Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Starting Tight Ends: From 32 to 1
Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Starting Tight Ends: From 32 to 1
Back in the early 2000s, it was Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten at the top of the tight end position. Then, guys like Greg Olsen and Jared Cook came onto the scene before the turn of the new decade to make way for one of the most impressive tight end classes in league history. In 2010, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were drafted within the top 100 picks and since made their respective Hall of Fame runs. Today, Gronk is recently retired (again), and Graham -- at 35 -- has seen his usage reduced to the point where is likely on his way out very soon.
The next wave of great tight ends was headed by Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz and followed by the likes of George Kittle, Darren Waller, and Mark Andrews. There's been a bit of a dry spell since, but last year Kyle Pitts surfaced in the pre-draft process as a generational tight end talent.
Where does a promising sophomore like Pitts fit into the landscape of 2022 tight ends? Let's dig in.
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Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Starting Tight Ends
32. Brevin Jordan, Houston Texans
Last season, the Texans deployed a few different tight ends, including Jordan Akins, Pharaoh Brown, and Jordan. For Jordan -- a rookie at the time -- he did not participate in games until Week 8, from which point he tallied three-plus catches in four of eight games. His large 6'3" frame helped him to manage three of those catches inside the endzone, but while there is reason for promise (a 69.3 receiving grade), it's hard to know if Jordan is anything more than a committee contributor until further notice.
31. Ian Thomas, Carolina Panthers
Thomas is in a similar situation in that he isn't a standalone starter in Carolina. Both he and Tommy Tremble started a number of games in 2021, and with his snaps, Thomas produced roughly the same number of yards without a touchdown. A better average depth of target (aDOT) is also in Tremble's favor, but the money is on the side of the 26-year-old Thomas, who is making north of $5.5 million per year. That's where the positives end, though. He has yet to exceed 333 yards or average 6.8 yards per target for a single season.
30. Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints
After being dubbed a promising prospect due to his athletic 6'5" frame, Trautman hasn't done much to impress over his two-year career. The plus is that he did improve on most counting stats last year. However, his yards per target (10.7 to 6.1), catch rate (93.8% to 62.8%), and other key metrics dropped. The hope for him to be higher in these rankings come season's end lies in inconsistent quarterback play in New Orleans. If he can now truly connect with Jameis Winston and take advantage of the return of Michael Thomas and the addition of Chris Olave on the outside, there's a chance for him to show he can be productive between the numbers.
29. Hayden Hurst, Cincinnati Bengals
Things were looking up for Hurst back in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but since then, it's been downhill for the 28-year-old. Although his catch rate and yards per target improved last year, he was not as much of a factor for the Falcons, who relied heavily on rookie Kyle Pitts to do the receiving portion of the tight end role. Hurst's 57.4 receiving grade was not good, but his pass-blocking grade of 32.5 was even worse. It's hard to envision a scenario in which he has a breakout year or shows us more than what he has already -- even if he is now involved in what figures to be a high-flying Cincinnati offense.
28. Ricky Seals-Jones, New York Giants
Like Hurst, Seals-Jones is another guy who has now bounced around from team to team despite flashes of promise. Now, he finds himself as the replacement for Evan Engram, but if last year is any indication, he's not going to play a major role in the passing game. Ranked 44th at the position, RSJ was an above-average pass-blocker (67.0 grade) but was very average (63.9) in his 13 games and 49 targeted opportunities in Washington. And a 56.3 run-blocking grade will likely relegate him to a part-time role assuming the Giants build their offensive attack around Saquon Barkley on the ground.
27. Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's hard to say if Brate will end up being the guy to step in for a retired Gronk or if it will be a 32-year-old Kyle Rudolph. Either way, Tom Brady will have a serviceable tight end as a tertiary option outside of the top dogs on the outside. While Rudolph was 35th in PFF's ranks this past year, Brate was 52nd in his backup role. He had just 30 catches on 57 targets, and though he produced 4 touchdowns, he had a measly 4.3 yards per target. Brate's not known as an effective blocker either, so it's almost certain to be a 50-50 split as Tampa attempts to fill the void left by a future Hall of Famer.
26. Evan Engram, Jacksonville Jaguars
Is this the year we see the Evan Engram resurgence? It's not impossible, but I wouldn't call it likely. Sure, Engram will be playing in a new offense on a new team with a new (possibly better) quarterback; however, it's hard to ignore his lowest yards per target this past season -- a season that saw him rate 64th overall at the tight end position. A clean slate, both physically and mentally, could lead to a surprise. I just wouldn't count on it.
