NFL execs rank George Kittle, Travis Kelce and other top-tier tight ends: Who makes the top 10?

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We all love best-of lists, but what if people around the NFL created their own? To preview the 2022 NFL season, we surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rusher to interior offensive lineman. This is the third edition of these rankings, and there are several players who moved up or dropped from last year’s lists. Monday, we focus on the tight ends.

Here’s how our process worked: Voters gave us their best 10 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, hundreds of interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, more than 50 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. We had several ties, so we broke them with the help of additional voting and follow-up calls with our rankers. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy — even the honorable mentions.

The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2022. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who are the best players today? Pretty simple.

We’ll roll out a position per day over 11 days. Here’s the schedule: edge rushers (July 5), defensive tackles (July 6), off-ball linebackers (July 7), cornerbacks (July 8), safeties (July 9), interior offensive linemen (July 10), quarterbacks (July 11), running backs (July 12), wide receivers (July 13), tight ends (July 14) and offensive tackles (July 15).

Tight ends in the NFL fall into two categories: the traditional ones, and wide receivers who are tight ends by title due to their size. Several players in this year’s top 10 either have mild interest in blocking or aren’t asked to do it as often as a traditional tight end would. That’s largely because they are so good at beating coverages to get open. But it also leaves those who voted here in a precarious spot, choosing between throwback-style favorites and matchup tight ends who fit today’s passing trends.

This debate spills into the top of the rankings for a third consecutive year. Let’s look at some of the game’s top tight ends as ranked by execs, coaches, scouts and players around the NFL.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 3
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: 1

Kittle’s all-around game still endears him to voters, leading to his third consecutive first-place crown.

His production last year — 71 catches for 910 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games — was modest for his standards, and he missed time for a third straight season because of a calf injury. But Kittle’s 6.2 catches above expectation (per NFL Next Gen Stats) and 19.4% reception rate per route run were both second highest among tight ends.

“He’s such an explosive player with or without the ball, run game, run after catch — that to me is the biggest thing,” an NFC offensive coach said. “He’s never going to be a great route runner. But he plays so physical through contact, and his savvy, and his play speed is so fast that he can overcome all of that.”

Kittle’s 452 yards after catch ranked second among tight ends, and his 188 yards after first contact were third.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 4
Age: 32 | Last year’s ranking: 2

The No. 1 ranking has alluded Kelce for three years, but he’s nearly four years older than Kittle, and Kittle will always have the blocking advantage over him. But let’s not discount Kelce’s historic run of 704 catches for 9,006 yards since 2014 — and the way he does it.

“When it comes to route running, putting him out there all game and asking him to isolate and win, there’s still nobody better at the position,” a veteran AFC scout said.

An open-field savant, Kelce led all tight ends in yards after contact (197) and yards after catch (554). He also runs more routes than any tight end, posting 553 last season and turning them into 92 catches, 1,125 yards and nine touchdowns, though he did have six drops on the year.

“He’s still so clutch in big moments,” a veteran AFC offensive coach said. “Just look at the end of the Bills game [in the playoffs].”

Down three points this past January, Kelce caught a pass for a 25-yard gain with under 10 seconds left, settling up a tying field goal. Then he went on to catch the winning TD in overtime.

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 5
Age: 29 | Last year’s ranking: 3

Waller’s 2021 production was unspectacular, due in part to ankle and knee injuries that cost him six games. With 55 catches for 665 yards and two touchdowns, Waller was well off his pace from 2019-20, when he averaged nearly 100 catches and 1,200 yards per year. His 7.1 yards per target were ninth among tight ends, and per NFL Next Gen Stats, his catch rate over expectation was minus-4.9% (21st for TEs with 50-plus targets).

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story with Waller, whose presence on the depth chart keeps defensive coaches restless. He’s in his prime as the most dangerous matchup tight end in the NFL behind Kelce. Josh McDaniels’ offense is expected to feature Waller early and often in Year 1.

