Over the years, the position of tight end has evolved. In the modern NFL, the tight end has become a priority target rather than a blocker, to the point of being the main weapon in some franchises. If the profiles are varied, the hierarchy is clearly drawn.
I’m the boss
Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs)
If Travis Kelce retired tomorrow, he would already be a Hall of Famer. Quadruple All Pro (1st team) and eightfold pro-Bowler, only Tony Gonzalez did better at the position in terms of individual awards. Soon to be 34 years old, Kelce has just had 7 consecutive seasons at over 1,000 yards, again a record. Double NFL champion, in 2022 he was the main offensive weapon of the NFL champion. In short, he is THE star of the league.
We are stars too
Mark Andrews (Baltimore Ravens), TJ Hockenson (Minnesota Vikings), Dallas Goedert (Philadelphia Eagles), George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers)
If George Kittle were lucky enough to still be in good shape, he would surely be at the top too. As good a blocker as he is a receiver, but often injured, he hasn’t passed the 1,000-yard mark since 2019. Mark Andrews is the Ravens’ No. 1 offensive weapon in the aerial game, and that alone makes him a star de facto. He is certainly more of a receiver than a “real” tight end, but technically he is on the list.
TJ Hockenson also has this double threat profile, like a George Kittle. His career is already very good, but his progress may not be over, as evidenced by his career-best 2022 season. Dallas Goedert confirmed his threat status despite being limited in use by the number of weapons available to his squad and injuries. He is the bet of this group, and will have to continue his progress this season.
The best of the rest
David Njoku (Cleveland Browns), Dalton Schultz (Houston Texans), Evan Engram (Jacksonville Jaguars), Tyler Higbee (Los Angeles Rams), Darren Waller (New York Giants), Chigoziem Okonkwo (Tennessee Titans)
Like Kittle, Darren Waller would be a class higher without the injuries, reborn in New York. Author of two seasons at 1,000 yards in 2019 and 2020, he has only started 17 times since. His main weakness is his body, which he will have to manage to keep.
The rest of this list is made up of players who have become solid starters, with various trajectories. Evan Engram is a former league prospect whose time in Jacksonville feels like a rebirth. David Njoku is an intermittent performer, capable of playing as a top 10 in the post but also capable of disappearing quickly over the course of a season. Tyler Higbee and Dalton Schultz are the caricature of the good holder, on the ceiling close to the floor.
The surprise of the last season is Chigoziem Okonkwo. Author of 450 yards and 3 touchdowns in a putrid attack, the advanced statistics say more about his impact: in the entire NFL, he is the player who has managed the most yards per route. More than Travis Kelce, more than George Kittle in particular. 2023 must be the season of confirmation, in a squad that should be better.
What do all these players have in common? In the majority of NFL franchises, they can start without discussion.
The middle class
CJ Uzomah (New York Jets), Zach Ertz (Arizona Cardinals), Hayden Hurst (Carolina Panthers), Gerald Everett (Los Angeles Chargers), Hunter Henry (New England Patriots), Juwan Johnson (New Orleans Saints), Noah Fant (Seattle Seahawks)
Proper holder, but no more. This is the harsh reality of the NFL. Here again the profiles are diverse, and even includes a former big star in the person of Zach Ertz, whose great 2022 season was hampered by injury. The surprise of the 2022 season in this group is Juwan Johnson, who is a candidate to climb the ranks in this group. Former receiver, he managed his repositioning with 508 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Franchises are not unhappy to have this type of players, but if an opportunity arises they will surely try to strengthen themselves. The Uzomah/Fant/Everett trio will have to bring in powerful attacks, while Hayden Hurst and Hunter Henry will have to be a safety for young quarterbacks.
The little young people who go up
Greg Dulcich (Denver Broncos), Kyle Pitts (Atlanta Falcons), Cole Kmet (Chicago Bears), Pat Freiermuth (Pittsburgh Steelers)
They are not rookies, but they still have time and a lot of potential. Kyle Pitts is a top 5 draft pick whose use questions, which severely limited his impact in the NFL for his debut, but the hope is still there. If he stays healthy, he could become the X factor for the Falcons.
Cole Kmet has become so important in Chicago that he has just signed a nice contract. Author of 544 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, he is an important part of the attack in the red zone. Pat Freiermuth is already a great piece of the Steelers offensive reconstruction, as evidenced by his 1,229 yards and 9 touchdowns in two seasons. Greg Dulcich is the bet of this group, after a surprising rookie season at 411 yards in a completely lost offense throughout the season.
Who are you again?
Irv Smith (Cincinnati Bengals), Jake Ferguson (Dallas Cowboys), Jelani Woods (Indianapolis Colts), Durham Smythe (Miami Dolphins), Logan Thomas (Washington Commanders)
There are players who score in a squad, and then there are the others. For the moment, these players are holders more by circumstance than by pure performance, and it will take a good season to change category. The youngest like Jake Ferguson have the time, others already seem to be at the end of their course.
The bottle class
Dalton Kincaid (Buffalo Bills), Sam Laporta (Detroit Lions), Luke Musgrave (Green Bay Packers), Michael Mayer (Las Vegas Raiders)
Rookies are still a separate category. Difficult to determine a ceiling before a player has set foot on an NFL lawn. Hopes are high, but not everyone will answer the call.
Dalton Kincaid and Sam Laporta arrive in attacks that are already spinning, and the need for immediate impact will be limited. Michael Mayer must replace Darren Waller, and risks being solicited by a Jimmy G who likes to rest on his tight ends. Luke Musgrave joins a very young group, and must become a safety valve for Jordan Love.