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A Recent History of First-Round Tight Ends

Even if you believe that running backs are sometimes worth first-round picks, this list should make you think twice about whether or not a tight end should go in the top 32. Er, 31.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Baltimore Ravens
Not recent, but I’m still not over it. Martz!!!
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Previously, I explored the recent history of running backs who were drafted in the first round in defiance of conventional wisdom. What I found was that both major camps had a basis in reality for their viewpoints. Those who believed that the once-in-a-generation running backs (who actually seem to come by every other year or so) are worth the risk can point to backs who are individually accomplished. However, those accomplishments do not seem to help their teams very much. Conventional wisdom held up.

With tight ends, at least anecdotally it becomes even harder to justify investing a first-round pick somehow. For the first decade of the rookie wage scale, fewer tight ends were drafted at the top and those that were had even more questionable outcomes.

Given the increased importance of the passing game, it might seem counterintuitive to say that tight ends are not good investments of first-round picks. However, unlike running backs (who can frequently contribute right away), tight ends seem to need at least a season or more before they adapt to the NFL. Few teams are in a position to let their first-round picks slowly develop. Additionally, elite college tight ends are seldom the best tight ends in the pros. So, since this is one of my favorite positions in football, it’s only fair to look at what recent history tells us about the players who inspired their teams to defy conventional wisdom and look at how that turned out.

Tyler Eifert (2013) Drafted at #21

The Hype: What there was of it was modest. said Eifert “has developed into one of the top all-around tight ends to enter the NFL draft in recent memory. He was Notre Dame’s No. 1 offensive weapon in 2012, lining up out wide as a WR or in-line as a traditional TE, and was the type of target defensive coordinators had to game plan against…He is a soft spoken guy, but an animal on the field and a much better blocker than given credit, improving in leaps and bounds the past three years with excellent effort – projects as a starting NFL TE with excellent potential as both a receiver and blocker.” Bleacher Report was optimistic but guarded, saying “Tight end is a hard position to predict, but I think that a team will snag Eifert at the end of the first or beginning of the second round and will be very happy that it did.”

Early Accomplishments: Only started 31 games out of a possible 80 to start his career, and while he earned a Pro Bowl in 2015, he was never one of the top receiving tight ends in the league.

Analysis: If someone were to justify that a tight end deserved to have been taken in the first round in 2013, Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz would come to mind before Tyler Eifert. For that matter, even Jordan Reed might be a better candidate.

Eric Ebron (2014) Drafted at #10

The Hype: loved him, calling him a “Highly athletic, highly productive ‘F’ tight end dripping with upside and mismatch capability. Ebron might not be in the ‘freak’ category, but his speed, movement skills, hands and run-after-catch skill puts him in the next tier, as he has ample ability to be a playmaker at the next level.” Walterfootball was even more excited: “Dangerous pass-receiving tight ends have become a rage in the NFL, and Ebron is the top tight end prospect to enter the pros since Vernon Davis in 2006. Ebron is extremely fast for a tight end. With his size, athleticism and speed, he looks like a matchup nightmare for an NFL offense.”

Early Accomplishments: Ebron earned a single Pro Bowl and had exactly two seasons where he started more than half of the available games. Oh, and that single Pro Bowl was not for Detroit, where he managed only 2071 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in his first four years. It was when he went to Indy in his fifth year.

Analysis: 2014 was a bad year to look for a tight end in the draft anyway, but it was an even worse year to lock onto a tight end when the next three picks in order were Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham jr, and Aaron Donald.

O.J. Howard (2017) Drafted at #19

The Hype: WalterFootball loved him, saying “As a pro, Howard could be a devastating mismatch weapon and one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL. He should continue to improve and be a quality blocker, but probably will never be a bull. Howard looks like a potential 10-to-15-year quality starter. In terms that [sic] and his talent, Howard is deserving of mid- to late first-round consideration in the 2017 NFL Draft.”, on the other hand, had at least a few reservations: “He has elite athletic traits and raw talent, but must add polish to go along with those attributes. Should become substantially more productive as a pro, but the difference between “potential weapon” and “elite tight end” will likely be tied to his desire and overall football character.” Both sources compared him to Greg Olsen.

Early Accomplishments: He played out all five years in Tampa Bay before landing in Houston, but his best season was still modest (under 600 yards), and he was quickly eclipsed on the roster by other tight ends.

Analysis: Of the 14 tight ends taken in 2017, Howard was first off the boards but fifth in total yards, and there is little sign that he will be the 10-year quality starter promised by WalterFootball.

Evan Engram (2017) Drafted at #23

The Hype: Compared to Jordan Reed by Lance Zierlein, the hopes for him were modest. “Engram has experience as a safety blanket for Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly and can work all three levels of the field. He will appeal strictly to teams looking for a move tight end who can be deployed as a chess piece in a matchup-based passing attack. Engram’s ability to stress defenses could land him on Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) of the draft and a potential starting role early in his career.” Instead he went on Day One.

Early Accomplishments: He played out his five years for the Giants and earned a Pro Bowl over 51 starts and just under 3,000 yards. After George Kittle, he is in fact the most accomplished tight end in his draft class.

Analysis: It’s hard to call Engram a “bad pick”, but it’s also hard to argue that he was more than a middling first-round selection. It’s also hard to ignore that the Giants never had a winning record while he played for them. Still, he did okay for a player who was slightly over-drafted.

