With camps starting, who are the young tight ends that are breakout candidates? Every year, it seems that a handful of tight ends surprise people. Considering the following young tight ends’ situations, surrounding talent, and trajectory, they are strong breakout candidates for the 2023 NFL season.
6 Tight Ends That Are Breakout Candidates This Season
1. Chigoziem Okonkwo
The Tennessee Titans have few quality receivers, making Chigoziem Okonkwo one of their top targets currently. The second-year tight end also considers himself the ‘leading’ tight end on the team. The former fourth-round pick had a decent rookie year for a mid-round pick. He secured 32 passes for 450 yards and three touchdowns, demonstrating his acclimation the NFL. Okonkwo was quietly a big part of Tennessee’s offense last year.
This off-season, Okonkwo has quietly been garnering a lot of hype with a breakout season expected. Given Tennessee’s heavy-package offense, Okonkwo will see the field regularly and, hopefully, prove to be the dynamic receiver that he has flashed.
I’m telling y’all (again)…Chig Okonkwo is going to be Tennessee’s new Delanie Walker.pic.twitter.com/okmhAGotTt
— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) December 11, 2022
2. Jelani Woods
The second tight end on this list of breakout candidates is also from the AFC South. The Indianapolis Colts currently have Jelani Woods listed as TE2, but he could very feasibly move ahead of Kylen Granson. Woods flashed excellent receiving skills last season, enroute to 312 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games.
The former third-round selection has a unique build for a tight end at 6’7” and just over 200 lbs, making him an oversized receiver. While Woods has limitations as a blocker, he will likely feature in a lot of receiving sets. Part of this is down to Shane Steichen’s hiring. Bringing the Philadelphia Eagles offense with him, Steichen will lean on receiving tight ends (just see Dallas Goedert). The drafting of Anthony Richardson could also benefit Woods as rookie quarterbacks tend to find it easier to throw to bigger, ‘safe’ targets.
3. Greg Dulcich
Greg Dulcich is another former third-round pick who also enters his second season in the NFL. The Denver Broncos tight end received a lot of hype last off-season but injuries hampered his production. Starting just six games, Dulcich still flexed his potential as he accumulated 411 yards and two touchdowns on 55 targets. The target volume that the 23-year-old tight end got in 2022 suggests he is a top breakout candidate this year.
Like Woods, Dulcich will be aided by a change in coaching. Sean Payton’s arrival essentially ensures that Denver’s offense (and Russell Wilson) will be an improvement on last year’s atrocity. However, one potential limiting factor is that Denver’s receiving room is quite talented. With Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton around, Dulcich’s targets could be capped. There is also the threat that TE2, Albert Okwuegbunam, could overtake Dulcich on the depth chart given how he flashed last season too.
4. Isaiah Likely
How is tight end Isaiah Likely a breakout candidate despite being buried behind Mark Andrews on the depth chart? It is a good question, but one that is easily answered. In Todd Monken’s new system, there is a high chance that the Baltimore Ravens will adopt a tight end rotation. At Georgia, Monken found success with both Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers. He will implement a similar system in Baltimore. It is also worth noting that Likely offers an entirely different skillset to Andrews, meaning they will be deployed for different purposes. Indeed, Likely could even operate as a big slot receiver for the Ravens.
In 2022, Likely was a fantasy darling during Andrews’ injury. Over the course of the season, the 2022 fourth-round selection managed 373 yards and three touchdowns. He garnered a lot of attention during camp, impressing coaches with his route-running and hands. If Likely can continue on that trajectory, he will be primed for a big year.
5. Trey McBride
The Arizona Cardinals are undergoing a rebuild, and Trey McBride is quietly one of their key pieces. Zach Ertz is coming off an ACL tear. His big cap hit and established status could also make him a trade candidate before the trade deadline. With that in mind, McBride could therefore become TE1. Even if he does not, Drew Petzing’s west coast offensive scheme figures to utilise many dual tight end sets.
McBride had a quiet start to 2022 but finished the season strong. The former second-round pick was highly regarded for his good receiving skills and adequate blocking. In 2022, McBride caught for 265 yards and a touchdown. He had a particularly memorable game against the Atlanta Falcons. The new coaching staff are also said to be impressed with McBride this off-season.
6. Shane Zylstra
The final tight end on this list of breakout candidates is a deep sleeper. The Detroit Lions’ Shane Zylstra can have a breakout 2023 if multiple things go his way. At the moment, Zylstra is buried as TE4 on the Lions depth chart. Should an injury occur to any of James Mitchell, Brock Wright or rookie Samuel LaPorta, Zylstra’s workload will gain an immediate bump.
However, Zylstra could also work his way up the depth chart through camp. Mitchell is recovering from an ACL tear, making him someone that Zylstra could overtake. It should also be noted that, of all the Lions tight ends, Zylstra is the best run blocker. The former receiver is surprisingly strong in the run game and was given a 74.9 run-blocking grade by PFF (second best in the NFL among tight ends).
One disclaimer is that Detroit’s offense rarely featured tight ends in the passing game in the past year. But, given Zylstra’s prowess as a run-blocker alongside the selection of Jahmyr Gibbs, the team could find themselves using Zylstra in their multiple running formations.
With that in mind, Zylstra has some of the makings of a breakout candidate. The former UDFA also flashed some production to back that up, netting three touchdowns in a crazy game against the Carolina Panthers. Zylstra could thus find his breakout as a primary redzone threat, especially in heavy packages.
Shane Zylstra with his third TD of the day!
— NFL (@NFL) December 24, 2022
Main Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports