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Which NFC East team has the best tight end group in 2020?

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Hogs Haven looks at all four teams in the division in an effort to identify the best and the weakest of the NFC East

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
The draft is done, the free agents have been signed, the coaches have met their players. Now there’s not much to do but wait for training camp. While we wait, it seemed like it might be fun to evaluate and rank the NFC East position-by-position.

Last off-season, Hogs Haven published articles that focused on ranking position groups in an effort to identify what the division would look like in 2019. This year, we’re going to do it again.


Click here to see all the Ranking the NFC East articles


NFC East Positional overview

Things have changed a lot at the tight end position for the Redskins with the official retirement of Vernon Davis and the end of Jordan Reed’s Redskins career. They go into 2020 with a large and eclectic group of tight ends, none of whom is really distinguished, leaving a ton of questions about the depth chart, including whose name will be at the top, and how many TEs the team will keep.


The seven tight ends on the Redskins training camp roster

Redskins 2020 UDFA profile and film review: TE Thaddeus Moss

Can Antonio Gandy-Golden Become a Joker Tight End for the Redskins?


In Dallas, Jason Witten retired to the MNF booth in 2018, unretired to play for the Cowboys in ‘19, and now has signed as a free agent with the Vegas Raiders, leaving new head coach Mike McCarthy and returning OC Kellen Moore with Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and Blake Bell, putting them in competition with Washington for the most anonymous tight end group in the NFL.

The Giants have a tight end group that may not be particularly deep, but features a huge talent as the starter. Even Engram is a former first round pick (2017), and Dave Gettleman has already picked up the 4th year tight end’s 5th year option. That said, Engram hasn’t set the world on fire; he has missed 14 games in his first three seasons, with a negative trend (he played 15 games as a rookie, 11 in 2018, and 8 games last season). His receptions, yards and touchdowns have all fallen from his rookie year as injuries have increasingly kept him on the sideline. Still, he has accounted for 1,766 yards and 12 TDs, which would be pretty solid production for a tight end playing 16 games per season rather than 11 games. He holds multiple franchise records (and a handful of NFL records for rookie tight ends). If he can stay healthy, he has the potential to be the best tight end in the NFC East.

While fans of other NFL teams could be forgiven if they weren’t familiar with Kaden Smith, who was drafted by the 49ers last year, then waived and picked up by the G-men, he should be a familiar name to Redskins fans, who heard it a lot in the second game against the Giants last year. Smith didn’t have a stellar start to his NFL career as a rookie, but he had a highlight reel game against the Redskins in Week 16 when he caught 6 passes for 35 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, during the 41–35 win. If the Redskins defense weren’t able to do anything else over the past few years, they excelled at making opposing tight ends look like superstars.

If you consider the Giants to have the cupboard stocked with Engram, then the Eagles’ pantry would appear to be stuffed full in anticipation of the zombie apocalypse. The Eagles have Zach Ertz, who has been unstoppable against the Redskins, and pretty damned good against the rest of the NFL. He is backed up by Dallas Goedert, a tight end who would start on the majority of NFL teams. With the dearth of talent that the Eagles have had at the wide receiver position of late, Ertz has been able to account for more than 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons, while Goedert, the #2 guy on the depth chart, has chipped in another 941 yards and 9 TDs — about on par with the production the Giants have gotten from starter Evan Engram.

I don’t think there’s a lot to think about here; the Eagles have nearly as much talent at the tight end position as the rest of the division combined. The most interesting things to look for this season will be whether Ertz can top 1,000 yards again, whether Engram can stay healthy and productive, and whether anyone on the Washington or Dallas rosters can step up and prove himself to be a quality NFL tight end.

What do scouts look for in NFL tight end prospects?

Last year, the Giants fan site, Big Blue View, published a very good series on the topic, “What do scouts look for?”

I’d like to quote heavily from that series here. What follows is the BBV discussion of what scouts look for in running back prospects.