“I don’t even really look at him as a tight end, though he can function as one,” an AFC coordinator said. “You can line him up anywhere. He can bully smaller DBs and has the speed to separate. He’s a guy you can throw vertically to and have no reservations, can throw him jump balls, quick passes over the middle. His range is pretty incredible.”

His 4.46-second 40-yard dash speed helps him accelerate in the open field, and 23.6% of his catches gained at least 20 yards last season — third among tight ends with 30-plus receptions.

Waller is not known for his blocking, but at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, he can also do damage there when necessary.

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 6
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 4

Andrews made his most compelling argument for the top three yet, leading the tight end class in targets (152), receptions (107), receiving yardage (1,361), first downs (75, 12 more than any other tight end) and air yards per target (10.3). His nine TD catches also tied three others for the tight end lead.

In a run-first Ravens offense, Andrews continues to dominate. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he saw 25.9% of Baltimore’s targets last season, the eighth-highest percentage in the NFL regardless of position.

“He’s certainly exceeded my expectations,” an NFC offensive coach said. “I thought he was a one-speed guy, but he’s been more dynamic than that. Great catch radius and savvy. He just doesn’t have the elite skills that you see with a [Kyle] Pitts or Waller. Can he matchup outside and win like those guys? I think he’s a notch below that.”

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: 10
Age: 21 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked (rookie)

Last year’s voters telegraphed Pitts as a top-five tight end after his rookie year, and he fulfilled that promise with a 1,026-yard season in Atlanta, making him the first rookie tight end since Mike Ditka to hit that mark.

“He’ll be in that Waller and Kelce class after next year,” an NFL coordinator said. “He doesn’t even know what he’s doing yet — wait until he figures it out.”

What needs to be figured out is the nuance of the position, including blocking. It has never been Pitts’ calling card, though he has improved in that area since college. But stretching the field is no problem for the 2021 fourth overall pick. Pitts led the position in air yards per target (10.8) and yards before first contact per catch (13.1).

Pitts had only one touchdown catch, though, and his 61.8% catch rate was 22nd among tight ends.

Highest ranking: 5 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 6

Goedert was the most consistent vote-getter in the next tier of tight ends, appearing on nearly 80% of the ballots. He is considered versatile for his ability to run routes with nuance and burst; flex into different positions, such as slot tight end or backside receiver; and hold up as a blocker in the running game.

“He’s kind of a sleeper to me,” an AFC personnel evaluator said. “Never gets huge media praise, but he’s a big, smooth athlete who’s good in both phases of the game — can stretch the seams and also has enough athletic ability to run the route tree.”

Young quarterbacks need nothing more than a friendly target over the middle, and Goedert provides Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts with just that. Hurts produced a 92.8 QBR when throwing Goedert’s way, and 25.0% of Goedert’s catches went for at least 20 yards, second among tight ends last season behind Tampa Bay’s Rob Gronkowski. Only Pitts had more yards per reception than Goedert’s 14.8.

In all, Goedert caught 56 balls for 830 yards and four scores — but his 6.6% drop rate wasn’t stellar.

“One of the few three-down-capable TEs that win from multiple spots in the passing game with speed to win vertically, and he gives you enough as an inline blocker,” an NFC executive said.

Highest ranking: 5 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 5

Hockenson is a tight end in the classic sense, about as well-rounded as they come. His 2021 production was solid (61 catches for 583 yards and four touchdowns in 12 games) while playing in the league’s 25th-ranked scoring offense.

“He has some explosion in the passing game, and he’s a competitive blocker,” an NFC exec said. “As far as all-around tight ends go, he’s really good. Not flashy.”

Hockenson posted a respectable 86.1 Pro Football Focus rating, and his 44.4% reception rate on tight-window throws was sixth at the position (NFL Next Gen Stats). The Lions are expected to prioritize Hockenson in contract extension talks sometime this summer.

Highest ranking: 5 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked

Schultz’s two-year run in Dallas has been among the steadiest of tight end play leaguewide, seeing him compile 141 receptions, 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns since 2020. Last season, Schultz’s 76.5% reception rate was the highest for any tight end who caught at least 50 passes (78 of 102 targets), and per NFL Next Gen Stats, his 5.0 catches above expectation ranked third at the position.

“Dependability, versatile with blocking, really good hands,” an AFC exec said.

Added an NFC offensive coach: “He can handle multiple roles — good hands, competitive blocker, can bend to get in and out of breaks. Not as dynamic as others on this list but really solid.”

Schultz is set to play the 2022 season on a $10.8 million franchise tag unless the Cowboys sign him to a contract extension by Friday.

Highest ranking: 6 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked

Thanks to a strong third NFL season, Knox made a late voting surge to knock more decorated tight ends down the list. He emerged as a potent red zone threat for quarterback Josh Allen in Buffalo last season, with nine of his 49 receptions ending in the end zone, though 14 tight ends had more yardage than his 587.

“Very tough, athletic, good route runner,” one high-ranking AFC exec said. An AFC scout added that Knox’s run blocking and run-after-the-catch ability also stand out.

Knox must carve out real estate in the Bills’ playmaking cul-de-sac, but with Cole Beasley now gone, he can become a safety valve for Allen over the middle.

Highest ranking: 6 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 7

Henry won a tiebreaker with Miami’s Mike Gesicki to land the final spot in the top 10, with voters preferring Henry’s traditional tight end presence over Gesicki’s vertical-threat ability.

Henry went for 50 catches, 603 yards and nine touchdowns last season despite playing with a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones and a run-heavy Patriots attack. And he did not record a single drop in 75 targets.

“Really reliable player,” an NFL scouting director said. “Great hands. Quick and savvy.”

Honorable mentions

Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins: One of the game’s best vertical tight ends, Gesicki was targeted on 22.2% of his routes last season, resulting in 73 catches for 780 yards and two scores. Voters are torn on his tight end merits. “He’s a negative as a blocker,” an NFL personnel director said. “Has redeeming qualities in the pass game, but that’s not a tight end to me, even though the game is going that way.” Added an AFC scout: “High floor, low ceiling. Kind of like boom or bust in fantasy but in real life.”

Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers: Freiermuth impressed as a rookie with 60 catches for 497 yards and seven touchdowns while navigating Pittsburgh’s vertically challenged offense. He caught 75.9% of his targets, including 61.5% of his tight-window passes (second among tight ends, per NFL Next Gen Stats). “He’s really, really impressed me,” an AFC offensive coach said. “Just a good football player, has a feel for how to get open, athletic, tough. Needs to work on his blocking.”

Zach Ertz, Arizona Cardinals: Ertz went to the desert to spark his career after a frustrating end to his time in Philly, and he produced 574 yards and three TDs on 56 catches over 11 games with the Cardinals, who acquired him via trade. Ertz turns 32 in November. “He looked refreshed in Arizona. Showed what he can do with capable quarterback play,” an NFC personnel evaluator said. “I thought he had lost a step, but he kept getting open.”

David Njoku, Cleveland Browns: Njoku has a combined 55 catches over the past two seasons but figures to see expanded workload after the Browns signed him to a four-year, $54.75 million extension this offseason. He is a big-play threat, with 22.2% of his receptions going for 20 or more yards last season (tied for 14th among tight ends). “Great size and speed and has gotten better as a blocker — I’ve just never trusted his hands,” a veteran NFC offensive coach said. Njoku has three drops on 82 targets since 2020.

Also receiving votes: Jonnu Smith (New England Patriots), Tyler Higbee (Los Angeles Rams), C.J. Uzomah (New York Jets), Noah Fant (Seattle Seahawks), Austin Hooper (Tennessee Titans)

Source: ESPN

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