2011 was the year of the quarterback, but 2012 could very well be the year of the tight end.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham already etched their names into the tight end record book for stellar seasons, and they're still entering the prime of their career. Not only that but they've started a new breed of tight ends—players who are bigger, stronger, faster and more like wide receivers.
The New England Patriots popularized the two tight end set with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, two players both taken in the 2010 NFL draft. Given the success Bill Belichick had running this system, this may spread a la the Wildcat offense of '08.
Tight ends on this list are graded on the usual categories—receiving, blocking, and the impact they have on their offense—but because of the importance of scoring in the modern NFL, there is a higher priority on receiving.
50. James Casey, Houston Texans:
He's probably the best third tight end in football, which means he may want out of Houston soon to be a backup somewhere.
James Casey caught 18 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown in 2011, about equivalent to the production the Denver Broncos got from their starter.
49. Travis Beckum, New York Giants:
He’s battled injuries and 2011 was supposed to be the breakout season for the third-year tight end, formerly a third-round draft pick.
Travis Beckum has just 26 catches in his NFL career, and he is probably expendable with the emergence of Jake Ballard.
48. Randy McMichael, San Diego Chargers:
He's a 10-year veteran who is mostly a blocking tight end at this point in his career. In fact, Randy McMichael was an offensive lineman in high school and didn't switch to tight end until his first year at college.
McMichael started 14 games in 2011 as the team’s second tight end, finishing with 30 catches for 271 yards.
47. Clay Harbor, Philadelphia Eagles:
He hasn't had too many opportunities to showcase his talent yet, but he was taken in the same year as Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham.
There was some buzz at the Philadelphia Eagles' training camp earlier this past August that Clay Harbor would take over Brent Celek's starting spot. That didn't happen, but look for the Eagles to use Harbor more and more in two-tight end sets in 2012.
46. Lance Kendricks, St. Louis Rams:
Lance Kendricks was supposed to provide much more of an impact to the St. Louis Rams than he did.
Even though he was a rookie, Kendricks had a poor year, failing to record a touchdown on his 28 catches and dropping nine passes.
45. Daniel Fells, Denver Broncos:
He's a decent backup, but he was an awful choice as a starter.
The Denver Broncos desperately need to draft a first-round tight end because Daniel Fells wasn't giving them adequate production as either a pass catcher or a blocker.
44. Kellen Davis, Chicago Bears:
An unbelievable 28 percent of his catches this season went for touchdowns, and his five scores were more than Pro Bowl teammate Matt Forte had.
Kellen Davis will probably get re-signed by the Chicago Bears this offseason.
43. Evan Moore, Cleveland Browns:
He doubled his reception total in 2011, but saw his yards per catch drop from 20.1 to just 9.5.
Evan Moore did see a rise in his touchdown catches, and with Ben Watson entering the final year of his contract in 2012, Moore has a good chance next year to prove he can be the starter.
42. Craig Stevens, Tennessee Titans:
The Tennessee Titans have a good thing going with Jared Cook and Craig Stevens.
Stevens was just recently inked to a four-year contract to essentially serve as the blocking tight end while Cook catches the passes.
41. Leonard Pope, Kansas City Chiefs:
He set career highs in receptions (24) and yards (247) in 2011, starting 10 games for the Kansas City Chiefs because Tony Moeaki spent the season on injured reserve.
Pope isn’t much more than a lifetime backup, but he’s a viable one at that.
40. Todd Heap, Arizona Cardinals:
Todd Heap is a far cry from the two-time Pro Bowler he was for the Baltimore Ravens nearly a decade ago, and he saw a major decline in his numbers in year one in Arizona.
Heap caught 24 passes for 283 yards and one touchdown, and he likely won’t see too much of a rise in his numbers given his age (31) and the Cardinals’ quarterback play.
39. Jacob Tamme, Indianapolis Colts:
He’s a free agent now, and time will tell if he will be back in Indianapolis.
Jacob Tamme filled in extremely well in 2010 when Dallas Clark was injured, catching 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns.
His numbers dropped off in 2011 to just 19 catches largely due to the return of Clark and the injury to Peyton Manning, but he is a borderline starter for some team.
38. Martellus Bennett, Dallas Cowboys:
Martellus Bennett is another free agent at tight end, and he hasn’t emerged as the player the Dallas Cowboys thought they were getting when they picked him in the second round in the 2008 NFL draft.
Bennett caught four touchdowns as a rookie but hasn’t caught any since.
37. Delaine Walker, San Francisco 49ers:
Even though he's just a backup, the San Francisco 49ers love Delaine Walker.
He's a good receiver and blocker, and complements Vernon Davis well in the increasing usage of the two-tight end sets.
36. Tony Moeaki, Kansas City Chiefs:
Tony Moeaki should be a key pass catcher for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012.
He had a great rookie year in 2010, catching 47 passes for 556 yards and three scores, before missing nearly the entire ’11 season due to injury.
35. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings:
The Minnesota Vikings have their replacement for Visanthe Shiancoe in Kyle Rudolph, a young player who turned in a strong rookie season in 2011.
Rudolph grades as a top blocking tight end, and caught 26 passes for 249 yards and three scores as a receiver.
34. Kevin Boss, Oakland Raiders:
The New York Giants didn’t miss a beat after letting Kevin Boss go. His numbers dropped off in Oakland, and the Giants are in the Super Bowl.
Boss is a reliable pass catcher who should see a rise in his numbers in year two in Oakland.
33. Tony Scheffler, Detroit Lions:
Tony Scheffler is a good complement as a veteran tight end to Brandon Pettigrew. He was a good red zone target and actually finished with more receiving touchdowns (6) than anyone on the team except Megatron.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez get all the credit for being the best two-tight end set (and rightfully so), but Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta on the Baltimore Ravens are a terrific tandem themselves.
The pair combined for 94 catches, 928 yards and eight touchdowns, with Pitta contributing slightly worse numbers than Dickson. Pitta didn’t really play in 2010, so he did very well in 2011 for what was essentially his rookie season.
He turned in pretty good numbers for a 10-year veteran, catching 37 passes for 455 yards and four touchdowns from Cam Newton.
Jeremy Shockey is turning in a fine career: three Pro Bowl invitations, two Super Bowl rings, and 37 career touchdown catches. He should have several more years to offer as a good pass catcher.
At 6'7'', 270 pounds, Scott Chandler is a huge red zone target, and he caught six touchdowns among his 38 receptions this season.
Chandler was initially drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the 2007 draft, and totaled just one reception in four seasons before breaking out with the Buffalo Bills this season.
Chandler should be a good security blanket in the upcoming years for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and he just needs to improve his run-blocking to be a better overall tight end.
He becomes a free agent this offseason, and the Seattle Seahawks might not ask him back now that they have Zach Miller from the Oakland Raiders (although Miller had an awful year).
John Carlson was a very reliable tight end his first three years, topping out at 627 yards as a rookie and seven touchdowns in his second season.
He spent 2011 on injured reserve, but he’s still going to be a coveted tight end given his young age (27) and good receiving skills.
According to Pro Football Focus, Joel Dreessen was actually the sixth best tight end in 2011, rating ahead of Pro Bowlers like Antonio Gates and Jermaine Gresham.
Dreessen is the only tight end in the league who rated at least a 3.0 on receiving, pass blocking and run blocking. His stats this past season were solid for a backup: 28 catches for 353 yards and six touchdowns, and he and Owen Daniels should be used in many two-tight end sets in the future.
Visanthe Shiancoe didn’t find the end zone nearly as much the past two seasons (five total touchdowns) as he did in 2008 and 2009 (18 scores), but he’s still a good red zone target for the Minnesota Vikings. He has good hands and good size at 6'4'', 250 pounds.
Shiancoe is now a free agent and likely expendable in Minnesota given the emergence of rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. If the Vikings do keep him around, it will probably be because he is a good locker room guy and a veteran presence, and Jim Kleinsasser is retiring.
A two-tight end set in the near future with both Shiancoe and Rudolph would be very effective for the Vikings and their young quarterback, Christian Ponder. Shiancoe will probably be a top tight end on the market, though, and it may cost too much to keep him around in 2012.
Ben Watson was one of the first of the new breed of tight ends, although many people overlook what he’s done in his career. He ran a 4.4 coming out of college, prompting the New England Patriots to pick him in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft.
He probably hasn’t been quite worth a first rounder, but he’s still had a very productive career, now for two teams. He saw his numbers drop off significantly in his second year with the Cleveland Browns, falling to just 37/410/2 from 68/763/3.
Watson is an awful run blocker, but he’s paid to be a receiver.
Zach Miller signed a new five-year, $34 million deal to join the Seattle Seahawks this past offseason. It seemed to be a strange move, considering the Seahawks already had John Carlson on their team.
