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Draft a First-Round Tight End At Your Own Risk

When it comes to tight end prospects, Kyle Pitts might just be a unicorn – which makes him a perfect case study for the notion that tight ends simply should not be drafted in the first round.


The NFL draft is certainly an inexact science. There’s no guarantee that a No. 1 overall pick will deliver consistent Pro Bowl value, let along become a Pro Football Hall of Famer. There are 16 players immortalized in Canton that weren’t drafted at all. Despite the uncertainty, there is still a premium placed on first-round draft picks. Every year, teams must weight the ultimate decision about what to do with their first-round pick: Draft according to need or take the best available player?


Draft strategy varies from team to team, but there is one tenet that should be the same for all: Never draft a tight end in Round 1.


Every position produces its share of first-round busts and late-round gems, but it’s safe to say tight end tops the list.


Take the tight end matchup we just had in Super Bowl LV, for example. The game featured a pair of future Hall of Famers in Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. Gronkowski, who owns the NFL record for career touchdowns by a tight end, was a second-round pick – 42nd overall. Kelce, who set the single-season record in 2020 for receiving yards by a tight end, was a third-rounder – 63rd overall.


Looking at the top 10 tight ends in receiving yards in 2020, three were first-rounders. On average, they were taken 76th overall:


Most Receiving Yards, TE, 2020 (draft position)

Travis Kelce, K.C. (3rd round, 63rd overall)

Darren Waller, L.V. (6th round, 204th overall)

T.J. Hockenson, Detroit (1st round, 8th overall)

Mike Gesicki, Miami (2nd round, 47th overall)

Mark Andrews, Baltimore (3rd round, 86th overall)

Noah Fant, Denver (1st round, 20th overall)

Logan Thomas, Washington (4th, 120th overall)

Evan Engram, N.Y. Giants (1st round, 23rd overall)

George Kittle, S.F. (5th round, 146th overall)

Rob Gronkowski, T.B. (2nd round, 42nd overall)


What’s also notable is that two of the players above were not even tight ends in college. Waller was a wide receiver; Thomas was a quarterback who still played QB in the NFL before eventually moving to tight end.


Looking at the top 10 all-time leaders in receiving yards by a tight end, three of the 10 are first-rounders – but the list also includes a seventh-rounder, a 10th-rounder and one player – Antonio Gates -- who wasn’t drafted at all.


Most Receiving Yards, TE, All-Time

Tony Gonzalez (1st, 13th overall)

Jason Witten (3rd, 69th overall)

Antonio Gates (undrafted)

Shannon Sharpe (7th round, 192nd overall)

Greg Olsen (1st round, 31st overall)

Rob Gronkowski (2nd round, 42nd overall)

Jimmy Graham (3rd round, 95th overall)

Ozzie Newsome (1st round, 23rd overall)

Jackie Smith (10th round, 129th overall)

Travis Kelce (3rd round, 63rd overall)


On average these players were drafted 88th overall.


Gonzalez was the ninth and most recent tight end elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Four of the nine were first-round picks, although those four players have a total of one Super Bowl title to their names.


Tight Ends in HOF

Dave Casper (2nd, 45th overall)

Mike Ditka (1st, 5th overall)

Tony Gonzalez (1st, 13th overall)

John Mackey (2nd, 19th overall)

Ozzie Newsome (1st round, 23rd overall)

Charlie Sanders (3rd, 74th overall)

Shannon Sharpe (7th round, 192nd overall)

Jackie Smith (10th round, 129th overall)

Kellen Winslow (1st, 13th overall)


“Running back, tight end and linebacker are the positions that have meaningful numbers of quality players coming from outside the first round,” said former Eagles team president Joe Banner. “Anyone using a 1 on a tight end is convinced he is that guy. It’s playing a long shot to pick a tight end in the first round versus picking a position that is much harder to find in later rounds.“


Which brings us to Pitts. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. compares the Florida Gator to Tony Gonzalez, who was the 13th overall player chosen in the 1997 draft.


“Kyle Pitts to me is that unique prospect that can be a wideout, tight end… blocks well enough to be in line, move him around,” Kiper said recently. “At 6-6, 240-plus pounds, remarkable ability. He is a phenomenal talent. He’s gonna go within the top five in the draft.”


Only nine tight ends in the last decade have been drafted anywhere in the first round, and it’s not exactly a murderers row:


T.J. Hockenson (2019, 8th)

Noah Fant (2019, 20th)

Hayden Hurst (2018, 25th)

O.J. Howard (2017, 19th)

Evan Engram (2017, 23rd)

David Njoku (2017, 29th)

Eric Ebron (2014, 10th)

Tyler Eifert (2013, 21st)

Jermaine Gresham (2010, 21st)


In terms of opportunity cost, teams need to consider other players they might be able to draft in Round 1 if they wait to get another tight end later. It’s easy to pick and choose specific instances to criticize, but consider this one: When the Lions drafted Ebron at No. 10 in 2014, the next three players drafted were Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald.


“Offensive coaches fall in love with tight ends because of the versatility and the ability to keep base on the field,” said former Chicago Bears head coach and longtime offensive coordinstor Marc Trestman.


“What you always get into when you start discussing tight ends is, the line coach wants a big physical guy who can dominate in the run game, and the guys involved in the passing game, they know if the tight end can’t run a route, they’re playing with 10-and-a-half guys.”


Tight ends with that combination of size and speed are always attractive. That’s one reason why college basketball players like Gonzalez, Gates and Jimmy Graham have been successful tight ends. Trestman notes that it is a tight end’s ability to make plays in the middle of the field that allow them to stand out.


“You’ve got to have a tight end who on first and second down can attack the middle of the field,” said Trestman. “It’s hard to win otherwise. Quarterbacks love the body size of tight ends. They like the size in the middle because it creates an advantage over lesser-sized linebackers.”


Scouts love Pitts’ impressive size, speed and athleticism. Veteran offensive coach Chris Palmer recently did a video breakdown of Pitts for the 33rd Team Call, and speculated that he might be the best pass-catcher available in this year’s draft – regardless of position.


Pitts may well become the fifth tight end in this century to be a top 10 draft pick. Just keep in mind that players like Vernon Davis (2006) and Kellen Winslow Jr. (2004) were both drafted sixth overall. How did that work out?