25. Logan Thomas, Washington Commanders
First and foremost, Thomas hasn't been participating in offseason practices and was placed on the PUP list (due to a knee injury), meaning he may or may not be available for Week 1. That is an automatic hit to his potential value over the course of the year, but how Thomas comes back is more important than when he comes back. If the Commanders get the 2020 version of the tight end, they're looking at someone who could contribute more than 600 yards and 6 touchdowns as a red zone threat. Even still, he's ranked 35th or worse in each of the last four seasons, according to PFF.
24. C.J. Uzomah, New York Jets
Oddly enough, Uzomah's departure from Cincinnati came after a career year for the 29-year-old veteran. Undoubtedly elevated by Joe Burrow and the weapons around him, he ranked 33rd at the position and put together personal bests in catches (49), yards (493), touchdowns (5), and catch rate (77.8%). Uzomah will be tasked with making the switch to unproven sophomore Zach Wilson behind center, but he shouldn't be asked to do too much with the three talented receivers the Jets will want to deploy, not to mention the focus around rookie Breece Hall. His blocking experience should provide the biggest plus for the Jets.
23. Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers
You can chalk 2021 up to a lost season for Tonyan. The Indiana State product was limited to eight contests due to injury, and in that time, he was very ineffective, having finished 61st in PFF grade. It was only one year earlier that he broke out with a top-30 grade and 11 touchdowns to his credit. Assuming health, he could do a lot to prove himself better than a guy outside the top 20, especially with Aaron Rodgers throwing him passes and Davante Adams now elsewhere.
22. Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are another team likely to make use of a 50-50, 60-40 or 70-30 split between their top two tight ends. The other, Donald Parham, was 18th in PFF grade compared to Everett at 35th last year (with the Seahawks), but Everett has much more to show for his five-year career and, as a result, carries $8 million in guaranteed money along with him (compared to Parham's $1.4 million contract). He also has 40-plus catches and more than 400 yards in two straight seasons despite two totally different roles in two different offenses. Everett could become a go-to target over the middle for Justin Herbert.
21. Austin Hooper, Tennessee Titans
Since 2019, Hooper's experienced a noticeable downturn in role and productivity. Last year in Cleveland, he was held below 400 yards for the first time since his rookie year, as his on-field play earned a 64.2 grade (31st at tight end). The 27-year-old is going to step into a clear starter's role in Tennessee, and there's a chance he picks things up without much in the way of proven targets for Ryan Tannehill. If they're able to get the most of Hooper, we could see him closer to the top-10 player he was just over two years ago.
20. Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears
Benefiting from an upgrade at quarterback, as well as a more prominent role in the offense, Kmet showed his promise as a young pass-catching tight end in year two. Logging a start in all 17 games, he hauled in 60 of 93 targets for a hair more than 600 yards. That's despite the presence of Jimmy Graham and the gameplan of Matt Nagy and company. He's set to be unleashed this season, but if he fails to produce a single touchdown, he's going to remain a bottom-third individual at his position.
19. Mo Alie-Cox, Indianapolis Colts
This season could be a defining one in the career of Mo Alie-Cox. Since Andrew Luck left following the tight end's rookie season, it's been a string of new quarterbacks -- not to mention a coaching regime change -- in Indianapolis. The massive 6'5" target has also had some target competition at his position, which has also contributed to his leveling out around 350 yards and 3 touchdowns over the past couple of seasons. Last year alone, he was the 26th-rated player, but he's now poised to be the guy and a red zone threat for Matt Ryan -- a la Austin Hooper from a couple of years back. He's among the most intriguing tight ends to follow in 2022.
18. Irv Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Both NFL draft and fantasy football Twitterverses have been awaiting the Smith breakout ever since he was drafted out of Alabama in the second round back in 2019. Over three years (essentially two seasons), he has 676 and 7 touchdowns to his credit -- in part due to competition and usage but also health. Smith heads into the new season looking to bounce back from a lost year in 2021, and with former Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell now leading the charge, we might finally get that breakout.
17. Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills
According to PFF, the on-field efficacy of Knox placed him outside the top 30 at the position last year. That might be a shock to a large number of people, though, seeing as the 25-year-old exceeded his previous career-best by 300 yards with nearly 600 on 49 catches and 71 targets. And in deep, he was able to grab nine Josh Allen touchdown throws as he elevated his consistency in the high-power Buffalo offense. It will take another season of that productivity level for him to be among the 10 or 15 best, but that's well within the range of outcomes.
