By Steve Silverman
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Tight end is one of the most complex positions in the NFL when it comes to strategy, and the position has been evolving for years.
Some coaches will use the tight end as the primary weapon in an offensive team’s setup while others will try to work them into the rotation and make sure they get involved in the passing game occasionally. The old-fashioned blocking tight end is a rarity in the current environment, and that’s because the spread offense needs players who are threats to make big plays.
There are a lot of quality players at the position, beginning with the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, and he’s followed closely by the Panthers’ Greg Olsen. In this piece, I continue my positional top-10 rankings by looking at the tight ends.
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England
The only question about Gronkowski is whether he can stay healthy. He stayed in the lineup for all 16 regular-season games in his first two seasons, but he has missed time in the five seasons since. He caught just 25 passes for 540 yards and three touchdowns in eight games last year. Gronkowski can get open any time he wants because he is a huge man, at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, with excellent speed. His other advantage is that he has huge hands and will catch nearly anything thrown in his direction. Gronkowski is also a willing blocker, and while he doesn’t get much credit in that area, he is quite effective. When healthy, he is a threat to take over any game.
2. Greg Olsen, Carolina
Olsen has been the most consistent producer in the Carolina lineup (80 receptions, 1,073 yards, three touchdowns in 2016), and that includes quarterback Cam Newton. Olsen has one huge advantage over Gronkowski since he remains in the lineup every week. He has not missed a game since 2007, and he has shown he can get deep and make big plays, and he is also capable of making the tough catch in traffic that keeps drives alive. Olsen may not be a devastating blocker, but he is a willing one. He will throw his body in front of potential tacklers, and he makes it tough on them to finish off a play.
3. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia
There’s a significant gulf between the top tier of tight ends and the second grouping, which begins with Ertz. However, the Philadelphia tight end is climbing the ranks quickly after excellent back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016. He is building an excellent working relationship with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, and Ertz has shown he can stretch the defense. He caught 78 passes for 816 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, and if he can improve in the red zone, he will take another jump in the ratings.
4. Travis Kelce, Kansas City
The Chiefs have high hopes that diminutive wideout Tyreek Hill will develop into a game-breaking player, but he still has to turn his eye-opening potential into production. Kelce is already there, and he is the team’s top receiving threat heading into the season. Kelce is coming off a wonderful 2016 in which he registered 85 receptions for 1,125 yards and four touchdowns, and he ranks among the best blocking tight ends in the league. Kelce is one of the most confident players on head coach Andy Reid’s roster, and he should play an even bigger role for the Chiefs this season.
5. Delanie Walker, Tennessee
Walker did a nice job earlier in his career as a backup tight end for the 49ers, and he has raised his level of play dramatically in four seasons with the Titans. He caught 65 passes for 800 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and he knows how to get open for quarterback Marcus Mariota. At 6-2, 244 pounds, Walker is not as big as some tight ends, but he will take a shot, keep on going downfield and find a way to make the play. He’s not the most aggressive blocker, but he plays with an edge and still wants to prove that he is among the best at his position.
6. Jimmy Graham, Seattle
Graham has had some issues since his glory days with the Saints when he was viewed as Gronkowski’s near equal. However, after having a down year in 2015, Graham bounced back last season with 65 receptions for 923 yards and six touchdowns, and his production improved as the season progressed. Graham is a remarkable athlete for the position because he runs well and will catch nearly everything he can touch. He may never repeat his 2013 season with the Saints, when he caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards and 16 TDs, but he could approach double figures in touchdowns this season.
7. Jordan Reed, Washington
Injuries have impacted Reed throughout his first four years in the NFL, but he is a game-changing player when in the lineup. He runs an excellent pass pattern and knows how to get open, and it’s clear that Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins has confidence in him. Reed has the athletic ability to dominate games, but he has a tough time competing with the bigger linebackers and nasty defensive backs. He has added weight to compete with the harder hitters, but he has not been able to stay in the lineup consistently. He had 66 catches for 686 and six TDs in 12 games last season.
8. Jason Witten, Dallas
Witten is nearing the end of his career, as he begins his 15th season in the league, but he is a wily player who pays huge dividends for head coach Jason Garrett. Not only is he coming off a productive season in which he caught 69 passes for 673 yards and three touchdowns, he helped nurture rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. Witten is a tremendous blocker, and he makes up in know-how what he lacks in athleticism.
9. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota
While the Minnesota offense struggled throughout much of the 2016 season, Rudolph was the player who head coach Mike Zimmer knew was going to produce every week. He caught 83 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns, and the Vikings’ season might have turned out to be a complete disaster without him. Rudolph gets the most out of his ability, but he is never going to be labeled a superstar.
10. Martellus Bennett, Green Bay
After spending a season in New England and picking up a Super Bowl ring, Bennett gets a chance to go from Tom Brady to Aaron Rodgers. He is thrilled to have a chance to work with two such brilliant quarterbacks, and after catching 55 passes for 701 yards and seven TDs last year, Bennett should be primed to have a spectacular year with the Packers. Rodgers has not had a tight end with Bennett’s pass-catching ability, so look for these two to get off to a sharp start.
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