The NFL’s top 11 tight ends

·15 min read

As one starts to think about the schematic elements that could define the 2021 NFL season, the battle between defenses and offenses on the Cover-2/Cover-4 battlefield might be the most critical. As many have detailed, one of the schematic elements we are seeing in today’s NFL is defenses showing two-high looks before the snap, trying to influence offenses into running the football. This is something I outlined in this piece looking at the future of offenses.

We are seeing a rise in these coverages, particularly quarters or Cover-4, at the NFL level. Why might defenses use this scheme? There are a number of reasons but defensive coach Cody Alexander outlined perhaps the biggest reason in his book “Match Quarters:”

By aligning in a two-high shells and utilizing split-field coverages, the defense has created brackets on the inside most WRs. In the modern offense, these slots have become an integral part of the modern passing attack. They are close to the box and force the defense to honor their speed and agility, many times versus a lesser athlete (LB). Though a single-high scheme may give the defense a gapped-out box, the structure has created one-on-one matchups outside and against the slot WRs. The middle of the field (MOF) safety now hast to patrol both hashes and the brackets on the slots are gone.

These defenses, perhaps first implemented to counter dangerous slot receivers and to try and eliminate easy throws to those players, has also worked to give defenses answers for another dangerous offensive weapon in the modern game: The matchup nightmare at tight end. Defenses now have that natural “bracket” on those players as well, given their standard alignments.

Of course, offenses will counter those looks, and having talented players at tight end makes that easier for offensive coordinators. That leads us to the players that some teams might rely heavily upon in 2021. Here are the NFL’s top 11 tight ends.

Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

In the run-up to the 2021 NFL draft a number of different ways were used to describe then-Florida Gators tight end Kyle Pitts. "Matchup nightmare" was a common expression, as was "unicorn." "Generational talent" was also a phrase used from time to time in articles about the tight end. To be fair, I was among those gassing up Pitts' as a top player in the class. Pitts made both my Top 11 tight end rankings prior to the draft as well as cracking the top five in the list of wide receivers. I highlighted his play often, whether this video diving into his game against Kentucky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddlvzyK-S2o Or on this play against fellow first-round selection Jaycee Horn: [video width="960" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/03/HornVideo1.mp4">[/video] And all of those descriptions may pan out to be true, but here is another truth: Pitts has yet to play an NFL down. He may end up as one of the NFL's top tight ends before long. Maybe before Halloween even. But until he plays a snap, it is hard to move him much higher than those who have come before him and actually played in the league. The talent is there, to be sure, but let's give the rookie a game before we lose our minds more than we already have.

Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

By most any measure, 2020 was a down season for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. The experienced tight end played in just 11 games, spending time on injured reserve due to a high ankle sprain. That led to some of the lowest production of his career, as Ertz caught just 36 asses for 335 yards and a single touchdown, the lowest numbers since he entered the league. By means of reference, in this piece a year ago Ertz clocked in third, behind George Kittle and Travis Kelce. Now he struggles to crack the top ten. But that is just one man's opinion. Now, most of the focus is on whether the Eagles will move Ertz before the season begins, with potential suitors such as the Buffalo Bills wondering what it would take to acquire the tight end. Any team that acquires him is hoping that 2020 is a mirage, and that Ertz can return to his top form in the year ahead.

Hunter Henry, New England Patriots

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

For the past few seasons Hunter Henry's potential seemed almost limitless, but the results struggle to match the performance on the field. But after struggling with injuries and missing the entire 2018 season, Henry put goether an impressive campaign a season ago, setting career-high marks in both receptions (60) and targets (93). Starting a career-high 14 games may have played a role... Henry is now moving teams, joining the New England Patriots as part of their free agent spending spree. What will he be bringing with him? A number of upper-level traits at the position. Including the ability to make himself available in the middle of the field for a quarterback willing to attack leveraged defenders: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/HenryLeverageManLB.mp4">[/video] The ability to change directions and beat a safety in space: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/HenryCODManSafety.mp4">[/video] And the ability to attack the middle of the field against two-high safety looks, a necessary component to beating those coverages: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/HenrySeamCover2.mp4">[/video] It is expected that Henry and fellow incoming free agent Jonnu Smith are going to be the focus of a new-look Patriots offense. This skill-set will make Henry a big part of what New England tries in the passing game in 2021.

Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins

Mike Gesicki Miami Dolphins
Mike Gesicki Miami Dolphins

Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

One way to think about the career arc of Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki is that he is perhaps the poster child for how the modern collegiate tight end acclimates to life in the NFL. Drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft, he struggled as a rookie, catching just 22 passes for 202 yards and being held without a single touchdown. But as we have seen, tight end might be the toughest position for young players in the league next to quarterback, given how the usage at the college level differs from how tight ends are used in the NFL. In 2019 Gesicki saw his numbers get a bump, as he caught 51 passes for 570 yards and five touchdowns. Then last season as the Dolphins knocked on the door to the playoffs, he set career-high marks with 53 catches for 703 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 13.3 yards per reception. What makes Gesicki an intriguing option at the position is his ability to separate from man coverage, whether against linebackers as he does here with some change-of-direction skills: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GesickiCODVersusManLB.mp4">[/video] Or here against a defensive back: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GesickiCrosserVersusManCB.mp4">[/video] The addition of Will Fuller V this off-season should work to create more opportunities for Gesicki underneath and against favorable matchups, which could see the tight end rate even higher on this list next summer.

T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions

T.J. Hockenson Detroit Lions
T.J. Hockenson Detroit Lions

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Mike Gesicki discussion is a perfect opener for talking about T.J. Hockenson. When the Detroit Lions selected the Iowa tight end early in the 2019 NFL draft, expectations were extremely high. Then when he caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL game, some were already fitting him for a gold jacket and sketching out his bust for Canton. But Hockenson finished his rookie season with just 32 receptions for 367 yards and a pair of touchdowns, playing in just 12 games. The buzz around his debut gave way to discussions about whether it was worth it to draft a tight end in the top ten. Then last year fans were given more reason to hope. Hockenson's second NFL year saw him pull in 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns, and his NFL adjustment seemed to be well at hand. What helps him is how he was used at Iowa. Hockenson was utilized as a more traditional, in-line TE (as opposed to his teammate Noah Fant, who was used as the move tight end) and that put Hockenson in position to handle the blocking responsibilities NFL TEs face. You'll see that experience put to used on almost every Lions possession, on plays like this outside zone run: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/HockensonOutsideZone.mp4">[/video] With his blocking ability, and the skill-set to get open against man or zone coverage, Hockenson is in good position to climb even higher on this list after 2021.

Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Sure, he took a year off, and yes, he is not the player he used to be. But Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski remains one of the best player at his position, even if he is not the player he once was. Of course, it helps that he is reunited with Tom Brady, as the two have a chemistry that takes years to build. That was on display in the Super Bowl, when Gronkowski worked himself open in the end zone and Brady read his late break perfectly, resulting in a huge Tampa Bay touchdown: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GronkSBTDFeelBrady.mp4">[/video] But even at this point in his career, Byron Leftwich was still looking to create opportunities in the passing game for Gronkowski, as he did on this tight end screen against the Chicago Bears: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GronkTEScreen.mp4">[/video] Of course, part of what made Gronkowski one of the best players at his position was his ability as a blocker. That continued this past season, as you can see here on this inside running play with the TE working up to the second level on a combination block: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GronkInsideRun.mp4">[/video] Or on this outside zone design: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GronkOutsideZone.mp4">[/video] So sure, Gronkowski might not be the best in the game anymore, but he is still among the top players at his position, and still looks to have a lot left in the tank.

Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

The struggles from Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz were a little easier to handle thanks to the performance from fellow tight end Dallas Goedert. His third season in the NFL did see him lose time due to injuries, but in just 11 games Goedert hauled in 46 passes for 524 yards and three touchdowns, setting career-high marks in both yards per reception (11.4) and yards per target (8.1). Why Goedert appears so high on this list is due to a combination of his route-running, which you see here on this double-move: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GoedertRouteOutandUpManCoverage.mp4">[/video] And what he offers after the reception: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/GoedertYAC.mp4">[/video] For an offense that traditionally focuses on the quick game and YAC, Goedert is a nice weapon to have.

Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

If you are going to be a tight end for the Baltimore Ravens, you need to have the complete tool-kit. That is why Mark Andrews appears so high on this list. The Ravens are one of the teams in the league that relies the most on multiple-TE packages, running 22 offensive personnel (two tight ends) on 16% of their snaps, the highest percentage in the league. That tasks Andrews with not only being a factor in the passing game, but also handling the variety of blocking assignments in Baltimore's offense. Both of which he does very well. First the receiving part, which you see here as he separates from man coverage on a crossing route: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/AndrewsCrosserManCoverage.mp4">[/video] Then the blocking, which you see here as he serves as a lead blocker in a run out of a diamond pistol formation: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/AndrewsDiamondPistol.mp4">[/video] Expectations remain high in Baltimore, and with Andrews in the mix there are reasons to believe that the offense will take a big step forward in 2021.

Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders

(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

"Matchup nightmare" is a phrase commonly used to describe talented tight ends, and the description certainly applies to Darren Waller. Waller is the latest in the modern move tight end mold, a player who can run routes with the footwork and quickness of a wide receiver, but whose size and frame make him tough for a defensive back to cover. The kind of player you gameplan for, like Bill Belichick did earlier this past season. Even being limited in that outing against the New England Patriots, Waller put up impressive numbers in 2020. He caught 107 passes for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns, all of which were career-high marks. What stands out the most watching him, at least for me, is the change-of-direction skills, which you see on this route against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/WallerWhipUnder.mp4">[/video] But I also love seeing plays like this, with the tight end chipping on the edge before releasing downfield: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/WallerChipCrosser2Man.mp4">[/video] Waller has certainly found a home with the Las Vegas Raiders, and a few more seasons like 2020 might see him crash the top-two party at the position.

Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Part of me wanted to rank Travis Kelce the top tight end in the NFL for this video alone: https://twitter.com/Ihartitz/status/1408115241767030788 Taken at the start of the new "TE University," the latest position group retreat we have seen crop up in the NFL off-season landscape, Kelce looks every bit the part of a professional hype man. But while the line between him and George Kittle is very blurry, and the discussion is more of a "1A and 1B" ranking, what is not in dispute is what Kelce offers offensively. Kelce is every bit the matchup nightmare at the position that strikes fear in the hearts of NFL defensive coordinators, with his ability to separate from man coverage whether facing a safety, a linebacker or a cornerback. You can see that at the start of this video breaking down the Kansas City offense against the Carolina Panthers: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1325978633031331840 Beyond that, there is what Kelce offers after the catch, as he did on this play against the Miami Dolphins: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/KelceYAC.mp4">[/video] Or this play against the Las Vegas Raiders: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/KelceYAC3-1.mp4">[/video] Both Kelce and Kittle are elite talents at the position, generational types of players. The kind that many believe Kyle Pitts will become. Stack them either way you wish, they're both incredible.

George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers

(teven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

Why does George Kittle top my list of the game's top tight ends? A few reasons, but chief among them is his all-around ability at the position. A player that can line up against Stephon Gilmore on a third down and beat him in man coverage: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/Kittle2manStephonGilmore.mp4">[/video] But then block like this against a defensive tackle: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/KittleDownBlockDT.mp4">[/video] Or this when he climbs to the second level on a zone blocking design: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/06/KittleOZSecondLevel.mp4">[/video] Kittle represents everything you want at the position.

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