Carlson then went on IR early in the season and Miller had an awful season, finishing with just 25 catches for 233 yards. He didn’t catch a single touchdown and three passes thrown his way were intercepted. Miller also rated poorly as a run blocker, grading as a huge bust in his first season with the Seahawks.
Carlson will probably leave in the offseason as he’s now a free agent, so Miller will have to assume a much larger responsibility in 2012. The potential is there, considering Miller was a Pro Bowler as recently as 2010, catching 60 passes for 685 yards and three touchdowns.
He had an underrated year in Miami, where he’s been a reliable pass catcher and a solid blocker on both the run and the pass, despite not receiving much national attention.
Anthony Fasano caught 32 passes for 451 yards and five scores. He dropped just one pass, and he’s been relatively healthy for the Dolphins in each of the past four years.
The 2010 NFL draft will go down as one of the best tight end drafts ever, largely because of playmakers like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Jimmy Graham, but also because of solid options like Ed Dickson.
The Baltimore Ravens picked him in the third round to be Todd Heap’s replacement, and he emerged as a pass catching threat in his second season. Dickson started all 16 games, caught 54 passes for 528 yards and five scores, and teamed with Dennis Pitta to give the Ravens one of the best tight end duos in the game.
Dickson isn’t flashy, but he should be a force for the Ravens for many more years. He’s just 24 and possesses good size, hands, and the ability to get open in the red zone.
Greg Olsen is the best tight end the Carolina Panthers have had since the days of Wesley Walls. The team traded a third-round pick to the Chicago Bears for Olsen and saw him catch 45 passes for 540 yards and five touchdowns in his first year with the Panthers.
It’s important for every young quarterback to have a tight end that serves as a security blanket, and Olsen is exactly that for Cam Newton. He’s huge at 6'6'', 254 pounds, and he’s tough to bring down in the open field.
Olsen isn’t in the elite class of tight ends, but he’s a good option to have for the up-and-coming Panthers.
The New York Giants got a steal in Jake Ballard, a 2010 undrafted free agent who broke out with a strong season as a receiving tight end in 2011.
Ballard is one of the largest tight ends in the league, and he emerged as a good target for Eli Manning to complement deep ball receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Ballard caught 38 passes and averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per catch, scoring four touchdowns.
Not enough people know about Jared Cook, even though he had a very strong season for the Tennessee Titans in 2011.
Cook finished with 49 catches for 759 yards, the 14th most among tight ends last year—and just 38 more yards would have put Cook in the top eight at his position. Cook was a third-round pick of the Titans in 2009 and has slowly emerged as a playmaker, averaging an impressive 15.5 yards per catch last year.
The Titans signed Cook’s backup, Craig Stevens, to a four-year extension this offseason. That shouldn’t in any way signal the Titans’ lack of faith in Stevens, who is more of a blocking tight end anyway. It just shows the commitment the team has to using the two tight end set in the upcoming years.
The Jacksonville Jaguars need Marcedes Lewis to turn into more than he's been in order to validate the first-round selection the team spent on him in the 2006 NFL draft.
Lewis emerged as a big red zone target in 2010, catching a career-best 10 touchdowns. He saw a drop across all his numbers in 2011, and while much of that can be attributed to rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, Lewis needs to re-establish himself as a security blanket for Gabbert.
He joins the list of Indianapolis Colts players who had an absolutely miserable season without Peyton Manning. Dallas Clark has been a star at tight end since the Colts picked him in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft, averaging close to 550 yards and five touchdowns per season since his rookie campaign.
Clark caught a career-best 100 passes in 2009, finishing with an incredible 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. He missed 10 games in 2010 with a freak wrist injury and missed five more last year after breaking his leg.
Clark also graded as a horrendous run blocker, according to Pro Football Focus, and was the third-worst overall tight end among players with at least 500 snaps. A bounce back year in 2012 would be great, but Clark will be 33 years old and probably won’t have too many years left.
If the Colts do go with Andrew Luck at quarterback next season, it would really help Luck for Clark to serve as his reliable security blanket.
Fred Davis wiped out a terrific 2011 season when word came out that he and teammate Trent Williams had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Davis faced a four-game suspension, which wasn’t a good way to end his contract year.
Davis still finished with 796 yards in just 12 games, and very likely could have exceeded 1,000 had he played four more games. Davis and Chris Cooley give the Redskins two excellent red zone targets, and the team will probably want to bring Davis back to make life easier for Robert Griffin III or whichever player is under center in 2012.
