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Football Daily Dose

Which TEs are red zone producers and how did they fare in Week 7?

by Rivers McCown
Updated On: October 25, 2021, 12:30 pm ET

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Ah tight end, a position that has been bumpy for everyone this year. Travis Kelce's been playing hurt, Darren Waller missed Week 7. Rob Gronkowski hasn't played in weeks. And after a horrific start, suddenly Kyle Pitts is flying high and proving that, once again, the answer to those offseason arguments about who will be right about a player often amounts to "both sides at different times." 

Let's wrap up our look at red zone leaders by checking in on how the tight ends with the most targets there did this week, and whether we can expect them to continue playing like that over the near future: 

Tyler Higbee -- 9 red zone targets through Week 6 -- 3 in Week 7's win over the Lions

Higbee's season has been like a miniature version of Robert Woods -- he's getting great volume, he's in a dynamic pass offense, you feel compelled to trust him -- but he also made the mistake of playing in an offense with Cooper Kupp so it somehow feels like a loss. One of my very first bits of the season was telling you to not sell low on Kupp after three weeks, so I can't say that I'm stunned by this. But I also think, with all due respect to Kupp, that he's not going to catch 20 touchdowns this year. Two of Higbee's targets were in the early red zone, each setting up the Rams with first-and-goal. That's a theme for Higbee -- only two of his targets were actually with goal-to-go. 

It's been a massive departure from Higbee's last season with the Rams in the Jared Goff offense, where he often had to block and had just six red zone targets all season. But this doesn't seem like some massive outlier either, nobody did great with Goff. Higbee should remain a rock solid TE1.

Kyle Pitts -- 8 red zone targets through Week 6 -- 0 in Week 7's win over the Dolphins

I think I need to read a term paper about what happens to the Falcons when they get in the red zone. I get that they can't run, we covered that last week when discussing Matt Ryan's surprisingly high placement in that category. But to then go to Pitts no times there following the bye, and then to try to explain how Pitts' red zone targets amounted to two receptions for nine yards and one touchdown -- I don't know how to make this team make sense. Maybe it's better that he just doesn't get red zone targets if it means he's going to pile up 163 receiving yards every week. 

Pitts is a rookie, so we can't really tell you a lot about what the past meant. But hey, don't worry, he's going to be a TE1 you start with confidence going forward because he's doing things no tight end has ever done before as a rookie. If the Falcons can actually figure out what's going on here? All the better.

Jonnu Smith -- 8 red zone targets through Week 6 -- 0 in Week 7's win over the Jets

I love doing this because you stumble on players like this and have to consider: Jonnu Smith? Why? He had only 25 total targets through six games, so almost 33% of his target profile is in the red zone. It also tends to clump a L.T. Smith had seven targets against the Patriots. Six of them came on just two series. Three of his eight red zone targets came in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay. When the Patriots use him, they really use him. 

Jonnu had 17 red zone targets in 2020, a top-ten amount and fourth among tight ends. He's in a weird spot with the Patriots as he's not Hunter Henry but also not worthless. Think of him this way: Of all the touchdown-or-bust TE2s, Smith is one of the most likely to pop off. 

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Noah Fant -- 8 red zone targets through Week 6 -- 3 in Week 7's loss to Cleveland

Fant exists in a weird space as the Broncos have continually struggled with injuries -- we don't know exactly how the Broncos will operate with a healthy Courtland Sutton and a healthy Jerry Jeudy, and that concept has literally never existed until (it appears) Week 8 of this season. The targets have to put him in the bottom end of the TE1 tier, but he's not exactly earning enough targets that he's irreplaceable. If Jeudy and Sutton start chewing up 60% of the targets in this offense, Fant could become a TD-or-bust guy pretty fast. 

Fant logged 10 red zone targets in 14 games in 2020, and while he's clearly the TE1 here, the offense is being game-managed under Bridgewater in a way that makes play-action at the goal line the only clear and clean way for the Broncos to create easy passing windows. With 46 yards or less in all but two of the first seven games, Fant is a guy I'd be looking to sell someone else on in a trade rather than relying on through the rest of the redraft season. 

Darren Waller -- 7 red zone targets through Week 6 -- did not play in Week 7 

While Waller didn't play in Week 7, the Raiders did and pumped six targets for 60 yards and a touchdown to Foster Moreau. Offensive coordinator Greg Olsen has sharply seemed to steer the ship towards balance since Jon Gruden's ouster. Waller led the team with five targets in Week 6's win over Denver, a game where four different receivers had at least four targets. Hunter Renfrow led the team with eight targets in Week 8, but again, seven different receivers had at least three targets. 

Waller has the history (second in the NFL with 22 red zone targets in 2020) and the pedigree, is playing in a good offense, and looks the part as a red zone beast. Don't lose faith. But the changeover to Olsen may lower his ceiling ever so slightly at the expense of getting players like Bryan Edwards involved. And, hey, maybe even Moreau after he burst onto the scene like that. 

Dawson Knox -- 7 red zone targets through Week 6 -- Bye Week in Week 7

Now here's a guy who has burst on to the scene in a big way. When we get into seven targets, though, it's hard to not say that a lot of it was influenced by one small thing: He had four red zone targets against the Texans in Week 4, and has only had one each in three other games. The Bills are a rough spot for a player like this because there are many other mouths to feed -- they just have so much talent that it's going to be a week-to-week roller coaster as far as who is actually making hay in the red zone. Knox is in the bottom bit of the TE1 tier for me at this point.

As a good player in an explosive offense, he's going to hit big in a few weeks. But trying to discern exactly which games those will be are the real challenge. The Dolphins are up for Buffalo in Week 7, and they did just allow Kyle Pitts to run them ragged. Hmm. 

Rivers McCown

Rivers McCown has been writing about football since 2009, most notably at Football Outsiders and covering the Texans for The Athletic. He most recently wrote that thing you just read. He hails from Houston, TX, and has not been traded to Arizona for magic beans yet. You can say nice things about him on Twitter @riversmccown, and you can yell at him on Twitter @RotoPat.