What are the ingredients for a breakout tight end? That is, when you have a tight end suddenly showing up in the top 5 statistically, where do those players tend to come from?

Looking at the past 20 years of stats, I see only 30 tight ends finishing with top-5 numbers who didn’t rank in the top 15 the previous season. About 1-2 per year. We can then look at these tight ends and get an indication of what kind of players we should be looking for in the future.

Of the 30, half were what we might call new to the scene. Two rookies, seven players in their second season, and six players in their third year.

Of the 30, two thirds were players who didn’t really get a chance to be big-time players the previous season. They either missed a bunch of games with injuries or simply weren’t used much.

Only eight of these 30 were guys who were playing but simply weren’t that effective. And even for those eight, five of them were players in their first or second year – on the field, but players where the team wasn’t looking for them to do much. So really, only three of the players below were given much of a chance to put up good numbers in their previous season.

In the chart below, all 30 players are guys who posted top-5 numbers using PPR scoring, but who didn’t rank in the top 15 the previous season. If the player was in the first three years of his career, that number is in bold. If the player played plenty the previous season, he’s got a black dot in front of his name.

I’ve jotted a brief note down about each player, trying to explain why he didn’t put up good numbers the previous year.

BREAKOUT TIGHT ENDS (last 20 years)
YearPlayerYrNoYdsTDPrevious season
2001• Desmond Clark, Den.351566617th-best stats in 16 G
2002Todd Heap, Balt.2688366rookie & 4 missed G
2002Jeremy Shockey, NYG1748942DNP (was in college)
2003• Freddie Jones, Ariz.755517317th-best stats in 16 G
2004Eric Johnson, S.F.4828252DNP (injured)
2004• Jason Witten, Dall.287980620th-best stats in 15 G
2004• Antonio Gates, S.D.2819641321st-best stats in 15 G
2005Todd Heap, Balt.5758557missed 10 games
2006Kellen Winslow, Cle.3898753DNP (injured)
2009• Vernon Davis, S.F.4789651328th-best stats in 16 G
2009• Brent Celek, Phil.376971832nd-best stats in 16 G
2010Chris Cooley, Was.7778493missed 9 games
2010• Marcedes Lewis, Jac.5587001021st-best stats in 15 G
2011Jimmy Graham, N.O.2991,31011rookie / smaller role
2012• Heath Miller, Pitt.871816819th-best stats in 16 G
2013Julius Thomas, Den.36578812hardly played (4 G)
2013Jordan Cameron, Cle.3809177lightly used in 14 G
2013• Vernon Davis, S.F.8528501320th-best stats in 16 G
2014Rob Gronkowski, N.E.5821,12412missed 9 games
2015Jordan Reed, Was.38795211missed 5 games
2015Gary Barnidge, Cle.8791,0439limited role
2016Jimmy Graham, Sea.7659236missed 5 games
2017Rob Gronkowski, N.E.8691,0848missed 8 games
2017Evan Engram, NYG1647226DNP (was in college)
2018George Kittle, S.F.2881,3775rookie / smaller role
2019Darren Waller, Oak.5901,1453hardly played (4 G)
2019• Mark Andrews, Balt.2648521017th-best stats in 16 G
2020T.J. Hockenson, Det.2677236rookie & 4 missed G
2020Robert Tonyan, G.B.45258611limited role
2020Logan Thomas, Was.7726706lightly used in Detroit

So where does this leave us for 2021?

Well, if we’re going for guys who missed a bunch of time last year with injuries, George Kittle and Dallas Goedert would be the leading candidates. It’s really not even fair to list Kittle, since he’s put up historic numbers in the past. And I think Goedert will rank among the top 10 on most draft boards this summer.

If we’re looking for a young guy who’s going to get more opportunities, probably Irv Smith (pictured) of the Vikings. With Kyle Rudolph gone, I think they’ll be looking to use Smith a lot more this year. And that’s an offense where they don’t to spread the field much with multiple receivers. They’ll be relying primary on Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Smith – I don’t think they’ll have a prominent third wide receiver.

I like Anthony Firkser, but it would be a tall order for him to move all the way up to the top 5.

Other tight end candidates who didn’t post top-15 numbers last year: Jonnu Smith, Tyler Higbee, Austin Hooper, Gerald Everett, Jared Cook and Dan Arnold.

—Ian Allan