NFL Breakout Candidates at Tight End
Every season in the NFL, and to be fair, each of the major team sports, you’re going to have surprises crop up. Whether a relative unknown breaks out and has a massive season that no one in their right mind would have projected or a former star falls off a cliff, you’re going to be caught off guard at least a couple times a season. Look at last season: there were few that would have expected like Le’Veon Bell to put up the worst yard per carry average in the franchise history of the Jets.
On the flip side, there are those guys that inevitably come out of nowhere with a big showing. Maybe experience pays dividends, perhaps there’s an improvement in weapons to work with or maybe everything clicked. Look at Lamar Jackson last year. We’ve already taken a look at potential breakout quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers for the upcoming season. With that said, today we take a look at a few of the tight ends that have the potential to break out and be a surprise this season.
Jonnu Smith, Titans: Smith had 35 receptions last season for 439 yards and three scores while adding four carries for 78 yards on the ground. He was only targeted 44 times last year as Delanie Walker was still on the roster, while Anthony Firkser and MyCole Pruitt were there to steal reps as well. With Walker gone, Smith is going to be unimpeded battling for first-team reps. He’s elusive, forcing 14 missed tackles in his limited targets, which was third among tight ends. He’s capable of making plays, especially in the red zone, and with Walker’s targets among others, available, Smith should take a step forward this season.
Hayden Hurst, Falcons: Hurst has a change of scenery this season as he breaks free of the logjam of talented tight ends that the Ravens had. He now gets a chance to be the top tight end on the depth chart in Atlanta, a team that loves to throw the ball around. Hurst caught 30 passes for 349 yards and two scores last season while starting only four games as Mark Andrews had a big year for the Ravens. You have to think that Hurst will get a lot more than the 39 targets he saw last season. By way of comparison, Austin Hooper, who signed with the Browns in free agency, was targeted 97 times in 13 games last season in an offense that has Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Hurst could break out in a big way this season.
T.J. Hockenson, Lions: Hockenson came in with a world of hype after being the first-round pick of the Lions last season. After a big debut game against the Cardinals, he pretty much went radio silent over a long stretch of the year and missed four games. Overall, he finished with only 32 receptions for 367 yards and two scores in 12 games. Granted, some of that could be attributed to the injury to Matthew Stafford, creating a massive void when it came to leadership running the offense. With Stafford healthy, a pair of solid running backs in Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift along with receivers Kenny Golladay along with Marvin Jones Jr., Hockenson is primed to blow away last season’s disappointing numbers.
Noah Fant, Broncos: Fant had a decent rookie season as he hauled in 40 passes for 562 yards and three scores while starting 11 of the 16 games that Denver played last season. There was a lot of upheaval in the Broncos’ offense last season as Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen and fellow rookie Drew Lock each started multiple games under center. With Lock the unquestioned starter under center this season and with experience under his belt at this point, Fant easily has the ability to improve by leaps and bounds. Factor in the addition of rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to complement Courtland Sutton on the outside and it will make it difficult to try and shut down everyone in the passing game.
Dawson Knox, Bills: Knox had an up and down rookie campaign for Buffalo. He was thrust into a starting role after Tyler Kroft broke his foot in OTAs and wasn’t a big pass catcher in college. After missing all of the preseason, Knox took over the starting job out of the gate though he didn’t pay dividends right away. He does have great athleticism, as evidenced when he bulldozed the Bengals’ defense on a 49-yard catch and run that set up the winning touchdown. Later in the year, we saw him make a terrific grab against the Patriots on the road. Knox did have his struggles at times as he had six drops on 50 targets: his breakout quarterbacks0 was the highest in the league among tight ends. He finished the year with 28 receptions for 388 yards and two scores. With Stefon Diggs, John Brown, Cole Beasley along with Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, there are plenty of weapons to help carry the load. With more consistency, Knox could be a big factor this season for Buffalo.
Blake Jarwin, Cowboys: breakout quarterbacks1 was part of the Cowboys’ offense that last season finished sixth in the league in scoring offense with an average of 27.1 points per game. He started seven games but was targeted only 41 times as future Hall of Fame candidate Jason Witten came out of retirement to take the starting job. Jarwin caught 31 balls for 365 yards and three scores on the season. While there are a lot of mouths to feed in the Cowboys’ offense with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, rookie CeeDee Lamb and Ezekiel Elliott, Jarwin is the clear-cut #1 tight end on the depth chart this season. There’s not much in the way of proven commodities behind him and with Witten signing a one-year deal with the Raiders in free agency, his 83 targets from a year ago are up for grabs. Jarwin should have a chance to see some of those and get bigger numbers.