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How often is college football’s best TE the best TE in his draft class?

Washington Redskins v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of great discussion about Washington’s increasingly crowded tight end room over the course of the past week, and the development of tight ends is something I’ve written about a fair amount in the past. Perhaps it’s the combination of those two things, in conjunction with the usual offseason lull, that caused this article idea to come to me as I slept last night: How have the top tight ends in college football made the leap to the NFL, relative to the other players at the position in their draft classes?

Each year, since 2000, the John Mackey Award has been presented to “college football’s most outstanding tight end. The award is given annually to the tight end who best exemplifies the play, sportsmanship, academics, and community values of Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey.”

In this piece, I’ll look at the last 21 winners of the award, starting in 2000, and their comparative performance to the top tight ends in their draft class, in terms of “Career Approximate Value (CarAV).”

2000

The inaugural winner of the Mackey Award was one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets at Purdue, Tim Stratton. Despite finishing his college career as the school’s top reception leader (204), Stratton didn’t pursue a career in the pros.

The top tight end in the draft class ended up being Todd Heap (43), drafted by the Ravens (R1, P31).

2001

Colorado’s Daniel Graham won the award in its second year, and was rewarded with a first round selection by the Patriots. He was the second of three tight ends selected in the first round that year. Those three players, as well as the second most productive TE in the class are listed below (CarAV in parenthesis):

  • Jeremy Shockey (R1, P14) - (48)
  • Daniel Graham (R1, P21) - (19)
  • Jerramy Stevens (R1, P28) - (18)
  • Randy McMichael (R4, P114) - (33)

2002

Dallas Clark, out of Iowa, was selected as the third Mackey Award winner, and was selected by the Colts in the first round of the 2003 as a result. He ended up being the second most productive tight end in the class (51) to Dallas’ Jason Witten (81) (R3, P69).

2003

Son of Hall of Fame tight end, Kellen Winslow, Kellen Winslow II, out of Miami was so highly regarded he was taken by the Browns with the #6 overall pick in the draft (just behind Sean Taylor). Winslow had a solid career (38), though less productive than the long-lived Ben Watson (43), who was taken at the very end of the first round by the Patriots. Washington’s Chris Cooley (34), was selected in the third round of this draft.

2004

Virginia’s Heath Miller won the Mackey Award in 2004, and ended up both the highest picked tight end in the draft (R1, P30) and the most productive tight end in his class, CarAV 46.

2005

In 2006, UCLA’s Marcedes Lewis was selected as the top tight end in the nation. Lewis had a productive career (34) - apparently he’s the only first round pick to catch a TD reception from Aaron Rodgers - but was only the third most productive tight end in the class.

  • Vernon Davis (R1, P6) - (51)
  • Owen Daniels (R4, P98) - (41)

2006

Minnesota’s Matt Spaeth was the Mackey selection in 2006, and was really the first award winner, to have completely bombed in the pros (2), despite having been selected in the third round. Notable tight ends with more successful careers from the 2007 draft class include the following:

  • Greg Olsen (R1, P31) - (59)
  • Brent Celek (R5, P162) - (35)
  • Zach Miller (R2, P38) - (29)
  • Scott Chandler (R4, P129) - (18)

2007

In 2008, the Redskins selected USC’s Fred Davis in the second round of the draft. Unfortunately for Washington, Davis never lived up to his billing (14), and was superseded by several tight ends in his class, including:

  • Martellus Bennett (R2, P61) - (35)
  • Jermichael Finley (R3, P91) - (27)
  • Dustin Keller (R1, P30) - (22)
  • Jacob Tamme (R4, P127) - (20)

2008

A third round selection, Missouri’s Chase Coffman was another Mackey bust in the pros (0), despite having stuck around in the league for around 8 years. The most productive tight ends in the 2009 class were Jared Cook (R3, P89) (46) and Brandon Pettigrew (R1, P20) (22).

2009

In perhaps one of the best tight end draft classes in memory, Florida’s Aaron Hernandez was selected as the top collegiate TE. He ended up being the 6th tight end selected in the class, and its 4th most productive (22).

