Fantasy owners who miss out on the elite tight ends often wait until much later in the draft to address the position, confident they'll find the next breakout star.
It's a good plan - if you can pinpoint which tight ends will return value.
Who will exceed expectations?
While many of us were disappointed by Herndon in 2019, there's still plenty of reason to re-invest in the 24-year-old.
Herndon's campaign was derailed by a suspension and injuries that limited him to one appearance and 18 total snaps. He's still just one year removed from posting 50 yards and/or a touchdown in seven of his 10 outings from Week 6 to Week 16 as a rookie. During that stretch, he was a top-seven fantasy tight end and was on pace for 53 receptions, 715 yards, and six touchdowns over a full 16-game schedule.
Even though he clogged up a bench spot on your fantasy roster as a sophomore, he only cost you a late-round pick or a small waiver wire bid. This year, his price is even lower, as he's going off the board in the 14th round of best ball drafts as the TE21.
After talking him up prior to last season, everyone in the Jets organization is doubling down on their belief Herndon can be a major part of the offense in 2020.
"The Jets can't wait to unleash Chris Herndon this season," wrote Connor Hughes of The Athletic.
Herndon's replacement, Ryan Griffin played on over 80% of the snaps in his 13 starts, which bodes well for the young tight end's chances of returning to a full-time role. We can also feel confident about the upgrades New York has made on its offensive line, including first-round left tackle Mekhi Becton. If Sam Darnold can stay healthy, the passing game should make strides. After his early-season bout with mononucleosis, Darnold led the Jets to a 6-2 record in the final two months.
Tight end is deep right now, but Herndon offers as much upside as any of the late-round breakout candidates at his position. We could be discussing him as a fantasy TE1 in the future, so enjoy the discount while you can.
Arguably my best bold prediction in fantasy came two years ago when I called for Ebron to reach double-digit touchdowns and finish as a top-six tight end. He blew those marks away with 14 total scores and the fourth-most fantasy points at his position.
Last year, injuries and increased target competition steered me away from Ebron, who was being drafted as a TE1 in fantasy, and I directed others to shy away as well. However, it's time to get the 27-year-old on your roster again now that he's a member of a Steelers' offense poised for a big rebound with Ben Roethlisberger returning to the helm.
A year after Big Ben threw 34 touchdowns and led the league with 675 attempts and 5,129 passing yards, Pittsburgh's air attack floundered without its franchise quarterback. Backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges struggled to move the offense and the team managed just 3,214 passing yards and 18 passing scores.
Roethlisberger has already begun throwing to teammates this offseason and is on track to be ready for Week 1, so we can expect a significant increase in passing volume.
It's hard to project huge yardage for Ebron when you still have to account for running back targets and the presence of complementary pieces like James Washington, Chase Claypool, and Vance McDonald. Instead, Ebron's fantasy value will be tied to his touchdown upside, similar to how Jared Cook delivered in his first year with the Saints. Cook, who signed in New Orleans as a free agent, was the TE7 last season with 43 receptions, 705 yards, and nine trips to the end zone.
Pittsburgh provides Ebron with a path to return to the top 10 at his position and he's essentially free in fantasy drafts with a 14th-round ADP as the TE22.
Tight ends often take time to develop, so searching for second- and third-year players in good situations can be a wise move for fantasy managers.
As a second-round pick in last year's draft, Smith got off to a fairly slow start, as he was held to under 60% of the offensive snaps in each of his first seven games. That trend quickly changed, as he eclipsed the 60% mark in eight of his last nine outings.
Though he was inconsistent as a rookie, Smith nearly matched the targets, receptions, and yardage totals of starter Kyle Rudolph despite playing almost 200 fewer snaps. And while Smith's playing time was on the rise in the final month, Rudolph's was headed in the opposite direction.
With Stefon Diggs in Buffalo, the most likely candidates to inherit his 94 targets from 2019 are star wideout Adam Thielen, rookie receiver Justin Jefferson, and Smith. There could be an uptick in overall passing attempts as well, given the personnel losses on the Vikings' once-stout defense.
That's good news for Smith's outlook as a sophomore. He had the second-youngest draft age of any tight end over the last 20 years, and 21-year-old rookies at that position record a TE1 season almost 60% of the time in Year 2, according to Rotoviz's Blaire Andrews and Jack Miller.
Smith represents an explosive future at tight end for the Vikings and is currently going undrafted in most fantasy leagues.
Dawson Knox, Bills - Knox rose to the top of the Bills' depth chart as a rookie in 2019. There's still plenty of development needed for the 23-year-old, who has the tools to emerge as a real weapon for Josh Allen, especially considering the lack of size in Buffalo's receiving corps. Though his volume might be inconsistent, Knox's size will be put to use in the red zone, giving him breakout potential.
Jace Sternberger, Packers - Will Aaron Rodgers ever turn one of his tight ends into a reliable fantasy asset? Maybe not, but Sternberger will be the next man to try. After recording no stats in the regular season due to injuries, the third-round pick got involved in the playoffs, hauling in a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game. Aside from Davante Adams, Green Bay has a desperate need for playmakers in the passing game, so Sternberger has a shot at a big role in 2020.
Tyler Eifert, Jaguars - Entering his eighth NFL season, the 29-year-old Eifert will be five seasons removed from his last noteworthy fantasy campaign - a 13-touchdown effort with the Bengals. Injuries have sidetracked his career and turned him into a part-time player, but he was able to suit up for all 16 contests last year. Jags offensive coordinator Jay Gruden described his excitement about working with Eifert again after their time together in Cincinnati while explaining how critical the tight end position is in his offense. If he can recapture his touchdown prowess, Eifert could be a sneaky fantasy option in Jacksonville.
Who will exceed expectations?