(All summer, Adam Pfeifer will be putting the tightest fantasy football picks under the microscope in our ADP Decisions series.)
The tight end position can be tough in fantasy football, particularly after you get past the top three of Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle. When drafting, many feel that if you can’t land one of the aforementioned three on your team, it is best to just wait and look for some breakout candidates later on in the draft.
One candidate already broke out in 2020 in Logan Thomas, while Irv Smith is a terrific bet to do the same in 2021. But which tight end is the better option for your fantasy team?
Let’s find out.
The case for Logan Thomas
Once a quarterback, Thomas not only played tight end full-time in 2020, but he did it at a pretty high level. He was the breakout player at the position last year, catching 72 balls for 670 yards and six touchdowns, finishing the season as the TE4 in all of fantasy. Thomas was a massive part of this Washington offense, as he led all tight ends in routes run with 609, 43 more than Kansas City’s Travis Kelce. His 19.3% target share was good for fifth among all tight ends, while his 67 targets on the first read ranked sixth-best at the position. And overall, only Kelce and Waller saw more targets among tight ends than Thomas (112), so he clearly had a very, very fantasy-friendly role throughout the entire season.
Thomas definitely wasn’t great in terms of yardage, as his 7.4-yard average depth of target was the 11th-lowest mark among all tight ends with at least 50 targets. Meanwhile, he also averaged just 5.98 yards per target, the third-lowest mark behind only Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz. Thomas failed to reach the 50-yard mark in 11 of his 16 games, though he did record at least four receptions in 10 contests. Playing alongside Alex Smith will lead to shorter targets, obviously, as Smith averaged just 5.1 intended air yards per attempt last season, which was easily the lowest mark among all qualified quarterbacks. I expect the Washington offense to be more aggressive with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, which should lead to more deep targets and a higher aDOT for Thomas.
Of course, it is very fair to wonder if his target share will drop with Washington adding Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and Dyami Brown at wide receiver during the offseason. Last season, outside of Thomas and Terry McLaurin, running back J.D. McKissic was the most-targeted player on the team. But he was used as a wide receiver very often, actually lining up in the slot nearly 14% of the time, which was the fourth-highest mark among qualified running backs. Their next most-targeted actual wide receiver was Cam Sims, who saw just 48 targets on the year. The addition of Samuel, Humphries and Brown likely result in fewer targets for Thomas in 2021, though he should still run plenty of pass routes.
The case for Irv Smith
If you listen to the Fade the Chalk podcast, you know that Derek Brown and I love Irv Smith. And once again, we are hoping the Minnesota Vikings #LetIrvSwerve. At just 22 years old, Smith still has plenty of upside and we began to see that down the stretch of the 2020 campaign. The Vikings were without Kyle Rudolph in Weeks 14-17 last season, and during that stretch, Smith was the TE4 in fantasy, averaging just under 13 fantasy points per game. And in that same span, he also ranked second among all tight ends in end zone targets (four), while running a route on 88.7% of Minnesota’s passing snaps. He was also eighth among all tight ends in routes run during those weeks, despite only playing around half of the snaps in Week 14. If you change the span to Weeks 15-17, Smith was fifth in routes run (101).
So when I see head coach Mike Zimmer say that Smith’s role isn’t likely to change in 2021, I don’t interpret that as bad news, because I am assuming he is referring to Smith’s end-of-season role. Obviously, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen will be the focal point of this passing attack, while Dalvin Cook will see plenty of touches every week. So I’m not saying that Smith is likely to see 80 targets, as that is likely his best-case ceiling. However, his opportunities are obviously going to grow with Rudolph gone and he’s been a fairly efficient player throughout his career. Smith averaged a healthy 8.49 yards per target this past season, good for the sixth-highest mark among tight ends with at least 40 targets. Meanwhile, his 12.17 yards per reception mark was seventh best. Smith can make up for somewhat underwhelming volume by making plays down the field and while he was actually out-targeted by Tyler Conklin 21-20 in Weeks 14-17, he also ran more routes. Conklin very well may have a role this season, but Smith is the younger and more talented player. I understand that some have concerns but the breakout potential is very much there with Irv Smith in 2021.
The verdict: Irv Smith
For me, Thomas and Smith are candidates to be the first tight ends selected after the consensus top-seven in fantasy drafts. And while both players are ranked very closely for me, I can’t ignore the upside of Smith, who, at just 22 years old, hasn’t even scratched the surface of his ceiling. I will admit that Thomas does feel like the safer bet at the position, but if I’m passing on the elite tight ends, I am targeting a player that has more of an unknown ceiling. And even if you don’t feel 100% confident in Smith’s path to a breakout campaign, you can always pair him with another intriguing tight end late in your draft.
Adam Pfeifer has been covering fantasy football, baseball and basketball since 2012. He has been featured in the Football Diehards fantasy magazine for four years now, while also making multiple appearances on Sirius XM Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter @APfeifer24.