Tight ends usually begin their career slowly in the NFL and their respective teams need to show patience. Generally speaking, tight ends hit their stride and reach their peak in about their fourth or fifth year in the league. That being said, the good ones seem to last forever. Think about guys like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and just recently, Jason Witten coming out of the television booth. Even if they can’t run well anymore, knowing the tricks of the trade at this position gives good tight ends a long lifespan.

As bigger bodies than wide receivers, many tight ends enter the league without refined route running skills. They don’t know when to sit down in zones or keep running vs. man coverage. They aren’t sharp out of their breaks. Some just lack the athletic ability to snap off a route and make banana cuts instead of right angles. You absolutely want to find a tight end prospect with some change of direction skills. Route running can be learned, though, as can blocking for that matter. So while it would be easy to list those two attributes amongst the most important, having the three traits below is more important in the long run.

Attitude

This could also be described as toughness. This is still a physical position. While you don’t see Mark Bavaro/Mike Ditka type of highlights from tight ends after the catch quite as much as we used to, it doesn’t mean that running over or dragging defensive backs isn’t still appreciated. There is an attitude needed to play this position. The attitude that “I am bigger, stronger and tougher than you little people trying to defend me” … almost like a center in basketball. There is also an attitude that even though I am mixing it up in the run game or pass protection with a great defensive end, I am going to hold my ground and fight you to the end. Also, an attitude is needed to be able to withstand some difficult/learning seasons before a tight end reaches his prime and the work ethic to keep honing his craft. Now, it is certainly true that tight end is more of a finesse position than at any point in NFL history, but attitude and toughness will never go out of style.

Ball skills

Tight ends usually operate in the middle of the field. They absolutely must excel in tight quarters. Of course this goes for producing in the red zone, a must for top tight ends, as well. This position must do a great job of shielding smaller defenders and securing the football. Big strong reliable hands at this position are a must. Again, more so than with outside receivers, tight ends are being hacked at and attacked from all angles by defenders. They must secure the football. Being able to catch on the run or contort to poor throws is more difficult for these big receivers than their counterparts at wide receiver.

Knowledge

As mentioned, the job requirements for tight end really varies from team to team. But if a player is smart with his assignments, the offense he is in and the nuances of the position, he can play a very long time. Knowledge of coverage schemes is extremely important. Knowledge of his quarterback’s tendencies and preferences is extremely important. Knowledge of blocking techniques is extremely important. The use of blocking angles and hand placement can go a long way in getting a bigger defensive lineman blocked, even if the tight end is at an obvious physical disadvantage. Knowledge is also key for the team doing the drafting. Don’t ask a 245-pound athletic receiving tight end to block defensive ends all afternoon and don’t expect the mauling 275-pounder to win down the seam. Find the player that best fits your system and let him grow and develop.


The film room - Andrew’s analysis

In this section, we’ll offer a look at a few of the top players in the division, with an analysis of their styles, skills and limitations written by Andrew York, who has volunteered to co-author this series with me.

Andrew is a self-taught film analyst with a pretty impressive resume. He has a PhD in Experimental Particle Physics and has spent several years doing research with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and now does R&D work as a US government contractor. He will put that analytical brain to work this off-season helping to analyze some of the top players in the NFC East.

He will break down 2019 film from 3 NFC tight ends:

  • Zach Ertz
  • Logan Thomas
  • Evan Engram

Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

Zach Ertz played football at Stanford alongside Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener in his redshirt sophomore season. He played well enough that he could have declared for the draft that year alongside those teammates, but decided to return for another year, becoming Stanford’s top offensive weapon and leading the team in just about every receiving category. He was the consensus #2 TE in the 2013 draft behind Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert and was taken in the 2nd round (35th overall) by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Watching Ertz play, he looks very good in just about every aspect of TE play, but elite only in his route running. His routes are crisp, he stems his routes well to maximize his chances of getting a first down, he chooses his path well to exploit weaknesses in the coverage, and he does a good job using misdirection and exploiting a DB’s blind spot to get open. Ertz has extremely sticky hands, catching almost anything thrown his way. He has good suddenness and change of direction ability, which allows him to get open quickly when he breaks on his route. He has good deep speed, though certainly not elite.

