Will Noah Fant Break Out in 2021?
There are few more exciting young tight ends in the NFL than Noah Fant. He came into the league with an impressive college career behind him and an athletic profile mere mortals would be willing to give worlds to have. As the Broncos' tight end heads into the third year of his NFL career, is he ready to take his game to the next level and enter the elite category at fantasy football's most volatile position?
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Steady Start, But Not Spectacular
The 2020 season offered a taste of what Fant can truly offer as an offensive playmaker without suggesting that he has already peaked. Fant commanded 93 targets for the Broncos and a 19.3% share of the targets in the games that he played. He ended up with 62 receptions for 673 yards and three touchdowns. To showcase his athleticism, 383 of the yards came after the catch. Only two tight ends racked up more YAC than Fant in 2020.
He got off to something of a flyer in fantasy terms, with 16.6 and 15.7 half-PPR points in his first two games. However, after posting two top-12 games in the first two weeks, he would finish as a TE1 just twice more throughout the season. Genuine fantasy stardom was out of reach for Fant, in large part down to two factors—quarterback play and scoring opportunities.
Holding Him Back
In fantasy football, no position has to do less to be relevant than the tight end spot. It would not be hyperbolic to suggest that a player posting a line of one grab for six yards could be low-end TE1 in a given week, as long as the one grab resulted in a touchdown. As such, tight ends need to like scoring touchdowns to be attractive every week starters. Fant has not shown himself to have a knack for finding the endzone in his NFL career so far. He has 159 career targets and 102 receptions, but just six scores. His touchdown rate of 3.8% is the third-lowest among tight ends with at least 150 targets over the last two seasons (12 players).
The other thing holding Fant back is the identity of the person charged with getting him the ball, namely Drew Lock. By whatever metric you care to name, Lock has not been a consistently accurate or efficient passer since coming into the NFL. These traits were blindingly obvious last season. Lock completed just 57.3% of his passes last season, a figure that jumps to 62.9% removing throwaways and spikes (true completion percentage). There were 36 quarterbacks with a higher true completion rate than Lock last season. If we try and examine how Lock performed when things were going well, we can look at his completion percentage from a clean pocket. This is where an average starting quarterback would be expected to deliver efficiently. Lock completed 67.8% of his passes when kept clean, 35th among all quarterbacks in 2020.
Lock certainly looked the way of Fant on plenty of occasions, but the quality of these targets left a lot to be desired. When Fant was targeted last season, the QB Rating for these targets was 89.6. There were 29 tight ends that commended higher rates in 2020. Despite this, Lock averages 7.56 adjusted yards per attempt when targeting Fant over the last two seasons, the highest partnership in Lock's career.
Pushing On in 2021?
With two seasons now under his belt, what can we expect from Fant heading into 2021? Can he use last season as a springboard to greater success? Drafters at Underdog don't seem too enthusiastic at the moment, with Fant going off the board as the TE9. This is more bullish than we are, as our half-PPR rankings have Fant down at TE12.
Fant is a tantalizing talent, but if he is to become a truly elite player at the tight end spot this season, he'll have to overcome an awful lot of obstacles, and I'm not even going to include the identity of his quarterback as one of them.
Fant should see plenty of playing time in the coming year, given the personnel tendencies of the Broncos. They lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on 66% of their offensive plays last season. Fant played at least 75% of the Broncos snaps in nine games and would have played more had he not suffered a rib injury in Week 11 that hampered him for several weeks. He's going to be on the field in 2021.
Unfortunately for Fant, the Broncos don't seem inclined towards filling the air with footballs—given how inaccurate Lock has been it is entirely understandable. The Broncos boasted the sixth-lowest pass to run rate of all NFL teams in neutral game situations last season, passing on just 54% of their plays. They have made significant investments along the offensive line and moved up in the draft to select running Javonte Williams. This looks like a team that wants to run the ball, and given their relatively friendly schedule (seventh-easiest according to Sharp Football Stats) they may find themselves in plenty of situations where they can do just that.
When the Broncos do have to pass, Fant is far from the lone ranger in terms of viable pass catchers. The Broncos will be looking for second-year wide Jerry Jeudy to build on his rookie campaign, plus there is the return of Courtland Sutton. Sutton missed most of the 2020 season with ACL and MCL injuries, and the Broncos will be hoping he can return to his 2019 form when Sutton racked up 1112 yards and six scores on his 72 catches.
Fant was only a rookie back then, but the splits in his career when Sutton has been in the side are striking. In 17 games with Sutton, Fant commanded just 4.2 targets per game, delivering 2.6 grabs for 36.4 yards and 6.3 half-PPR points per game. With Sutton sitting out, Fant's targets jump to 6.3, on which he has posted 4.1 receptions for 44 yards and 7.3 fantasy points. Throw Jeudy into the mix, plus a desire to establish the run, and you can see why there should be concern about Fant.
Even if Fant gets lucky and Lock loses the starting gig for the Broncos, the dawning of the Teddy Bridgewater era does not immediately facilitate a breakout campaign for Fant. Bridgewater is unquestionably more accurate than Lock but the Broncos turning to Bridgewater would be a "Do No Harm" move, assuming they look to lean on the ground game and trust their talented defense in the new season.
Fant will have his moments in 2021, as he did last season but his path to dominance within his passing attack is filled with obstacles, not many of which can he overcome all by himself. He projects as a fantasy contributor in the coming year, but not a player that you must start over every week. Things can change of course—as of now, I would be more comfortable taking the likes of Tyler Higbee or Logan Thomas ahead of Fant.
The Bottom Line
- Fant is the prototypical modern tight end, with exceptional athleticism and steady numbers in the opening years of his NFL career.
- The Broncos offensive philosophy, whoever happens to be playing at quarterback, doesn't look like being one in which multiple pass catchers can thrive
- The competition for targets in the Broncos offense, assuming full health for all concerned, makes Fant a risky fantasy option, especially given a poor recent record when it comes to scoring touchdowns.
- Fant's ADP is notably ahead of his current projection, making him a player to pass on unless he falls beyond tight ends such as Tyler Higbee or Logan Thomas.