Are Tight Ends Worth A 1st Round Pick?

by Steve Frederick

New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the NFL on Instagram Sunday afternoon. In just nine seasons, Gronkowski put together a first-ballot Hall of Fame worthy resume all before the age of 30.

What made Gronkowski a transcendent tight end was his ability to dominate and change games as a receiver and blocker. In an era of football where the tight end position could be honestly be split into three different subcategories, Gronkowski was able to do it all, and do it all well.

Replacing Gronkowski will be tough and it'll take multiple players to fill that void. At the moment the Patriots have four tight ends on their roster. For their careers, they've combined for 71 Receptions, 801 Yards, and 3 touchdowns.

Matt LaCosse - 27 Receptions, 272 Yards, 1 TD

Jacob Hollister - 8 Receptions, 94 Yards, 0 TD

Stephen Anderson - 36 Receptions, 435 Yards, 2 TD

Ryan Izzo - No Stats

Two weeks into free agency, the tight end position has already been picked over. Former 2nd-round draft picks, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Maxx Williams are still out there but it's more likely that the Patriots devote one or two of their league-high 12 draft picks to the position. 6 of those 12 total picks are within the top 101 selections and with the 2019 tight end class being regarded as one of the best in recent memory it'll be interesting to see how the Patriots restock the cupboards because they certainly have the ammo to do so.

Is a tight end worth a first round pick?

In the coming weeks, you'll see a tight end consistently mocked to the Patriots at 32 overall. It wouldn't be the first time the Bill Belichick regime has gone down that path. They took Daniel Graham 21st overall in 2002 and Ben Watson 32nd overall in 2004. Both players carved out long careers in the NFL but they didn't quite live up to their draft selection during their time in New England. Will the Patriots roll the dice again after they landed Gronk and Hernandez on Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft? Only time will tell but I think it brings up a worthwhile discussion on if it's worth selecting a tight end in the 1st round of the draft.

Like every discussion, this isn't black and white and there is a nuance to it. What does that player bring to the table? Where do they win on the field? Does that fill a void on your offense? Who is your Quarterback? Is he good? Who else is available? Would any of those options fill a bigger need? etc.

Outside of the quarterback position, tight ends have the steepest learning curve when transitioning to the NFL. The reason it can take years for a player to acclimate to an offense and develop into a starter is that the position demands a player to be a dependable piece in both the running and passing game. That means understanding the blocking scheme and how to read defenses from a blocking and passing game perspective. It's also a time for these 21-22-year olds, who are competing against the most athletic and skilled players they've ever faced, to continue to fill out their frame and learn technique because there is zero room for error in the trenches. Then there is always the time it takes to polish your route running, possibly expanding your route tree and gaining rapport with your quarterback. Until a player can develop an all-around game they'll be pigeonholed into a limited role.

Drafting and developing a tight end is the ultimate patience play and it can understandably be uncomfortable and difficult to hold strong when you see other first-rounders become instant impact players. The Lions are a perfect example of this. They drafted Eric Ebron 10th overall in 2014 and low and behold the next seven picks would make a Pro Bowl while still on their rookie deal.  Those players selected would include the likes of Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham. Last offseason, Detroit decided to move on from Ebron as they determined that he wasn't worth the price tag of his 5th-year option ($8.25M). 

Ebron's game was still a work in progress but the Detroit front office decided to cut ties even though he was putting up terrific production for his age and finished his final season in Detroit on a positive note.

Both the franchise and the player are in a tough spot. Eric Ebron arguably wasn't worth paying $8.25M but he also was progressing like the majority of successful tight ends do. And that's exactly the point! It is really worth investing your most important draft asset into a player who may take years to develop and you may not see the benefit until four years down the road or until their second contract? Is there a better use of your resources?

Greg Olsen has a similar story to Ebron. He was taken 31st overall in the 2007 draft by the Chicago Bears. He put up respectable production his first four years and heading into his 5th season he was shipped off to Carolina where he continued to grow and later became a Pro Bowler and All-Pro on his 2nd and 3rd contracts.

Some of the biggest names of the past decade who were drafted in the first round and hit like Vernon Davis, Dallas Clark, Heath Miller, and Kellen Winslow were patience plays. Even with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball it took Dallas Clark 5 years to finally eclipse 500 yards receiving. Clark's All-Pro season came in Year 7. Vernon Davis, Heath Miller, and Kellen Winslow didn't truly breakout and live up to their draft capital until Year 4 too. There are various reasons, like adapting to coaching, offensive philosophy, poor quarterback play, and injuries but that will always be a part of the puzzle.

To be fair, you can see immediate results. Jeremy Shockey was one of the best tight ends in the league as a rookie and had his best season in Year 4. Todd Heap had a quiet rookie season before breaking out in Year 2. After having average production and injuries the next few years he finally solidified himself as of the games best tight ends in Years 5 and 6 on his 2nd contract. So it can happen, but that's more on the outlier track. For every Shockey, you're stumbling across Jerramy Stevens, Marcedes Lewis (Breakout YR 5), Jermaine Gresham, Daniel Graham, Kyle Brady (Breakout YR 7) etc who disappointed on their rookie deals.

If the past 15 years of the NFL Draft have proven anything it's that you can find tremendous value on Day 2 or 3 of the draft. From the All-Pro's like Gronk, Travis Kelce and Jimmy Graham who changed the way we view the position to the under the radar players who held down starting jobs for years like Owen Daniels, Brent Celek, and Chris Cooley.

Tight Ends Drafted Since 2003

Round 2: Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, Martellus Bennett, Kyle Rudolph, Alge Crumpler

Round 3: Jason Witten, Travis Kelce, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, Jared Cook, Jermichael Finley, Chris Cooley

Round 4: Julius Thomas, Owen Daniels, Aaron Hernandez, Dennis Pitta, Randy McMichael

Round 5: George Kittle, Brent Celek

Round 6: Charles Clay

Before you pull the trigger on a guy in round one it's important to consider the class as a whole. If you believe you can get a player in Round 3 who is 90% of the player you're debating about drafting in Round 1 is it smarter to wait? Is that player you're targeting in Round 1 going to transform your offense in a way another option couldn't?

Drafting good players is always the goal, right? I'll never knock someone who hits on their picks but I think there is a decent case that the NFL should view tight ends in a similar light to how sharp teams view running backs in the 1st round.

That means you understand that the position can be filled during Day 2 or 3 of the draft. That also means you understand there is a huge difference between spending a top 10 pick on the position and spending the 25th pick. If you’re selecting in the top 5 or 10 you shouldn’t be passing on the premier talents at premier positions to fill your void at RB and TE. You can have the greatest RB and TE of all-time but if your offensive line is trash or you're still searching for a franchise QB you're going to be in the same place next year. Also consider the contract you'll be handing to them. Right out of the gate they'll be paid like one of the best players at their position in the league on their rookie deal. On the flip side, if you’re picking later in Round 1 and a player can help complete your offense then there is sound logic to pulling the trigger. It's a luxury pick. The Patriots lost Dion Lewis in free agency last year so they decided to fill that role with Sony Michel. 

Ironically enough New England is in that same scenario again this year and they'll have to weigh the value. Are they better off taking Irv Smith Jr at 32 or would they rather spend 32 on another position of need like wide receiver, defensive line, or cornerback and spend 56 on Jace Sternberger and 134 on Trevon Wesco? New England has a little less than a month to ponder this decision.