Position Progression: Tight Ends
This week we have been examining how first round rookies have performed, and what you can hope for in their first year and beyond.
We have looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league. There isn’t a single position that projects first year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions, the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.
Here we take a look at the tight end position. During the PFF era there have only been five tight ends drafted in the first round and this year Eric Ebron became the sixth.
Rookie tight ends don’t typically have a big impact in their inaugural season. The only first-round rookie to receive more than 700 snaps was Jermaine Gresham in 2010. The one with the biggest impact as a rookie was Dustin Keller in 2008 thanks to a 535 yard season and solid run blocking.
The sample of second round tight ends is larger and the range of results is also larger. Unlike first round picks, a few second round picks were able to begin breaking out their rookie year. Rob Gronkowski and Kyle Rudolph both had strong rookie seasons despite limited snaps, and more recently Zach Ertz began to shine late this season with a +10.8 grade on 459 snaps. Most were a little above average on limited snaps, and a few didn’t see much playing time, including Gavin Escobar with just 207 snaps last year.
For most first- and second-round tight ends, their rookie season performance became a decent representation of the rest of their career. The biggest exception is Martellus Bennett who saw steady improvement his first three seasons, and has remained a top tight end in his fourth and fifth seasons.
Best Case Scenario
Anyone who is drafting a tight end early is hoping to get a player that is anywhere close to Rob Gronkowski. As a rookie in 2010 he was already in the Top 5 in terms of Yards Per Route Run for tight ends at 2.01. What makes Gronkowski stand out from other great pass-catching tight ends is that he also had the second best run blocking grade for tight ends at +21.9.
He followed this up with the highest grade we have given a tight end for a season in our seven years of grading at +39.1. He had both the highest receiving rating and highest run block grade for tight ends that year. He has missed time each of the last two years due to injury, but has remained a Top-5 tight end despite the limited duty.
If you wanted the best case from a first-round tight end from the last seven years, then Gronkowski has had the best career to date.
Worst Case Scenario
If you were to list the top few young tight ends in the league, you would end up listing a number of players picked after the first round. This suggests picking a tight end in the first round might not be a good investment. It looks even worse when you consider your first round pick might end up like Jermaine Gresham.
As a rookie he dropped eight passes which was tied for the fifth most among tight ends. In his second year he improved his run blocking which led to his best year in the NFL with a +6.4 overall rating. He followed this up by having the second worst overall rating for a tight end followed by the worst in 2013. What was most embarrassing is he was penalized nine times in 2012 and 10 times in 2013, while the most any other tight end had in a season over that time was seven.
Over these past two years his run blocking has deteriorated and his average depth of target of 6.1 last year was the lowest for tight ends with at least 50 targets. This all has led to just 19 career touchdowns and never more than 750 receiving yards in a season.
A case could also be made for Brandon Pettigrew who drops too many passes and doesn’t do enough when he does make a catch to be an effective receiver.
The Path Most Trodden
While we don’t have a full career worth of data for some recent first round picks, we have a lot of data on other first round tight ends that have had successful careers. This includes Dallas Clark, Heath Miller, Marcedes Lewis and Vernon Davis. That helps balance out some unsuccessful first round picks, and makes a player like Greg Olsen have a career you might expect out of a first-rounder.
As a rookie he played in just 418 snaps and was average over those span. In 2008 and 2009 he emerged as a quality player mostly thanks to his run blocking. In 2011, he was traded to Carolina and maintaind his spot among the best tight ends in helping his halfbacks.
Then in 2012 things began to click with him and Cam Newton, and his Yards Per Route Run of 1.82 was fourth-highest just behind Gronkowski, Jacob Tamme, and Jimmy Graham. While you never really hear Olsen involved in Pro Bowl discussions, he is the kind of player that you would be very happy to have on your football team.
See the progression at other positions:
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke