Ranking the NFL's Top Tight End Duos
Fads rule the NFL.
Whether it's the spread offense, the Wildcat or Joker defenders, successful schemes and ideas always are replicated around the league.
The current trend is the two-tight-end offense, centering around two tight ends that cause dangerous matchup problems for defenses. These two tight ends often, although not always, include one traditional tight end and one hybrid tight end.
While others had used the system successfully in the past, the now-defunct duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in New England re-popularized the system, causing a widespread scramble for their own effective tight end sets.
In light of those developments, we're going to take a look around the league and rank each team by their top two tight ends for 2013. The rankings will be based on the tight ends' projected production in 2013, both as a receiving option and as a blocker. The two tight ends for each team will be taken from the depth charts at Ourlads.com.
Keep in mind that the rankings are based on both tight ends, although a top-end No. 1 tight end can definitely overcome a lesser No. 2.
All statistics from Pro Football Focus, unless indicated otherwise.
32. Oakland Raiders
Projected Duo: Richard Gordon and David Ausberry
Ex-Raider Brandon Myers ran to New York this offseason to become a Giant, leaving the Raiders with the least-experienced group of tight ends in the league.
Gordon and Ausberry have played 138 and 142 respective snaps in their two years with the Raiders, and the other two tight ends on the roster, Nick Kasa and Mychal Rivera, were sixth-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft. Kasa and Rivera could compete for a starting spot, but Gordon and Ausberry hold the spots for now.
While there is potential among the group, it would be an enormous upset if anybody emerged as an above-average starter this season. Gordon is a solid blocker but offers little in the receiving department, and Ausberry's talents are the exact opposite: a decent receiver with big-play potential but a liability in the blocking department.
Oakland will be looking to replace Myers' production (79 catches for 806 yards) but will be lucky to get that from all of their tight ends combined in 2013.
31. Arizona Cardinals
Projected Duo: Jeff King and Rob Housler
While the Cardinals have had an active offseason, one position that was not upgraded was tight end, something that could come back to haunt Arizona and head coach Bruce Arians. Arians loves to run two-tight end sets but will be hindered by the underwhelming duo of King and Housler.
Seven-year vet Jeff King is a former Panthers' fifth-round pick who's been a starter in the league for the last six years, but he has never been a threat as a receiver and struggled mightily in run blocking last season. Rob Housler was drafted in 2011 to be a primary receiver but hasn't developed as the team has hoped.
To put things in perspective, Pro Football Focus graded the two tight ends as 59th and 60th out of 62 qualifying tight ends last season (subscription required).
While their projections as receivers have improved with the Carson Palmer acquisition (especially Housler), their collective struggles in run-blocking seem unlikely to change at this point.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected Duo: Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree
The Buccaneers potentially could still sign Dallas Clark, who started this past season, to come back for 2013. Based on who currently stands to be the top two tight ends in Tampa, it certainly couldn't hurt.
That's nothing against Stocker and Crabtree, neither of whom are necessarily bad tight ends. Both are decent in-line blockers at worst and have experience in high-octane offenses (Stocker in Tampa Bay, and Crabtree in Green Bay).
The problem is that neither are strong receiving options: Both are No. 2 TEs at best. Crabtree caught just 18 passes in three years as a Packer, and Stocker has 30 career catches after being drafted in the fourth round in 2011.
The team believes that both Crabtree and Stocker can develop into dependable receiving threats with the right opportunities, but it seems like a long shot based on their careers thus far.
Without a legitimate pass-catcher in the group, the Bucs are going to be severely limited in their schemes going forward.
29. New York Jets
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Projected Duo: Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow Jr.
If everything goes right for the Jets, this ranking could look like a major oversight come December.
Jeff Cumberland will enter training camp as the starter, as the former UDFA has worked his way up the ladder in his three years in the league. He's become a decent receiving threat with great speed and solid hands, and his blocking looked to improve during the second half of the season last year.
Kellen Winslow was a premier receiving threat at one point in his career and looks to play like he did in 2011 with the Bucs (75 catches for 772 yards).
Unfortunately for Jets fans, everything going right doesn't exactly seem like the safest bet.
Cumberland still needs to polish his route running and will never be more than an average blocker. Winslow has battled a myriad of injury issues throughout his career and is a liability as a blocker. He'll turn 30 in July, and his athleticism that made him such a threat as a receiver is dwindling.
With the Jets' QB situation still questionable at best, it's going to be difficult for Cumberland to make the leap necessary for the duo to be one of the league's best.
28. Cleveland Browns
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Projected Duo: Jordan Cameron and Kellen Davis
On paper, this duo looks like it could have some real success in 2013. Jordan Cameron has enticing potential as a receiver, and Davis fits well with him as a blocking tight end.
With the additions of Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner to the coaching staff, the belief is that the duo that help develop Antonio Gates in San Diego could do something similar with Cameron, a former basketball player who should see his role skyrocket in 2013.
Meanwhile, free-agent acquisition Kellen Davis was signed in free agency and has always been a solid blocker. As with Cameron, the hope is that the coaches can also squeeze a bit more receiving production out of him.
The key here is that it all rests on Chudzinski and Turner's ability to develop the young TEs. The potential is there for the duo to work, but it shouldn't be counted on at this point. Davis' hands have been extremely questionable so far in his career, and Cameron's fit with the new coaches is not guaranteed.
The lack of experience and production keeps them low in this list, but the duo has a high ceiling for the future, if they can put it together.
27. Detroit Lions
Projected Duo- Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler
Detroit fans were consistently disappointed in 2012 by the sub-par play of the tight ends, two players who have talent but were underwhelming last season. The Lions drafted Alabama TE Michael Williams in the seventh round in the draft, but he'll primarily be an H-back in 2013 (and could move to tackle in the future).
So, the duo that started in 2012 will be the primary tight ends in 2013 as well. Pettigrew and Scheffler were two of the Lions' most frustrating players last year, for several reasons.
The most visible was the drops: the two combined for 15 drops, killing numerous drives and contributing to the Lions' offensive surprising inefficiency (Pettigrew also contributed four fumbles on the year). The second reason was the poor route-running by both players, seemingly lazy cuts that led to multiple interceptions.
Fortunately for Michigan residents, all is not lost.
Pettigrew is a young, talented all-around tight end, one who dictates special treatment from opposing defenses. Meanwhile, Scheffler has been a dependable receiving threat in the past.
The hope is that the two can prove that 2012 was a fluke, not a concerning, emerging trend.
26. New York Giants
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Projected Duo: Brandon Myers and Bear Pascoe
While the Giants lost promising tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency, they were able to bring in former Raider Brandon Myers on a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
Myers was a decent receiving threat for Carson Palmer in 2012 and should be able to fulfill that role for Eli Manning in 2013. Unfortunately for Myers and the Giants, he is one of the worst blockers in the league at the tight end position. Myers' cumulative minus-21.4 blocking grades propelled him to the second worst overall tight end grade from PFF last season (subscription required).
Fortunately, the Giants do have a solid blocking tight end in Bear Pascoe, who can also fill in as a fullback. On the pessimistic side, Pascoe offers almost no threat at all as a receiver.
While it would seem that the two's strengths and limitations would complement each other well, the severe weaknesses of each could cause the Giants to be very predictable in 2013. Tight ends earn their value in their versatility, and neither tight end offers that.
25. Buffalo Bills
Projected Duo: Scott Chandler and Lee Smith
One word best describes the Bills' tight end duo: forgettable.
Scott Chandler is the clear starter. He has been a somewhat productive receiver (43 catches for 571 yards in 2012) but isn't going to grab national attention any time soon.
Lee Smith is the team's best blocking tight end but isn't an elite in-line blocker.
Both are serviceable players who have a place in the NFL. The duo doesn't have the clear weakness that some others do, but there also isn't a headlining star either. The Bills are in an unfortunate place where the position isn't in dire need but isn't exactly a strength either.
Throw in Chandler's late-season ACL tear that could limit him to start the season, and the Bills' tight end duo for 2013 is one that will likely just fade into history without a significant note.
24. Washington Redskins
Projected Duo: Fred Davis and Logan Paulsen
Although he may be under-looked due to his season-ending Achilles injury in 2012, Fred Davis is a very good receiving threat as the unquestioned starter heading into camp. He's very athletic with great hands and should be a big target for Robert Griffin III in his sophomore season.
Behind Davis is Logan Paulsen, who stepped in as a respectable replacement for Davis last season. Paulsen won't be confused with any of the elite pass-catchers, but he's versatile enough to put some pressure on the defense.
So why are they ranked so low? Numerous weaknesses and questions lurk going into 2013.
Davis must prove he can come back with the same quickness and explosiveness he had pre-injury. Davis also isn't a great blocker, hindering the 'Skins' potent run game. Paulsen, while an above-average run blocker, was one of the NFL's worst pass-blocking tight ends last season (subscription required).
23. Philadelphia Eagles
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Projected Duo: Brent Celek and Zach Ertz
The Eagles knew they had to improve their tight-end corp this offseason and drafted Zach Ertz 35th overall in the 2013 NFL draft. Ertz won't supplant veteran Brent Celek immediately, but Philadelphia hopes that he can be the long-term answer at the position.
The Eagles also signed James Casey in the offseason, and he should be a key part in the Eagles' three-tight end sets, but Celek and Ertz should be the headliners.
Celek has generally been a dependable player for the Eagles, but he had a down year in 2012 as the team disintegrated, dropping eight passes and allowing too much penetration as a blocker. However, he has a history of being a dependable receiver, even if not a game-changing one.
Ertz has the talent to be an elite receiver, however, and will be able to fill that role for the Eagles. Of course, talent and potential is only that until it turns into actual NFL production. On paper, at least, Ertz looks like he should be groomed into a high-end receiving tight end.
But the biggest question mark is how the two's strengths will fit in Chip Kelly's offense.
Traditionally, Kelly's offense at Oregon placed tremendous responsibility on the tight ends in a blocking role, something than neither Celek or Ertz excel at. Tight ends only caught 16% of Oregon's completed passes while Kelly was the head coach, and limiting them to that role in Philadelphia could be a big waste of the duo's strengths.
22. Miami Dolphins
Projected Duo: Dustin Keller and Dion Sims
After losing Anthony Fasano to the Chiefs in free agency, the Dolphins signed ex-Jet Dustin Keller in free agency and followed it up by drafting Dion Sims from Michigan State University in the fourth round of the NFL draft.
Keller missed half of the season with varying injuries last year but hasn't missed a game outside of that in his five-year career. He's been a solid route-runner with impressive speed and separation ability, although a below-average blocker. He should do well with Ryan Tannehill, potentially the best quarterback he's played with since Brett Favre in his rookie year.
To make up for Keller's lack of blocking prowess, the Dolphins selected Dion Sims in the draft, a 6'5", 262-pound ex-Spartan with reported excellence in blocking. Along with his blocking, Sims has reportedly been impressing coaches and media with his quick absorption of the playbook and route-running ability in OTAs as he's run with the first team.
There will certainly be some rough patches, but the two should develop into a strong team for Miami by the end of the season.
21. Baltimore Ravens
Projected Duo: Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson
While Dennis Pitta didn't belong anywhere near the NFL Network Top 100 list, there's no question that he's burst onto the scene as a top target for Joe Flacco. The two are good friends and have a distinctive connection on the field, hooking up for 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012.
Ed Dickson didn't play much of a receiving role in the beginning of the year but saw his targets and production rise as the season went on. The Ravens used the two-tight end set more under Jim Caldwell and could break it out even more often with Anquan Boldin on the other side of the country.
Both tight ends are legitimate receiving threats but don't offer much in terms of blocking. Dickson, in fact, is a liability more than anything as a blocker, a guy Matt Miller called "one of the worst blocking tight ends in the league."
20. Seattle Seahawks
Projected Duo: Zach Miller and Luke Willson
Last year's No. 2 tight end Anthony McCoy was lost before the season began with a torn Achilles, leaving the second spot between fifth-round draft pick Luke Willson (Rice) and former UDFA Sean McGrath. For this purpose, we'll assume Willson takes the starting spot, but it doesn't matter much for the Seahawks' slot in these rankings.
While the second tight end likely won't be a strength for the Seahawks in 2013, Zach Miller should have a breakout season with increased work with QB Russell Wilson.
Miller only caught 38 passes last season but was very efficient, catching over 80 percent of his targets (highest for any TE with at least 320 snaps) and only dropping one pass on the year. Miller isn't exceptionally fast but is quick, runs great routes and has consistent hands.
Where Miller separates himself from the pack is as a blocker, where he's very reliable, especially in run blocking.
Willson has been impressing coaches in OTAs, especially with his speed down the field. He could be the down-field threat that Miller's lack of speed will prevent him from being.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Duo: Marcedes Lewis and Allen Reisner
Much like with the Seahawks, the Jaguars don't have much to offer past the first tight end, but that player's abilities vault them to the middle of the pack as a duo.
Marcedes Lewis is arguably one of the most underrated tight ends in the league, a fantastic blocker with receiving skills that have been hidden by the lack of talent at quarterback for Jacksonville. Lewis is one of the elite run-blockers among No. 1 tight ends, one who excels at setting the edge for Jacksonville's run game. He does need to clean up his focus for 2013, as he had six drops in the last nine games of the season last year.
Behind Lewis is a competition between Allen Reisner, a 2011 UDFA for Minnesota and Ourlads' current selection for the backup TE spot, and several other names you won't recognize. Reisner has decent blocking skills but doesn't have the athleticism to be a matchup problem as a receiver.
One other possible No. 2 is Isaiah Stanback, a former wide receiver and kick returner for New England and Dallas.
18. San Diego Chargers
Projected Duo: Antonio Gates and John Phillips
Although it seems he's been quiet, Antonio Gates still has the receiving skills to be an elite threat. Gates' hands are as good as ever and his route running has gotten even better as his career has progressed. His overall athleticism and speed has regressed as he's aged, but his instincts as a receiver more than make up for it.
While Gates isn't going to wow anybody as a blocker, he generally can hold his own.
The Chargers went out and acquired ex-Cowboy John Phillips in free agency this season, a solid blocking tight end who is flexible enough to catch a few passes in the flats. Phillips essentially replaces former backup Randy McMichael, for a cheaper price.
17. Tennessee Titans
Projected Duo: Delanie Walker and Taylor Thompson
The Titans signed ex-49er Delanie Walker to a four-year, $17.5 million contract this offseason, believing that he can be the replacement for Jared Cook (now a Ram). Walker was previously the second tight end in San Francisco but had a breakout year in 2012, and was looking for a bigger role.
Walker joins Marcedes Lewis as one of the elite run-blockers amongst the No. 1 tight ends in the league. He's not the biggest or strongest tight end, but he uses solid technique and agility to get out in front of backs and block linebackers very well.
Walker needs to improve on his receiving in order to become an elite tight end, as drops plagued him in 2012. He is a crisp route-runner with great speed who gets separation, so if he improves on his hands he'll be one of the most intriguing tight ends in the league.
Behind Walker sits arguably the most interesting player I've looked at: former defensive end Taylor Thompson. Thompson was a defensive end at Southern Methodist University, but the Titans began converting him immediately after drafting him in 2012.
Thompson needs to improve as a receiver, but showed fantastic athleticism and tenacious blocking during his rookie year. That blocking, along with Walker's, should be a huge boost for Chris Johnson in 2013.
If Walker limits his drops and Thompson improves his ability to separate from defenders, the Titans could have one of the best young duos going into 2015.
16. St. Louis Rams
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Projected Duo: Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks
The Titans never were able to use Jared Cook in just the right way, but Rams head coach Jeff Fisher believes he can. Cook is one of the most impressive athletes to play tight end, running a 4.49 40 while being 6'5", 240 pounds.
Cook lined up in the slot a lot in Tennessee and isn't much of a blocker, so he likely will see a similar role in St. Louis, where the wide receiver position is a bit thin. Cook should also see more targets from Sam Bradford than he did from Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker.
He has all the physical tools to succeed, and now he's in a new place with a more effective offense around him. Cook should have an impressive season in 2013.
Lance Kendricks rounds out the duo, a well-rounded tight end who can do a little bit of everything. He's not exceptional at any one thing, but he has a high potential for growth. He should compliment the uber-athletic Cook well.
15. Carolina Panthers
Projected Duo- Greg Olsen and Ben Hartsock
Greg Olsen has always been a strong receiving option, but with Cam Newton's increased comfort in the offense, Olsen's play was fantastic in 2012. In fact, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best tight end (subscription required) as a receiver as well as Football Outsiders' fifth-most productive tight end (DYAR).
With another year under his belt with Newton, Olsen should continue his run of success as a receiver in 2013. He's not a strength in blocking, but he isn't a liability either, giving the Panthers options with him on the field.
Ben Hartsock, on the other hand, offers very little as a receiver, catching just two passes last season. He was, however, an excellent blocker, and performed very well down the stretch last season as his snap count rose.
14. Houston Texans
Projected Duo: Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham
While the Texans' wide receiver group outside of Andre Johnson has been laughable for years, the Texans' tight end group is one that has a decent amount of depth to it.
Owen Daniels has been consistent for Houston for years now and continues to cause matchup problems for defenses. He's not an elite receiving threat, but he does produce, having just one game with less than three catches last season.
Daniels is a poor blocker, but with the Texans' elite offensive line in recent years, it has been masked fairly easily.
Garrett Graham is one of the better second tight ends in the league, a very versatile player who can be put anywhere on the field. He isn't an elite, Jared Cook-like athlete, but he's versatile and can play at H-back, tight end or fullback. The Texans signed Greg Jones to play fullback, so Graham likely won't see time there, but if the Texans wished to add a layer of versatility to their offense, Graham would fit the role well.
13. Green Bay Packers
Projected Duo: Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless
This is one duo that very well could flop in 2013, but more evidence points toward a big season.
Jermichael Finley's lack of development over the last few years has frustrated Packers fans, but he's still managed to be an important part of the Packers' offense, stretching the field and forcing defenses to adjust. He plays more as a receiver as a tight end, so his lack of blocking skills is mitigated. However, his drops need to improve (nine in 2012) if he's going to be the elite receiving target he was projected to be.
Fortunately for Packers fans, Finley dramatically improved in the second half of last season, dropping just two balls and breaking six tackles after the halfway point in the season. If that's the Finley the Packers start out with in 2013, the early-season slump that hurt them in 2012 shouldn't show up again.
Also helping the Packers is the return of Andrew Quarless, a blocking specialist who missed all of last season with torn knee ligaments. Quarless looked like he was progressing toward being a complete tight end before the injuries, a strong blocker with dependable receiving skills. If he picks up where he left off, the Packers' two-tight end sets could be extremely potent.
12. Kansas City Chiefs
Projected Duo: Tony Moeaki and Anthony Fasano
With Moeaki and Fasano, the Chiefs have two high-quality tight ends who have been primary starters.
Moeaki is a bit of a question mark as he returns from a knee scope this pas offseason, the recovery of which will keep him out until training camp. But if Moeaki returns and plays as he did last season, he'll be a strong receiving threat for new quarterback Alex Smith.
To make up for Moeaki's deficiencies as a blocker, the Chiefs went out and signed former Dolphin Anthony Fasano, somebody Andy Reid says is working very hard and will be used extensively in the running game.
The two should benefit from Alex Smith's presence in Kansas City. Moeaki was hurt by the horrifying performances by the Kansas City quarterbacks last season, and Fasano had a strong year with Ryan Tannehill last season in Miami.
11. Atlanta Falcons
Projected Duo- Tony Gonzalez and Chase Coffman
When Tony Gonzalez was re-signed by the Falcons in March, Atlanta fans and the Falcons front office all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not only because Gonzalez will likely go down as the greatest tight end of all time, but because Atlanta has very little behind him.
By re-signing Gonzalez, the Falcons can put off fixing the position for another year and gear up for a Super Bowl run.
Nothing against Chase Coffman, who has potential as a pass-catcher and could possibly be part of the future for Atlanta, but Gonzalez is on a much different plane.
