Who are the top 3 tight ends in the NFL? It's a question that normally shouldn't be that hard to answer. But this season, the question tougher than usual, and it's not because the competition has been so fierce either. It's because the position has been, well, pretty mediocre.
The top spot is easy: Travis Kelce of the Chiefs. He might not dominate football games as a blocker, but when you have nearly double the amount of yards and touchdowns of everyone else at your position, you're an absolute savage. The second spot is more difficult to name, but eventually you will likely land on the Ravens' Mark Andrews. An above-average blocker who has nearly double the targets, yardage and touchdowns of everyone else on the Ravens' roster, Andrews is the focal point of Baltimore's passing attack.
Who is third? I'm not quite sure. Dallas Goedert is having a decent season for the Eagles, but I don't think he is someone who has had opposing defenses shaking in their boots, even prior to his injury.
But the fact that we're struggling to land on the top 3 tight ends is a problem for the NFL.
The Current State of Play for Tight Ends
Goedert's former teammate Zach Ertz could be No. 3. He quietly put together a decent season before his season-ending knee injury, but he is another player who offers little blocking value and isn't causing defensive coordinators to shift their game plans. George Kittle usually comes up at this point in the conversation, but thus far his season has been relatively disappointing. Kittle has appeared in just seven games, with fewer than 30 receptions and only two touchdowns.
Former Pro Bowler Darren Waller has struggled to stay on the field all year and has performed poorly when he has played. After clearing 1,000 yards receiving as a rookie, Kyle Pitts has been a total dud in his second year. It really seems as if no one else has stood out.
What has happened to the tight ends? We can blame it on an unlucky rash of injuries to top performers and a lack of depth at the position, but the true answer is they are underperforming and being underused in the passing game. The result has been the lowest-scoring output in the NFL since 2017.
What Happened to the Glory Days of Tight Ends?
You've probably noticed that scoring is down, but did you realize it is largely because of poor red zone efficiency? The NFL offenses are averaging a touchdown on just 56.5 percent of their red zone trips, and only 84 percent of those trips have resulted in any points at all. That is the lowest percentage since 2009. In some ways, tight ends have been sacrificed due to the infatuation of the spread offense and the mobile quarterback, and it is hurting teams when the field condenses inside the 20.
You can't separate the down year for tight ends from the down year in scoring. Gone are so many of the elite tight ends who dominated the red zone such as Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten and, of course, Rob Gronkowski.
It's not a coincidence that Gronk and Gates are in two of the top four touchdown-scoring tandems of all time. Add in Tony Gonzalez, and you have three of the top 12 career leaders in touchdown receptions. The tight end is a quarterback's dream red-area receiving weapon, even without acknowledging the impact a tight end can have in the red zone as a blocking threat or a decoy. A defense has to shift assets to cover these large targets in the red area, which allows runners a clearer path to the end zone.
Last season, 11 different tight ends scored at least five touchdowns, while four tight ends had nine touchdown catches. This season, only Kelce is on pace for nine or more scores. The NFL is hurting for game-changing red zone tight ends this year, but that doesn't mean this will be a problem forever. There has been a bit of a tight end renaissance in the NCAA this season.
Tight Ends Rule College Football
Georgia, the top team in the country, features a trio of talented tight ends including Brock Bowers, who caught 13 TDs as a true freshman. Notre Dame's passing offense is led by standout tight end Michael Mayer, while Utah's Dalton Kincaid has had one of the better careers ever for a tight end. Both are expected to be drafted in the early rounds of the 2023 NFL draft.
Given the development of these athletic and versatile tight ends, it is not shocking to hear that college football teams are scoring more points than ever before.
Plus, college teams are recruiting harder at the position than they ever have before. The ESPN 300, the list of the top high school football prospects in the country, has nearly twice as many tight end prospects as normal on its list for 2023.
So the talent pool is about to be refilled for the NFL, which will leave no excuse not to improve red zone scoring by properly developing and using a tight end. Only one team in the NFL is averaging 30 points per game, and it's the only team with Travis Kelce. The secret sauce is there; the NFL just has to get back to developing and deploying its players correctly.
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