The Shifting Tight End Market

In mid-march, free agent tight end Austin Hooper inked a record deal with the Cleveland Browns, with the five-year contract clocking in at $46.8 MM total, including $23 MM guaranteed. Hooper racked up 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns in just 13 games for the Atlanta Falcons in 2019, and the 25-year-old hit the market at the right time: teams are crazy for tight ends right now. Hooper broke out in 2019, but he averaged four touchdowns and a little more than 500 yards per season on his rookie deal; he’s no one’s idea of the game’s best tight end.

The hefty price Cleveland paid for Hooper was not the only pricey deal teams handed out to tight ends:

  • Five-time Pro Bowl Jimmy Graham signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Bears worth $16 MM; the 33-year-old tallied 447 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games for the divisional rival Green Bay Packers in 2019.
  • After missing 16 games between 2017 and 2018, 35-year-old Greg Olsen parlayed a 597-yard 2019 campaign into a one-year, $7 MM contract, $5.5 MM guaranteed.
  • Hunter Henry is a decade younger than Olsen but no healthier, missing 22 games in his four-year career, but a solid 2019 (652 catches, five touchdowns) prompted the Los Angeles Chargers to franchise tag him, at a cost of about $11 MM for one season.
  • Olsen and Henry may have injury concerns, but Tyler Eifert makes them look like Cal Ripken. He’s played just 59 games in a seven-year career, missing nearly half of Cincinnati Bengals contests since 2013. Nevertheless, the Jacksonville Jaguars signed the nearly-30-year-old to a two-year, $15.5 MM contract.
  • While the Falcons went cheaper at tight end than Hooper, they dealt a second-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for first-round disappointment Hayden Hurst, who gained 512 yards in two seasons.
  • Jason Witten, who turns 38 in May and actually retired during the 2018 season, signed a one-year, $4 MM deal with the Oakland Raiders, $3.5 MM guaranteed.

The Veteran Market

Why are teams so hot for tight ends? First, there aren’t enough of them. There are 32 teams, and only 14 tight ends who had even 500 receiving yards in 2019. You do the math.

Second, the math gets uglier when you consider the teams seeking to run two-tight end offenses. The Philadelphia Eagles led the NFL by running 12 personnel (two tight ends) on 52% of their snaps, and Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert combined for more than 1,500 yards. The Minnesota Vikings ran 12 personnel on 34% of snaps, behind only Philadelphia, pairing second-round rookie Irv Smith, Jr. with veteran Kyle Rudolph. The Vikings’ offensive coordinator in 2019? New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, undoubtedly looking to recreate that Minnesota magic by pairing Hooper with David Njoku, a 2017 first-round pick. Even the Los Angeles Rams, who ran 11 personnel (three wide receivers) more than 90% of the time in 2018, got into the act in 2019 with two tight ends on 23% of snaps, as Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett combined for more than 1,100 yards.

In recent history, tight ends stood as some of the game’s best values. In 2014 the New Orleans Saints put the franchise tag on Graham, coming off a 1,215-yard, 16 touchdown season, letting them keep his WR-caliber production on a one-year deal worth just more than $7 MM. Graham fought to be considered a wide receiver, which would have made the tag $5 MM more, but ultimately lost in arbitration. The top tight ends—Ertz, George Kittle, and Travis Kelce, especially—are still bargains, but demand is pushing up the middle tier. With Kittle’s rookie contract expiring at the end of the season, he threatens to blow the top off the market.

Even teams who rarely throw to the tight end still need them. Only about 4% of personnel groups league-wide in 2019 featured zero tight ends. The Arizona Cardinals were the only team to use more zero-tight-end sets than two-tight-end sets, and they still ran two-tight-end sets more than 20% of the time. If a tight end isn’t playing up on the line of scrimmage, another receiver has to, and if there’s anything rarer than tight ends, it’s X receivers who can beat press on the line.

Rookie Woes

If teams want tight ends but are priced out of the veteran market, there’s always the draft … but that presents problems of its own. Spread offenses frequently employ four-receiver sets without tight ends, and when they do play TEs, they’re often used as big slots detached from the formation. Between having to learn complex NFL passing game assignments and all the blocking schemes in both the run and pass game, tight ends have a lot on their plate, and they’re not getting a good foundation in college football. Teams generally find themselves choosing between oversized receivers with limited blocking ability or plodding blockers. Even if they succeed in their scouting projections, it might take a season or two to develop a tight end.

This draft class in particular poses challenges for teams seeking a tight end solution:

Solak isn’t on an island here. CBS Sports ranks zero tight ends in its top 50 prospects and only four in the top 100. Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet has prototypical size and athleticism but lacks blocking polish and only produced for one season. Dayton’s Adam Trautman faces the leap from FCS to the NFL. Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins and Washington’s Hunter Bryant figure to be undersized receiving specialists. It does not appear immediate contributors are on the horizon.

