Fantasy Football: 3 first-time candidates to finish as the overall TE1

2T02M2C Oct 1, 2023; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Arizona Cardinals tight end Trey McBride (85) during the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi?s Stadium. (Stan Szeto/Image of Sport/Sipa USA)

Arizona Cardinals tight end Trey McBride: McBride should face far less double coverage in 2024 while operating as a featured, full-season passing-game weapon for the first time

Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Evan Engram: Jacksonville’s newly acquired field stretchers give a notable boost to Engram and his high-volume, short-area role.

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The tight end position’s elite tier is both larger and murkier than in past years, creating a wide-open race to the overall TE1 finish in both half-points-per-reception (half-PPR) and PPR scoring formats. The article below breaks down three high-quality candidates who will challenge for the No. 1 overall spot for the first time in their careers this year. 

TE Trey McBride, Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals third-year tight end Trey McBride enjoyed a hard-fought midseason breakout last year, assuming the team’s passing-game alpha role by regularly fighting through double coverage. McBride enters 2024 free to run routes in one-on-one coverage with an elite rookie perimeter wide receiver now in the fold, complementing McBride’s route-running strengths. McBride has a great chance to secure an overall TE1 finish for the first time in his career. His 77.9 PFF offense grade ranks fourth among 33 NFL tight ends with at least 535 offensive snaps.

Arizona head coach Jonathan Gannon ramped up McBride in Weeks 5-7 last year before unleashing him via 12 first-read targets (14 total targets) in Week 8. His 61 first-read targets and 79 total targets in Weeks 8-17 both rank second among NFL tight ends during that span

McBride was double covered on 19.6% (66) of his 337 Weeks 8-Super Bowl LVIII receiving snaps, making him one among just nine NFL tights ends to earn at least 15 targets against double coverage during that span. His 25.0% target rate and 50.0% contested-target catch rate on qualifying targets rank and tie for fourth and second, respectively. His 84.8 PFF receiving grade ranks sixth among 30 NFL tight ends with at least 30 season-long first-read targets

Arizona’s front office swapped out de facto No. 1 wide receiver Marquise Brown (22.3% deep-target rate and a 20.4% target rate) for strikingly similar field-stretching wide receiver Zay Jones (22.6% deep-target rate and a 20.2% target rate) before drafting former Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. with the 2024 NFL Draft’s No. 4 overall pick. Harrison will force defenses to prioritize him as the primary coverage target, giving McBride far more one-on-one coverage opportunities than he saw last year. Harrison’s 89.6 PFF receiving grade, 32.4% target rate and 3.44 yards per route run rank fourth, second and third, respectively, among 22 Power Five wide receivers with at least 100 targets in 2023

During McBride’s stint as Arizona’s passing-game alpha in Weeks 8-Super Bowl LVIII, he was one among just nine NFL tight ends to earn at least 10 targets between the painted numbers, 10-plus yards downfield, averaging 15.3 yards per reception. Harrison helpfully thrives as a boundary player. Among 37 Power Five wide receivers with at least 25 targets thrown outside the painted numbers, 10-plus yards downfield, Harrison averaged the eighth-most yards per reception (26.9) via the second-most targets (48).

The duo will work cohesively as a one-two punch, safely locking in triple-digit targets for both players. 

McBride proved himself an elite receiving tight end with the requisite run-blocking profile to remain on-field for the high-value play-action pass plays. His 62.3 PFF run-blocking grade ranks third among 33 NFL tight ends with at least 535 offensive snaps

McBride’s receiving data among 31 NFL tight ends with at least 45 targets:
NFL TE Receiving Trey McBride
PFF Receiving Grade 80.5 (No. 5)
Target Rate 25.9% (No. 1)
Yards/Route Run 2.03 (No. 1)
Catch Rate 77.1% (No. 7)
Contested Catch Rate 73.3% (No. 1)
YAC/Rec. 5.3 (No. 7)
MTF/Rec. 0.15 (No. 11)
Explosive Pass-Play Rate 23.5% (No. 8)

While Harrison commands a high-end rookie wide receiver target share, McBride can hold his own as a high-volume, elite TE1 capable of finishing as the overall TE1 in both half-PPR and PPR formats.

TE Evan Engram, Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Evan Engram cleared 100 targets in both 2022 and 2023, operating as a featured pass-catcher in head coach Doug Pederson’s midfield passing attack. Engram dominates as a surehanded short-area weapon with intermittent downfield opportunities. Jacksonville’s front offense improved their field-stretching personnel this offseason, which should yield improved efficiency for Engram while working underneath. He is a strong candidate to finish as 2024’s overall TE1 for the first time in his career. Engram’s 72.2 PFF offense grade ties for eighth among 33 NFL tight ends with at least 535 offensive snaps.

Engram’s two-year stint in Jacksonville compares favorably to his positional peers.