David Njoku (2017) Drafted at #29

The Hype: Heralded as an athletic marvel, Njoku earned the following overview from Lance Zierlein: “Ascending pass catching talent with elite athleticism and enough fight in his run blocking to believe that he can be lined up anywhere on the field at any time. Njoku should annihilate the combine with monster numbers in speed and explosion, but his play on the field shows he’s more than a combine warrior. He is still growing into his body and has to add to his play strength, but his playmaking potential and elite traits should make him a first-round pick and a future Pro Bowler.” Meanwhile, WalterFootball compared him to Vernon Davis and Greg Olsen, saying “As a pro, Njoku could be a devastating mismatch weapon and one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL. He should continue to improve and be a quality blocker, but probably will never be a bull. Njoku looks like a potential 10-to-15 year quality starter. In terms of his talent, he is deserving of mid- to late first-round consideration, and if he slips out of the first round, he’s a lock for Round 2.” If that seems familiar, go look at what the same source had to say about O.J. Howard.

Early Accomplishments: With 36 starts over his first five years, and under 350 yards per season, Njoku is basically a marginal role-player. The Browns needed to bring in Austin Hooper to shore up the tight end position before Njoku’s contract was up.

Analysis: A physical marvel at tight end who doesn’t live up to his draft status? That’s seeming like a trend, especially among those who have question marks around their blocking. As we saw with running backs, drafting physical attributes instead of complete skill sets can be a dangerous proposition.

Hayden Hurst (2018) Drafted at #25 proclaimed him a first-round pick and said “His fearless play demeanor combined with size, strength and athleticism make him a well-rounded prospect with the versatility to line up all over the field. He’s sure-handed and could become a young quarterback’s safety blanket if he improves elements of his route running. He should see early snaps and has the ability to become a good combination tight end.” Meanwhile, Matt Miller was less optimistic, saying “Hurst has the tools to be the most productive tight end in the 2018 class right out of the gate, but concerns about age and a need to keep developing his game could scare off some teams. He is the most dynamic pass-catching threat at the position, but he doesn’t show the blocking talent or effort to be TE1.”

Early Accomplishments: He played only two seasons with four starts for Baltimore before they traded him to Atlanta for roughly the value of a lower second-round pick, and then in Atlanta he managed just under 800 yards across 14 starts in a pair of unimpressive seasons. His fifth year was played with the Bengals (his third team), who liked him enough that he has now signed with the Panthers.

Analysis: If a player is going to come into the league at age 25 needing to work on multiple skills in order to be considered a starter, it’s probably not the best idea to spend a first-round pick on that player, regardless of position.

T.J. Hockenson (2019) Drafted at #8

The Hype: Lance Zierlein had Travis Kelce as his player comp and said “In a draft that feels light on high-end talent, Hockenson is an ascending talent with a chance to become one of the best all-around tight ends in the game. He should continue to fill out his athletic frame, but he’s already a sound in-line blocker with the toughness to sustain and finish. His above-average athleticism and separation burst will help him win against linebackers while his body control and hands give him an advantage over safeties. Hockenson has standout talent and fits any scheme, but he could be coveted early by teams looking to delve more heavily in 12-personnel (two TE packages).” Meanwhile, WalterFootball compared him to Zach Ertz and said “Sources from a multiple [sic] teams say that Hockenson is the consensus top tight end for the 2019 NFL Draft, and they believe he will be a first-round pick.”

Early Accomplishments: In his first three years, he earned a Pro Bowl and contributed 35 starts in a mixed role as a receiver and blocker. The Lions picked up Hockenson’s fifth-year option but then traded him to their divisional rival Vikings during what turned out to be his second Pro Bowl season.

Analysis: Hockenson is a good tight end, and is arguably the best tight end from his class. The Lions got a solid season plus some other functionality out of him, and they managed to cash in with additional draft picks. That seems like a decent value except for the fact that he was drafted at #8, not #28.

Noah Fant (2019) Drafted at #20

The Hype: Lance Zierlein correctly predicted that he would be a first-round selection, with an overview stating “Pass-catching tight end with the length, acceleration and speed to create matchup challenges both short and long. Fant is at his best in open space and on the move as his catch-focus appears to wane when coverage crowds him or he hears footsteps. He needs to get stronger and more competitive at the point of attack to help a run game, but if that never happens, his ability to uncover and hit big plays will still make him a coveted prize for teams ready to add a move tight end as their new matchup toy.” WalterFootball compared his playing style to that of Jimmy Graham, but they also said that there were concerns about his maturity. Interestingly, Matt Miller also compared him to Jimmy Graham.

Early Accomplishments: Drafted by Denver, he produced nearly two thousand yards across three seasons and earned 41 starts for the Broncos. Fant was then traded to Seattle as part of the package to secure Russell Wilson for the mile-high city. His performance dipped a bit for the Seahawks.

Analysis: The second tight end drafted in 2019 is probably the second-best tight end from his class. It’s hard to call him a bust, but he has been more functional than game-changing.


Having gone through draft profiles by position back-to-back and knowing the results, it is difficult to ignore the difference in tone between write-ups. While the first-round running backs are often praised for elite traits and heralded as the exception to the rule, evaluations of tight ends are much more guarded–consistently pointing out the difficulty of evaluating the position and of transitioning to the NFL. As it turns out, those hesitations are valid in the case of tight ends. Whether your favorite tight end in 2023 is Michael Mayer or Dalton Kincaid (or someone else), it’s worth keeping in mind how hard of a transition this position has to NFL performance.