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Quick Reads Decade in Review: TE Games

Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Welcome back to the Quick Reads Decade in Review! Longtime Football Outsiders readers will be familiar with Quick Reads, our regular in-season feature that runs down the best (and, just as fun, the worst!) passers, runners, and receivers of every week. That's 210 columns since 2010 covering each week's results, but aside from the occasional year in review piece, we rarely look at things in the big picture. That changes today!

Today we're going to look at the most remarkable tight ends of the 2010s (20-teens?) with the best and worst games of the past 10 years. Later we'll examine the best and worst players in total value.

Prior pieces in this series:


Best Games

Tallying the best and worst games for tight ends is complicated, because in our weekly Quick Reads feature, we lump them in with wide receivers. As such, our list of notable games for tight ends is much shorter than it is for other positions. We found 98 "good games" in the decade for quarterbacks, 72 for running backs, and 95 for wide receivers, but only 31 for tight ends. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum: we found 70 "bad games" in the decade for quarterbacks, 56 for running backs, and 64 for wide receivers, but only 25 for tight ends. With such a tiny sample, we were worried that no individuals would stand out from the pack. We were very, very wrong.

Rob Gronkowski had seven of those 31 good tight end games (defined as those with at least 60 DYAR). Nobody else had more than Travis Kelce, who had three. In fact, seven games is the career record for tight ends, one more than the six of Tony Gonzalez. If you're wondering which games those seven were, well, you'll find out shortly, because all seven were ranked 19th or higher.

That last number is mind-blowing. We had to count 36 good games for quarterbacks, nearly twice as many as we did for tight ends, before anyone got to seven. (That one was Gronkowski's quarterback, Tom Brady.) Julio Jones had a league-high seven good games for wide receivers in the decade, but the seventh of those games ranked 67th. And that list of 72 good games for running backs? Arian Foster led the way with a half-dozen -- we never even got to seven. Gronkowski's dominance here is unparalleled.

We could say more about Gronkowski, but we need to save some superlatives for when we talk about tight end totals later this week. For now we'll just get into the list of the best tight end games of the decade. And no, Gronk does not finish first. The best game of the past 10 years took place in the last few weeks of the last NFL season.

The following table shows the 20 best tight end games of the 2010s. We're including the original comments that ran in Quick Reads at the time, written by myself or by my predecessor Bill Barnwell, along with notes with current updates or observations where relevant. (Remember that opponent adjustments will have changed since some of these games were covered at midseason.) Also, since tight end games were lumped in with wide receiver games, many of them were not originally listed in Quick Reads and never had comments written for them in the first place, so I've added comments for them here. We've also added the pass defense DVOA of each opponent so you can see which games came against stout units, and which were dominant performances against bad teams. Playoff games are highlighted in blue.

A final observation: many of these games, both good and bad, took place in 2011. Of the 40 games listed in these two tables, nine were played in that season, including three from the four games in the divisional round of the playoffs. That was the year Gronkowski led the league with 17 touchdown catches and blew up the tight end record book with 461 DYAR, nearly double the second-best tight end that year (Jimmy Graham, 238) and almost 100 more than the next-best season we have ever measured (Gonzalez had 362 DYAR in 2000). Marcedes Lewis also set a record for tight ends that year with -161 DYAR (that'll happen when you catch less than 50% of your targets and fail to score a single touchdown), the worst tight end season we have ever measured. With such an abnormally wide range for tight ends that year, there was a lot more room than usual for extreme outliers in a given week.

Best Tight End Games, Total DYAR, 2010-2019

Year Player Team Rec Tgt Yds Avg TD Total
DYAR
Week Def Pass
DVOA
2019 Travis Kelce KC 10 12 134 13.4 3 88 Div HOU 19.4%
Eight of Kelce's 10 catches produced first downs, and he had two other first downs on DPIs of 15 and 26 yards.
 
2010 Antonio Gates SD 7 7 144 20.6 2 85 4 ARI 8.8%
Last year, the Cardinals ranked 11th in the league against tight ends, allowing them a -3.2% DVOA and just 48.2 yards per game on an average of seven attempts. Those Cardinals had Karlos Dansby, though, and this group decidedly doesn't. (Note: This looked far more trenchant before Dansby got worked by Danny Woodhead on Monday night.) While Arizona was able to slow down Tony Gonzalez in Week 2, Zach Miller had a decent game against them last week, and Gates just took over against them on Sunday. When Philip Rivers wasn't throwing to Gates, he went 8-of-12 for 97 yards with an intentional grounding penalty and a sack. On throws to Gates, he was 7-of-7 for 144 yards, and the only one of those passes that didn't go for a first down was a 12-yard gain on second-and-13. Gates is now on pace to muster 1,544 receiving yards, which would set the record for tight ends by almost 20 percent. The original Kellen Winslow went for 1,290 yards in 1980. (Gates eventually missed six games and finished with only 782 yards, though his average that year of 78.2 yards per game was the best of his career. Winslow's record has since been broken several times; the current record is 1,377 yards by George Kittle in 2018.)
 