  • Rob Gronkowski (R2, P42) - (73)
  • Jimmy Graham (R3, P95) - (61)
  • Jermaine Gresham (R1, P21) - (28)

2010

Fifth round selection, Arkansas’ DJ Williams, was another Mackey Award let down in the pros (1). Notable tight ends from this class include Kyle Rudolph (34), Charles Clay (28), and Julius Thomas (21). Rudolph was the highest selected TE in the class, taken in the second round.

2011

Clemson’s Dwayne Allen was the second TE taken in the 2012 draft, and was also the second most productive (12). The tight end taken before him, Coby Fleener (R2, P34) was the most productive in the class at a CarAV of 25.

2012

There were high hopes for the Mackey Winner from Notre Dame, Tyler Eifert, taken with the 21st overall pick, but, unfortunately, repeated injuries relegated him to the fourth best TE in his class (18).

  • Travis Kelce (R3, P63) - (49)
  • Zach Ertz (R2, P35) - (42)
  • Jordan Reed (R3, P85) - (25)

2013

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, out of Washington, won the award in 2013, and ended up being the second tight end selected (in the second round), and the third best TE in the class (9). Eric Ebron, taken #10 overall (27) and Richard Rodgers (14), taken in the third, ended up being more productive.

2014

Florida State’s Nick O’Leary won the Mackey Award in 2014, but that wasn’t enough to get him drafted before the 6th round (6). In this thin TE class, Jesse James is the only name that really stands out (11) (R5, P160).

2015

Hunter Henry, out of Arkansas, won the Mackey Award in 2015, and were it not for injury, would likely be the most productive TE in his class (18). As it stands now, however, Austin Hooper, taken a round later than Henry, has had the slightly more productive career (22). Tyler Higbee, taken in the 4th, is in the mix as well (16).

2016

Michigan’s Jake Butt was named the best collegiate tight end, but his performance (1) hasn’t been anywhere close to the top 5 performers in his draft class. To be fair, he’s had a number of injuries since entering the league.

  • OJ Howard (R1, P19) - (11)
  • Evan Engram (R1, P23) - (18)
  • Gerald Everett (R2, P44) - (11)
  • Jonnu Smith (R3, P100) - (11)
  • George Kittle (R5, P146) - (28) [Jeremy Sprinkle was taken 8 picks later <weeps silently>]

2017

In the 2018 draft, the Ravens took Mark Andrews, the Mackey winner from Oklahoma, in the third round. He was the 4th TE selected in the draft, and he’s been the most productive, to date, by a wide margin (23).

2018-2020

The last three awardees, TJ Hockenson (2018), Harrison Bryant (2019), and Kyle Pitts (2020), either haven’t been in the league long enough to make a fair determination about their career success, or haven’t been in the pros yet at all. Hockenson and Pitts were both the top TEs taken in their respective drafts - Bryant was the 6th taken in his, in the 4th round. Pitts, at #4 overall, was the highest drafted tight end in at least the last twenty plus years, and has enormous expectations on his shoulders.

Conclusion

So what can be said of drafting the Mackey Award winner, and taking tight ends high in the draft, more broadly? Well, of the 18 winners evaluated, there were only 2 cases where the Mackey Award winner was the best tight end in his draft: Heath Miller and Mark Andrews. Only Miller was also the highest picked tight end in his draft (R1, P30).

In the other 17 cases, only 6 times was the top tight end taken in the first round (6 of the total 7 cases happened from 2000-2006). Since 2006, 4 second rounders, 3 third rounders, a 4th rounder, and 2 5th rounders have been the most productive tight ends in their respective classes.

So what does this tell us? Somehow, it seems like the league’s ability to assess tight ends has gotten worse over time. Perhaps that’s because of the evolution of the position over the course of the last decade and a half?

In any case, a Mackey selection seems neither to be an exceptional indicator of future pro success - there are more busts than there have been top performing tight ends - or the possession of “community values” - two awardees eventually became convicted felons (Hernandez (for murder) and Winslow (for rape and assault)).

For the time being, converting tight ends from other positions (and sports) doesn’t seem like the most outlandish strategy available.

Poll

How would you like the team to pursue future tight ends?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Use a first or second round pick on one.
    (63 votes)
  • 16%
    Grab other teams’ cast offs.
    (112 votes)
  • 73%
    Rely on Pete Hoener’s secret formula.
    (490 votes)
665 votes total Vote Now