GREEN BAY, Wis. – Who has the best personnel in the NFC North?
We took that question to a high-ranking scout whose focus is pro personnel. He ranked each team’s position groups. Part 3 of this 10-part series focuses on the tight ends.
No. 1: Minnesota Vikings
With ageless Kyle Rudolph and 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith, the Vikings field the division’s best tight ends. Their combined eight touchdowns last season are only three fewer than every other NFC North tight end combined.
Rudolph’s numbers have declined since catching a career-high 83 passes in 2016, with 57 receptions in 2017, 64 in 2018 and just 39 in 2019. Still, he led the division’s tight ends in receptions, touchdowns (six) and catch percentage (84.8, according to Pro Football Focus). While he’s not much of an athlete anymore and offers little after the catch, he’s got hands of glue (no drops last year).
Smith caught 36-of-46 passes – his catch rate of 78.3 trailing only Rudolph among division tight ends with at least 20 targets – for 311 yards and two scores. It remains to be seen whether his athleticism (4.63 in the 40) can outrun his lack of height (6-foot-2). Ty Conklin happily does the dirty work as the No. 3.
No. 2: Chicago Bears
The Bears are deep, with second-round pick Cole Kmet, free-agent acquisitions Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris, and former second-round pick Adam Shaheen leading an eight-deep contingent.
Kmet is something of a one-year wonder with a junior season of 43 receptions for 515 yards and six touchdowns for Notre Dame. At 6-foot-5 3/4 and 262 pounds with massive 10.5-inch hands, he’s a big target with ample athleticism (4.70 in the 40; 37-inch vertical).
Graham finished second among NFC North tight ends with 38 receptions, first with 447 yards, second with three touchdowns, first with four missed tackles and first (or worst) with three drops. He was a huge disappointment in two seasons with the Packers; his deep catch against San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game is what the team was expecting but only rarely got. Harris, who played basketball at UW-Milwaukee, has 72 receptions and a woeful 53.7 percent catch rate in six seasons. In three seasons after being drafted from Division II Ashland, Shaheen has been a disappointment with just 26 receptions in 27 games.
No. 3: Detroit Lions
The Lions could be deep, too, with last year’s first-round pick, T.J. Hockenson, joined by Jesse James and Isaac Nauta.
Hockenson was on his way to a strong rookie season with 32 receptions for 367 yards and two touchdowns until an ankle injury ended his year after 12 games. In his NFL debut at Arizona, he caught six passes for 131 yards and one touchdown. On the other hand, in his final game, Week 13 against Chicago, he caught six passes for just 18 yards. He tied Graham for No. 1 with four missed tackles but also led the way with five penalties, according to PFF. He’s got the potential to be the best tight end in the division.
James contributed 16 receptions for 142 yards and no scores. He was much more productive in three previous seasons with Pittsburgh, with 112 receptions and eight touchdowns. Nauta, a seventh-round pick last year, caught two passes in five games.
No. 4: Green Bay Packers
In the grand scheme, Graham’s departure shouldn’t hurt the team at all. But he did leave a large void in terms of snaps and opportunities.
In his 14th season, Marcedes Lewis caught 15 passes for 156 yards and one touchdown. A third-round pick, Jace Sternberger’s rookie season was doomed by a pair of injuries in August and a stint on injured reserve. He didn’t catch a pass in the regular season. In 11 games derailed by a hip injury, Robert Tonyan caught 10 passes for 100 yards. (See video for a good nugget about Tonyan.) The team bolstered the group with third-round pick Josiah Deguara, a potential jack-of-all-trades player from Cincinnati. It is from that four-man group that the Packers must develop their tight end rotation.
Combined, they caught 25 passes in the NFL last season; Graham caught 38 by himself. Is there a difference-making receiving threat? Can the 36-year-old Lewis remain an excellent blocker? Those are huge questions.