelce.
Pros of drafting Kittle, Kelce in early rounds
Last year, just four tight ends averaged at least 9.0 FPPG in standard formats: Kittle (9.8), Kelce (9.8), Mark Andrews (9.6), and Austin Hooper (9.0). That means that over the course of a 16-game season, Kittle and Kelce would've outscored all other tight ends by at least 16 points. That minimum 16-point swing can make a major difference, especially when looking at strong teams that may not be able to find an answer at tight end.
Of course, the players at the tight end position rarely stay healthy for a full season. Only two players to average at least 8.0 FPPG played in all 16 of their team's games (Kelce and Darren Waller). That's one of the reasons that the position is so hard to figure out. Players have a tendency to get banged up because they're asked to play physically and catch passes over the middle of the field quite a bit.
Some may view the injury potential as a reason not to draft a tight end early. But Kelce and Kittle both have a good track record when it comes to health. Kelce has missed just one game since his rookie season while Kittle has missed three games in three years with the 49ers. That makes it a bit easier to pull the trigger on them early, even with the randomness of injuries.
The case for drafting a tight end early is that by landing one of the top two guys, you'll be able to outscore the field without having to "get lucky" with a later-round pick or play the waiver-wire game. You get elite, WR-level production and can just "set it and forget it" all but one week of the season. From that standpoint, it's fair to argue that taking Kittle and Kelce early is worthwhile since the toughest skill position at which to find consistency is tight end.
Pros of waiting on TE
Kittle and Kelce definitely have a leg up on the other tight ends that can be grabbed later, at least in terms of consistency, but what about the other players they're being drafted around? With a little over two weeks until the season opens, FantasyPros ADP shows that Kelce is going off the board 18th overall while Kittle comes off the board with the 23rd pick, on average. That makes them second-round values in 12-team leagues and fringe second-rounders in 10-team leagues.
When looking at the players going around the two tight ends, they don't look quite as valuable. Though they're expected to be better than other TEs, the QBs, RBs, and WRs flying off the board around them project to be bigger overall scorers. Take Miles Sanders, the 19th-ranked player in FantasyPros ADP as of this writing. Sanders had 11.4 more standard fantasy points than Kelce, the highest-scoring TE last year, despite handling less than a full workload for the Eagles and starting just 11 games. (Kelce had more points in PPR formats.) Additionally, big-time scorers at QB, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, are going in that range. Jackson scored nearly 2.5 times more points than Kelce last year and he more than tripled Kittle's production, though we know it's easier to find high-quality QBs later in drafts.
From that standpoint, the value on these two doesn't look quite as good. Sure, you may be getting a point more per week compared to other tight ends, but it may come at the cost of a point or two a week from a running back or wide receiver on the board. And compared to a quarterback, forget it.
Taking a TE early also has a trickle-down effect on a fantasy owner's roster as a whole. If you spend a second-round pick on Kelce or Kittle, that means you're not getting a top RB or WR until Round 3. For example, if you're drafting 18th overall and take Kelce as FantasyPros' ADP suggests, you'd hypothetically be passing on our 18th-ranked player and sixth-ranked WR, Chris Godwin, as your WR1 (provided that you take a first-round RB). Instead, your WR1 will be picked in Round 3 with the 31st overall pick. By our numbers, that would be JuJu Smith-Schuster, our 11th-ranked WR. That's only a slight downgrade, but that downgrade would come at every pick in your lineup.
When looking at this, it's easy to argue that you should wait to take a tight end. While Kittle and Kelce are studs at their position, they may not be worth passing on other top-tier RB, WR, or even QB values at this juncture.
There are two distinct draft strategies at the tight end position. Either spend an early pick on one or wait as long as you can to address the position. The mid-tier guys, while still solid producers, tend to fall in a no-man's land that few want to deal with, though eventually if they fall far enough, they become decent values. The former option will give you one of the highest-scoring and most consistent tight ends in the league. The latter will give you better depth at RB and WR (or maybe even QB) while making tight end a bit more of a wild card.
Both choices come with risks and rewards, and neither is unequivocally the right option. Personally, I prefer to wait on a tight end. There just seem to be guys who fall through the cracks, like Austin Hooper and Darren Waller last year, that turn into high-scoring TEs and do enough to help win fantasy championships. Finding those guys isn't easy, but if you can do it, your team is going to be deep.
If you're worried about picking the wrong sleeper, going for a sure-thing like Kittle or Kelce is a good move.
Kittle and Kelce both should be safe picks. You can't go wrong with either. But Kittle is the better choice for the No. 1 option in our book, so if you want to target a tight end early, don't be afraid to take him.