Davis may get the franchise tag, and if he performs well enough next year, the Redskins will probably lock him up for the future.
He’s a former Pro Bowler and still a very solid pass catching tight end for the Houston Texans. Owen Daniels has averaged 50 catches and 600 yards per season since entering the NFL in 2006.
He caught 54 passes for 677 yards and three scores in 2011, and factoring in the work of Joel Dreessen (28/353/6) and James Casey (18/260/1), the Texans have a very good trio of tight ends who can all make plays.
One could also make a legitimate case for Heath Miller as being one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL.
Miller is a former first-round pick who has been a very good receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers since being drafted in 2005.
He went to the Pro Bowl in 2008 and caught 51 passes for 631 yards and two touchdowns last year, also grading extremely well as both a run blocker and a pass blocker.
Chris Cooley has struggled with injuries recently—he suffered a concussion in 2008, missed nine games with a broken ankle in 2009, and spent the final 11 games of 2011 on injured reserve after a broken index finger required surgery.
Cooley is a borderline elite tight end when healthy, as he’s been to two Pro Bowls in eight years with the Washington Redskins. He’s topped 700 yards five times, most recently tying a career-high with 849 in 2010. He totaled just eight catches in limited action in ’11 before the injury shut him down.
Cooley isn’t the best of blockers, and his recent injuries and age (30 this coming summer) have slowed him down a bit, but he still has several more years to give the Redskins.
It's tough to evaluate Brent Celek purely by the numbers.
After catching nearly 1,000 yards in 2009, Celek saw his numbers drop significantly in 2010. He totaled 811 yards and five scores in '11, putting him in company with the best of the receiving tight ends.
The Philadelphia Eagles have been asking him to stay in and block more, and LeSean McCoy responded with his best season as a pro. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger constantly praises Celek, calling him the best all-around tight end in the game.
Celek probably won't be making too many Pro Bowls with players like Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis in the same conference, but he is a reliable pass catcher and a good blocker.
When the New England Patriots qualified for the Super Bowl, it sent Jermaine Gresham to his first Pro Bowl of many.
The 23-year-old was a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, and turned in a strong season in ’11, catching 56 passes for 596 yards and six touchdowns. Gresham is a big man at 6'5'', 260 pounds, and he’s a good pass blocker as well.
There were strong expectations for Jermichael Finley this past year, after he missed the final 11 games of 2010 with a knee injury—the second straight season Finley missed time with a knee injury. He wasn’t a part of the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl championship, but it was expected that he would contribute with a strong year in 2011.
Finley’s 55 receptions for 767 yards and eight touchdowns look like terrific numbers for the 24-year-old tight end. He was plagued by a bad case of the drops though, failing to hold onto a league-high 12 passes. Finley also rated as a terrible run blocker, according to Pro Football Focus.
Finley is still rated this high on the list because he offers so much receiving ability as a 6'4'', 240-pound target with the ability to get open, especially in the red zone.
Simply put, the Packers are a better team with him than without him, and they should be able to at least franchise Finley, who is a free agent as of this coming March
Interesting fact for you: Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Kellen Winslow, Sr. are one of five father-son combinations in NFL history to each make the Pro Bowl.
This Winslow hasn’t been a disappointment in the league, but he hasn’t revolutionized the position as he was supposed to when he was drafted. He showed glimpses that he would be an all-time great, totaling 1,106 receiving yards for the Cleveland Browns back in 2007.
Winslow has spent the last three seasons in Tampa Bay, where he’s averaged 73 catches, 792 yards, and four touchdowns. He’s still a very good tight end, but he’s much more near the middle of the pack than the elite group.
The Detroit Lions have really bolstered their offense in recent drafts, adding Calvin Johnson in 2007, Matthew Stafford in 2009 and Brandon Pettigrew in 2010.
Pettigrew isn’t one of the fastest tight ends—as he clocked just a 4.83 time in the 40-yard dash—but he’s an extremely reliable pass catcher, drawing in 83 receptions for 777 yards and five touchdowns in 2011.
His 83 catches were more than any other tight end in the league except for Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski
He was a good pick as a first rounder in 2008, and Dustin Keller is quickly becoming one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
Keller set career highs in receptions (65) and receptions (815) this past season. With Santonio Holmes possibly on his way out of New York, Keller will have an even bigger role in 2012 as a pass catching option.
