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Top 10 tight ends of the 2021 NFL season: Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce rolling

Sunday is National Tight End Day -- so there's no better time than the present to examine the league's top tight ends through the first six weeks of the 2021 NFL season.

There is one notable omission: George Kittle, who missed Week 5 and didn't quite crack our rankings due to slightly lower production (and quarterback struggles when targeting him). Kittle's absence should serve as a friendly reminder that these rankings come as a product of analyzing 2021 performances alone -- not entire careers.

As for those who did make the list, well, we have a standout you might not expect up top. If you've paid attention to the tight end landscape -- we know, it's not the most glamorous -- in the last couple of years, though, you'll recognize most of these names.

Let's dive into it:

Mark Andrews
Baltimore Ravens · Age: 26 · Year 4

Andrews' placement atop this list should only be a surprise if you haven't tuned into Baltimore in the last few weeks. Andrews once made his name as Lamar Jackson's clear top target. But he's found an arguably even more valuable role in Baltimore's offense, transforming from a relied-upon pass-catcher on every down into a tight end who produces at a higher rate than anyone else at his position. Andrews leads tight ends in yards per reception with 13.8 (among those with a minimum of 20 targets), he's tied for the receiving yards lead with Travis Kelce (468) and he's tied for the third-most receiving touchdowns with three. His standout showing against Indianapolis on Monday Night Football in Week 5 (11 catches, 147 yards, two touchdowns) clearly carries his overall statistical output, but it wasn't the lone time Andrews broke 100 yards in a game this season (he also did so on five catches against Detroit in Week 3). Perhaps even more importantly, Andrews is exceeding his expected catch rate by 9.7 percentage points, and he's helped Jackson post a 133.5 passer rating on throws headed in his direction. Andrews is more than just a quality option now -- he's a centerpiece to Baltimore's attack.

Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs · Age: 32 · Year 9

It might be a bit of a shocker to see Kelce outside of the No. 1 spot. That's fine -- but we're ranking these players on 2021 performance, and Kelce gets slightly dinged by Kansas City's recent tendency to make mistakes. Whereas Andrews is exceeding expectation, Kelce is catching targets at a rate that is slightly less than expected (-0.3%). Meanwhile, Patrick Mahomes has been picked four times when throwing at his star tight end, hurting Kelce's passer-rating-when-targeted figure, and though that stands at a solid 92.3, it's far behind the marks of Andrews and others on this list. Kelce still ranks second, though, because of his yardage output (468), his four receiving touchdowns and his 38 receptions (on 53 targets). As usual, Kelce has been a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, scoring all four of his touchdowns out of the slot -- he's tied for first in the league in that category, with Rams receiver Cooper Kupp and Kelce's Chiefs teammate, Tyreek Hill. He's just fallen victim to Kansas City's minor struggles (relative to the extremely high expectations for that team), even if those struggles haven't been a product of his own actions.

Dawson Knox
Buffalo Bills · Age: 24 · Year 3

The breakout tight end of the year has arrived as the bronze medal winner! Knox has been excellent for Buffalo this season, leading all tight ends with five touchdown catches and currently ranking second in yards per reception (13.6). Knox's emergence hasn't come by coincidence, as coordinator Brian Daboll has been capitalizing on his versatility by aligning him in the slot. And Knox has produced, leading tight ends in yards per target (14.5) and yards per reception (20) from that spot. Those marks are the best for any tight end with a minimum of 10 slot targets in any season going back to 2018. Knox's athleticism was on full display on a touchdown run that ended up being wiped out by a holding call in Buffalo's loss to Tennessee on Monday Night Football, but it's clear the Bills haven't avoided utilizing him in a variety of scenarios to put points on the board. With only 27 targets, Knox is scoring nearly once every five receptions. That's some excellent efficiency from a guy most folks didn't know by name prior to 2021. He'll surely be missed for however long he's out with a broken hand.

Dalton Schultz
Dallas Cowboys · Age: 25 · Year 4

Schultz is racking up the yards in a Dallas offense that already includes a bevy of playmakers (CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, emerging receiver Cedrick Wilson). Perhaps that's what is helping Schultz become a threat -- after all, defenses can't blanket everyone, right? Schultz has made the most of his opportunities, catching 31 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns. He's done so by fitting into Dallas' traditional role for its tight ends, slipping out from a tight alignment; Schultz has gained the fourth-most receiving yards when aligned tight (223) through six weeks in any season in the Next Gen Stats era (dating back to 2016). Dak Prescott has posted an excellent 134.1 passer rating when targeting him, and Schultz is doing the extra work, too, owning the fifth-highest catch rate over expectation (+9.5%) among tight ends with a minimum of 20 targets. And it's not like his output has been the product of one or two big outings. Schultz has been consistent, catching six passes in four of his first six games this season and breaking 50 receiving yards in four contests, as well. It's a little easier to make an impact and find space when a defense is concerned about defending your teammates, but that doesn't take away from Schultz's value, which he's proven through the first month and a half of 2021.

