This is the third installment in a series to look at the rosters in the NFC North. I am trying to set aside my fan biases and look at these rosters objectively. Ish. Having considered quarterbacks and running backs, I’m not turning my attention to tight ends.
Kyle Rudolph was just signed to a major contract extension, and he deserves it. Rudolph probably does not get enough credit for how well-rounded he is as a tight end, in my opinion. 9th in DYAR, 15th in DVOA, and his pass blocking is solid. His run blocking has struggled, at times, but with the Minnesota line it’s probably fair to say that he is not the real problem, there. The two-time Pro Bowler leads a talented tight end group for the Vikings.
Irv Smith needs polish. He’s not as good at blocking as he should be, and he could use more power. I don’t love his feet as a receiver or as a blocker. However, he is a solid piece, and with Rudolph in place ahead of him, he has room to develop. I think Tyler Conklin is probably a bit better than his statline showed, but that still doesn’t mean he’s destined for more than a job as a situational role-player. The rest of the roster is more of the same, but the 1-2 punch of Rudolph and Smith is concerning.
Detroit has overhauled their tight end position, and it will be interesting to see how it goes for them. Logan Thomas is an interesting player, and he adds a wrinkle to the Lions’ offense. Jesse James is a veteran journeyman, and he could either continue seasons of three or four hundred yards or he could explode, but he’s at least depth. Jerome Cunningham and Michael Roberts are probably not going to change the way defenses play. The Lions also picked up Isaac Nauta (who was projected to the 5th or 6th round), probably purely as a value selection, in the final round of the draft.
However, Detroit picked up probably the best tight end in the draft in T.J. Hockenson. Draft profiles seem uncertain whether they want to praise his intelligence, his blocking, his athleticism, or his ability to gain separation. Having watched a lot of his play, I have no such quandary. A lot of his gifts are impressive, but what really stands out about him is his awareness of the game.
It’s a tough call deciding where to place the Lions because projecting players directly out of the draft is problematic, and because tight ends sometimes take an extra year to really find their way. In this case, I’m assuming Hockenson only shows part of his full potential in his first year and then grows into a more complete player in 2020. As a result, I have Detroit’s group edging Chicago just a bit, but if Hockenson struggles this group could easily be last.
This is probably the weakest position group for the Bears. Trey Burton is turning out to be a solid player for the Chicago Bears, and his 659 yards in 2018 more than doubled his production in 2017. He seems really good at catching those little trick passes that Nagy loves to use. However, nobody is going to mistake him for Travis Kelce.
Bradley Sowell and Ben Braunecker are reliable utility pieces. Ellis Richardson, Ian Bunting, Jesper Horsted, and Dax Raymond are the sort of roster-churn players that Pace loves to sort through, but it’s way too early to claim anything meaningful about any of them.
Meanwhile, there’s Adam Shaheen. His 17 career receptions are underwhelming for a second-round draft pick halfway through his rookie contract, and while he is a game blocker when he’s not falling over, any time the phrase “when he’s not falling over” needs to be added to a player profile, it’s concerning.
4). Green Bay
The Packers have a mix of talent, but it is not evenly distributed. The good news is that Jimmy Graham remains one of the best over-30 wide receivers playing tight end in the game. However, he was not a Top 25 tight end by either DYAR or DVOA, and while Football Outsiders does not track the impact of a tight end in blocking, let’s be honest and admit that Graham has never been famed for his contributions there.
I cannot claim to be an expert on Jace Sternberger, but most draft profiles claim that he is willing to serve as a blocker but that he lacks the strength and leverage necessary to do so at the pros, at least for now, but that he makes up for it with his tools as a receiver. In other words, he sounds like he’s more of a replacement for Graham than a truly different tool. Then there are guys like Pharoah McKever and Evan Bayliss, who might turn into something but are not likely to do more than fill a role. If Sternberger turns out to be worthy of a 3rd-round pick, then Green Bay might be better equipped here than Chicago.
However, for now the Packers have slightly less reliable depth and Burton is on the rise while Graham seems to be on the decline.
Up next: Wide Receivers