With the emergence of players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Aaron Hernandez, we’ve seen more and more teams try to find difference-makers at the tight end spot who can expose base personnel and cause plenty of confusion for defensive coordinators. Our grading doesn’t just look into what these players are doing in the passing game, however, because we’re firm believers that tight ends should be blocking if they’re to be anything more than glorified receivers.
So let’s look at the 10 best overall performances, before giving you a quick peek at the 10 best receiving and and 10 best blocking displays from tight ends.
10. Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers: Week 3 at Chicago (+4.6)
It didn’t turn out to be the best of years for Finley, but early in the season he looked on course for a big one. He picked up seven receptions for 85 yards against the Bears (three of them going for touchdowns) as Chicago struggled to match up with the athletic tight end. Throw in some good blocking (including getting Brian Urlacher to the ground) and you’ve got a good day all around.
9. Lance Kendricks, St Louis Rams: Week 14 at Seattle (+4.8)
Big things were expected from Kendricks as a rookie, with many seeing him as the kind of weapon in the receiving game that would flourish with Sam Bradford at quarterback. It didn’t happen, and this placing on the list owed more to a run blocking display where Kendricks had success against an over-aggressive Seattle front seven. He recorded six positive run blocking grades and not one negative to go with a 26-yard reception in the passing game.
8. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons: Week 2 vs. Philadelphia (+5.0)
Hands up if you thought Gonzalez was done after a 2010 season where he seemed on the decline. Well, he came out in Week 2 of 2011 and showed he had plenty left with a virtuoso display of receiving that saw him pick up five first downs and two more touchdowns. His touchdown grab with 50 seconds left in the first half was a special moment for Falcons fans and, coupled with some decent run blocking, propelled him onto this list.
7. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: Week 14 at Washington (+5.2)
While his blocking was a little hit-or-miss, Gronkowski decimated the Redskins through the air, including earning the oh so rare +2.0 grade for his catch with 6:40 to go in the first quarter; breaking two tackles, walking the sideline, and then picking up some significant yards despite being tackled nearly 15 yards before he hit the deck. Throw in two touchdowns and you’ve got an incredible 160-yard game from an incredible player.
6. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers: Week 17 at Cleveland (+5.3)
One of a dying breed of complete tight ends, Miller finished the regular season in style by manhandling the Browns on his way to a +4.5 run blocking grade. He didn’t do much as a receiver, but sometimes when you can pick up 12 positive grades on run blocking plays (including twice blocking defensive ends to the ground) you’ve done a job that may not show up on the stat sheet, but makes a big difference in how a game plays out.
5. Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots: Week 17 vs. Buffalo (+5.5)
Hernandez wasn’t just a receiver in this game, gaining two positive grades for his run blocking and picking up 26 yards on two rushes. Still, he did his best work in the passing game where he turned 10 targets into seven receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown. A dominant display.
4. Martellus Bennett, Dallas Cowboys: Week 15 at Tampa Bay (+5.8)
Bennett didn’t do much as a receiver–picking up one impressive grab with 6:15 to go in the first half that went for a first down and two others that went for 23 yards all told–but his blocking was on another level. 11 positive run blocks as he made Da’Quan Bowers look every bit the rookie, besting him on three occasions (including blocking him to the ground) before then picking on Mason Foster at the second level. His only negative play in the game? Against his brother Michael.
3. Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots: Week 15 at Denver (+6.4)
Tebowmania was running wild, but when all was said and done it was Hernandez who was the star of the Week 15 encounter between the Broncos and Patriots. He caught nine of 11 targets for 129 yards and a touchdown, with five of them going for first downs. His play with 9:04 to go in the first set the tone, grabbing a third-down throw with his outstretched hands, breaking two tackles, and turning it into a 46-yard gain. One of the plays of the season by any tight end.
2. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers: Divisional Playoff vs. New Orleans Saints (+7.1)
What can you say about Davis’ victory-inspiring performance against the Saints? His stats (180 yards and two touchdowns, catching all eight balls thrown his way) don’t do him justice. Instead, you need to look at that game-winning drive: bursting down the field, he put San Francisco in the red zone just before snaring the clincher while taking a huge hit. It highlighted a tremendous display.
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: Divisional Playoff versus Denver (+7.3)
Gronkowski just edges out Davis with his own near-perfect playoff performance. Against the Broncos he collected 145 yards and three touchdowns while adding six positively-graded blocks in the running game (against only two negatives). Still, it was his receiving–earning him seven positive grades in the first half alone–that marked the best overall tight end performance of 2011.
As promised, here are the Top 10 games by receiving grades for tight ends:
1t. Vernon Davis (SF), Divisional Playoff vs. New Orleans (+5.6)
1t. Aaron Hernandez (NE), Week 15 at Denver (+5.6)
3. Rob Gronkowski (NE), Divisional Playoff vs. Denver (+5.2)
4. Tony Gonzalez (ATL), Week 2 vs. Philadelphia (+4.9)
5t. Rob Gronkowski (NE), Week 14 at Washington (+4.0)
5t. Jimmy Graham (NO), Week 5 at Carolina (+4.0)
7. Jared Cook (TEN), Week 16 at Indianapolis (+3.7)
8t. Aaron Hernandez (NE), Week 1 at Miami (+3.6)
8t. Tony Gonzalez (ATL), Week 13 at Houston (+3.6)
10t. Aaron Hernandez (NE), Week 17 vs. Buffalo (+3.5)
10t. Visanthe Shiancoe (MIN), Week 4 at Kansas City (+3.5)
10t. Owen Daniels (HST), Week 4 vs. Pittsburgh (+3.5)
10t. Brent Celek (PHI), Week 15 vs. New York Jets (+3.5)
And now, the Top 10 run blocking displays:
1. Martellus Bennett (DAL), Week 15 at Tampa Bay (+4.7)
2. Heath Miller (PIT), Week 17 at Cleveland (+4.5)
3. Lance Kendricks (SL), Week 14 at Seattle (+3.7)
4. Kellen Davis (CHI), Week 9 at Philadelphia (+3.2)
5. Rob Gronkowski (NE), Week 12 at Philadelphia (+3.1)
6. Greg Olsen (CAR), Week 16 vs. Tampa Bay (+2.8)
7t. Rob Gronkowski (NE), Week 4 at Oakland (+2.6)
7t. Jeff King (ARZ), Week 12 at St Louis (+2.6)
7t. Jake Ballard (NYG), Wildcard vs. Atlanta (+2.6)
9t. Marcedes Lewis (JAX), Week 10 at Indianapolis (+2.5)
9t. Marcedes Lewis (JAX), Week 17 vs. Indianapolis (+2.5)