Darren Waller
Las Vegas Raiders · Age: 29 · Year 6

At one point this season, it was fair to wonder if Derek Carr would ever target anyone other than Waller. But given that Waller went for 1,100-plus yards in each of the last two seasons, could you blame the Raiders QB? Las Vegas seems to have quickly realized feeding Waller an obscene amount of targets might not be the best way to win; after targeting him 19 times in Week 1, Carr has gone Waller's way eight times or less in each of the ensuing five games. No matter -- Waller remains productive, breaking 50 receiving yards in all but one game since his 105-yard effort in the opener. Waller wins with fantastic athleticism, using his receiver background to beat a variety of defenders and relying on his size to win contested targets. He remains a deep threat, especially out of the slot; no tight end (among those with a minimum of 10 targets) has accounted for more air yards (324) when targeted out of the slot this season. Waller's advanced metrics aren't the best when it comes to targeted passer rating (88.4) and catch rate relative to expectation (-2%), but knowing Waller's past production, I think it's safe to expect more explosive performances from Waller down the road. It's just that Carr has found other players to target effectively in the meantime.

Mike Gesicki
Miami Dolphins · Age: 26 · Year 4

The Dolphins seemingly didn't remember they had Gesicki on their roster until Week 3. No worries, though, as he's once again become an important part of Miami's offense, catching at least four passes in each of the team's last four games, highlighted by an eight-catch, 115-yard performance in London in Week 6. He's racked up 342 yards despite only catching 30 passes on the year, and he's improved Miami's chances along the way, helping Jacoby Brissett and Tua Tagovailoa combine to post a 91.4 passer rating when targeting him. He's also exceeded his expected catch rate by 3.3 percentage points, and not just by snagging passes on quick outs. Gesicki has gained the second-most yards per reception on targets of 10-plus air yards (20.4 yards per reception) among tight ends, demonstrating he's a downfield threat -- as long as either of his quarterbacks can find him. Miami has more options with the addition of Jaylen Waddle, but the Dolphins would still be wise to feed Gesicki.

Kyle Pitts
Atlanta Falcons · Age: 21 · Year 1

The No. 4 overall pick may have a been a bit overshadowed by Cordarrelle Patterson fever, but in the Falcons' heartbreaking loss to Washington in Week 4, they targeted him a then-season-high nine times for four completions and 50 yards. His first true breakout performance came a week later, when the Falcons went to Pitts 10 times for nine receptions, 119 yards and his first career touchdown in a win over the Jets in London. Pitts was drafted so high in part because he stands as the model of what the tight end might look like in the future, and the numbers back it up: Pitts leads tight ends in receiving yards when aligned wide with 114. He became a focal point in Calvin Ridley's absence in that Week 5 game, and he should remain one for the rest of the season if the Falcons hope to reverse their slow start to 2021.

T.J. Hockenson
Detroit Lions · Age: 24 · Year 3

The Lions spent the offseason talking about how there was still more to get out of Hockenson -- "more meat on the bone" is the phrase that was used -- and they haven't been shy about throwing in his direction this season. Hockenson is tied with Andrews for the second-most targets among tight ends (44), and he's caught 32 of them for 311 yards, but he's also one of only two tight ends on this list to fall under 10 yards per catch so far this season. With a catch rate over expectation of +4 percent, Hockenson is a trusty target for Jared Goff, who is still trying to find his footing with the Lions. Frankly, though, Hockenson would be the same reliable option for any quarterback. With two TD catches so far, he's a third of the way to his receiving touchdown total from last season (six) and has 11 games left to reach it, meaning Detroit might want to throw in his direction more in the red zone. The Lions have plenty to figure out, but one position they don't need to overanalyze is tight end. Hockenson has that locked down.

Noah Fant
Denver Broncos · Age: 23 · Year 3

While we continue to attempt to figure out who the Broncos are in terms of identity, we can enjoy consistent production from Fant, who isn't lighting up the stat box but has steadily climbed toward 300 receiving yards through six games. Fant is another tight end who falls under 10 yards per reception, and he owns numbers rather similar to those of Hockenson. The difference: Fant has scored one more touchdown, and Broncos quarterbacks (Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock) haven't thrown an interception when targeting him. He's also been more of a threat downfield, and a very reliable one, posting the second-highest catch rate (85.7%) when targeted down the seams among tight ends with a minimum of 10 such targets. The Broncos looked like a high-flying offensive machine in the first three weeks and have since regressed, but Fant has trended in the opposite direction. If they want to get back on track, they'd be wise to keep going to Fant, especially when he has a favorable matchup.

Hunter Henry
New England Patriots · Age: 26 · Year 6

Henry was one of two lauded offseason signings at tight end for the Patriots, and so far, he's outperforming his counterpart, Jonnu Smith. Henry caught a touchdown pass for the third straight game in Sunday's overtime loss to Dallas, and he seems to have settled into a somewhat consistent pattern of production, averaging four catches and 44 yards per game over that span. It's not exactly explosive, but that stems more from a lack of targets than anything. Henry is one of just two players on our list with less than 30 targets through six weeks, explaining his relatively paltry 241 receiving yards. Even so, he's finding a way to make a difference in the scoring department. He also boasts the best catch rate over expectation (+10.7%) of any tight end here. Henry's presence has been boosted rookie quarterback Mac Jones, helping him post a passer rating of 123.4 when targeting Henry. That's no surprise -- a tight end is a young passer's best friend -- and neither is his production in an offense in which he wasn't ever going to be solely featured. As the Patriots start to figure themselves out, we could see an uptick in Henry's output.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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