Ertz is a very good blocker, showing polished technique, high effort, and good enough strength to get the job done in most cases, though he’s not likely to block someone to the ground. Ertz is very high effort in general, never giving up on a play.

Overall, I think Ertz is a very good, well-rounded player with no real weaknesses, but lacks the elite strength and athleticism of a Gronk or Kelce. He’s a perennial Pro Bowler, but hasn’t yet been named All Pro and I suspect he never will be.


Zach Ertz

Eagles vs Redskins, Week 1 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[7:32] Ertz lines up top of screen at the edge of the line as a blocker. He does a great job staying low and popping his hands inside Ryan Kerrigan’s in order to maintain leverage and stand him up. He also does a great job maintaining his anchor so the larger Kerrigan can’t simply push him back. Ertz only stands up as Kerrigan stands up, and keeps his hands inside to control Kerrigan and seal the edge as the RB sprints in that direction. Ertz is a very polished and high-effort blocker, though he’s not going to block people to the ground like Kittle or Gronk might do.


Zach Ertz

Eagles vs Bears, Week 9 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[2:48] Ertz lines up bottom of screen at the edge of the line as a pass catcher. He releases very quickly out of his stance, gets upfield past the SAM, then very quickly turns inside on a crossing route. He does a great job stemming his route so that he’s right at the 1st down line when he breaks inside, ensuring that a catch will get the offense a new set of downs. He also does a great job threading the needle between defenders with his route and shows good hands on the reception. Overall, this play shows how Ertz is very good as a pass catcher, but elite as a route runner.

[3:22] Ertz again lines up bottom of screen at the edge of the line. He gets a good release, and then does a great job faking outside as he’s approaching the opposing DB and getting the DB to flip his hips outside and briefly turn his back. Ertz then cuts inside and gets easy separation while the DB is turned around, ending up with the reception and a long TD. He also does a good job quickly locating the ball when he turns around and shows good hands in catching it. Ertz wasn’t slow on this play, but it was his savvy route running and reliable hands more than anything that allowed him to make the big play.


Logan Thomas, Washington Redskins

Logan Thomas was one of the top TE prospects in the nation coming out of high school, but was convinced to convert to QB at Virginia Tech, backing up another dual-threat QB in Tyrod Taylor in 2010. Thomas started the next 3 years at QB in college, putting up gaudy stats, but mostly against inferior teams. Thomas had a dominant Combine, with testing very comparable to Rob Gronkowski, and was taken in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. He was released by the Cardinals the very next year and bounced around from team to team until the Lions converted him back to TE in late 2016. He has since served as a backup TE primarily used as a blocker.


Related:

Has Logan Thomas finally found the right spot?


Watching Thomas play, he reminds me of a TE version of Terrelle Pryor. His athleticism is evident on the field, but he’s also very raw and lacks nuance in just about every aspect of the position. As a pass catcher, his routes are raw and rounded, he doesn’t employ fakes or counters, and he doesn’t show much awareness of the soft spots of a coverage when choosing how to run his routes. As a blocker, he stands up too quickly and loses leverage, is a tick slow in reacting as a pass blocker, and doesn’t do a good job getting his hands inside to maintain leverage. He compensates for all of this by being big, strong, and fast, but it only gets him so far. He can get separation as a pass catcher purely through his speed, but only when he’s matched up 1-on-1 against LBs. He’s long and strong enough to successfully block in the run and pass game despite often giving up leverage early, but he still does it at a slightly sub-par level.

Thomas and his intriguing athleticism could be a big lump of clay waiting to be molded. However, having already played 3 years as a TE in the NFL, I’m a bit skeptical that he will suddenly develop this year. Just as with Terrelle Pryor, I think there’s a reason some guys don’t seem to develop, regardless of what position they try. I’d love to be proven wrong. I see his greatest utility as a blocking TE who can occasionally add value in the passing game by faking a block and running uncovered for a short reception.


