The tight end position is perhaps the most fascinating position to watch develop in the NFL right now. That can definitely be seen with current crop of rookies, as three tight ends went in the first round, four more went on day two, and even the players who were taken in round five -- like Jake Butt and George Kittle -- have enough talent to have gone three rounds earlier. We've never seen a group of tight ends this athletic, and that's just a sign of the times, as teams like the Patriots have transformed how we view and value the position.
Not just meant to be blockers and within-five-yards red zone threats anymore, tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and Jimmy Graham, can be the most dangerous weapon on a team's offense. Seeing this development happen over the last 10 years, starting with players such as Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, young super-athletes are perhaps choosing tight end over other positions more often than ever, because they too wanna run up the seam, split wide, hang out in the slot, block in the trenches, and become the centerpiece of an offense.
Thia also means that some teams are still left in the dark ages, and other positions are suffering a bit for it too. However, it also would explain the influx of super-athletic linebacker-safety hybrids such as Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron who have taken defenses by storm in the last few years as well … who else is expected to stop these super-freaks like Gronk and Graham?
It's not easy to do, and that's why the tight end rankings could prove more important than expected, and many of these top teams will still find themselves playing football into mid-January.
1. New England Patriots - Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James O'Shaughnessy
We always know what Gronkowski will do -- On the field, at least. On boats and talk shows, who knows. He's the best tight end right now, and eventually might be called the best tight end of all-time. However, Gronk has been held out of 19 games over the last four regular seasons, and he missed all of New England's playoff run to Tom and Bill's fifth Super Bowl championship. In the eight games he did play in, Gronk averaged an unreal 21.6 yards per catch and 14.2 yards per target. When healthy, he may be the best overall weapon in the NFL. Bill Belichick continues his adoration for having not one, but two starter-caliber tight ends, after acquiring Allen from the Colts in order to replace Martellus Bennett. Allen is still only 27 and could become a top-tier tight end in the Patriots' system, if and when Gronk goes down again.
2. Kansas City Chiefs - Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris, Gavin Escobar
Kelce chimes in as perhaps the second-most desirable tight end in the NFL, all things considered, and he finished first in DYAR per FootballOutsiders. He's 27, he's been healthy for the last three years, and he's consistently productive, finishing with 1,125 yards in 2016 on an offense that was 25th in pass attempts. Depth is a concern.
3. Seattle Seahawks - Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson, Nick Vannett
Seattle has an elite player at the position and a pair of interesting, albeit disappointing backups. Graham's targets may have gone down from his time in New Orleans, but his production on a per catch basis is at least on par with where it was with Drew Brees; Graham was second in DYAR and fifth in DVOA. He showed no ill effects from his devastating knee injury in 2015. Willson re-signed for one year, but his opportunities to get number one reps have been mostly forgettable. Vannett was a third rounder in 2016 but was M.I.A. all season as the number four tight end.
4. Carolina Panthers - Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Chris Manhertz
Olsen's contributions to the league may be a little understated throughout his career. Everyone knows that he's good, but do people outside of Carolina realize how good? The 32-year-old has put up at least 800 yards in five straight years, including going over 1,000 in each of the last three. The biggest issue: He's 32.
Greg Olsen is the only tight end to go for 1,000+ yards each of the past three seasons pic.twitter.com/zfLbuUnpWI- Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 6, 2017
5. Los Angeles Chargers - Hunter Henry, Antonio Gates, Jeff Cumberland, Sean McGrath
Henry is a little young and Gates is a little old (no this is not the hook to a country music song), but together that could be a pretty devastating duo for Philip Rivers. Henry had eight touchdowns on 53 targets as a rookie, but still left room for Gates to get 548 yards and seven touchdowns of his own as a premier slot tight end.
6. Tennessee Titans - Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith*, Jace Amaro
The Titans' ever-evolving offense features some of the best tight end play in the league from Walker, who has averaged 74 catches and 926 yards over the last three seasons. They drafted Smith in the third round, a much younger version of Walker who has the potential to be great. Amaro is a name because he's a former second round pick, but he has some work to do before he has a decent chance to make the final roster.
Walker has 1,613 yards from the slot since 2014, most by any tight end.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - O.J. Howard*, Cameron Brate, Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker
The only two tight ends drafted in the top 20 over the last decade are Howard and Eric Ebron. While Ebron has not had much success with the Lions, Howard is a better prospect and has all the potential be a complete player for Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter. He's not only going to catch passes but he could become one of the premier blocking tight ends in the game. Brate now has a case for being one of the best TE2s in the league -- he was seventh in DYAR last season.
