clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The truth about tight ends

And why the WFT situation might not be as bad as some think

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NFL: Washington Football Team-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Ask “experts,” ask journalists, ask fans, what the weakest position on the Washington Football Team’s roster is, and you’re extremely likely to get an answer that falls into one of two categories: Offensive line or tight end. I’ve already written a piece explaining why I didn’t think fans should be that worried about the offensive line this year, and why I’m expecting a middling to “good” unit, if we can avoid significant injuries.

This piece is a little different. In March, I profiled Logan Thomas, and explained why I was excited about his addition to the team. Thomas proceeded to light up training camp and even drew a recent comparison to former Pro Bowler, Greg Olsen.

After roster cut downs, Thomas stood out clearly as TE1, with Jeremy Sprinkle listed as TE2, and newcomer and former Panther, Marcus Baugh filling in the TE3 role (and Hale Hentges assigned to the practice squad).

“But these guys have never been good. They can’t ever be good,” some will say.

Tight Ends Are Different

In the NFL, where draft pedigree often has a pretty solid correlation with professional performance (at least in broad terms), tight end is one position that bucks that trend - hard.

Here are the top 10 tight ends going into the 2020 season and their draft round and age:

  1. Travis Kelce - Round 3 (age 30)
  2. George Kittle - Round 5 (age 26)
  3. Zach Ertz - Round 2 (age 29)
  4. Mark Andrews - Round 3 (age 25)
  5. Rob Gronkowski - Round 2 (age 31)
  6. Darren Waller - Round 6 (age 27)
  7. Jared Cook - Round 3 (age 33)
  8. Austin Hooper - Round 3 (age 25)
  9. Tyler Higbee - Round 4 (age 27)
  10. Hunter Henry - Round 2 (age 25)

I can’t think of any other (non-special teams) position where none of the top ten players in the league were first round picks. And, their absence on this list isn’t because tight ends simply haven’t been taken in the first round. In the last three years, the following tight ends have had their names called on the first day of the draft: OJ Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku, Hayden Hurst, TJ Hockenson, and Noah Fant.

So What’s Going On?

Mike Tagliere has written a series for Fantasy Pros looking at the ages that players tend to decline at different positions on the roster. He’s clearly looking at player performance through a fantasy football lens, but that has a close relationship to actual on-the-field performance, at least in terms of catch metrics.

Looking back over 13 years of data, no one has finished as a top 3 tight end before their age-25 season - with the exception of Rob Gronkowski, perhaps the best tight end to play the game. That’s 159 seasons from players (with a minimum of 25 targets per season) under 25, and not one top 3 performance (other than Gronkowski’s two). On the flipside, tight ends have their best chance for a top 3 finish at the age of 30, after which, there is a rather precipitous drop off for all but the best tight ends (see: Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez).

Playing Tight End Well is Hard

The reality is, tight end is one of the toughest positions on the field to learn.

In the Super Bowl era, from 1967 until now, there have been 899 tight ends taken in the NFL draft (via DraftHistory.com). Of those 899, not one has reached the 900-yard receiving plateau as a rookie. Rob Gronkowski wrapped his first pro season with 546 yards; Greg Olsen with 391. Tony Gonzalez, named by NFL.com’s Gil Brandt as the greatest tight end of all time, had 368.

As a rule, tight ends either come into the league with the understanding that they can perform as a blocker - but don’t have the athleticism to be a big part of the offense (e.g., Hengtes) - or as pass catchers who have to hone their craft as blockers in order to be reliably inserted into the line-up (e.g., Delanie Walker, who didn’t surpass 500 yards receiving until his 8th year in the league, at age 29).

The reality is, many pass catching tight ends never have to do much pass blocking in college, so NFL coaches have to throw them to the wolves once they reach the pros. And that puts coaches in a precarious position:

Do we risk our pass protection, and our quarterback, by testing a tight end who’s not quite ready? Or do we ease that tight end into the lineup, and hope that slowing down the process produces results down the road?

Coaches, predictably, generally choose option two. For as difficult as the position can be to learn - it’s been said that tight end requires knowledge of the second-most information on the field, behind only the quarterback - the WFT could be in a fortunate position in that regard. The team’s TE1, Logan Thomas, was a standout quarterback at Virginia Tech, and was initially drafted into the NFL as a QB by the Cardinals. That experience could position him well to make a smoother, albeit delayed, transition to successful tight end in the NFL.

And, perhaps Jeremy Sprinkle, now 26 years old has finally gotten sufficient seasoning after three very lackluster years in the league to break out a bit. After all, Coach Ron called him the “most stout” of the tight ends in training camp, which I’m taking as a sign that his blocking has improved (recall, Sprinkle was originally drafted for his receiving ability).

Curiously, Marcus Baugh’s college stats and profile are fairly similar to Sprinkle’s, with a need to continue working on his catch reliability and blocking skills. It’s reasonable to expect that he’s still very much a work in progress, but he apparently showed tight ends’ coach Pete Hoener enough in Carolina to merit an invitation from the coach once he took his new position in DC.

WFT Tight Ends - Career Stats

Name Age Receptions Yards TDs
Name Age Receptions Yards TDs
Logan Thomas 29 35 317 2
Jeremy Sprinkle 26 33 295 3
Marcus Baugh 25

Conclusion:

The developmental trajectory of tight ends in the NFL is such that they almost never make an instant impact upon being drafted into the league, regardless of how highly they are taken. The complexity of the position at the pro level just isn’t mirrored in any form or fashion in college. As such, virtually all the best tight ends in the league take at least 2 to 3 years to come into their own.

Given that the WFT hasn’t drafted a tight end since Jeremy Sprinkle in 2017, that would seem to leave the team with two likely options: 1) Stick by veteran tight ends, in the hopes that they can be groomed into success (our current path), or 2) Trade for or pick up a veteran, free agent tight end. Perhaps the latter option will be explored this offseason (recall, the team toyed with signing Austin Hooper this offseason). In any case, the WFT should strongly consider drafting a tight end in 2021 to continue to feed the team’s pipeline, even if that player might not be expected to contribute substantially until 2023 or beyond.

Bonus Content:

Marcus Baugh college highlights.

Poll

How do you feel about the WFT’s tight ends after reading this article?

This poll is closed

  • 43%
    Better than I did before.
    (213 votes)
  • 3%
    Worse than I did before.
    (15 votes)
  • 53%
    I’m unmoved.
    (264 votes)
492 votes total Vote Now