Finding a Tight End

So what does a team do if it’s priced out of the veteran market but leery of handing the position to a raw rookie? None of the options are great, but here are my suggestions:

1. Look for breakout candidates

If most tight ends are going to need some time to acclimate to the NFL game, it makes sense to target players who have completed their apprenticeship elsewhere but not yet established value as contributors. Because of the various duties associated with the position, there are many opportunities for a player to be miscast in a role that doesn’t fit his skill set. Hurst is one example; he was passed early by third-round pick Mark Andrews and has yet to carve out an NFL role; he’ll get a chance in Atlanta.

The Raiders plucked Darren Waller off the Ravens practice squad in 2018 and he established himself in 2019 as one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards. A 6’6”, 238-pound college receiver, Waller had to fill out to his current listed weight of 255 and learn the blocking responsibilities of the position. He caught only 12 passes in his first two seasons in Baltimore before the league suspended him for 2017. The Raiders took a chance on the physical talent and it paid off, while the Ravens got little benefit from developing Waller from 2015 to 2018. Signings like this are low-percentage, but the payoff is tremendous with a hit.

Who fits this mold? Adam Shaheen, a second-round pick in 2017, might be squeezed out of Chicago after the addition of Graham. If the Browns aren’t planning to emphasize two-tight-end sets, Njoku could be on the block. Tyler Conklin is stuck behind Rudolph and Smith in Minnesota and might find a bigger role with a change of scenery. Josh Oliver, a third-round selection just last year, might be expendable with the Jaguars adding Eifert. The Houston Texans have a pretty stocked tight end room with veteran Darren Fells, 2018 draftees Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas and 2019 third-round pick Kahale Warring; they might be willing to part with one of the youngsters. Other players might become available after the draft if their team invests in a draft pick.

2. Take multiple bites at the apple

First-round tight end selections don’t have tremendous hit rates, and even first-round picks who have made Pro Bowl appearances, such as Jermaine Gresham and Eric Ebron, have been somewhat disappointing. The best players might be drafted anywhere. The San Francisco 49ers found Kittle in the fifth round, the Kansas City Chiefs nabbed Kelce in the third, and the Eagles got Ertz in the second.

The natural conclusion from that is to take multiple shots at filling the position rather than putting all your eggs in one basket. Probably no team has taken more bites at the apple than the Ravens. They did use a first on Hurst, but that didn’t stop them from selecting Andrews, an emerging star, two rounds later. They double-dipped in 2015 as well; while second-rounder Maxx Williams proved disappointing, fifth-rounder Nick Boyle developed into a quality complementary TE. Those selections came on the heels of two more mid-round selections, Crockett Gillmore in 2014 and Kyle Juszczyk in 2013. Gillmore, Williams, and Hurst disappointed and Juszczyk converted to fullback, but because the Ravens kept making selections, they have built a quality TE unit.

3. Think about skill sets

If a team is going to draft several tight ends and wait for them to develop, it might be tricky to fit all of them on the roster. If a player has a skill set that allows him to fill a particular role in the short term, it buys him time to develop a more well-rounded skill later on. The Ravens’ group above is a good example. Andrews came out of Oklahoma as a “move” tight end with limited blocking experience. Boyle, on the other hand, is a 268-pound behemoth and one of the position’s best blockers. Juszczyk had a fullback / H-back body and wound up playing that role. All these players were useful as role players and have developed into more impactful players as they’ve matured.

Special teams is another path to greater opportunity. Jack Doyle caught only 35 passes total in his first three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, but he played at least 200 snaps on special teams each season. That got him active every week, and ultimately he worked himself into a starting role, averaging nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns a season from 2016 to 2019—numbers not dissimilar to Hooper’s. A player who can contribute in the kicking game gives himself chances to earn playing time as his career progresses.

Teams can’t expect college tight ends to contribute in every facet of the game as young players, but they have to contribute somewhere to stick on the roster. Maybe it’s blocking in jumbo packages, maybe it’s on special teams, maybe it’s as a fullback in certain packages, maybe it’s as a red zone receiving threat. But if he can’t play a specialized role, he’s going to have difficulty buying time to develop into a broader one.

Trends or Aberration

The tight end market has been crazy this offseason; I don’t think there’s much debate about that. The challenge for teams is deciding whether this is a trend that figures to continue, or an aberrant “blip” because of the relative weakness of the draft group. The weak rookie class doesn’t help the supply of tight ends, but generally I view the supply-and-demand problems as reflective of growing trends. Teams that can find creative solutions to fill the position can gain a competitive edge over the bulk of the league, still struggling to get production at tight end.

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