How do NFL teams allocate resources? Dave Archibald has looked at the real price of contract extensions and draft picks on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and offensive linemen. In this installment, he looks at how teams evaluate tight end investment.
NFL teams employ tight ends on nearly every offensive play, but their role in the offense varies wildly from team to team. Traditionally, tight ends were prominent blockers in the run game. Some teams still use them as essentially a sixth lineman, only factoring into the passing game as a checkdown or surprise. Other teams use their tight ends as big wide receivers, rarely positioning them up in-line, and featuring them heavily in the pass game, particularly in the red zone. And some teams choose both options, lining up multiple tight ends on many plays.
Given this variety in usage, it’s no surprise that spending on tight ends differs greatly around the league. Franchises value the position differently and investment in terms of salary and draft capital on tight ends is among the most volatile among all position groups.
The chart below shows the amount of money and draft value expended on tight ends. Money is measured by average cap hit. This is not a perfect measure, as it can be inflated by “funny money”, or non-guaranteed years tacked on to the end of the long-term deals, but it serves as a rough indicator. Draft value is measured by cumulative Draft Trade Value Chart figures through the last four years, plus 2011 first-rounders (more on that methodology):
These figures represent only players currently rostered as of the beginning of the season, not “dead” money or draft value spent on TEs no longer with the team. Thus, they do not incorporate traded picks or players.
Spending more than the average on tight ends in both salary and draft picks has yielded the worst results, although only four teams fall in this category, and those four teams (Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Dallas) have a 9-27 combined record that goes well beyond any woes at any one position.
The big-money teams (which, as seen below, boast the most big-name talent) have the lowest completion percentage to tight ends but the highest yards per completion, suggesting they use their tight ends more as weapons in the downfield passing game.
Interestingly, while many associate top tight ends with red zone performance, that isn’t borne out in the numbers for 2015. The group that throws to tight ends the least (“Youth is Served”) actually has the best touchdown percentage in the red zone.
Money and Picks
Four teams spend an above-average amount on TEs, both in terms of money and draft capital. The Lions are barely above-average in salary spent on tight ends, but have spent the most draft capital, including 2014 10th-overall pick Eric Ebron, the highest drafted tight end since 2006. Brandon Pettigrew, a first-rounder in 2009, augments Ebron in Detroit’s tight end group. The 49ers show up here by virtue of since-traded Vernon Davis and his $7.5M salary, along with disappointing 2013 second-round draftee Vance McDonald. Dennis Pitta of the Ravens has a $6.4M salary but has not played in 2015 because of two hip fractures; with Pitta’s future in doubt Baltimore has used high picks on Crockett Gillmore (third-rounder in 2014) and Maxx Williams (second-rounder in 2015).
Notable Performances: The Cowboys are first in completion percentage to tight ends, but just 27th in yards per completion. Despite their investment, the 49ers rank 23th in completion percentage and 26th in yards per attempt. The Lions aren’t much better, at 26th in completion percentage and 21st in yards per attempt. The Ravens have gotten solid performance from their tight ends, ranking third in completion percentage and 12th in yards per attempt.
It’s Only Money
This group of eleven teams spend more money on tight ends than average, but less draft capital. It’s no surprise that the tight-end-heavy Patriots have spent the most money on tight ends, thanks to All-World destroyer Rob Gronkowski and veterans Scott Chandler and Michael Hoomanawanui (since traded). New England ranks as the top spenders on tight ends even with the dead money allocated to convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez now off the books. The top six highest-paid tight ends, and eight of the top ten, show up in this group, with the Rams Jared Cook falling just outside:
Half of the top 10 highest-paid tight ends – Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Charles Clay, Jordan Cameron, and Davis – have changed teams in the last year, and it’s probably fair to say that every one of those flashy acquisitions has been at least somewhat disappointing to their new employers
Notable Performances: The Patriots, Titans, Panthers, and Chargers comprise the top four in targets and four of the top six in yards to tight ends. New England is first in yards per completion, attempts, and in touchdowns. It might have something to do with that Gronkowski guy. On the negative end of the scale, the Vikings rank last in yards per completion and 29th in yards per attempt.
Youth Is Served
These teams spend less money than average but have invested heavily via the draft. The average team uses less than three percent of its draft capital on tight ends, so one pick in the first three rounds is enough to place teams in this category. The Colts stand out for their approach in 2012, using second- and third- round picks that year on Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.
There is an interesting mix here, with emerging star Tyler Eifert at one end and disappointing third-year players Gavin Escobar and McDonald on the other. The jury’s still out on Williams and the 2014 picks, including Jace Amaro, who went on injured reserve before the season started.
Notable Performances: The Buccaneers, Chiefs, Cardinals, Eagles, and Bengals all rank in the top 10 for yards per completion and yards per attempt. The Jets are the worst at throwing to tight ends; it may look like a misprint, but their tight ends have only six catches for 78 yards (on 18 targets) in 2015. All five of the teams that throw to their tight ends the least are in this group: the Jets, Houston, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and Cincinnati.
Doing It On The Cheap
The Browns don’t have a tight end making $2M per year, but three making over $1M, including breakout performer Gary Barnidge. The Giants go one better, as they don’t even have a tight end making even $1M per year. Not only are they stingy with dollars for tight ends, but Big Blue hasn’t used a draft pick on a tight end since third-rounder Travis Beckum in 2009.
Notable Performances: The Browns, led by Barnidge, rank fourth in total yards and sixth in yards per attempt. Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, Green Bay, and Chicago all rank in the top 10 in completion percentage to tight ends, but none rank higher than 17th in yards per completion.
In most cases, these teams have a veteran tight end making a big salary and have recently augmented the unit with a highly-drafted youngster, presumably an heir apparent. Troy Niklas, Williams, Escobar, C.J. Fiedorowicz, and Clive Walford have not yet supplanted their teammates as the tight end stalwarts on their teams. Ebron and Zach Ertz are just now emerging as the primary pass-catching tight ends for Detroit and Philadelphia, respectively. Two teams have different paradigms: Indianapolis, who mix-and-match two highly drafted youngers with complementary skill sets (Fleener has more speed and athleticism, Allen is the better blocker), and the Rams, who employ two veterans in Cook and Lance Kendricks. The 49ers were on this list prior to dealing Davis.
High and Tight End Investment
There is a wide spread in how much teams spend on tight ends, especially in terms of salary. The bigger-salary tight ends seem to be bigger threats in the downfield passing game, but this doesn’t otherwise translate into bigger production on the whole, including in the red zone. Highly-drafted tight ends are similarly a mixed bag. Certain offenses have made the tight end into a matchup weapon, but it’s not necessarily the highest-drafted guys that turn into stars. With different teams using the position differently, it seems likely that the future will continue to show teams with big spreads in investment on tight ends.
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