After going over my controversial top ten wide receivers list, it’s time for to look at a less talented position: tight end. With Rob Gronkowski retiring, it’s time for a changing of the guard at the position, but the problem is, there aren’t many top-tier tight ends. In fact, on this list, we have a rookie, someone who didn’t play last season due to injury, and multiple surprises. Who will step up as the best tight end of the post-Gronk era? Let’s discuss.
#10: Trey Burton, Chicago Bears
Throughout his Eagle career, Trey Burton was lost in the shadow as a backup to Zach Ertz, and was most famously known for his touchdown pass in the “Philly Special”. However, in his limited sample size in 2017, he was extremely efficient (35% DVOA, 74% catch rate), and he parlayed that into a four year, $32 million contract with the Bears. In his first season in Chicago, Burton definitely wasn’t spectacular, posting a negative DVOA (-2.7%) and a meager 24 DYAR. However, Burton’s value goes beyond the statistics. He ranked fourth among tight ends with a 72.7 red zone grade, as his 131.3 passer rating when targeted inside the 20 ranked #1 in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Additionally, per Pro Football Focus, he was the game’s top run-blocking tight end last year, which further proves that he was a very valuable asset to the Bears offense last season. He may not be flashy, but Burton is definitely an underrated asset for Chicago, and though his first season was a disappointment in some areas, he still gave the team good value for his $8 million annual salary.
#9: Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
A third-round pick in 2018, Mark Andrews wasn’t even supposed to be the best rookie tight end on his own team. However, as first-round pick Hayden Hurst struggled with injuries, Andrews made the most off his opportunity; he broke onto the scene with an incredible 36.2% DVOA and 159 DYAR, both ranking in the top five among tight ends. In addition, the 22-year-old thrived in the deep passing game, averaging 16.2 yards per reception and 11 yards per target, which was the second-best for a tight end last season. To provide even more optimism for Andrews’ outlook, his yards per route run doubled once Lamar Jackson took over under center, and with both heading into their second seasons, the connection between the two should only strengthen. Andrews really went under the radar last season, but it’s rare for a rookie tight end to produce at his level, and assuming he’s the team’s starting tight end next season, I expect another successful season for him.
#8: Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
Recently signed to a four-year, $36 million extension, Kyle Rudolph is clearly seen is a key part of the Vikings’ future by the front office. Though he doesn’t have the peak performance that top-tier tight ends have, he definitely has been consistent. After all, his DYAR (91//88), DVOA (8.6%/8.8%), and EYards (681/654) have had practically zero variance over the past two seasons, and he’s settled in as a not great, but still reliable and solid option for Minnesota. The problem is, due to athletic limitations and poor run-blocking ability, his value is compromised slightly and keeps at the back-end of this list, but as far his receiving production is concerned, it still warrants him a spot on this list.
#7: TJ Hockenson, Detroit Lions
Though this list is based objectively based on player’s production, the main purpose of it is to project who will be the best tight ends in the upcoming season. To that end, there’s no way to keep TJ Hockenson off this list. Drafted with the 8th overall pick in this year’s draft, the 22-year-old is honestly one of the best tight end prospects, if not the best, I’ve ever seen. There’s absolutely not a weakness to his game. He’s athletically gifted, and at 6’5” has the frame to complement that athleticism in order to be an excellent vertical threat for quarterback Matt Stafford. Furthermore, he’s also a crisp route-runner with tremendous hands, so he also provides value in the short passing game and red zone. Plus, he should immediately be an elite run-blocker based off what he demonstrated in college; Hockenson reminds me a lot of Rob Gronkowski, and could easily make the top three of this list as soon as next year. His rookie status, and complication with rookie tight ends in particular, keeps him at #7 in this list, but I’m also certain he’ll exceed this ranking; he’s so talented with such refined skills that it’s almost impossible to imagine him not panning out.
#6: Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints
Despite his obvious talent, Jared Cook has always struggled to find consistency, which is why he’s now on his fifth team after signing a two-year contract with the Saints worth $15 million. However, outside of Aaron Rodgers, his quarterbacks haven’t been exactly optimal, and after a rough 2017 campaign, he really had a bounce-back season last year. His DYAR (146) ranked in the top five, and he also posted a solid 13.8% DVOA and 899 EYards. The 32-year-old may already be past his prime, but as evidenced by his production last season, he definitely has a lot left in the tank, and remains a very solid receiving threat, especially after the catch (5th in NFL in yards after catch). I really like the fit between him and quarterback Drew Brees, who loves to target his tight ends when he can, and although it will be hard to match last season’s production, I expect another quality season from him.