8. Green Bay Packers - Martellus Bennett, Richard Rodgers, Lance Kendricks
Bennett has proven to be consistently productive across three different clubs over the last five years and that definitely won't change in Green Bay. Rodgers only had 271 yards last season, but not-his-brother Aaron knows he can trust him in big moments:
9. Dallas Cowboys - Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim
At this point, Witten's age (35) is maybe more of a blessing than a curse. After 14 seasons of consistently showing up for every game and every snap (Witten missed one game during his rookie season in 2003), you just have to believe that he's gonna produce until he calls it quits. Depth is a concern, should that fateful day come sooner than Jerry Jones hopes.
10. Washington - Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, Niles Paul, Jeremy Sprinkle*, Derek Carrier
In four years, Reed has yet to play a full season. He missed four games in 2016, limiting him to 89 targets, when in reality Reed could be a 120+ target player if healthy. He could be a consistent 1,000-yard threat if healthy, as he dropped only one pass on 67 catchable targets. Washington has plenty of protection though, having drafted Sprinkle in the fifth round, and having experienced backups like Davis, Paul, and Carrier fighting for roster spots.
11. Atlanta Falcons - Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo, Eric Saubert*
Only 21 at the start of last season, Hooper finished with 271 yards and 14.3 yards per catch as a rookie third round pick. He was also second in DVOA, finishing only behind Gronkowski an well ahead of third-place Martellus Bennett. Like many of 2017's tight end rookies, Hooper has a high ceiling, but to his credit he's already proven some of that on an NFL field.
12. Philadelphia Eagles - Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Trey Burton
Ertz has remained relatively healthy and has averaged 790 yards over the last three seasons, but what happens in the red zone? He only has 13 touchdowns in four years, averaging a score about once every 26 targets with Carson Wentz in 2016. Seems that Philly could be getting more out of him and the position, but it's been a little underwhelming so far, especially given that no tight end so more targets in the second half of last season.
Over the second half of the 2016 season, no tight end saw more targets than Zach Ertz of the Eagles. pic.twitter.com/6jDvtmEe4G- Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 25, 2017
13. Cincinnati Bengals - Tyler Eifert, C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, Mason Schreck*
Eifert was a Pro Bowler in 2015 after having caught 13 touchdowns, but he missed three games that season, 15 games the season before, and eight games last season. He is a dangerous weapon when he's able to play -- catching 80% of all deep targets -- but will that be for more than 12 games?
14. Minnesota Vikings - Kyle Rudolph, Bucky Hodges*, David Morgan
This may sound impossible, but Rudolph is still only 27 and he's coming off of a career-year in which he had 83 catches, 840 yards, and seven touchdowns. With the play-it-safe offense from Sam Bradford, Rudolph has become a very popular player in Minnesota's offense.
15. San Francisco 49ers - Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, George Kittle*, Logan Paulsen
On a pitiful offense finished 31st in yards, what more was McDonald supposed to do? His final stat line of 391 yards and 16.3 yards per catch is then pretty impressive. The 49ers signed him to a three-year $19.65 million extension in December and for that franchise, throwing more money at players than they might get on the open market seems reasonable. Kittle was only a fifth round pick, but his combine numbers were fantastic and Kyle Shanahan may be able to put him in the right position to be productive, even with Brian Hoyer at the helm.
16. Detroit Lions - Eric Ebron, Darren Fells, Michael Roberts*
As noted earlier, Ebron was a high pick (10th overall) who hasn't lived up to expectations, scoring just six times in 40 games. However, he did put up 711 yards in 13 games last season, catching 71.8% of his targets and finishing sixth in DYAR. Still only 24, Ebron could end up getting a lot better.
17. New York Giants - Evan Engram*, Will Tye, Rhett Ellison
Engram is an incredible tight end prospect who certainly may end up being better than Howard -- or any other young tight end -- in the long run, but the learning curve for rookies is steep and the backups for the Giants are a bit limited. In two years, we may be talking about Engram as a top-five tight end. He had an impressive 2.59 yards/route ran at Ole Miss.
Which of the top tight end prospects does the most damage in the passing game? pic.twitter.com/SsQGHqJ9Cv- PFF College Football (@PFF_College) April 26, 2017
18. Cleveland Browns - David Njoku*, Seth DeValve, Randall Telfer
Njoku was drafted just six slots after Engram and 11 slots after Howard, but his development could seem a bit stunted this season given Cleveland's situation at quarterback compared to having Winston or Eli Manning. DeValve could end up as a solid tight end in his own right, having flashed potential as a rookie in 2016.
19. Miami Dolphins - Julius Thomas, Anthony Fasano, MarQueis Gray, Thomas Duarte
Thomas caught 24 touchdowns over his final two seasons with the Broncos, prompting the Jaguars to do what they often do: Overpay the hell out of him. He played poorly over two years in Jacksonville but has a much better chance to succeed now that he's playing for Adam Gase. It's not a fantastic situation for the Dolphins, but Thomas may wind up as a valuable red zone threat for Ryan Tannehill.
