Jimmy Graham says "Talk to the hand."
It was brought up in the comments the other day that tight ends are among the pieces required in today's NFL to be a playoff contender. We know the tight end position is a tough one to play in the NFL, and the great ones are few and far between. But let's take a look at some of the tight ends in the NFL and let's see just what kind of impact the tight end has on these teams.
Let's start this by looking at the tight ends for each of the playoff teams, including their receiving rankings across the NFL.
Jimmy Graham: 99 receptions (3rd), 1310 yards (7th), 11 TDs
Rob Gronkowski: 90 receptions (5th), 1327 yards (6th), 17 TDs
Brandon Pettigrew: 83 receptions (8th), 777 yards (46th), 5 TDs
Tony Gonzalez: 80 receptions (14th), 875 yards (33rd), 7 TDs
Aaron Hernandez: 79 receptions (15th), 910 yards (31st), 7 TD
Vernon Davis: 67 receptions (32nd), 792 yards (42nd), 6 TD
Jermaine Gresham: 56 receptions (50th), 596 yards (74th), 6 TD (14 games)
Jermichael Finley: 55 receptions (51st), 767 yards (48th), 8 TD
Owen Daniels: 54 receptions (53rd), 677 yards (60th), 3 TD (15 games)
Ed Dickson: 54 receptions (53rd), 528 yards (84th), 5 TD
Heath Miller: 51 receptions (67th), 631 yards (64th), 2 TD
Jake Ballard: 38 receptions, 604 yards (73rd), 4 TD
Daniel Fells: 19 receptions, 256 yards, 3 TD
So let's try to look at this list in a couple different ways to identify some trends between the players.
1) Generally, teams with solid tight end play have excellent quarterbacks.
Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski had outstanding years, but let's consider they had Drew Brees and Tom Brady throwing to them, respectively. Jermichael Finley has Aaron Rodgers. Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Gonzalez have Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan, respectively, neither of which is a horrible option at quarterback.
2) Tight ends don't get the yardage of wide receivers.
Another from the department of obvious stuff. No surprise, seeing as how tight ends are larger than wide receivers, and thus, slower. Of these ten tight ends though, they average down to a yards-per-reception of 12.2. Fits right in line with the average of all receiving targets... Except the pacesetter of the position out of these ten is Jake Ballard at 15.9, good for 21st in the NFL. Jermichael Finley sits at 13.9. Tony Gonzalez is actually parked below average at 10.9. Even Jimmy Graham only has a 13.2.
Due to this, even the highest-reception tight ends have really modest yardage totals.
3) So few tight ends are considered elite playmakers.
The list above doesn't even mention perennial great Jason Witten (79 receptions, T-16th), in addition to other decent tight ends such as Kellen Winslow Jr (75 receptions, T-21), Antonio Gates (64 receptions), Dustin Keller (65 receptions), or Brent Celek (62 receptions).
4) Teams with solid tight ends also have other, more primary weapons.
The Saints have Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Darren Sproles, et cetera... The Patriots have Wes Welker, the Packers with Greg Jennings, the Ravens with Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin, the Lions with Calvin Johnson, the Texans with Andre Johnson, the Bengals with AJ Green, and the Steelers with Mike Wallace. Consider also that the Bears would have made it into the playoffs with Kellen Davis, who finished with 18 receptions for 206 yards and 5 TDs, tied for 198th in the league in receptions.
So what does the tight end provide?
Tight ends are short-to-mid yardage reception machines, when used correctly. They can be devastating mismatches, especially with a receiving specialist, and they make excellent red zone and first down targets. As far as being a required piece to getting into the playoffs, having one is nice, but like any other weapon, their numbers are generally dependent on what's around them. Such as with several other "must-have" positions, having better talent overall is generally more conducive to getting into/through the playoffs.