Logan Thomas

Lions vs Buccaneers, Week 15 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[0:31] Thomas starts top of screen next to the RT. He attempts to chip, but quickly transitions to running a crossing route. Note that he doesn’t employ much subtlety in his route, no fakes outside or attempt to sell something deep and a poor job stemming the route and breaking laterally. Instead, he simply runs in a bit of a curve to the opposite side of the field. The LB reads him right away and pursues, though Thomas is fast enough to maintain separation the whole time.

Thomas does a decent job tracking the ball as it’s throw to him, but it bounces off his hands. This play showcases the good and bad of Logan Thomas. He does his job with the chip and is athletic enough to get separation, but his raw route running leaves much to be desired and his hands weren’t good enough to secure the catch.


[6:18] Thomas lines up top of screen next to the LT as a run blocker. After the snap, he stands up too quickly and moves to block safety Darian Stewart. Although it looks like Thomas has a strong push, he leaves his hands outside and is standing too tall, giving up leverage. Thomas also allows himself to get moved outside, negating his ability to block open an interior running lane. Nevertheless, it seems his size and strength are enough to allow Thomas to block open at least a partial running lane to assist the rushing TD. Again, Thomas shows raw technique, but is able to overcome the deficiency somewhat with athleticism.


[7:11] Thomas lines up bottom of screen next to the RT and opposite Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett. Barrett explodes out of his stance and gets the first step on Thomas, who again stands up too quickly, giving up leverage. But again, Thomas is able to compensate for losing the initial engagement with his length and strength, staying with Barrett and pushing him outside far enough that the QB can step up in the pocket to avoid the sack. Thomas did his job on this play, but again relied on athleticism to compensate for problems in his technique.


Logan Thomas

Lions @ Broncos, Week 16 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[0:12] Thomas lines up top of screen next to the RT. He fakes a block and the defense buys it, allowing him to run uncovered on another raw crossing route to get a reception and first down. I think this is going to reflect the main utility Thomas will provide in the passing game; his threat to block will allow him to sell the fake and run uncovered on passes, and he’s a competent enough pass catcher to pull most of those in.


Evan Engram, New York Giants

Evan Engram was a prolific pass catching TE at Ole Miss, though a bit undersized to be used much as a blocker. He measured 6’3” and 234 lbs at the Combine and ran the 40 in a blazing 4.42 seconds. Compared by many draft experts to Jordan Reed, Engram was taken by the Giants in the 1st round, 23rd overall, of the 2017 draft, making him the second TE taken in that draft (behind OJ Howard).

Watching Engram play, his athleticism is the first thing that stands out. He’s got an explosive release, sudden change-of-direction ability, and the top-end speed to take any reception to the house. With Engram alongside Saquon Barkley, the Giants have multiple big play threats. He’s got very good hands and catches almost anything thrown at him. Although he had a catch rate of only 64.7% last year, when you take out uncatchable balls, his true catch rate rises to 80.0% according to advanced stats (even better than Zach Ertz’s 75% true catch rate). Engram is a very good route runner as well, though not quite as polished as Ertz. I think there are still some nuances Engram needs to work on in the passing game, like selling fakes and misdirection, which he admittedly doesn’t need to do much because he can out-athlete most of his opponents. I think Engram’s biggest weakness as a pass catcher is his ability to win contested catches. He just doesn’t do a good job of out-muscling people at the catch point, so he relies on getting separation due to his speed.

I was very surprised to find that Engram is actually a plus blocker. He is extremely high effort in every aspect of play, and that extends to the blocking game. He has also clearly added a lot of strength since college, because he was actually strong enough to block opponents well, and even block them to the ground in some cases. His blocking technique still needs a bit of polish, he doesn’t always get his hands inside, but he stays low to maintain leverage and has the mentality of a blocker, putting his all into every block and not stopping until the whistle.

Engram’s biggest weakness is his durability. He hasn’t played a 16 game season yet in his 3 years in the NFL, playing only 8 games last year. He is a bit undersized for the position, and it may be that his frame can’t support the extra muscle he’s had to put on to play TE.

Overall though, Engram is clearly the most athletic and explosive TE of this group, though not quite as polished as Ertz.

