This is the final piece in our four-part series about offensive position groups in the NFL. Part 1 is on backup quarterbacks, Part 2 is running backs, and Part 3 is wide receivers.
For nine years, the Patriots deployed Rob Gronkowski as their defense-breaking tight end. He was a physical marvel who could patch over any lapses in the wide receiver depth chart while clearing the path for his team’s tailbacks as a linebacker-negating blocker. But Gronk is gone, retired to a world where he can spend 12 months per year devising the perfect party bus instead of his typical seven.
In his stead is a player New England originally drafted in 2004 and a handful of former undrafted free agents. As a result, the Patriots have one of the worst tight end lineups in the NFL.
Just not the worst.
The Patriots sunk to the bottom of this year’s tight end rankings without their fearless sequel to Air Bud: Golden Retriever in the lineup, but haven’t fallen to dead last thanks to a pair of rebuilding clubs. That helped create room for potential contenders and rising teams to move to the top of the list. The Colts, with a pair of Pro Bowl bookends in their 22 formation, lead this year’s tight end rankings thanks to their strength and depth. But singular game-changing talents were enough to push the Chiefs and 49ers into the top five at a position where star power is limited and one man can make an entire depth chart.
And also, the Buccaneers, who aren’t contenders and are only rising if you squint hard enough at their roster to defocus your eyes, are up there too. Huh.
2019’s top five tight end groups
1. Indianapolis Colts
Primary tight ends: Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox
If Ebron’s potential-realizing 2018 holds true, Andrew Luck will have one of the league’s biggest scoring threats atop his tight end depth chart and another recent Pro Bowler — Doyle — right behind him. Ebron finally broke through last year, even though drops and a poor catch rate (only 60 percent) didn’t make him statistically that different than his underwhelming run in Detroit.
Doyle is a staple in the Indianapolis run game who emerged as an above-average starter in 2017. He missed 10 games last season due to injury, but his 77 percent career catch rate shows how reliable he can be alongside Luck. Getting both these guys at the top of their games is the Colts’ main response to a WR corps that for years has been T.Y. Hilton and few other standouts.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Primary tight ends: Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Richard Rodgers
Ertz is a 28-year-old Pro Bowler who set career highs in catches (116), receiving yards (1,163), and catch rate (74.4 percent) last season. Goedert didn’t need much time to adjust to the league even after playing his college ball at South Dakota State, grading out as one of league’s best run blockers at his position. After hauling in 33 catches and four touchdowns, he’s capable of filling the gaps others leave behind if they focus too hard on Ertz. Rodgers is a useful depth option and special teamer who can catch the hell out of a Hail Mary.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Primary tight ends: George Kittle, Garrett Celek, Kaden Smith
Kittle was great at pretty much anything he was asked to do for the Niners, excelling despite catching passes from three different starters in his second season as a pro. His 1,377 receiving yards in 2018 were the most ever by a tight end, and he also cleared a path for one of the league’s most dynamic rushing attacks by sealing off the edge effectively as a blocker. Smith and Celek don’t offer as much behind him, but the former Iowa Hawkeye was destructive enough last fall to push San Francisco into the top five on his own.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Primary tight ends: Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, David Wells
Like the 49ers, the Chiefs are mostly a one-man show — but it’s one hell of a show. Kelce proved a perfect complement to Patrick Mahomes’ improvisation-heavy style, using his athleticism to post career bests in receptions (103), receiving yards (1,336), and touchdowns (10). Wells and Bell have 30 career NFL catches between them, but they’ll each get the opportunity to add to that total now that Demetrius Harris has left Missouri for a spot in our No. 6 TE rotation.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Primary tight ends: O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, Antony Auclair
Howard is a mismatch creator who averaged nearly 12 yards per target last season and could be inching toward a true breakout in his third year in the league. Brate is still chasing his breakout 2016, but he remains a valued red zone target after tallying 20 touchdowns the past three seasons. They’ll each get more looks as part of a receiving lineup that features Mike Evans and little else.
Honorable mention: No. 6 Cleveland Browns
Primary tight ends: David Njoku, Seth DeValve, Demetrius Harris
Baker Mayfield loves to spread the ball to his tight ends. He formed an All-Big 12 connection with Mark Andrews at Oklahoma and rode David Njoku to nearly 14 yards per catch after Hue Jackson’s midseason firing. Now he’ll get Njoku, prepped for a third-season leap, along with Seth DeValve and Demetrius Harris — the former Division I basketball player Kansas City developed into an occasional weapon at tight end.
Cleveland will have several different looks to throw at opponents this fall, so expect head coach Freddie Kitchens to get a little unorthodox with his tight ends in 2019. I really, really like what the Browns are doing here ... just not enough to slide them into the top five.