He's quickly becoming one of my favorite players in the NFL, especially for the way Bill Belichick uses him as an offensive utility man. Against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional playoffs, Belichick used Hernandez as a running back, wide receiver and tight end.
With 4.4 speed, Hernandez is fast enough that defenses have to use a cornerback on him. Hernandez is helped immensely by the presence of Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, not to mention Tom Brady throwing the ball to him, but he's still an offensive weapon.
His 910 receiving yards put him fourth among tight ends, and he and Gronkowski have a chance to be the first 1,000 yard duo ever among tight ends. Hernandez also led all tight ends with 23 broken tackles in 2011, 10 more than anyone else.
Eight consecutive Pro Bowl selections is pretty good for a guy who never played college football and had to arrange his own tryout for NFL teams. Antonio Gates is definitely in the second half of his career, but at age 31, he should still have a handful of seasons left.
Gates has been slowed by foot injuries each of the last two seasons—missing nine games total—but he still managed to catch 64 passes for 778 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011. He is the classic basketball player-turned tight end, as he is fast with good hands and excellent leaping ability.
When Gates eventually hangs up his cleats, he will probably go down as one of the five greatest tight ends to ever play the game.
He's part of the new breed of tight ends who are quicker and built more like wide receivers. Vernon Davis' 4.38 time is the fastest ever recorded by a tight end at the NFL Scouting Combine.
He looked like a bust early in his career and was nearly banished from the team under Mike Singletary's coaching tenure but has rebounded strong, both on the field and as a leader in the clubhouse. Davis had a strong season in 2011, catching 67 passes for 792 yards and six scores.
He set a single game postseason record for receiving yards by a tight end (180) in the win over the New Orleans Saints and caught the game-winning touchdown pass with nine seconds left.
Tony Gonzalez is an absolute physical freak of nature in the way that he has played 15 seasons in the National Football League and still shows no signs of slowing down.
Gonzalez is a 12-time Pro Bowler and nine-time All-Pro who has caught more passes than any man in NFL history except for Jerry Rice. After switching from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Atlanta Falcons before the 2009 season, many though that might signal the end for Gonzalez, but he’s been just as effective.
Gonzalez caught 80 passes for 675 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011. He hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 1999. The only shame of Gonzalez’s career has been his team’s playoff woes: The Chiefs and Falcons are a combined 0-5 in postseason games with Gonzalez.
Lost in the 2011 season was another fantastic performance by Jason Witten, who is making a strong case for future induction into the Hall of Fame.
Witten caught 79 passes for 942 yards and five scores from Tony Romo, finishing with the third-most receiving yards of any tight end. He actually missed the Pro Bowl because of the great seasons by Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez, but Witten has seven invitations and five All-Pro selections in his nine years.
He’s a terrific pass catcher in the sense that it almost always takes two or three defenders to bring Witten down.
The fact that Jimmy Graham is as good as he is after one year of college football speaks volumes to Graham's natural athletic ability.
Graham would have set the single-season record for yards by a tight end had it not been for Rob Gronkowski. Graham still finished with 1,310 yards (just 17 shy of Gronk), and his 99 receptions led all NFL tight ends.
Graham’s 11 touchdowns were an indicator of his outstanding ability to get open in the red zone, as well as his terrific talent on jump balls, something he displayed with a 64-yard touchdown grab in the closing minutes of the New Orleans’ Saints playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Graham falls short of Gronkowski on the top 50 tight ends list, because right now I think Gronkowski is a little better as a pass catcher, a touchdown scorer and a blocker. Graham has more upside though, in that he’s still essentially learning how to play the game of football.
He will be fun to watch in the upcoming years as he makes an assault on every tight end record ever set.
If any tight end is ever going to win the MVP in this league, it will be Rob Gronkowski.
Bill Belichick got an absolute steal with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez both in the 2010 NFL draft. Gronkowski caught 10 touchdowns as a rookie and set the single season tight end record with 18 in 2011. He also established a new position record for receiving yards (1,327), just edging out Jimmy Graham.
Gronkowski added three more touchdowns in the New England Patriots' first playoff game. He is the classic tight end in that he is too big for safeties and too fast for linebackers. It's because of players like Gronkowski and Hernandez that teams may end up switching to five defensive backs regularly.
No one knows what is in the future for Gronkowski, but he has the talent to catch 100 passes for 1,500 yards in a season, especially with Tom Brady throwing to him.