Showdown: Hockenson vs. Pitts

Whether you are currently on the clock in your draft or you are weighing your options as you try to make roster moves in your established dynasty leagues, all fantasy footballers have struggled and agonized over those internal debates between two similarly ranked players.

Should I draft this guy or that guy? Should I accept this one-for-one trade? Which player is going to produce better for me this season? Who is the more valuable asset going forward?

No matter if you consider yourself a fantasy football expert who consumes content like a stoner at Pizza Ranch or you are brand new to fantasy football, agonizing over the choice between this player or that player is something we all wrestle with.

In this series, our staff writers will identify popular player pairs with similar perceived value and battle in (mostly) friendly debates to try to help you decide which player you prefer with the goal of helping to provide you with food for thought as you start your draft or engage in trade talks in your leagues.

Today’s edition features a pair of young tight ends: T.J. Hockenson and Kyle Pitts.

The Case for T.J. Hockenson
By: Andrew Scherber

Photo by Rey Del Rio / Getty Images

While I fully recognize what an elite prospect Kyle Pitts is, I would take T.J. Hockenson if given the choice between the two.

For as much hype as Pitts has gotten as a top four selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, Hockenson was pretty highly ranked as a prospect in his own right, being picked No. 8 overall in the 2019 draft out of Iowa.

The buzz about Hockenson coming out of college was that he was a complete tight end in the mold of a Travis Kelce, someone who can do it all and never has to come off the field due to his almost equally dominant blocking and receiving skills for the position.

Hockenson had an up and down rookie season — something that is extremely common for first-year tight ends — starting his career off with a nine-target, six-catch, 131-yard performance in Week One but sporadic production after that before ending the season on I.R. with an ankle injury.

But last year, Hockenson really showed why he was such a prized prospect as he topped the 100-target mark (101) in 2020, and finished with 67 catches, 723 yards and six touchdowns for the Lions, ending the year as the TE5 in all scoring formats.

I and many fantasy footballers expect Hockenson to improve upon those numbers in 2021, his third season as a pro.

Wide receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola are all gone after this offseason, vacating a total of 216 targets among them from last year.

I think it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that Hockenson will lay claim to a fair number of those vacated targets in 2021 as the top pass catcher for the Lions, who should have plenty of passing attempts this season as they likely play from behind more often than not.

Hypothetically, if Hockenson was able to take on just 20 percent of those vacated targets from last year and added them to his 2020 total, he would have been targeted 144 times, which would have put him on par with the elite Darren Waller (146) and Kelce (145).

Now, I’m not saying that is going to happen, but the point is that Hockenson has a very logical path to elite-level targets for his position in 2021.

Photo by Rey Del Rio / Getty Images

Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Quentez Cephus and Amon-Ra St. Brown all could be solid contributors in 2021, but I have a hard time seeing any of them becoming that 130+ target hog that might prevent Hockenson from taking that next step this season.

Jared Goff is the Lions QB now with Matthew Stafford moving on to Los Angeles. And while almost everyone (rightly) sees that as a downgrade for the Lions, it does not necessarily mean it’s going to negatively affect Hockenson’s fantasy production.

Rams tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee combined for 122 targets, 85 catches, 938 yards and six touchdowns in 2020, and so Goff is not afraid to get his tight ends involved.

Admittedly, target share and targets themselves are probably more reliant on individual offensive schemes and the sheer talent of the tight ends in question, but like we’ve mentioned, Hockenson is a special talent AND should be the top target for the Lions AND the Lions should be a team bad enough that they will be throwing the ball a ton.

On the field, Hockenson is a beast at 6-5, 250 pounds, and while he might not be the freakish athlete that Kyle Pitts is, Hockenson is a dangerous redzone weapon and sturdy enough to be that true target hog between the 20’s in the mold of a Kelce or Kittle.

In this age of big wide receivers playing tight end, I like that Hockenson is a little more of a throwback. It is less obvious to defenses, with Hockenson on the field as opposed to a predominantly split-out tight end like Pitts, whether the Lions are going to run or pass, giving Hockenson X number more plays per season where he’s wide open due to defenses thinking run. Probably not a huge difference, but notable nonetheless.

I get the Pitts hype. He reminds me of Calvin Johnson if he was listed as a tight end. Julio leaving and the Falcons likely not having an elite running game opens up the potential for elite target share for Pitts, but I just can’t bring myself to draft him as the TE2 right now (as his ADP on DLF indicates) before he’s ever stepped foot onto an NFL field, especially when a guy like Hockenson has such a favorable 2021 outlook based on his elite talent (first round draft capital) and favorable situation on the pass-happy Lions who do not have much in terms of pass catchers in front of him in the pecking order.

Again, Hockenson was the TE5 last season, and he is poised to improve upon those numbers this year. Do we really think Pitts, as great of a talent he is, is going to step right in as a rookie and eclipse that type of production right off the bat? Maybe so, but I’ll take my chances with the guy who has done it before and who, by all accounts, is dominating in training camp so far as his team’s top target.

The Case For Kyle Pitts
By: Sam Fisher

Photo by Evan Lapek / Collegiate Images / Getty Images

Is Kyle Pitts a better tight end than TJ Hockenson? No The answer is clearly no.

I guess this debate is over, but it’s not because that’s not what we are trying to determine.

We are here to determine which is the better fantasy football tight end, and players don’t get points for blocking. Kyle Pitts is the better fantasy football tight end and that isn’t hard to tell.

Pitts is the best tight end prospect in, well, ever.

