In preparation for the NFL season, we at Full Press Coverage will preview 10 of the most notable players at each position around the league. In these groupings, we will examine the three best (The Now), four who are ready for the next step (The Next) and three who have to show some sign of life in 2019 (The Needy). Next up, tight ends.
1. Travis Kelce, Chiefs
2. George Kittle, 49ers
There really is no firmly right answer in this discussion. Kittle was the league’s preeminent play-maker from the tight end position last season, and put up record numbers in the process. Meanwhile, Kelce was one of the faces of the league’s most explosive passing unit. Both have claims to the throne. However, for the time being, I am leaning Kelce as the better of the two. The edge to Kelce is based on two factors: one, Kelce has been an elite tight end for three-plus years to Kittle’s one; two, Kelce’s game has a bit more dimension to it. Kansas City uses him much like a traditional receiver; they split him wide, keep him in tight, work him over the middle, the sidelines, short, long, what have you.
Kittle, on the other hand, saw the overwhelming majority of his production come from short passes turned into big gains. He is an excellent short-area route-runner, as evidenced by 66 of his 88 catches coming within 10 yards. Kittle subsequently averaged 10 yards after the catch and had 213 more yards after the catch than any other receiver in football. In other words, Kittle is the best in the league at making plays on short routes, but he was a bit of a one-trick pony. A brilliant trick, but a lone trick, nonetheless.
All that having been said, there is a sound argument to be had about their respective quarterbacks. Kelce obviously had the benefit of the league’s most dynamic passer in 2018, whereas Kittle caught passes most of the season from C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. Perhaps with a full Jimmy Garoppolo season (never a guarantee), Kittle’s numbers could exceed those from his historic 2018. However, given their situations and Kelce’s longer reign of dominance, he gets the benefit of the doubt heading into 2019. That is, of course, not to say that Kittle could not usurp Kelce by season’s end.
3. Zach Ertz, Eagles
Ertz was the talk of NFL tight ends after helping win the Eagles a Super Bowl in 2017, but Kelce and Kittle somewhat superseded his hype this year. And that is a shame, because Ertz turned in his best season, surpassing 1,000 yards and leading Philadelphia in every receiving category. In fact, Kittle, Kelce and Ertz were the only tight ends in the NFL who eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2018. On top of that, Ertz’s 116 catches were the most ever by a tight end and second in the league among all pass-catchers. This coming season, Ertz figures again to see the overwhelming majority of Carson Wentz targets, even with Dallas Goedert coming into his own as another receiving tight end.
1. O.J. Howard, Buccaneers
Howard may have pushed 1,000 yards last season, had he not missed the final six games. He finally showed off the downfield ability that made him such a hot commodity in the 2017 class, to the tune of nearly 12 yards per target and 2.26 yards per route run. The latter stat ranked third among all tight ends with at least 100 routes. Bruce Arians’ history of quarterback development is as rich as any coach in the last decade, which bodes well for Jameis Winston and the Tampa offense. If Winston progresses this year, that means more shots for Howard and could point to elite numbers for the tight end in year three.
2. Hunter Henry, Chargers
Henry’s career to date has shown a lot of promise mixed with a few injuries. The most recent injury, a torn-ACL in last year’s preseason, caused him to miss all of 2018. Still, if his trajectory anywhere resembles his first two seasons, Henry may not be far from the upper-echelon of NFL tight ends. In two full seasons, he is averaging over nine yards per target and 13 yards per reception along with 12 touchdowns. He also had the best targeted passer rating in the NFL and the third-best yards per route run over that stretch. As Los Angeles consistently has one of the most efficient passing offenses in the game, Henry figures to see a massive uptick in targets, assuming health. With him, of course, that could be assuming a lot.
3. Evan Engram, Giants
Engram had high expectations last year, thanks in large part to an exceptional rookie campaign that saw him record 722 yards on over 100 targets. However, injuries and a slow start saw him not quite reach that ceiling last season. Still, the latter half of his 2018 (weeks 13 through 16) saw four-straight 75-plus-yard games and three-straight five-catch games. Some of that was the result of Odell Beckham’s absence, but Engram also flashed elite after-catch ability. On top of that, he proved to be the Giants’ best red zone threat, despite only scoring three touchdowns last season. As the Giants lack any true size from their top receivers, Engram figures to see a lot more end zone targets in 2019. For him, the biggest step to joining the next class of tight end is improving his health and game-to-game consistency.
4. David Njoku, Browns
This 2017 tight end class was pretty good, wasn’t it? The three first-round picks have all flashed elite potential in two seasons and each have unique athletic profiles that suggest they could become household names sooner or later. Njoku is probably third among them, as he has not been the elite red zone target the Browns had hoped, and he led all tight ends in drops last season. That said, he nearly doubled his yardage and reception totals last year. If his hands can improve, he will continue to be a benefit to Baker Mayfield even with the addition of Odell Beckham taking some targets away.
1. Adam Shaheen, Bears
Drafted a Division II player in the second round is a massive swing. And thus far, it has been a miss for the Bears. Shaheen’s size, athleticism and production against lower competition made him stand out, but to date, Shaheen has struggled to stay on the field and make plays against higher end talent. He has yet to amass 200 yards in 19 career games, while also missing 10 games last seasons due to an ankle injury. During that time, Trey Burton established himself as the more capable pass-catcher and left Shaheen on the back burner.
Burton’s solid 2018 means that the Bears’ offense will not necessarily be dependent on a strong season from Shaheen. But generally, one would like to see significant contributions by second-rounders in year three. Perhaps, as he is entering the season fully healthy this year, Matt Nagy will factor him in much more into the gameplan. At the very least, one would hope his size and athleticism would make him a go-to red zone target this season.
2. Gerald Everett, Rams
Sean McVay and the Rams have established one of the league’s premier offenses the last two years without getting a lot from their tight ends. Everett, a second-round pick in 2017, was supposed to bring that dimension as a supremely athletic pass-catcher. However, in two seasons, he has taken a backseat to the Rams receivers and has only 82 targets and 564 yards for his career. Now imagine if Everett translated his top-shelf traits into on-field production. With the Rams’ complement of weapons, they would be nigh-unstoppable.
3. Tyler Eifert, Bengals
It is frankly heartbreaking that Eifert fits into this section. His 2015 season showed he had elite potential, as he recorded 13 touchdowns in 13 games. However, in six NFL seasons, Eifert has only twice played in double digit games. And only three times has he played in at least five. Few can match Eifert’s shockingly bad injury luck in recent memory. But to his credit, Eifert has continually come back and made plays in limited action. As such, the Bengals have reciprocally remained loyal to the tune of a one-year, $3 million contract this offseason.
For Eifert, his prove-it year means giving any indication that a handful of games a season is not who he will forever be. Though his body has broken down in all manner of ways, he will be only 29 when the season opens. In theory, that means he still has football ahead of him, assuming he can approach some level of consistent health. However, if his career remains on the injury-laden trajectory, it may be tough for him to see another contract after this season.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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