The 2023 regular season is mere days away and, as teams start to trim their rosters ahead of Week 1, it's time to comb through various depth charts to see what players could be poised to break out this year. Specifically, we'll be looking at the tight end position, which has grown increasingly more vital within the passing game in recent years.
Some of the names you'll read below will be recognizable while others are a bit more obscure. That said, the events of the offseason and what we've gathered throughout the preseason do spell an opportunity for each of them to enjoy a career year while further putting themselves on the map as one of the top players at the position in the NFL.
All NFL odds via Caesars Sportsbook.
CBS Sports fantasy season projections: 90 targets, 60 receptions, 686 receiving yards and four touchdowns
Over/Under receiving yards total: 625.5
The Steelers offense as a whole looks primed to take a step up in 2023 as Kenny Pickett enters his second season in the league. While wideouts Diontae Johnson and George Pickens should be the No. 1 and No. 2 targets in this Pittsburgh passing game, Pickett's play throughout the preseason is showing promise of this offense being able to support three pass catchers. It also doesn't hurt that Freiermuth has been running routes on 87% of the plays Pickett has been on the field this season.
Freiermuth is coming off what could already be considered a breakout campaign a year ago where he saw 98 targets and was sixth among all tight ends with 732 receiving yards. From a statistical standpoint, however, Freiermuth's ceiling does appear like it can stretch a bit beyond what we've seen throughout his first two seasons in the league.
Pickett has already shown an affinity for throwing to tight ends and had a solid rapport with Freiermuth after becoming the starter in Week 5. The duo got off to a somewhat sluggish start with Freiermuth receiving just two targets in Pickett's first start and then the tight end was inactive for Pittsburgh's Week 6 game against Tampa Bay. Upon his return in Week 7, however, the two went on a seven-game run that featured some prolific play. In those seven games, Freiermuth caught 33 passes for 395 yards. Things stalled out a bit after that -- which included a zero-target game for Freiermuth in Week 15 -- but we are anticipating more consistent play from Pickett and, in turn, more consistency from his pass catchers.
For what it's worth if you extrapolate that seven-game sample size over the course of a season, you have him with 80 receptions and flirting with a thousand-yard season with 959 yards.
That might be a little too lofty, but we do expect the 6-foot-5, 258-pounder to see some positive regression in receiving touchdowns after finding the end zone just twice last season. During his rookie season, Freiermuth had seven touchdown receptions. If he can keep that consistency up and couple that with more touchdowns, he could establish himself as a top-five tight end in the league.
CBS Sports fantasy season projections: 71 targets, 49 receptions, 572 receiving yards, six touchdowns
It's rare for a rookie tight end to put up numbers, but I think Kincaid is going to be the exception. Why? Because he's not really going to be used as a traditional tight end and instead be a big slot receiver within this high-powered Bills offense run by Josh Allen. The Utah product already showed at the collegiate level that he can handle a heavy pass-catching workload, hauling in 70 balls during his final season before declaring for the NFL Draft.
The Bills left Isaiah McKenzie go this offseason, opening up 65 targets within their offense. If you suggest that Kincaid adopts the lion's share of those looks from Allen out of the slot while also eating into some of Dawson Knox's 65 targets from a season go, there will be plenty of opportunity for Kincaid to be a valuable piece within this offense, especially as a big slot that Ken Dorsey can move around and exploit mismatches.
In the preseason finale, Kincaid was in route on 71% of Josh Allen's dropbacks during his lone drive of the game. What's interesting about that number is that it included Knox (57%) in the mix as well, meaning that he'll see plenty of opportunities for Allen to find him on the field.
CBS Sports fantasy season projections: 87 targets, 58 receptions, 555 receiving yards, five touchdowns
Dalton Schulz already has some impressive seasons under his belt, but there is a narrative out there that he'll dip in production now that he's with the Texans instead of the Cowboys. However, I think he could actually find his way to a similar output to his OG breakout in 2021 where he had 808 yards and eight touchdowns.
Schultz will now have C.J. Stroud throwing him the football and, as we've seen in recent years, rookie quarterbacks tend to lean on their tight ends in the passing game more often on quick passes on low ADOTs. I will acknowledge that Schultz playing just four snaps with the starters and running just two routes in the preseason finale isn't going to instill a bunch of confidence, but we should also not overreact too much either.
The Texans have the Nico Collins Robert Woods, Noah Brown, Tank Dell, and John Metchie III will eat away too many targets from Schultz either. That's especially true if he continues to run routes of this caliber.this year, so the road may not be too treacherous for Schultz. I also don't believe the combination of
CBS Sports fantasy season projections: 81 targets, 55 receptions, 511 receiving yards, three touchdowns
This is a volume play. Higbee has a chance to be the No. 2 target in Los Angeles' passing game behind Cooper Kupp, which isn't a bad place to be whatsoever. He's building off of a career-high in 2022 where he notched highs in receptions, targets, and receiving yards. With Matthew Stafford back healthy, there's an argument for him to post an even better stat line in 2023.
In the first nine weeks of the regular season when Stafford was healthy, Higbee put up 36 receptions for 312 yards. If you project that number out throughout a full 17-game schedule, he would have seen 121 targets and caught 76 balls for 663 yards. That target share alone should have your antenna up about Higbee, especially when there is no one else too threatening behind him on the pass-catching depth chart. Behind Higbee and Kupp, the Rams have van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, and Tutu Atwell as the notable names.
There's every possibility that Higbee sees 130 targets within Sean McVay's offense, which would have been the second-most among all tight ends in 2022 and only trailing Travis Kelce. Remember, this is an offense where Stafford flirted with 5,000 passing yards and threw for over 40 touchdowns when he was healthy in 2021. If the veteran quarterback returns to that form and can play all 17 games for L.A. this season, Higbee is going to have a heavy workload.
CBS Sports fantasy season projections: 62 targets, 39 receptions, 484 receiving yards, six touchdowns
Johnson had a semi-breakout in 2022 with a 500-yard and seven-touchdown campaign for New Orleans. With Derek Carr coming into the fold this offseason, however, Johnson has been a popular breakout pick heading into this regular season, and for good reason. Similar to some of the receivers we've already mentioned, Johnson could work as a big slot within the Saints offense and Carr has shown an affinity throughout his career of throwing to tight ends. With the Raiders, Darren Waller had two thousand-yard seasons with Carr and there was also an 896-yard season from Jared Cook sprinkled in during that tenure in 2018. So far this summer, one of the biggest storylines to come out of Saints camp has been the connection between Carr and Johnson.
In the preseason opener against Kansas City, Johnson both of his targets from Carr for 29 yards on what was the opening drive of the afternoon. On 12 total snaps played with Carr in that exhibition, the quarterback dropped back to pass eight times. Johnson ran routes on five of those dropbacks.
Similar to Schultz in Houston, the Saints also have a friendly schedule for tight ends this season with a PSoS (positional strength of schedule) ranked as the second easiest in the league. A soft schedule plus a quarterback who has proven success with throwing to tight ends makes Johnson a name to watch this season.