His accomplishments in college were historic. Capped off by being an unanimous All-American selection, Pitts won the John Mackey award for the season’s most outstanding tight end, and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the country’s best receiver (regardless of position). This was the first time a tight end has ever been a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award.

How did Pitts start his NFL career? By being the highest drafted tight end in NFL history, going fourth overall to the Atlanta Falcons.

The fit could not be any better for Pitts. He lands on a team that has moved on from one of the greatest wide receivers of all time, leaving a massive hole in that roster that Pitts can fill.

The new Atlanta head coach, Arthur Smith, runs an offense that heavily utilizes the tight end in the passing game. Atlanta clearly values him and plans on making him a focal point of the offense.

Pitts is labeled a tight end, but as the game of football evolves those labels become less important and more fluid. Pitts’ finish as a finalist as college football’s best receiver is a clear indication of his capabilities at catching the ball. In his final season at Florida, Pitts finished the eight game season with 43 receptions, 770 yards, and 12 touchdowns. He was an unguardable scoring machine.

In the NFL, Pitts will be a matchup nightmare wherever he lines up. At 6-6 and 240 pounds while running a 4.4 second 40-yard-dash, linebackers and safeties will be overmatched by his speed and cornerbacks will be dominated by his size. There is not a matchup in which he will not have a clear advantage. It just so happens that Pitts’ closest NFL player comparisons are both former Georgia Tech wide receivers, Calvin Johnson and Darren Waller. The former is one of the greatest wide receivers of all-time and the latter has emerged as one of the top tight ends in the league after battling off-the-field issues for years.

Pitts will play alongside Calvin Ridley, a great receiver who will command the defenses attention. Teams will not be able to focus on Kyle for fear of being beaten by the uber-talented Ridley. This is not a negative though as it will allow Pitts to get many one-on-one matchups.The past results for tight ends in Arthur Smith’s offense give a glimmer of what Pitts will be in line for.

As a coach, Smith is intimately familiar with the tight end position. Coaching for the Titans in 2013, he was promoted to assistant offensive line coach and assistant tight ends coach. 2015 saw him become the interim tight ends coach, and in 2016, the interim label was removed from his title. In 2019, Smith was promoted to offensive coordinator. Now in 2021, as the new head coach, it is hard to believe Smith will forget he has the most gifted prospect at the position at which he built his career.

Photo by Hannah White / Collegiate Images / Getty Images

Under Smith’s guidance, Delanie Walker had four years of over 100 targets and 800 yards receiving, including 2015, when Walker was targeted 133 times for 1,088 yards receiving. In 2019, Smith’s first year as an offensive coordinator, the trio of Jonnu Smith, Delanie Walker, and Anthony Firkser were targeted 99 times accounting for 22 percent of the team’s targets.

In 2020, Smith and Firkser combined to be targeted 118 times, accounting for 24 percent of the team’s targets. Smith loves to keep tight ends involved in the game and has shown the ability to coach them to be successful.

Kyle Pitts is a better tight end than any Arthur Smith has coached before. Matt Ryan has shown he is an above average quarterback that knows how to utilize the weapons available to him. From Ryan’s time playing with Julio, he understands how to place the ball when throwing in a way that will allow Pitts to use his superior size and athleticism to win matchups and make catches. I honestly believe Pitts could not have landed in a better place than Atlanta.

T.J. Hockenson is a really good tight end. Coming out of Iowa he was considered the best tight end in the draft in 2019, going No. 8 overall. Hockenson had a disappointing rookie season followed by a good sophomore season.

Hockenson has shown development in his game but I’m not convinced it goes much further. He is not athletic enough to create the mismatches that the dominant tight ends in the league use to be successful. His usefulness comes from being a complete tight end who is a capable receiver.

The Lions offense will not throw the ball as often as they did last year, even if they are a bad team. 2020 saw the Lions quarterbacks combine for 582 attempts. Hockenson was targeted 101 times, converting that into 67 catches for 723 yards. Many are going to argue that his situation is better this coming season, but I’m not convinced it is.

The Lions roster is much worse than last year because of the loss of the likes of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Matthew Stafford. Golladay only played in five games last year. Marvin Jones was the most targeted receiving option with 115 targets at 30 years old. His numbers came as a result of the loss of Golladay. Jones had never been targeted that many times in a season in his career. It wasn’t Hockenson who stepped up and emerged as the number one option; it was a past-his-prime, career “number two” receiver.

Dan Campbell brings with him an offense that focuses on the wide receivers and running backs. His system funnels the ball to the top wide receiver.

For evidence look at the 2015 Dolphins where he was the interim head coach for 12 games. Jarvis Landry was targeted 166 times that year.

Look at the New Orleans offense from 2016 to 2019. Michael Thomas averaged 150 targets a year. Even in 2020, with multiple injuries at wide receiver, the top receiver as a cumulative total was targeted 134 times.

From 2015 to 2020 the starting tight end for those teams was targeted an average of 59 times per season.

Campbell can say what he wants about not being a system guy, but the stats don’t lie. Tight ends are an afterthought in his offense. A leopard doesn’t change its spots. Hockenson may be talented but his limited opportunities will not bode well for fantasy success.

Moment of Truth

We’ve heard compelling cases for both Hockenson and Pitts, both immense talents at one of the most shallow positions in fantasy.

Which side do you agree with? Which of these players do you have ranked higher? Which of these tight ends would you rather have on your fantasy teams?

Please let us know your thoughts.

Tweet us at @extrapointff or post your thoughts in the comments section below.

We would love to hear your feedback.

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