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.


 

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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