These days, almost every team dreams of drawing up plays catered to a dominating, game-changing tight end.
Last month Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press that he believed he was the NFL’s best tight end. Too much emphasis is placed on fantasy football and people are blinded by splashy receiving statistics, Rudolph claimed.
Rudolph’s theory holds no water in today’s NFL, where almost every team dreams of drawing up plays catered to a dominating, game-changing tight end. If he is versatile enough to provide blocking help, that’s a bonus. But a receiving juggernaut that forces opposing defensive coordinators to change their schemes is the ideal in the modern NFL. With that sentiment in mind, here are the NFL’s 10 best tight ends. (You might want to look away, Kyle.)
Just missed the cut
Julius Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars: Thomas regressed pretty dramatically when he moved from having Peyton Manning under center in Denver to Blake Bortles in Jacksonville, but a broken hand to start last season and a new system to learn didn’t stack the odds in Thomas’s favor. Still, the back-to-back 12 touchdown seasons he had in Denver before signing with the Jags was no fluke, and as the Jags continue to grow their offense, Thomas should be an active participant.
Next big thing
Ladarius Green, Pittsburgh Steelers: Green has been the next big thing for all four years of his career. And by big, think hulking 6' 6", physical juggernaut oozing with talent big. Overshadowed by ageless wonder Antonio Gates in San Diego, Green has a fresh start in Pittsburgh, which runs one of the most tight end-friendly schemes in the league.
Ertz is one of the most potential-laden tight ends in the league, not that his first three years have been shabby. His yardage totals have risen each year, topping out at 853 yards in 2015. These numbers could have been even loftier had Ertz not lost out on a lot of snaps to Brent Celek, who is a much better blocker. Still, Ertz is clearly the star of this passing game, and the Eagles invested in his future with a lucrative six-year contract extension in January. Look for new tight end-friendly head coach Doug Pederson to place even more emphasis on Ertz moving forward.
In the last two years, Gates has been out of shape, served a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and sprained his MCL. He also turned 36 in June, making him something of an ageless wonder. Gates has definitely lost speed and mobility over time, but his hands remain stellar. The Chargers drafted Arkansas product Hunter Henry in the second round this spring as the heir apparent to Gates, but that doesn’t mean Gates is ready for his swan song just yet.
Cleveland took the handcuffs off Barnidge in 2015, who until then had been used primarily as a blocker. Over seven seasons, Barnidge has 1,646 receiving yards—1,043 of which came last season. Barnidge’s future as a top target for Josh McCown (for now) is in question, as the Browns got major help by drafting Baylor wideout Corey Coleman with the No. 15 pick. His reliability, strong hands and chemistry with McCown should solidify his future as a dual threat in Cleveland.
Eifert’s string of injuries continued when he hurt his ankle in the Pro Bowl, requiring surgery that will force him to miss some games early this season. When he returns, the Bengals will get one of the most versatile tight ends in the game who happened to lead his position with 13 touchdowns in 2015. Eifert possesses that great spatial awareness necessary to be a real threat in the red zone, and he should be a force upon his return.
Just like his quarterback Alex Smith, Kelce may be the most consistent tight end in the game. His stat lines from the past two seasons are remarkably similar: 72 catches, 875 yards and five TDs in 2015; 67 catches, 862 yards and five TDS in ’14. Because Kelce is a jack-of-all-trades type—he is an adequate blocker, creates separation with his speed and runs precise routes—it would be interesting to see him in a more explosive offense, but perhaps Reid’s system is the ideal fit. As The MMBQ’s Robert Klemko pointed out, the Chiefs frequently utilize a Y-ISO formation (Kelce on one side of the line of scrimmage, three WRs on the other side) to create mismatches, which has led to sizable production for a conservative offense. Kelce has to improve his hands, though: He has lost five fumbles over the past two seasons.
For four seasons in New Orleans, Graham was largely unstoppable, particularly up the middle of the field. Then his debut season in Seattle was mostly horrendous—his timing with Russell Wilson off, his route running poor and his attitude sour. It all culminated in a season-ending ruptured patella tendon in Week 12. It’s very possible that Graham continues to regress or simply doesn’t recovery well from injury. But given the highlight reel he assembled in New Orleans and his off-season reps with Wilson, the potential for a return to greatness is dangling.
Walker is no longer the league’s most underrated tight end. He comes off a monstrous 2015, in which he secured the most catches of any tight end (94), eclipsed 1,000 yards and added a dose of splash in Week 9 when an errant Marcus Mariota pass deflected off two Saints defenders and ended up in Walker’s hands for a 61-yard touchdown. Entering his 11th season, Walker continues to be a diverse talent. He can block, which he may be called upon to do even more this season as the Titans added DeMarco Murray, and he’s a beast as a receiver. Walker’s combination of size and sharp route-running creates a lot of mismatches. Simply put, he’s one of those rare players that confound opposing defensive coordinators.
Olsen comes off a banner year with 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns, which makes sense given that he was Cam Newton’s only reliable target. His skills as a receiver are dynamic—he’s an imposing 6' 5" force that often requires double coverage. While Olsen is deficient as a run blocker, he has proven enough as an offensive threat that almost every team would love a tight end after the same mold. There’s a reason the Bears openly admit that trading Olsen away in 2011 was a big mistake.
In many ways, Reed could have been the Next Big Thing on this list (see intro), except he’s already a big deal. When healthy, he impressed during his first two seasons, especially given Washington’s, um, interesting quarterback situation at the time. Reed broke out last year with 87 receptions and 952 receiving yards in just 14 games played. He can toggle between wideout and traditional tight end roles; according to Pro Football Focus, his 2.45 yards per route run were the best for all tight ends in 2015. Reed is the best receiver on the Redskins and would be a production machine in virtually any scheme—all he has to do is stay healthy.
There is no debate here. Like Tiger Woods in his prime, there’s simply Gronk and the field. His 6' 6", 265-pound frame inherently gives him a distinct advantage, but he is nimble enough to create space, not that he needs much. He has also improved as a blocker, illustrated by Bill Belichick last year comparing his blocking skills to that of Giants great Mark Bavaro. The only issue with Gronk is that his physicality makes him injury-prone, but hey, that’s a pretty acceptable tradeoff when you get to trot out one of the most dangerous, game-changing weapons of the modern era.