Gonzalez was PFF's top pass-catching tight end in 2012 (subscription required) and still has the ability to do it in 2013. He's shown no sign of slowing down yet and will be a key cog in an efficient Atlanta offense in 2013.
10. Chicago Bears
Projected Duo: Martellus Bennett and Steve Maneri
It may surprise you to see Chicago, a team whose tight end corp has been lacking in recent years, to be in the top 10, but the Bears will have an underrated duo to work with in 2013.
Martellus Bennett broke out for the Giants last season, catching 55 balls for 626 yards while also blocking at a high level. He may not be an elite tight end, but he's right in that second tier after having two strong years in a row, finishing 10th and 11th in PFF's overall grades (subscription required) in the last two years.
Behind Bennett is Steve Maneri, a free-agent pickup formerly with Kansas City. He's a great run blocker and passable receiver who should help a poor Chicago offensive line improve its run blocking for Matt Forte in 2013.
9. Denver Broncos
Projected Duo: Joel Dreesen and Jacob Tamme
The Broncos make the top 10 with two tight-ends that are not elite, but both are strong, starting-caliber players with average athleticism. With both tight ends finishing in the top 25 of Bleacher Reports' NFL 1000 rankings, their collective strength brings them to this spot.
Joel Dreesen is more of your classic tight end, a solid blocker, although not jaw-dropping, who can get out and run with linebackers. He's not going to be a downfield threat (just 8.7 yards per reception in '12), but he can be an effective, efficient receiver (just three drops).
Jacob Tamme, on the other hand, is a more natural receiver. He's a bit more athletic than Dreesen, with the speed necessary to get down the field, whether it be in the seam or on corner routes.
He has the hands to catch just about anything within his range and is a technician of a route runner. He finished as Pro Football Focus' 6th best receiving tight end in 2012 (subscription required) and has the history with Manning to continue to have success.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
Projected Duo: Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert
However, watching Gresham play will make it clear that he has the talent to be a starting-caliber tight end on just about any team. Gresham is big and athletic and runs his routes well, getting separation from defenders regularly. He finished 17th in DYAR for 2012 and 15th in Expected Points Added.
Gresham gets killed for drops, and he did have too many in 2012 with eight. However, someone like Jimmy Graham had 15 and doesn't get near the criticism. Gresham does struggle in blocking but is used more as a wide receiver anyway.
Tyler Eifert should be a big boost to the Bengals' passing attack, with some of the best hands of any tight end prospects in recent memory and the athleticism to challenge anybody in the open field. He's not a great blocker, but he's enthusiastic and a hard worker.
7. Minnesota Vikings
Projected Duo: Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson
When Kyle Rudolph gained Pro Bowl MVP awards with five catches for 122 yards, people finally began to take notice. He's becoming a top-10 tight end, but with questionable quarterbacking it's been hidden. He's finished in the top 15 of PFF's tight end rankings (subscription required) in each of the last two years and should be a long-term weapon for Minnesota.
Rudolph has very good hands paired with an understanding of what coverages are doing. He isn't the most athletic, but he's quick enough to get separation, especially in the red zone (nine touchdowns last season). If the Vikings ever get a viable quarterback, Rudolph could be dangerous.
On the flip side is John Carlson, a strong run blocker who helped pave the way for Marshawn Lynch in Seattle last season. He doesn't offer much except as a decoy in the passing game, but he is an exceptional run-blocker and adequate protecting the quarterback.
6. Indianapolis Colts
Projected Duo: Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen
The Colts' tight end duo may be being overlooked due to their youth, but Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen should be one of the league's best pairs for years to come.
Fleener didn't play as well as expected last season but was hampered by a shoulder injury. Prior to injury, his targets and receptions were over double what they were before his injury issues.
Fleener has the athleticism to be a dangerous weapon down the seam, where the Colts plan to use him more this season. He does need to improve his drops, which were a little high in 2012.
