News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft tight end rankings

There is a clear delineation between the haves and the have nots at the tight end position in the NFL nowadays, so much so that the difference between Darren Waller, who finished with the second-most receiving yards at the position, and T.J. Hockenson, who finished with the third most, was 473 yards (1,196 vs. 723).

If you don’t have a tight end who can beat defensive backs one-on-one, there’s no sense featuring them in your passing attack because they bring less to the table than a slot receiver would. This year, there is one of those difference-makers, and the chances are that he won’t last long.

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1. Kyle Pitts, Florida

I am usually the first person to warn against drafting a tight end in the first round — the payoff almost never justifies the investment, and that’s because most college tight ends can’t win like wide receivers. Most college tight ends aren’t Kyle Pitts, though. I cannot remember a single tight end prospect who possessed his type of receiving skill set at only 20 years old. He combines the best parts of a tight end (the reliable hands and massive catch radius) with the best parts of a wide receiver (speed to get vertical and suddenness to separate in his breaks).

His tape is littered with examples of him quite literally lining up at wide receiver and beating NFL-caliber corners one-on-one.

Add in the post-catch ability that saw him average 6.0 yards after the catch and break five tackles on 43 receptions this past year and you have a true modern tight end weapon.

Will he ever be George Kittle as a run-blocker? Probably not. But do you know what Kittle was doing when he was Pitts age? Not even starting for Iowa.

Pitts has already shown massive improvement from 2019 to 2020, going from a 42.6 run-blocking grade to 65.8. He’s got the frame and “want to” to get there.

2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State

Freiermuth is that prototypical inline body type you don’t have to worry about if they get singled up with a base end one-on-one. To play in that kind of role, one has to relish contact, and boy is that ever true of Freiermuth.

At nearly 260 pounds, he does a lot of his work separating on his routes and after the catch with pure physicality. Over the past two seasons, he’s broken 12 tackles on 66 receptions. While he doesn’t quite fit the dynamic one-on-one threat mold outlined in the intro, his traits outside of that are about as ideal as it gets for the position.

3. Brevin Jordan, Miami (FL.)

Jordan is a very intriguing project at the position because he has the requisite dynamism described in the opener that could actually beat man coverage at the NFL level. At the same time, he’s still not really a tight end at all.

Early in his Miami career, Jordan was more akin to a jumbo running back, and even now that he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, he still firmly resembles a “move” tight end. Only 107 of his 458 snaps this past season came inline, and, unlike Pitts, Jordan doesn’t have the height or length for us to project better blocking prowess down the road. Move tight end = tweener < most slot receivers.

Jordan doesn’t possess any sort of impressive catch radius, and his tape is littered with body catches. He went only 11-of-33 in contested situations over his career, going 2-of-8 this past season. That’s well on the low end for the position. With him, you’re banking on the YAC ability that saw him break 21 tackles on 105 career catches at Miami being a weapon in the league.

4. Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame

Labeling Tremble as a tight end is almost doing his skill set a disservice. The man is the single best blocker on the move in the draft class. Whether that’s at full back, H-back, inline or from the slot, Tremble wants to locate and destroy.

His 83.7 run-blocking grade this season was the highest of any tight end in the country. Just take a look at what he’s capable of.

Some of that is his explosiveness at 248 pounds, but a majority of that is uncoachable nastiness. He’s got more than enough speed to get by on wheels, seams, crossers and flats, as well. He’s just not much of a route-runner and wasn’t even TE1 on his own college team.

5. Hunter Long, Boston College

Long is your quintessential big-body, big-catch-radius, sure-handed tight end. He is not going to add much to your vertical passing attack, nor is he going to be a YAC darling. What he is, is reliable, and that’s a necessary part of the position for a lot of teams.

Ultimately, he’s just somewhat limited. All the guys above him on this list have either higher-end physical tools or a more valuable trump card. Long can start in the league for a while, though.

6. Tony Poljan, Virginia

Poljan started his career as a quarterback for Central Michigan and actually saw action. He passed for 703 yards over two seasons before switching to tight end. He quickly became a hot tight end prospect at TE for his massive size and catch radius. Still relatively young at the position, Poljan has already developed into a quality run blocker. That’s what he’s going to have to hang his hat on at the next level because he’s definitely not a new-wave “move” tight end by any means.

7. John Bates, Boise State

Bates has shown the type of upward trajectory over the course of his college career that NFL evaluators love to see. After being listed at 229 pounds his freshman season at Boise State, Bates arrived at the Senior Bowl this past January a different player altogether at 259 pounds. You see it in his grading profile, as well, where his receiving and run-blocking grades improved every year as a starter. Bates ticks almost every box you could want for a starting tight end. He may not be close to the George Kittle/Travis Kelce tier of tight ends physically, but he is solid as can be.

8. Kylen Granson, SMU

Granson is the type of guy who is easy to fall in love with because he moves differently than most college tight ends. That’s because he’s built like some receivers in the NFL. Listed at only 235 pounds this past season, Granson isn’t nearly athletic enough to be a full-time wide receiver, and he’s not physical enough to be an inline tight end. He put on some weight prior to the Senior Bowl, but it’s difficult to see the 6-foot-2 tight end ever getting to adequate inline size. The only teams he would be a fit for are those that truly use a move run-blocker in their scheme.

9. Tre' McKitty, Georgia

McKitty started his career at Florida State before transferring as a graduate to Georgia this past fall. Despite his numbers dipping, he actually helped his draft stock considerably by showing he could operate as a blocker in a pro-style run scheme for the Bulldogs. At Florida State, he was little more than a dump-off option, posting a 4.5-yard average target depth in 2019. He flashed more downfield for Georgia, as well as at the Senior Bowl. While that's never going to be his calling card, he can at least be serviceable.

10. Nick Eubanks, Michigan

Eubanks has been the Wolverines’ starter for the past two seasons. After five years at Michigan, he still never became a featured part of their offense. While he has the size and ball skills you’d want from the position, that’s about where the positives end. What’s likely the biggest death knell for his draft stock is that, despite his size, Eubanks still didn’t perform well as a run-blocker. That’s not going to win many over.


 

Courtesy of PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide, find PFF's top draft prospect, biggest riser and wild card to watch at each position here: 

QB | RB | WR | TE | OT | iOL | DI | EDGE | LB | S | CB

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