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Winners and Losers: 2023 Free Agent Tight Ends

The first free agent tight end I need to talk about is Foster Moreau. During a physical with the New Orleans Saints’ medical staff, it’s been revealed that Moreau has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’m sending him strong, positive thoughts as he steps away from football to beat cancer. He’s undoubtedly a winner we will all be rooting for.

As for the remainder of the tight end free agent market, the deals are not quite as robust as I would have thought. There is a strong rookie class arriving next month during the 2023 NFL Draft. That likely plays a large role as to why. That said, many of the tight ends are settling in on new teams for, at the moment, just one season. Discussing 2023 is a bit easier as a result as we see which free agent tight ends are winners and losers for this upcoming fantasy football season.

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Tight End Winners and Losers Following 2023 Free Agency

Free Agent Tight End Winners

Mike Gesicki, New England Patriots

In one of the more surprising free agent tight end signings, Gesicki is staying in AFC East and joining the Patriots on a one-year, $4.5 million deal. He can also earn $4.5 million in incentives. As it stands, New England’s receiving corps is weaker than most. Rather than make an additional splash at wide receiver in free agency, beyond Juju Smith-Schuster, signing Gesicki on a cheaper deal makes sense.

Prior to the 2022 season, Gesicki ranks top-12 in total yards amongst tight ends each season from 2019-2020. He’s even as high as fourth during the 2020 season. As you can also imagine, Gesicki ranks top-12, as high as fifth, in receptions amongst the position as well in that span. It’s clear Mike McDaniel’s arrival as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2022 did Gesicki a disservice. Now, he heads to New England where Bill Belichick is notorious for multiple tight end sets where Gesicki should thrive.

Gesicki should have opportunities to line up out wide, but will live in the slot. Since quarterback Mac Jones’ deep ball isn’t his biggest strength, I expect Gesicki to feast in short and intermediate situations in PPR formats. Even though Hunter Henry is on this roster, Gesicki will have a much larger role as a receiver. Let others worry about what his role could be and cash in on what we know it will be. At a typically low Average Draft Position, Gesicki will be a weekly winner that’s stolen late in drafts.

Hayden Hurst, Carolina Panthers

I think Hayden Hurst can have a career year with the Panthers. That would be a season-long stat line of at least 57 receptions, 572 yards, and seven touchdowns. With a rookie quarterback set to arrive with the first overall pick, Hurst could be a safety blanket in the passing game. That’s especially true if the team’s expected WR1 is 33-year-old Adam Thielen.

In Greg Olsen’s last season with the Panthers, he logged 81 targets by himself. Since then, no group of Carolina tight ends has collectively earned that many targets in a single season. Of Hurst’s 414 yards last season with the Cincinnati Bengals, he earned 48.7% of them after the catch. Similarly, in a career-best 2020 season with the Atlanta Falcons, Hurst ranked ninth amongst tight ends in yards after the catch (269 of 571, 47%). With a lack of receiving talent on the current roster, Hurst could be a big free agent winner as of now and really elevate himself into low-end TE1 territory for fantasy football.

Juwan Johnson, New Orleans Saints

After a strong 2022 campaign, Juwan Johnson is staying in New Orleans which is a good start to be a free agent tight end winner. The obvious boost to Johnson’s value is an upgrade at the quarterback position. Johnson is going to catch passes from Derek Carr after having career-best numbers with Andy Dalton for most of last season.

With the Las Vegas Raiders, we know one of Carr’s top targets was Darren Waller. In three seasons, with 11 or more games played, Waller averaged 8.25 targets per game. In back-to-back seasons of 16 games, from 2019 to 2020, Waller logged 1,100+ yards and 90+ receptions both times.

Now, the receiving options in New Orleans are far better than those in Las Vegas during most of Waller’s time there. Juwan Johnson is competing for his fair share of targets with Michael Thomas and Chris Olave. However, not only did the Saints’ 30.1 pass attempts per game rank 26th last season, but their 512 total pass attempts are less than any number of passes Carr has thrown in any season of his career (Well, he threw 502 times in 2022, but was benched for the final two games). There’s nowhere to go but up for Johnson in 2023. He’s a good late-round option at tight end and an interesting target for best ball drafts.