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16. Albert Okwuegbunam, Denver Broncos
In case you missed it, there was quite the shakeup in Denver this offseason -- and I'm not talking about the multi-billion-dollar purchase of the team. The Broncos went out and got their guy by trading for quarterback Russell Wilson, sending picks, Drew Lock, and -- finally -- tight end Noah Fant to Seattle. What that has done is leave the one they call "Albert O" as the top dog at tight end ahead of rookie Greg Dulcich. The Missouri product is entering his third season after turning 40 targets into 33 catches, 330 yards, and 2 touchdowns in 14 games (6 starts). While Okwuegbunam could see Dulcich get reps, it has to be to his benefit to shed Fant as competition. And the promise is there. In 2021, the big man was 14th in receiving grade among tight ends.
15. Noah Fant, Seattle Seahawks
As previously mentioned, Fant has a new home, and in that new home, he'll be catching passes from very below-average throws in Drew Lock and/or Geno Smith. It's a difficult situation, especially with the jury mainly out still on if Fant can be as effective as many thought he could be (as the 20th overall pick) in a lead role. He's managed three seasons of 500 yards and at least 3 touchdowns, yet his player grades have placed him 58th, 15th, and 46th. Expect Fant to either rise above or fall below this 15th spot depending on how he falters or capitalizes on the opportunity to shine despite shaky quarterback play.
14. Zach Ertz, Arizona Cardinals
After what transpired in 2020, when Ertz seemed to be washed as an elite tight end in the league, last year was like an unbelievable dream for the veteran. After splitting time in an unfortunate situation in Philadelphia, the Eagles dealt him to the Cardinals, where he stepped in and earned himself a new three-year, $30-plus million contract. Over 11 games, he had 56 catches for 574 yards and 3 touchdowns -- thanks to improved quarterback play and a better catch rate on his behalf. There's no reason to expect anything less than a steady performance in this same role in this above-average offense.
13. David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
Speaking of players who earned themselves big contracts this offseason, David Njoku is among them. And at first glance, it doesn't make a ton of sense. Struggling for playing time beside the likes of Austin Hooper and Harris Bryant in Cleveland, the 26-year-old was limited to 36 catches for 475 yards and 4 touchdowns. However, his 9.0 yards per target speak to his field-stretching ability, which comes on top of solid pass- and run-blocking grades. There is a chance that Njoku experiences a step back with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for a large portion of 2022, but still, I'd bet on him playing up to that $55 million contract in one way or another.
12. Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
These days, blocking seems to be a secondary skill of importance for tight ends. For Mike Gesicki, that's crucial for how he ends up as high as he does here, and if you followed him and the Dolphins last year, you know precisely why. His 70.8 receiving grade was 17th among tight ends, doing so on a massive 112 targets as he split out often for a team short on outside receiver talent at the time. This season will be a massive departure with the acquisitions of Tyreek Hill and Cedrick Wilson, in addition to Jaylen Waddle. That should lead to a slightly more traditional play style and workload for the 26-year-old, which should bring balance to his ratings. It feels like he'll find a way to be more efficient on lower volume in an improved Miami offense.
11. Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
Higbee seems like the forgotten character in the tight end landscape. Though all eyes were rightfully on Cooper Kupp and his historic run in L.A. last year, Higbee was a top-20 tight end overall and showed balance with grades of 69.0 receiving, 72.0 pass-blocking, and 62.7 run-blocking. On 85 targets, his counting stats and reduced yards per target left something to be desired, but he's been solid, playing 15 games in each of the last three seasons. Higbee will continue to fly under the radar as a key part of Sean McVay's offensive onslaught.
10. T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions
After notching his first Pro Bowl season in 2020, Hockenson took a bit of a step back in 2021. Most of that, though, is a byproduct of five absences due to injury. On a per-game basis, he was tallying more yards on more receptions and targets. His yards per target were consistent while he increased his catch rate by more than 6%. When healthy, he was Jared Goff's go-to guy over the middle, and that should be the case again this year. Don't be surprised if he has a big age-25 season and climbs the proverbial charts ahead of 2023.
9. Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers
After one year? Yes, in just one year, Freiermuth showed enough to justify a top-10 spot. He was a frequent target of a short-armed Ben Roethlisberger, which padded the counting stats a bit, but overall he was the ninth-best tight end -- eighth in receiving and third in pass-blocking. His 6.3 yards per target should move upward with either Mitch Tribusky or Kenny Pickett under center in Pittsburgh, and until proven otherwise, he seems like a gem of a second-round pick.