Evan Engram

Giants @ Cowboys, Week 1 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[1:41] Engram lines up at the bottom of the screen, next to the LT. He single-handedly blocks right DE Tyrone Crawford, staying low and keeping his hands inside to maintain leverage while driving forward with his legs. Engram actually does a very good job here, pushing Crawford back and inside, clearing the way for Barkley to run behind him around the edge. This was very good, high effort run blocking by Engram, who blocked up a DE with a 40 lb weight advantage.


Evan Engram

Giants @ Buccaneers, Week 3 highlights | NFL 2019 on YouTube

[1:37] Engram again lines up bottom of screen, next to the LT and opposite CB MJ Stewart. After the snap, Engram does a very good job stutter stepping and faking outside, then redirecting inside on a crossing route. Although Engram doesn’t really sell the fake, he is quick enough in his break to get immediate separation and fast enough to maintain it. Daniel Jones throws it high and Engram does a great job reaching up and snagging the ball out of the air and shows great field awareness spinning and reaching for the 1st down. Overall, this play shows Engram’s athleticism, route running, catching ability, and field awareness.


[6:37] Engram lines up bottom of screen next to the RT. He explodes out of his stance and into the defensive backfield and breaks outside so quickly, the opposing LBs are yards away when they realize he is already past them and they can’t catch him. Engram does a good job turning back and tracking the ball to make the reception, then keeping his balance while dodging a tackle. Once Engram turns upfield, he is gone. He has the speed to separate from any tacklers from behind, and the vision to use his blocker to avoid the one tackler ahead of him. This play showcases Engram’s explosiveness and big play ability in the passing game.


[7:24] Engram lines up bottom of screen, next to the RT. He explodes out of his stance, and as he’s running forward squares up on his blocking assignment, safety Jordan Whitehead. Engram engages Whitehead about 4 yards downfield, but maintains his block and carries Whitehead another 12 yards downfield, eventually blocking him to the ground. Engram does a great job keeping his hands inside throughout most of this block and keeping his power and balance while blocking on the run. He also shows a lot of effort and motor blocking that far downfield.


A look at the top of the depth chart for each team

Of course, no position group consists of just one star player. In a sport that is as physically demanding as football, one in which player injuries are common, the unit depth is as important a factor as the skill of the star players.

Here, we’ll take a look at the top of the depth chart for each team — the pool of players from which the ones on the final 53 seem likely to be chosen. Not all the players listed will make the team, and I might easily miss — especially for the Redskins’ division rivals — players who will make the Week 1 roster, but this list should give some idea of the relative depth of the four positional groups.

Cowboys

  • Blake Jarwin
  • Dalton Schultz
  • Blake Bell

Eagles

  • Zach Ertz
  • Dallas Goedert
  • Joshua Perkins

Giants

  • Evan Engram
  • Kaden Smith

Redskins

  • Hale Hentges
  • Jeremy Sprinkle
  • Logan Thomas
  • Richard Rodgers
  • Thaddeus Moss

Poll

Who is the best TE in the NFC East?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Evan Engram
    (20 votes)
  • 93%
    Zach Ertz
    (282 votes)
302 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which NFC East team has the BEST TE group (taking backups into account) in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Cowboys
    (3 votes)
  • 5%
    Redskins
    (17 votes)
  • 91%
    Eagles
    (284 votes)
  • 2%
    Giants
    (7 votes)
311 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which NFC East team has the WEAKEST TE group (taking backups into account) in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    Cowboys
    (105 votes)
  • 60%
    Redskins
    (179 votes)
  • 0%
    Eagles
    (2 votes)
  • 3%
    Giants
    (9 votes)
295 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which Redskins TE will have the most receptions in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Jeremy Sprinkle
    (26 votes)
  • 20%
    Thaddeus Moss
    (52 votes)
  • 53%
    Logan Thomas
    (138 votes)
  • 8%
    Hale Hentges
    (21 votes)
  • 5%
    Richard Rodgers
    (15 votes)
  • 0%
    Caleb Wilson
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Marcus Baugh
    (2 votes)
256 votes total Vote Now