Dwayne Allen, on the other hand, had as good of a rookie season as you could expect. He was a good receiving threat, catching 45 passes for 521 yards on the year. He'll never be athletic enough to be a consistent downfield threat, but he's consistent in the short-to-medium range. Meanwhile, he's one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, which powered him to PFF's second-highest overall grade for 2012.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected Duo: Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth
For some reason, Heath Miller continually gets overlooked when the top tight ends are discussed, but he is one of the league's best. He's more of a traditional tight end in the receiving game, a bit slower than some of the younger, hybrid-type tight ends. But he's got fantastic hands, is a fantastic route-runner and knows where his quarterback needs him to be.
Miller isn't a great blocker and shouldn't be the lead blocker, but he can be an asset when put in space.
Matt Spaeth is one of the more underrated tight ends in the league. The national networks don't mention his name much, but he was a fantastic blocking tight end for Chicago last season. He doesn't have the speed or catch radius to be a dependable receiving option, but he can both pass and run-block with the best of them. He's a perfect complement to a pass-catching tight end like Miller.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Projected Duo: Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald
Vernon Davis is already one of the worst matchups for defenses, and now the 49ers have matched him up with Vance McDonald, a big tight end with soft hands and versatile skills.
McDonald has been learning the playbook quickly in San Francisco and has impressed coaches with his strong blocking skills complemented with a surprising amount of agility for a 270-pound man. If he is anything like the 49ers are hyping him up to be, opposing defenses will be in trouble.
Meanwhile, Vernon Davis is quickly becoming an elite tight end. He is, simply, a complete tight end, with a great ability to block combined with good hands and great athleticism. He's bigger than safeties and faster than linebackers, simply a nightmare to cover, the reason why he earned B/R 1000's top ranking for 2012.
My only concern with Davis would be his consistency catching the ball. He's struggled at times, but we should see it improve if he puts the work in.
3. Dallas Cowboys
Projected Duo: Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar
Jason Witten may get overshadowed by Antonio Gates and Rob Gronkowski when people look back at this era, but he's been the best, most consistent tight end of his time.
Matt Miller says it best about his receiving skills:
Jason Witten catches everything. He catches contested passes, high passes, low passes and passes that he has no business getting to. Witten has the best hands of any tight end in the NFL.
Witten still is a premier receiving threat, and his blocking skills are superb to boot.
The Cowboys also drafted Gavin Escobar in the second round to spell Witten and prepare for the future.
Escobar was one of the top tight end prospects in this year's draft, namely because of his athleticism and natural receiving skills as an ex-basketball player. He has been slapped with the "soft" label by some, but he should be a natural receiving threat a la Jermichael Finley at the very least.
2. New Orleans Saints
Projected Duo: Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson
Jimmy Graham is one of the elite tight ends in the league, the only one that can compete with Rob Gronkowski at this point for the title of best tight end.
Graham struggled with drops in 2012 (15) but still managed 85 catches for 982 yards on the year. He has the range to catch just about anything and the explosion to beat any defender in open space. He had the sixth-highest Win Probability Added in 2012 and is a cornerstone of the New Orleans offense going forward.
The Saints signed Ben Watson to line up opposite Graham, and he's arguably the best second tight end in the league. Watson is a strong receiver who can find the open spaces in the defense and has consistent hands to pull them in.
Neither Watson or Graham are adequate blockers, or they would be first on this list. Fortunately, the Saints don't often use them in this way in their offense.
1. New England Patriots
Projected Duo: Rob Gronkowski and Jake Ballard
Quite simply, Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end on the planet.
Defenses haven't found out how to defend him yet: He averaged over 14 yards per catch in 2012. He's big and fast, with solid hands and a Hall of Fame quarterback. He dominates just about every metric out there, whether it be Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders' DVOA and DYAR or Brian Burke's WPA and EPA.
Gronkowski, unlike other top pass-catchers, is also one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the league, using his size and agility to adequately block just about any type of defender.
People have seemed to forgotten that Jake Ballard was a solid No. 1 tight end before injury knocked him out of 2012. He finished in the top 20 of PFF's grades in 2011 (subscription required), and he could play a huge role for the Patriots in 2013. Ballard is a solid receiving tight end with blocking skills that likely are better than the man he will be replacing.
Unless Gronkowski's injuries prevent him from being himself, the New England tight ends will rule the league once again in 2013.