NFL Draft Daily: The NFL’s tight end revolution

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. After all, there are only 116 days until the 2022 NFL draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

Kelce has the highest receiving yards per game average by a tight end in NFL history. (Wikimedia Commons)

The tight end position has drastically changed in the NFL over the past 10 years. As the league has leaned into its passing revolution, tight ends have become legitimate receivers in just about every offense. Honestly, the NFL might be in the midst of its tight end heyday, at least so far. With Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Darren Waller, Mark Andrews and (somehow) Rob Gronkowski leading the charge, we could be watching several future Hall of Famers right now.

That being said, the league still seems to be adjusting to the concept of receiving-specific tight ends. In the past, blocking has been a requirement. The best tight ends in the league are still excellent blockers. Kelce, Kittle and Gronkowski are all known for their receiving prowess, but what sets them apart is their blocking ability. They are well-rounded superstars. That prototypical player is still going to be the most coveted for the position.

However, we’ve seen a more recent rise of these wide receiver/tight end hybrid players. Waller, Andrews, Mike Gesicki and Kyle Pitts all headline this group. Waller is a converted receiver who lines up all over the place on offense. Andrews leads all tight ends in receiving yards this season and has been Baltimore’s top target for the past three seasons. He is not quite in the same tier as Kelce, Kittle and Gronkowski as a run blocker, but he is better than most of these receiver-only guys. Gesicki is basically a big slot receiver in Miami. He is almost always flexed out or lining up on the perimeter. Then, there is Pitts, who many expect to be one of the best tight ends to ever play the game. He has basically been the opposite of the traditional tight end. He dominates as a receiver between the 20s, but his one touchdown so far this season points to some struggles in the red zone.

Despite battling through injuries and previously retiring, Gronk is still one of the league’s elite tight ends. (Wikimedia Commons)

What’s significant about this is that these players are rarely if ever asked to block. Teams are essentially just using them as a mismatch option in the passing game. That’s why these players are successful. Arthur Smith is not keeping Pitts in to block on running plays or to chip edge rushers on third down. He’s using Pitts as the receiver he is.

However, there have been far too many cases of teams simply not knowing how to use these uber-athletic receiving tight ends. Prominent ones that come to mind are David Njoku in Cleveland, Irv Smith Jr. in Minnesota and Evan Engram in New York. Maybe even O.J. Howard should be in this conversation. None of these players have been able to get off the ground. Some of it is due to injuries, but a lot of it is the schemes they play in.

Engram, who is a huge liability as a blocker, has struggled to transition to the NFL. People will point to a 2020 Pro Bowl appearance, but that was a questionable selection. His talent is undeniable, but it feels like the Giants simply have not found a way to maximize his potential. An anemic pass offense and archaic play calling under Jason Garrett didn’t help matters, but it is time for him to join a different offensive system. It will be interesting to see if he lands in a more pass-happy offense that is willing to let him play as a big receiver on the outside.

Meanwhile, Smith Jr. and Njoku were buried on the depth chart by much less athletic tight ends. Kyle Rudolph was the incumbent in Minnesota and Smith Jr. could not unseat him for the starting job. He likely would’ve had a chance to be the featured target at the position, but injuries cost him the entire 2021 season. Njoku struggled with consistency and eventually lost his starting job to Austin Hooper. He also plays in a run-heavy scheme that does not put him in a position to succeed.

Engram has not topped 700 receiving yards in a season since his rookie year in 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

The book is still largely unwritten on Smith Jr.’s time in Minnesota, but time is up for Njoku and Engram. They will be looking for new homes in 2022. Howard is done in Tampa Bay after this season, too. There is a chance he simply isn’t cut out for the NFL either. Howard’s inconsistency and lack of durability has him as the third tight end in Tampa Bay.

All of these players struggling to transition definitely begs the question: is the NFL using these players properly, or are we in the media overvaluing these athletic move tight ends? We are enamored by the athleticism, speed and receiving ability by these players on the college stage. All of them were top-50 selections though, with three of them going in the first round. Clearly, the NFL believed in their playmaking ability translating as well.

So what went wrong? Players bust in the NFL all the time. Perhaps, these are three (maybe four, jury is still out on Smith Jr.) players that just could not live up to the hype. However, I think it might also be that these teams misused all of these players. Gesicki and Pitts are great examples of how to deploy this type of player. You can flex them out and play them out wide on the boundary to create mismatches.

I wonder if we could see a second-half renaissance for any of these players if they land in better situations. The Chargers, Titans, Bengals, Saints, Panthers and Packers all could use an upgrade at tight end this year. Each has a good history of utilizing receiving tight ends. Imagine Engram hauling in passes from Aaron Rodgers or O.J. Howard toasting a linebacker to catch a score from Justin Herbert. This is all speculation, but it is something I will be watching closely this offseason.

Bottom line, the NFL is still figuring out how to best deploy these hybrid players. The same can be said on defense, with players like Isaiah Simmons, Derwin James and the upcoming Kyle Hamilton challenging a lot of traditional positional tropes. It will be interesting to see if receiving tight ends like Jahleel Billingsley, Jalen Wydermyer and Isaiah Likely will fare as the latest group of prospects to arrive in the NFL. In the right system, any one of them could have a Waller or Gesicki-like impact on an offense. The league is still just scratching the surface on how it utilizes tight ends.

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