Rookie Impact: Tight Ends
Our series on rookie impact continues as we take a look at the tight ends, a position that continues to evolve as the NFL morphs into more of a pass-first league every season. Tight ends are more playmaker than blocker these days, with the best ones providing matchup problems for linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks around the league.
The 2014 draft saw one tight end drafted in the first round (Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions), while Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Bucs), Jace Amaro (Jets), and Troy Niklas (Cardinals) heard their names called in the second round with another six coming off the board throughout the rest of the draft.
What does recent history tell us about where to set our first-year expectations?
Staking Your Claim
For most rookie tight ends, it’s the reliance of one particular skill that allows for early playing time, whether it’s lining up all over the field and contributing in the passing game or as an extra blocker in the running game. Very few rookies step right into an every-down role in Year 1 as only nine tight ends have logged at least 600 snaps in their first season since we started tracking in 2007.
Of the nine players with at least 600 first-year snaps, only Bengals teammates Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert were first-round draft picks, showing that even the most highly-touted tight ends have a tough time contributing on more than just a part-time basis in their first season. Former Jets tight end Dustin Keller has the best rookie grade of the five tight ends drafted in the first round since 2007, as he posted a +6.2 mark back in 2008.
The second round has been a sweet spot for early playing time as that’s where four of the nine in the 600-plus club were drafted and another four played at least 400 snaps in Year 1. Only two players drafted after the fifth round have played at least 400 snaps as rookies as Charles Clay did so in 2011 and Mychal Rivera saw the field for 622 snaps a year ago.
Making Your Mark
While getting on the field on an every-down basis may be difficult for tight ends, a few rookies have made solid contributions in part-time roles. Jordan Reed and Zach Ertz were good examples of this last season as they graded at +11.9 and +10.8, respectively, as both players made an impact in the passing game while supplying stellar run blocking. Kyle Rudolph had a comparable first season in 2011, with his +12.9 grade largely due to his work in the running game (+9.5).
Beyond a handful of players, the rookie contributions have been solid, if not one-sided, around the league. Players like Eifert, Clay, and Keller all posted above-average grades but they still find themselves in the middle of the chart where many of the rookie tight ends reside. Many high- and mid-round picks fall into the 300-500 snap range with most grades ranging between -5.0 and +5.0, not a big discrepancy.
Much of the middle-ground consists of players who showed well in one area, but struggled in another, with Brandon Pettigrew (+9.2 run block, -2.1 receiving) and Lance Kendricks (+11.5 run block, -10.8 pass block) two of the prime examples.
Among the full-timers, Gresham took his extended playing time to post a grade of -6.6, while Zach Miller was unspectacular on his way to a -1.6 grade on a league-high 1076 snaps back in 2007. When you add it all up, there’s only a handful of tight ends that have separated themselves with regard to playing time and all-around ability in their first season.
The Dream Scenario
It’s pretty clear from the chart, the trio of Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, and Tony Moeaki represent the dream scenario for rookie tight ends as they all contributed in full-time roles with Pro Bowl-caliber play. All three players were among the league’s best run blockers while providing more than just an adequate target for their respective offenses.
Unfortunately for Allen and Moeaki, the injury bug struck for both player in Year 2, and while Allen has a chance to bounce back as he heads into his third year, Moeaki has yet to reach the heights of his impressive rookie season in 2010. Gronkowski has also ventured into injury-prone territory after missing time each of the last three seasons, but he’s proven that, when healthy, his impressive rookie season was a sign of things to come as he’s the most well-rounded tight end in the game today.
He ranked third overall with a +24.9 grade in his rookie season in 2010 with Moeaki not far behind at +21.0. Allen posted a comparable +23.9 grade in 2011, as these three players have set the bar by which top rookie tight ends will be judged.
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