#5: Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have had a tough time with the injury bug, and last year was no exception; tight end Hunter Henry tore his ACL during organized team activities and missed the entire season. Though Los Angeles still won 12 games, there were times where his presence was clearly missed, because although people may have forgotten due to recency bias, the 24-year-old is one of the premier tight ends in the game right now. In his last season in 2017, Henry shared time with Chargers legend Antonio Gates, which limited his EYards (710) and DYAR (165), though both were staggering numbers that ranked in the top five for tight ends. His efficiency was clear though; his 32.3% DVOA ranked first in the NFL and his 73% catch rate was also impressive. To top it all off, the Arkansas product also was one of the best run blockers in 2017, and nothing suggests that’ll change this season. Back healthy and now with Gates likely out of the fold, expect Henry to put together a monster season; he’s an early contender for comeback player of the year.
#4: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
When it comes to all-around tight ends, Zach Ertz doesn’t quite fit that billing. The 28-year-old has been one of the worst run blockers since he’s come into the NFL, so he’s more of a one-dimensional type of player. Luckily for him, he excels as a receiver, which makes up for his poor blocking. He’s been a constant safety valve for whoever has been under center in Philadelphia, especially Carson Wentz, as illustrated with his 74% catch rate and 1078 EYards in 2018. However, after posting 154 DYAR and a 14.2% DVOA in 2017, it was concerning to see those numbers regress to 93 and 1.6%, respectively. Obviously, a lack of other options in the passing game and instability at quarterback hurt him, so hopefully with Wentz back healthy and with an improved running game and receiving corps, he can get back to being as productive as he was in his breakout campaign. Ertz may be more of a receiver than a tight end, but that’s very valuable with how tight ends are utilized in today’s game, and although he isn’t an elite tight end, he’s still one of the most valuable offensive players in football.
#3: OJ Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As I previously mentioned with Hockenson, the point of this list is to predict who will be top ten tight ends in the upcoming season. The 24-year-old has only played in 24 games in his two-year career, including just ten last year, but in those games, he’s dominated. He’s ranked in the top two in DVOA (44%/32.2%) in each of his first two seasons, proving the be a very effective weapon of a deep Tampa Bay passing attack. Plus, it’s pretty impressive that he ranked third in DYAR despite only playing in ten games; if healthy, he would’ve easily ranked #1 in that category. Oh, and did I mention Howard, unlike Ertz, is also a solid run blocker who has improved in that area tremendously. The future looks bright for the Alabama product, who’s upside is off the charts; he’s a prime breakout candidate heading into this season, though it can be argued he already has.
#2: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
In terms of consistent production, Travis Kelce would seem to be the best option to be the heir to Gronkowski. After all, he’s been tremendous in each of his past two seasons, with little to no spread in his DYAR (196/197) and EYards (1308/1337). In fact, in terms of value in fantasy football, no one has been better than Kelce; he’s very reliable and makes plenty of big plays. He’s a tremendous vertical threat and red-zone threat, has improved as a run blocker, and is also elite with the ball in his hands after the catch (2nd in NFL). It’s very difficult to not rank him first on this list, but at 29-years-old, Kelce has likely peaked, whereas the next player on this list may just be getting started.
#1: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
As a fourth-round rookie, George Kittle exceeded expectations, with a 5.6% DVOA. However, in his sophomore season, Kittle emerged as an absolute monster. Despite catching passes from CJ Beathard and Nick Mullens, he was easily the best tight end last season. He led the league in DYAR (207), and also posted an elite 15.1% DVOA and 1231 EYards. How did the Iowa product have so much success? By using his athleticism to his advantage. Kittle ranked 1st in yards after the catch by nearly 300 yards, an astonishing amount, while he also ranked in the top ten in target separation and contested catch rate, per Player Profiler. In addition, he ranked as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best run-blocking tight end, meaning he’s the best receiving tight end AND one of the best run-blockers. He can simply do it all, and now that he’ll be catching passes from Jimmy Garoppolo this season, it’s likely that he’ll find a way to improve on last year’s numbers. If he does, good luck to NFL defenses; Kittle is as unstoppable as it gets, and at just 25-years-old and entering his third season, he may have just reached the dawn of a Hall of Fame career.