Over the next few weeks until the season, I will rank each position group around the NFL. I started with quarterbacks and wide receivers, and now we turn the page to narrow ends. Who takes first place, George Kittle or Travis Kelce? Should Darren Waller be in the conversation with these two? Is Rob Gronkowski still a top 5 TE? Who are the next big talents in the close end? Where should Zach Ertz be ranked at this point in his career?
No rookies were included in these rankings. It’s simply impossible to rank guys who have never played in the NFL against guys who have. The evaluation process would not be clean. Sorry, Kyle Pitts.
I have also compiled these rankings with a look at projections from 2021, although I did not try to do anything too strange. It’s important to remember that placements like this are pretty much fluid year after year, especially when you get outside the first five narrow ends. But that’s how I expect tight-end games to gather across the NFL in 2021.
Level 1 – The Elite TEs
1. George Kittle, 49ers
2. Travis Kelce, Chiefs
3. Darren Waller, Raiders
If Chiefs and 49ers fans can put their bias aside, they will realize that it is impossible to say that the ranking of either Kittle or Kelce No. 1 is wrong. Both are as good as it gets on the position, and anyone who says one is clearly better than the other has an agenda.
But we are not sitting on fences here on Pewter Report, so Kittle is my choice. The reasons I give him an advantage over Kelce are blocking and YAC. Kelce is a good block, Kittle is the best blocking tight end in the NFL. He is a legitimate discriminator as a blocker, online or on the go. It’s so rare.
Kittle is probably also already the best tight end in NFL history after the catch. IN 2018 and 2019, no close end or wide receiver was even close to Kittle’s overall YAC, and his YAC / catch was first and fifth among all passers-by the two seasons, respectively. Kelce has always been a very good receiver after catching, but Kittle is something we have never seen before from the position. His creativity, elusiveness and tackle-breaking are out of the charts.
Last year, Kittle played less than eight full games and was still fifth among all the tight ends in the YAC. His yards per. Route drove the dwarf the rest of the league. Despite struggling with injuries, Kittle was on pace at over 1,300 yards for the second time in his four-year career. And he has done it all without elite quarterback play.
Kelce is an amazing talent and a first vote Hall of Famer. During Rob Gronkowski’s prime, Kelce was closer to Gronk’s level than most would admit. He has been sent five straight 1,000-yard seasons, three straight 1,200 yard seasons, and he has never dived under 862 yards in a season since finding his way onto the field in 2014. He is a special, special player.
Some might be surprised at Waller’s inclusion at this level, but two equal years of elite production will get it done. Only 21 tight ends in NFL history have ever reached 1,000 yards in a season, and only 12 have done so at least twice. Waller is now part of the tiny little group that exclusively includes 11 of the best tight ends ever to play. There is no curse in there.
According to Pro Football Focus, Waller caught 73 percent of the disputed catch targets last year, a better brand than Kelce or Kittle. He is an elite athlete who can create splashes down the field or dominate in the red zone. And he’s just as confident as any close finisher in the league. There is no doubt that Waller is the Tier 1 elite.
Level 2 – Very good starters
4. Rob Gronkowski, Bucs
5. Mark Andrews, Ravens
Most would be surprised to hear that Gronkowski – not Kelce or Waller – was the most productive deep threat among all the tight ends in the league last year. The future Hall of Famer led in deep (20+ air yards) catches and goals per. PFF. Gronkowski was also an elite block and pass guard, which was critical at times in the playoffs. His two-touchdown performance in the Super Bowl will only add to his incredible legacy.
Andrews struggled to start the 2020 season, a campaign that was to move him into Tier 1 with Waller. However, he ended the season impressively with five performances over 60 yards. Andrews is a good starter who can win at all three levels, but he is not the special talent the best guys are.
Level 3 – Good and on the way up?
6. Dallas Goedert, Eagles
7. Mike Gesicki, dolphin
8. Noah Fant, Broncos
9. TJ Hockenson, Lions
The jury is fully aware of what these guys could be in the NFL. They have all started producing at a level that suggests they are rising, but 1-2 could also crash down the board after this upcoming season. It’s amazing how much this position drops off after the leading players.
This is not to say that these guys are bad; they are not at all. But can any of them be special? For me, Gesicki has the best chance. It has taken a few years, but Gesicki has the group’s most highlights. Some of the contested catches or full expansion grips he makes are amazing. Disadvantages? Gesicki still can not block a lick and he is a non-factor with the ball in his hands. I doubt it will change going forward.
Despite Ertz’s presence, Goedert has had plenty of opportunities to be the “guy” in Philly, and his production has just been ok. He is a good, solid all-around receiver tight end who will block. His consistency makes him the No. 6 spot, but this level of play can also be his ceiling.
Hockenson and Fant are former college teammates, but two very different stories in the NFL. Fant has shown special ability as a threat after catch and has athletics to be a level or two a day. But consistency has been a struggle, though better quarterback play would probably help.
Hockenson has already proven to be a quality starter in his second season, but can he be better than that? Is there anything special about his game? In Iowa, he looked like an elite player, but in the NFL, he may not have athletics for that level of play. Year 3 will tell.
Level 4 – solid starters
10. Hunter Henry, Patriots
11. Austin Hooper, Browns
12. OJ Howard, Bucs
13. Robert Tonyan, Packers
14. Tyler Higbee, rams
15. Zach Ertz, Eagles
16. Evan Engram, Giants
17. Jonnu Smith, Patriots
18. Logan Thomas, Washington
19. Dalton Schultz, Cowboys
20. Jared Cook, charger
Four guys excite me on this list, we just need to see more production and / or consistency from them before we move them up.
OJ Howard looked like he was lock themselves into the top 10 tight ends in the NFL in 2018, his second season in the league. After a solid rookie season, Howard had 34 catches in 565 yards and five touchdowns through the first 10 weeks of the year. Then suffered injuries and has hardly failed since. Howard struggled to get started in a new offense in 2019, struggled with injuries and then broke out towards the end of the season. In 2020, after dominating training camp, Howard sent 11 catches to 146 yards and two touchdowns before a torn Achilles in Week 4 ended his season.
If Bucs no. 2 tight end can stay on the field, I think he will be at least a tier 3 tight end. There are plenty of balls to go around in the Bucs offense, but Brady raves about Howard. The biggest issue is health.
Speaking of breakouts that should have come, but didn’t, Higbee’s 2020 season was frustrating. He could easily be a top ten tight end in the NFL, which was evident in his 69-734-3 season in 2019. But Higbee went back to being underutilized as a receiver in 2020. Matt Stafford has always loved targeting the tight end position , so Higbee’s outbreak could still be on the way this year.
I do not know where Robert Tonyan came from, but I saw enough of him last year to know that he too can be a tier 3 tight end. A 27-year-old unknown from Iowa State exploded Tonyan in his fourth season for 52 catches, 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. Playing with Aaron Rodgers helps, but Tonyan caught an absurd 6o of 66 goals last year. Zero drops. I also want to throw to a guy who is very reliable.
The last guy I want to mention is Logan Thomas. After years of bouncing around the league, Thomas broke out of nowhere in a 72-670-6 season. Most of his production came downhill due to the limitations of his quarterbacks, so there are still elements in Thomas’ game that we need to see more of in 2021. He is already 30 years old, so expectations need to be dampened. But Washington could possibly get a few solid years out of the former college quarterback before putting it on.