The tight end position is one of the most difficult when it comes to transitioning from the college game to the NFL level. Not only do tight ends need to learn complex route schemes, but they are often asked to understand blocking in both the run and passing games. Considering all the variables, it’s extremely rare to see any rookie tight end break out.
Some tight ends — such as George Kittle, Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz — broke out in their second seasons, but others needed even more time before they became useful fantasy assets. Austin Hooper, Darren Waller and Tyler Higbee all broke out in their third or fourth seasons.
In fantasy football drafts, the elite tight ends come with high draft capital, and there are only so many of them. If you miss out at the beginning of your draft, it’s crucial that you snag one or two of these late-round targets who have shown the upside to suggest they can make the next leap.
In this series of articles, I’m looking at the breakout potential at the tight end position, focusing on players entering their second, third and fourth seasons. I'll take a look at their current situations to see if they have a clear path to targets and then analyze what they've done in the NFL to this point to determine whether they've shown the upside to break out in 2020.
Smith's Quietly Solid Rookie Season
Irv Smith Jr. is entering his second year in the NFL after an encouraging rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings. The former second-round pick from Alabama was the highest-graded tight end (65.0) among the 2019 tight end draft class who saw at least 40 targets. Smith also owned the sixth-best catch rate (78.3%) among all qualifying tight ends.
His PFF receiving grade versus man coverage (63.9) ranked 20th and his yards per route run ranked 16th (1.26) among tight ends with at least 10 targets versus man coverage.
It is important to call out that 2019 was Smith's age-21 season, placing his early-career production in a tier among some of the most productive tight ends at such a young age.
Only five other rookie tight ends in their age-21 seasons compiled at least 30 receptions and 300 receiving yards in their first seasons in the NFL: Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Tony Gonzalez and David Njoku. These players improved dramatically in their second seasons, with an average increase of 98% in receptions and 103% in receiving yards.