2019’s bottom five tight end groups
28. Houston Texans
Primary tight ends: Jordan Thomas, Jordan Akins, Kahale Warring
Houston’s top tight end last year, Ryan Griffin, had only 24 catches. Since then, he was arrested for punching a hotel window and released not long after. That leaves two 2018 draftees, 2019 third-round pick Warring, and veteran blocker Darren Fells to step into the void and give Deshaun Watson a little extra aerial support. The Texans have the room to outperform expectations, but there’s not much proven experience here.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
Primary tight ends: Geoff Swaim, Josh Oliver, Ben Koyack
Nick Foles is going from one of the league’s best tight end tandems to one of its worst. He should be concerned. The Jaguars will be relying on rookie third-round pick Oliver to overdeliver after one solid season at San Jose State.
30. Arizona Cardinals
Primary tight ends: Ricky Seals-Jones, Charles Clay, Maxx Williams
Kliff Kingsbury will be leaning hard on Seals-Jones, a high-upside, low-floor tight end who has yet to finish an NFL season having caught more than half his targets. He’ll have the chance to show out in his rookie head coach’s spread offense, and he should emerge as the team’s TE1; Clay isn’t the threat he once was and Williams is looking like a former second-round prospect who never will be.
31. New England Patriots
Primary tight ends: Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo
Even a 60 percent Rob Gronkowski would be a significant upgrade over the Pats’ current tight end lineup. Watson will turn 39 years old this season and will serve a four-game suspension to start the year. Austin Seferian-Jenkins lasted approximately two months with the team before being released in June. LaCosse has started six games in his four-year career, while Izzo is a seventh-round pick who has yet to play an NFL snap.
32. Oakland Raiders
Primary tight ends: Luke Willson, Derek Carrier, Foster Moreau
Jon Gruden went all-out upgrading his wide receivers by adding Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, and J.J. Nelson to his lineup. That left his tight ends to languish. Willson and Carrier are useful blockers, while rookie Day 3 pick Moreau could work his way into some targets — though he wasn’t especially prolific in his four years at LSU (629 career receiving yards).
Looking for the full rankings? Here you go. Keep in mind these listings don’t represent actual depth charts — and that due to injury concerns and the uncertainness of young prospects, there’s a lot of wiggle room among the middle teams in this year’s lineup.
2019 NFL tight end rankings
|1||Indianapolis Colts||Eric Ebron||Jack Doyle||Mo Alie-Cox|
|2||Philadelphia Eagles||Zach Ertz||Dallas Goedert||Richard Rodgers|
|3||San Francisco 49ers||George Kittle||Garrett Celek||Kaden Smith|
|4||Kansas City Chiefs||Travis Kelce||Blake Bell||David Wells|
|5||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||O.J. Howard||Cameron Brate||Antony Auclair|
|6||Cleveland Browns||David Njoku||Seth DeValve||Demetrius Harris|
|7||Minnesota Vikings||Kyle Rudolph||Irv Smith Jr.||David Morgan|
|8||Baltimore Ravens||Hayden Hurst||Mark Andrews||Nick Boyle|
|9||Los Angeles Chargers||Hunter Henry||Virgil Green||Sean Culkin|
|10||Tennessee Titans||Delanie Walker||Jonnu Smith||MyCole Pruitt|
|11||Chicago Bears||Trey Burton||Adam Shaheen||Ben Braunecker|
|12||New York Giants||Evan Engram||Rhett Ellison||Scott Simonson|
|13||Atlanta Falcons||Austin Hooper||Luke Stocker||Eric Saubert|
|14||Detroit Lions||T.J. Hockenson||Jesse James||Isaac Nauta|
|15||Denver Broncos||Noah Fant||Jake Butt||Jeff Heuerman|
|16||Los Angeles Rams||Tyler Higbee||Gerald Everett||Johnny Mundt|
|17||Cincinnati Bengals||Tyler Eifert||C.J. Uzomah||Drew Sample|
|18||Washington||Jordan Reed||Vernon Davis||Jeremy Sprinkle|
|19||New Orleans Saints||Jared Cook||Josh Hill||Dan Arnold|
|20||Green Bay Packers||Jimmy Graham||Jace Sternberger||Marcedes Lewis|
|21||Buffalo Bills||Tyler Kroft||Dawson Knox||Lee Smith|
|22||New York Jets||Chris Herndon||Eric Tomlinson||Trevon Wesco|
|23||Pittsburgh Steelers||Vance McDonald||Xavier Grimble||Zach Gentry|
|24||Carolina Panthers||Greg Olsen||Ian Thomas||Chris Manhertz|
|25||Dallas Cowboys||Jason Witten||Blake Jarwin||Rico Gathers|
|26||Miami Dolphins||Mike Gesicki||Dwayne Allen||Clive Walford|
|27||Seattle Seahawks||Nick Vannett||Will Dissly||Jacob Hollister|
|28||Houston Texans||Jordan Thomas||Jordan Akins||Kahale Warring|
|29||Jacksonville Jaguars||Geoff Swaim||Josh Oliver||Ben Koyack|
|30||Arizona Cardinals||Ricky Seals-Jones||Charles Clay||Maxx Williams|
|31||New England Patriots||Ben Watson||Matt LaCosse||Ryan Izzo|
|32||Oakland Raiders||Luke Willson||Derek Carrier||Foster Moreau|