8. Hunter Henry, New England Patriots
Absent the fireworks of an elite-level tight end; Hunter Henry enjoyed a massive 2021 campaign -- his first in a Patriots uniform. Largely prioritized over fellow tight end Jonnu Smith, the 27-year-old garnered 75 targets, which he turned into 50 catches, 603 yards, and 9 touchdowns. He helped to make Mac Jones' rookie season as seamless as possible, and if the young signal caller makes a jump this season, Henry could find another gear.
7. Dalton Schultz, Dallas Cowboys
Schultz didn't receive the safety of a new contract in the offseason, but he's set to play on the franchise tag and prove himself worthy of a longer-term investment from Dallas or another interested team next year. If last season was any indication, he should do just that. Stepping into a full starter's role, he quickly became a security blanket for Dak Prescott, taking in 78 of 104 targets for 808 yards and 8 scores. The 26-year-old was the sixth-best tight end, according to PFF, and his receiving-only mark of 77.4 was trumped by only these names: George Kittle, Dallas Goedert, Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, and Kyle Pitts.
6. Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
Speaking of Pitts, the standout rookie is ready to shine in his sophomore year, albeit without Matt Ryan and with Marcus Mariota now in his place. He'll aim to improve on last year's record-breaking totals of 68 grabs, 1,026 yards, and -- in particular -- 1 touchdown, but even if he repeats that, it would be a massive success and very likely prove him a top-three player at his position. Pitts was PFF's fifth-rated tight end in 2021.
5. Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
Goedert's not the most athletic tight end in the NFL, nor is he the most utilized among them. For what he lacks, he absolutely makes up for it with consistency, balance, and value. Over his first four seasons, he's rated in the top 10 at the position, most recently ranking second (tied) in 2021, thanks primarily to his receiving but also sufficient blocking. For the most part, over the middle and at times down the field, Goedert did his damage for a total of 830 yards and 4 touchdowns. Even with A.J. Brown joining in on the fun in Philadelphia, he'll be a heavily targeted pass-catcher for Jalen Hurts.
4. Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
In a lot of ways, 2021 was a year that Darren Waller probably wants to forget. After back-to-back smash seasons in 2019 and 2020, the seven-year vet was limited to 11 games and failed to reach 60 catches or 700 yards for the Raiders. His yards per target and catch rate both dropped for a second straight season, too, but we aren't far removed from those ridiculously elite years. Plus, he's getting some help in the form of Davante Adams, who should take some attention and pressure off of the tight end. Expect a big bounce-back as the veteran makes his turn toward the age of 30.
3. George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
Even with little talk around him and his 2021 performance, Kittle was tied for second in PFF grade alongside Goedert and was in the top 10 in all three major categories, including run-blocking, where we know it's almost impossible to truly quantify his value. For what we can count, though, he was back to his usual self after a down 2020, accounting for 71 catches, 910 yards, and 6 touchdowns. We can't say if -- given all the unknowns -- Trey Lance will do more or less for Kittle, but Kittle's talents are going to show up regardless, game in and game out.
2. Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
For the first time, Andrews overtook the top spot in PFF's tight end player grades. He was third in both receiving and run blocking, and for what the charting proved out, the same can be said for his stats. In his age-26 season, Andrews saw an earth-shattering 153 targets, with which he produced 107 catches, 1,361 yards, and 9 touchdowns. His 8.9 yards per target were the highest since his rookie year, and that's without Lamar Jackson playing a number of games. A third Pro Bowl season is in store so long as Andrews remains healthy in 2022.
1. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Admittedly, Andrews might be deserving of the top spot based on recent performance and age. But in the same respect, Kelce's been doing it at such a high level for so long. Going back to 2014, he has rated inside the top four tight ends in seven of eight seasons, and in a "down" year last season, he nearly reached 100 catches with more than 1,100 yards and 9 touchdowns -- in 16 games for what it's worth. On a Chiefs team with a massive turnover at receiver this offseason, Kelce's going to be relied on as much as -- if not more than -- ever. Until further notice, he's still the pinnacle of the position.
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Brett Oswalt has been writing about sports for five years, has covered everything from the NBA to College Football DFS, and previously served as an editor at numberFire. He is a Senior Workforce Planning Analyst at Highmark by day, and an avid sports fan and girl-dad by night. He resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife, Marley, daughter, Aria, and goldendoodle, Braun.