For years the Chiefs’ superstar tight end has been a first-round lock in most fantasy football drafts, often selected before any other player at his position, but who’s next in line when Kelce begins to decline or when he retires?
If you are not a participant in one of the fastest-growing obsessions of the past two decades then this article may not be for you, but if you are a member of a fantasy football league (or multiple leagues) then you would know that Kansas City TE Travis Kelce (2021 projected pts: 376.22) has been one of the most consistent and prolific fantasy scorers in recent memory.
The 31-year old Super Bowl LIV champion has put together some insane stats on the field over the past few years and because of that his name has been synonymous with wins and big payouts for fantasy football owners, but what will those same owners do when this fantasy point-magnet starts to show signs of aging?
With Patrick Mahomes as Kelce’s QB, there should be no reason to doubt that 2021 will be any different than the past five seasons, all of which he has finished #1 or #2 in TE fantasy scoring (according to FantasyData), but that does not mean that the average fantasy football user shouldn’t start thinking about the future, especially if they play in a “keeper” league.
At the moment Kelce’s average draft position (ADP) is between the 9th and 10th overall pick (9.40) which is far and away the highest ADP for any TE in the league–the next closest is 49ers TE George Kittle with 24.73–which is due to Kelce’s average ppg hovering around 15-19 points depending on which fantasy app is being used.
But Kelce was not always the obvious TE1 when draft day came around.
For years the go-to guy for fantasy members was New England’s Rob Gronkowski, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Los Angeles’ Antonio Gates, or even Hall of Fame tight end (and former Chief legend) Tony Gonzalez whether he was in Atlanta or still in Kansas City.
Yes, those players put up some of the most spectacular numbers in all of fantasy football history before Kelce was doing the same on a regular basis, but all had holes in their game or were constant liabilities in regards to being injured often (*cough* Gronkowski *cough*) and Kelce does not seem to carry any of those downsides in his game.
Kelce has played at least 15 games per season since his second season in the league (he was injured his entire rookie season) which is a great asset for owners of fantasy football teams in today’s day and age where star players get injured often or are playing limited snaps due to past injuries.
Sadly Kelce’s longevity has to come to an end at some point in the future. Whether it be within the next few seasons or a decade down the road there will be a conclusion to #87’s reign over the TE spot in fantasy football, so who will be primed to take over his insanely-high ADP and carry the weight of some fantasy teams for years to come?
The obvious first choice is 27-year old George Kittle (2021 projected pts: 237.41) who, as I mentioned earlier, is predicted to be TE2 in many leagues and will still likely be selected in earlier rounds (1-3) this upcoming draft season.
But Kittle has already shown that he is not always going to be available, which is of no fault to him, because he cannot stay healthy throughout an entire season. In fact, just in the upcoming 2021 season he has an 89% chance of becoming injured and is projected to miss at least three games due to those injuries.
The next likely option would be Las Vegas’ Darren Waller (2021 projected pts: 310.83) who had a rough first few seasons due to an injury and two suspensions–one of which spanned the entire 2017 season–for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
But Waller has grown out of those behaviors, and also grown in size (6″6′, 255lbs), by the looks of it, and has quickly risen from a scrawny 6th-string wide receiver to a bulky 1st-string tight end who can give fantasy owners 15-16 games, 90+ catches, and upwards of ten touchdowns.
Baltimore’s Mark Andrews (2021 projected pts: 186.58) put up solid numbers last season (5th-most rec yds amongst TEs–701) and is still young enough (25) to be relevant whenever Kelce is slipping into retirement. His biggest issue is simply how much his QB, Lamar Jackson, wants to throw and the amount of weapons around him.
Currently, Jackson is still viewed as the dual-threat QB that has made him an NFL MVP, a constant threat in games, and a recognizable worldwide talent, but it has also created the narrative that he does not throw the ball enough or throw it well enough to be reliable.
If Andrews is still on this pernicious Baltimore offense in a few years, then he will have solidified himself as the TE in fantasy football drafts that owners fear picking up because of how often he is used in the blocking aspect of the game compared to the pass-catching aspect.
3rd-year TE T.J. Hockenson (2021 projected pts: 196.88) is also in a very tricky situation being in “dysfunctional Detroit” with a new system, a new coach, and a new QB but if there is one thing that fantasy football owners know it’s that the Lions can produce fantasy superstars (i.e. Kenny Golladay, Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, Golden Tate) without being successful in the win-loss column.
Longtime QB Matthew Stafford is obviously the biggest reason that Detroit provided stable, reliable fantasy players but with Jared Goff now under center it will be interesting to see if Hockenson’s fantasy stock trends upward or fall to the depths of the last couple of draft rounds.
By the time Kelce exits the TE1 throne Hockenson could be in a completely different city putting up similar, or better, numbers to his 2020 season (67 rec, 723 yds, 6 TDs) but if he is still in Detroit then he may never be able to reach his full potential and take over that top spot in fantasy drafts.
These are just some of the main tight ends that are already making names for themselves in this league which takes the TE position much more seriously than it used to. There will obviously be plenty of other contenders for the top spot in every draft but at the moment these four have cemented themselves as the top dogs in the tight end game.
Honorable Mentions: Atlanta rookie Kyle Pitts, Indianapolis’ Mo Alie-Cox (2021 projected pts: 71.58), Miami’s Mike Gesicki (2021 projected pts: 130.26)