Engram’s combined 2022 and 2023 receiving data among 29 NFL tight ends with at least 100 targets during that span:
NFL TE Receiving Evan Engram
PFF Receiving Grade 72.8 (No. 14)
Receptions – Targets 199 (No. 2) – 254 (No. 3)
Target Rate 20.6% (No. 8)
Yards/Route Run 1.51 (T-No. 11)
Catch Rate 78.3% (No. 2)
Contested Catch Rate 50.0% (T-No. 10)
aDot 5.5 (No. 26)
YAC/Rec. 5.5 (T-No. 8)
Deep-Target Rate 6.3% (No. 16)
MTF/Rec. 0.15 (No. 11)
Explosive Pass Plays 33 (No. 7)

Engram makes the most of his downfield opportunities. On targets thrown at least 20 yards downfield, he averages a 100.0% explosive pass play rate (seven explosive pass plays on seven receptions), ranking fifth in catch rate (43.8%) and first in contested catch rate (75.0%) among 12 NFL tight ends with at least 15 targets thrown 20-plus yards downfield in 2022 and 2023 combined. Among 26 NFL tight ends with at least 15 targets thrown 10-plus yards downfield, between the painted numbers, he ranks top seven in both yards per reception (20.1) and yards after catch per reception (5.1).

As detailed in “Most overvalued players in Rounds 4-10 on Underdog Fantasy,” “Jacksonville’s front office replaced… downfield X-wide receiver Calvin Ridley with free agent signee Gabe Davis (6-foot-3, 225 pounds), whose skillset and overall receiving profile directly overlaps with [first-round rookie wide receiver Brian] Thomas’ (6-foot-4, 205 pounds)… head coach Doug Pederson bizarrely forces his X-wide receiver to operate in a limited downfield role, running routes between the painted numbers and the sideline [and] Davis is among the league’s best in this area…” The impending competition between Davis and Thomas only benefits Engram by drawing safeties further downfield. Among 33 NFL wide receivers with at least 30 qualifying targets, Davis ranks fourth in aDot (23.4) and seventh in yards per reception (24.3). Among 78 Power Five wide receivers with at least 20 qualifying targets, Thomas’ 90.9 PFF receiving grade ranks 16th, his 28.5-yard aDot ranks fourth and his 39.2 yards per reception rank first.

Engram is a strong candidate to finish as the overall TE1 in both half-PPR and PPR formats thanks to his high-volume role and improved offensive environment.

TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts returned high-end TE2 fantasy football results last year despite inefficient usage and a terrible offensive environment, all while rehabilitating his surgically repaired ACL, MCL and PCL. Pitts is an excellent candidate to finally finish as the overall TE1, now healthy and in a significantly improved environment. His 68.4 PFF offense grade ranks 14th among 33 NFL tight ends with at least 535 offensive snaps.

Atlanta’s former head coach Arthur Smith’s 51.7% pass-play rate in one-score games yielded just 945 regular season passing attempts over the last two seasons. The figures rank 32nd and 31st, respectively, among NFL teams. Atlanta's new head coach Raheem Morris brought in former Los Angeles Rams passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson to run the offense this year. During Robinson’s two seasons holding his prior roles (2022-2023), Los Angeles’ offense tied for 14th (60.0%) and ranked 21st (1,114), respectively. The increased volume should immediately improve Pitts’ per-game target totals if not his overall team target share. 

Smith bafflingly forced Pitts to run routes as a perimeter wide receiver on 27.0% of his 2023 routes; Pitts’ 131 perimeter receiving snaps rank fifth-highest among NFL tight ends. He was inexcusably used as a field stretcher in these scenarios despite the aforementioned knee issues. 

Among 16 NFL tight ends with at least 60 pre-snap alignment perimeter receiving snaps, Pitts ranks and ties for first in both aDot (14.2) and deep-target rate (20.0%), respectively, liming along to the eighth-best yards per route run (YPRR) average (1.02) and the fourth-best yards per reception average (10.9). 

When running routes lined up in-line and/or from the slot, facing linebackers and safeties in primary coverage, Pitts ranks top-four across the board in aDot (9.7), yards per reception (12.0) and explosive pass-play rate (35.7%), ranked among 32 NFL tight ends with at least 100 qualifying receiving snaps

Robinson’s expected reliance on three-wide receiver sets (11 personnel), plus the additions of capable field-stretching wide receiver Darnell Mooney, slot receiver speedster Rondale Moore and quarterback Kirk Cousins should skyrocket both Pitts’ in-line opportunities and overall productivity. Los Angeles’ 2,077 offensive snaps in 11 personnel rank No. 1 among NFL teams in 2022-2023. Mooney’s 23.6% deep-target rate ranks 15th among 81 NFL wide receivers with at least 55 targets while Moore’s 5.3 yards after the catch per reception rank 23rd. Among 33 NFL quarterbacks with at least 270 dropbacks, Cousins ranks fifth in past-the-sticks throwing rate (43.7%) and No. 1 overall in adjusted completion rate (80.5%). Atlanta’s 2023 starting quarterback Desmond Ridder ranks 10th (41.8%) and 26th (72.7%), respectively.

Pitts’ downfield opportunities should yield far better results with his new teammates commanding defensive attention and Cousins’ superior accuracy feeding him targets. Pitts’ 15 targets earned 10-plus yards downfield, between the painted numbers, while double-covered lead all NFL tight ends by four. 

Pitts is an excellent candidate to finish as the overall TE1 in both scoring formats. 


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