20. Buffalo Bills - Charles Clay, Nick O'Leary, Gerald Christian
This is right around the time you start to realize that finding a premier tight end in the NFL is still pretty hard to do. Clay is a good player. That's all he is. The fact that he's the sixth-highest paid tight end in the NFL by APY ($7.6 million/season) shouldn't lead you to believe he's in the top 15. He should have 50-60 catches and about 500 yards, which is good. Good is fine, but it's not great.
21. Arizona Cardinals - Jermaine Gresham, Ifeanyi Momah, Hakeem Valles, Troy Niklas
Speaking of overpaid, Gresham somehow wound up with a contract that pays him $7 million/season in Arizona after two seasons that almost nobody noticed. The Cards paid him like that because they think he's perfect for what they want to do and he's an exceptional run blocker -- but is that as valuable as a guy who is an "okay run blocker" and also can put up more than 400 yards? I don't think so. Troy Niklas has eight catches since Steve Keim made him a second round pick in 2014.
22. New Orleans Saints - Coby Fleener, Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui
The Saints have tried to turn in several different directions since trading Graham to the Seahawks, but none have come close to the type of threat he was in that system over five years. Fleener and Hill may be athletic, but they lack so many attributes that makes a player like Graham more than just a huge athlete.
23. Baltimore Ravens - Ben Watson, Crockett Gilmore, Maxx Williams
Dennis Pitta finally returned for a full season and led all tight ends in receptions with 86, but after dislocating his hip in June for the third time, we may never see him on the field again. Instead, the Ravens are going with Watson, who entered the NFL just a year after Witten and who just had 74 catches of his own with the Saints. Still, that was quite unexpected given his production in the previous four years, so who knows what Baltimore is getting. Gilmore and Williams are intriguing yet unspectacular backups.
24. Indianapolis Colts - Jack Doyle, Erik Swoope, Brandon Williams
It didn't take long for the Colts to lose both Allen and Fleener, and Doyle's 7.7 yards per target is very underwhelming. Doyle may see 100+ targets now that he's TE1, but will those throws result in enough production?
25. Houston Texans - C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin, Stephen Anderson
Fiedorowicz and Griffin quietly combined for 104 catches and 1,001 yards. However, that's with a relatively low catch rate and yards per target and they were near the bottom of the barrel in the advanced stats categories. Even with improved play at QB, can much be expected from this duo besides a lot of dump-off passes?
26. Los Angeles Rams - Gerald Everett*, Tyler Higbee, Temarrick Hemingway
Everett has excellent size and athleticism but hasn't faced anything close to NFL competition after starring at South Alabama. Higbee was a controversial selection in 2016 and he went on to do nothing as a rookie, finishing dead last in DYAR and DVOA.
27. Denver Broncos - Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman, A.J. Derby, Jake Butt* (ACL)
Since losing Thomas, the Broncos have failed to find a tight end of anything close to equal value. Green scored just once last season. They might have gotten a steal with Butt in the fifth round, but that won't pay off for at least another year.
28. Chicago Bears - Adam Shaheen*, Zach Miller, Dion Sims, MyCole Pruitt
Now it becomes even more difficult to find positives about these tight end groups. I wouldn't expect to see much from Shaheen this season as he transitions from playing at Ashland. Zach Miller continues to chug along as "that other tight end named Zach Miller."
29. Jacksonville Jaguars - Marcedes Lewis, Ben Koyack, Mychal Rivera
It's way past the time for Lewis to be counted on as a tight end number one. Rivera scored two touchdowns over the last two years despite playing in a pass-heavy offense with the Raiders.
30. Oakland Raiders - Jared Cook, Lee Smith, Clive Walford
Speak of the Derek Carr … Cook is a prime example of teams giving bad money after bad money to a player with potential who never realized said potential. Even playing with Aaron Rodgers last season, Cook was utilized plenty but didn't make enough plays of value with his time.
To his credit, Cook did do this
31. Pittsburgh Steelers - Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, David Johnson
A couple great names, but a concerning lack of talent. If James gets hurt, the Steelers may just decide to abandon throwing to the tight end at all.
32. New York Jets - Austin Seferian-Jenkins (susp), Eric Tomlinson, Jordan Leggett*
If he wasn't approaching a two-game suspension, Seferian-Jenkins still wouldn't be much to speak of. He could be good for maybe 200-300 yards. Leggett is another athletic tight end in this draft class (fifth round) but there are concerns about blocking and effort and significant contributions right away would be really surprising. No team threw to the tight end less often than the Jets last season and there's little reason to think that'll change by much given the options.