The tight end position can be challenging for fantasy football managers to get consistent production from throughout the season. Fortunately, several promising young options are poised for potentially significant increases in production in the 2023 season. Here are five tight ends below the top tier that should be under serious consideration in the middle/later rounds of drafts.
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Which TEs Are Poised for Fantasy Football Breakouts?
Chigoziem Okonkwo, Tennessee Titans
Chigoziem Okonkwo jumped onto fantasy radars in all formats during the latter portion of the 2022 season. But the then-rookie fourth-round pick had already been building momentum in the first half-plus of the campaign with a notable propensity for chunk plays.
— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) August 28, 2023
Okonkwo saw 15 targets on 59 routes during the first 10 games of his career, parlaying those looks into an 8-172-1 line that included catches of 31, 41, and 48 yards.
Okonkwo’s involvement then saw a sizable boost beginning with a Week 12 matchup against the Bengals. The Maryland product finished the season with a 24-278-2 line on 31 targets over 81 routes in the last seven games.
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With the player that blocked him from the top of the depth chart, Austin Hooper, now in Las Vegas, Okonkwo enters 2023 in unquestioned possession of the No. 1 tight end job in Tennessee. A smooth downfield threat at 6’3″ and just under 240 pounds, Okonkwo has the tools to be utilized as a jumbo quasi-wideout at times that can threaten the sideline or seam.
The combination of a capable, strong-armed veteran quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a pair of dangerous starting wideouts in DeAndre Hopkins and Treylon Burks that have little proven depth behind them shapes up as a potentially perfect recipe for a significant breakout season for the athletic second-year pro.
Irv Smith, Cincinnati Bengals
A barrage of injuries over a multi-season span can have a definite “out of sight, out of mind” effect on a player’s fantasy profile. Irv Smith is a fitting example, even though the 2019 second-round pick of the Vikings managed to get himself back on the field for eight games last season after missing all of the 2021 season with a knee injury.
Despite sharing targets with Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen (and touches in general with Dalvin Cook), Smith got off to an encouraging start in Minnesota a year ago with 22 receptions for 168 yards and two touchdowns on 33 targets over his first seven games.
A high ankle sprain then put him on injured reserve until Week 18. T.J. Hockenson had usurped him for the starting tight end job in the interim after being acquired at the trade deadline.
Smith posted four receptions for 17 yards and a touchdown over the regular-season finale and the Wild Card loss to the Giants before unsurprisingly being allowed to depart this offseason via free agency. His Cincinnati landing spot could certainly be conducive to a breakout that Smith has repeatedly teased through his first three seasons.
While Smith will once again have some serious competition for his quarterback’s attention from multiple ultra-talented receivers, he arguably gets at least a slight upgrade to Joe Burrow. Smith should be ready to hit his prime 37 games into his career and finally back at full health.
Burrow peppered then-No. 1 tight end Hayden Hurst with 68 targets over 13 games in 2022. Smith is a higher-upside target who took 11 of 66 catches over his first two seasons for 20+ yards. Additionally, before training camp even began, Smith had apparently picked up Zac Taylor’s offense quickly. It’s worth noting: Cincy threw the ball at the fifth-highest clip in the league in 2022 (62.1%).
Cade Otton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cade Otton already made a significant impact as a rookie in 2022, eventually surpassing veteran Cameron Brate as the top pass-catching TE option for the Buccaneers. Otton progressively earned future Hall of Famer Tom Brady’s trust, generating a 42-391-2 line over 16 regular-season games and posting a four-catch, 58-yard tally against the Cowboys in a Wild Card loss.
Brate and fellow veteran Kyle Rudolph are now gone, leaving Otton to helm what might be the most collectively inexperienced tight end group in the league. Nevertheless, the 2022 fourth-round pick appears to be in prime position to exponentially build on last year’s already-solid numbers.
Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will remain integral to Tampa Bay’s air attack. The projected top running back duo of Rachaad White and Chase Edmonds are both excellent receivers in their own right.
However, there should be more than enough targets left over for Otton, especially when considering either season-opening starter Baker Mayfield or third-year backup Kyle Trask will likely want to rely heavily on a security blanket.
Otton averaged just over four targets per game as a rookie despite splitting time at the position. Given the change in circumstances, he should certainly see a bump in that figure. Additionally, Evans and Godwin have a somewhat checkered injury history that sees them miss at least a handful of games each season. Otton could garner extra targets if history repeats itself in 2023.
Jake Ferguson, Dallas Cowboys
The parallels between Jake Ferguson and Otton are notable — both are second-year players who were fourth-round selections in 2022. They’re now boasting top billing at their positions following the offseason departures of trusted veterans.
In Ferguson’s case, the latter circumstance was even more pronounced, as Dalton Schultz drew 89 targets and played just under 800 snaps over 15 games last season as Dallas’ TE1. He’s now in Houston, and Ferguson is teed up for what even quarterback Dak Prescott has labeled a potential breakout season.
The Wisconsin product posted a 19-174-2 tally on 22 targets over 16 games as a rookie, going without a drop and taking three of his catches for 20+ yards. That came on the heels of a four-year college career where Ferguson demonstrated his downfield chops by averaging 11.2 yards per reception on 145 catches, with 13 going for touchdowns.
Ferguson’s 6’5 “, 245-pound frame certainly could make him a favorite red-zone target of Prescott’s. The top wideout trio of CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and Michael Gallup should open up plenty of space for him in the middle of the field as well with their ability to magnetize defensive attention.
Sam LaPorta, Detroit Lions
The fantasy hype surrounding Sam LaPorta has been plentiful this summer — and with good reason. The rookie second-round pick has reportedly earned the starting job going into the regular season after a highly productive training camp. While fellow promising position mates Brock Wright and James Mitchell could certainly steal a few targets, LaPorta is considered the true heir to Hockenson’s old role.
The Iowa product certainly has recent history on his side when it comes to his school’s track record of producing NFL success stories at his position. No less than George Kittle and Hockenson — as well as Noah Fant — precede him as Hawkeye alumni who have made serious waves at the highest level.
Jared Goff is coming off a career-best season and appears to be fully comfortable in Detroit’s aggressive passing game, which should benefit LaPorta’s chances of contributing early.
Additionally, Jameson Williams is serving a six-game season-opening suspension. Both Marvin Jones and Josh Reynolds profile as downfield threats first and foremost. LaPorta could be right behind Amon-Ra St. Brown as the next-busiest short-to-mid-range target for Goff outside the running back duo of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.
Other TEs To Target in Fantasy Football
Isaiah Likely, Baltimore Ravens
Mark Andrews will naturally still head up the position. But the Ravens’ reported move to a more pass-centric approach under new coordinator Todd Monken could leave plenty of targets for the already promising Isaiah Likely.
Juwan Johnson, New Orleans Saints
New quarterback Derek Carr grew accustomed to the security that a big athletic target at tight end provides while playing with Darren Waller over the last five seasons in Las Vegas. Juwan Johnson already arguably had a breakout season in 2022 with a career-best 42-508-7 line. A big upgrade at quarterback could push him into 60-catch, 800-yard territory.
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