Austin Hooper, Las Vegas Raiders

We are now three seasons removed from Austin Hooper’s last year of fantasy football relevancy. After scoring a big deal as a free agent during the 2020 off-season, Hooper now finds himself on his third team in four years. This could be a bounce-back season for Hooper so he’s worth mentioning as a free agent tight end winner.

With Darren Waller heading to the New York Giants and Foster Moreau stepping away from football, there are 96% of tight end targets in Las Vegas available from last season. I do think there will be a strong shift from targeting tight ends to emphasizing the wide receivers more in their 2023 offense. Bringing in Jakobi Meyers is a good indication of that. However, Josh Jacobs isn’t much of a pass catcher, evident by his 11.5% target share in 2022. So, there’s still going to be a healthy dose of targets available to the top tight end.

The key here for Austin Hooper is Jimmy Garropolo. He’s an accurate passer who can get the ball into his playmaker’s hands. With a lot of attention of Davante Adams, Hooper, at 6’4″ 254 pounds, could also be a beneficiary in the red zone. Hooper is likely to go undrafted in most fantasy football leagues. I expect him to have a few weeks of streaming potential, especially with a large chunk of the target share available to him.

Free Agent Tight End Losers

Dalton Schultz, Houston Texans

The Houston Texans are a surprising landing spot for Dalton Schultz, the top free agent tight end of the 2023 group. I think there are a few other teams where Schultz could have ascended further, but the market seemed to force him into a one-year, $9 million deal in Houston. While Schultz is the best tight end of this free agent group, I do not consider him an elite option at the position. I believe Schultz’s success is a result of being in the right place at the right time.

At the start of Schultz’s third season, teammate Blake Jarwin signed a three-year, $24.25 million deal as the expected starter. After Jarwin tore his ACL in the season opener, Schultz assumed the role and never looked back. His 282 total targets since his 2020 breakout rank fourth amongst all tight ends. However, his best finish is as TE7 in 2021 with an average of 12.0 points per game.

It’s conceivable, like the aforementioned Hayden Hurst, that Schultz remains a top target on his new team. However, I don’t expect a rapport with a rookie quarterback that’s stronger than Schultz’ with Dak Prescott. Schultz is a fantasy football loser for this reason. I was hoping for him to land on a better offense, not a rebuilding one.

Irv Smith Jr., Cincinnati Bengals

It’s a fresh start for Irv Smith Jr. on a one-year deal with the Bengals. At nearly 25-years old, Smith has just 91 total receptions in 37 games over four seasons. His first few years with the Minnesota Vikings are injury-riddled so, above all else, we can only hope he stays on the field in Cincy.

When Irv Smith Jr. is available, I don’t expect eye-popping fantasy football numbers. Over the last two seasons, with Joe Burrow under center, Bengals tight ends have seen 15.3% and 15.7% of the target share collectively. Neither target leader of each season’s tight end group, C.J. Uzomah or Hayden Hurst, respectively, finished better than TE21 on a points per game basis in fantasy football. Irv Smith is a better receiving talent than both of those guys, but has yet to show it on a consistent basis.

It’s still possible the Bengals spend a draft pick on one of the highly-touted incoming rookie tight ends, as well. Regardless, Irv Smith will compete for targets with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and others. He’s a good pass catcher that can earn playing time with solid run-blocking, as well. I just don’t see him as any more than a matchup-based weekly streamer or perhaps a late-round Best Ball selection in 2023.

Robert Tonyan, Chicago Bears

Tonyan lands on the loser list for fantasy football as he’s set to join the Bears who already have Cole Kmet on the roster. Kmet isn’t even an elite option, but the presence of both he and Tonyan make rooting for either very difficult.

Tonyan is a year further removed from a 2021 season-ending torn ACL, so that’s a positive. However, the likelihood of Tonyan carving out a legitimate role on a team that passed a league-low 22.2 times per game in 2022 is slim.

While that rate is sure to increase, Tonyan isn’t a good bet to be a big beneficiary of it. The Bears’ receiver group is far better ahead of 2023 with D.J. Moore, Darnell Mooney, and a full off-season of Chase Claypool. Tonyan is unlikely to sniff starting lineups in most formats for 2023 fantasy football.

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