2011 Rob Gronkowski NE 10 12 145 14.5 3 82 Div DEN 10.2%
This was not the best game for a receiver this season, but it was the best game for a tight end, beating Jared Cook's 8-of-8, 169-yard day against Jacksonville in Week 16. Gronkowski basically played three games against Denver, two good and one bad. His first four targets resulted in four catches, 47 yards, and three first downs (including a touchdown). His next three passes produced just one catch, a 10-yarder. (One of the other passes was intercepted, but our system penalizes quarterbacks for interceptions, not receivers). Gronkowski then caught each of the last five passes thrown his way for 88 yards, with each catch a first down (including two more touchdowns).
 
2014 Rob Gronkowski NE 9 9 149 16.6 3 77 8 CHI 22.6%
(Eight of Gronkowksi's catches produced first downs, including a 21-yard catch on third-and-18. The ninth catch was a 6-yard gain on first-and-10.)
 
2011 Vernon Davis SF 7 10 180 25.7 2 75 Div NO 16.7%
Davis had four 20-yard gains against New Orleans, capped off by a 49-yard touchdown in the first quarter, but none were bigger than his 14-yard game-winning score.
 
2012 Rob Gronkowski NE 7 7 137 19.6 2 75 11 IND 18.0%
Each of Gronkowksi's catches produced a first down or touchdown, six of them gained 10 yards or more, and three of them gained 20 or more, capped off by a 36-yarder. He leads all tight ends with 252 DYAR. Second-place Tony Gonzalez has 157 DYAR, which puts him on pace for 251. In other words, even if Gronk doesn't play again in the regular season, he could still finish as the most valuable tight end in the league. Also keep in mind these numbers could shift slightly as opponent adjustments change throughout the year. (Gronkowski missed five games in 2012 and still led all tight ends with 271 DYAR. Gonzalez finished second with 244.)
 
2014 Antonio Gates SD 7 7 96 13.7 3 75 2 SEA -10.3%
Gates became the first player to score three touchdowns against Seattle since Dwayne Bowe in 2010. He also had three other first downs; he converted three third-and-8s and a second-and-20. His only catch that wasn't a first down was still successful, a 5-yard gain on first-and-10.
 
2018 Blake Jarwin DAL 7 8 119 17.0 3 74 17 NYG 16.0%
(All of Jarwin's targets came on second or third down. He converted five of them, including the three scores.)
 
2011 Jared Cook TEN 8 8 169 21.1 1 74 16 JAX -8.2%
(Seven of Cook's catches produced first downs, including gains of 24, 29, and 55 yards. The eighth was a 4-yard gain on second-and-8.)
 
2015 Travis Kelce KC 6 6 106 17.7 2 72 1 HOU -6.5%
Touchdowns of 10 and 42 yards helped, but three more of Kelce's catches also led to first downs, including an 11-yard gain on third-and-6. His only catch that didn't move the chains: a 9-yard gain on second-and-10.
 
2013 Jordan Cameron CLE 9 9 121 13.4 1 70 14 NE 4.1%
This was the best game by a tight end this year, and the only game by a tight end in the top 20 receivers games this season. If anything, Cameron's day was even better than the 100% catch rate or 13.4 yards per target would suggest. All of Cameron's catches resulted in a first down, including two third-down conversions, and seven of them gained at least 13 yards, capped off by a 21-yarder.
 
2012 Jimmy Graham NO 7 8 146 20.9 2 69 10 ATL -2.4%
Each of Graham's receptions gained at least 11 yards and a first down, capped off by a 46-yarder and touchdowns of 29 and 14 yards.
 
2016 Rob Gronkowski NE 7 9 162 23.1 1 69 6 CIN 4.3%
Five of Gronkowski's catches led to first downs, including gains of 29, 32, 38, and 38 yards.
 
2015 Richard Rodgers GB 9 9 202 22.4 1 69 13 DET 13.4%
The Hail Mary was worth 29 DYAR, but Rodgers had a big day before that. He finished with seven total first downs, including a 40-yard gain on a DPI to convert a second-and-21. (In case you had forgotten Rodgers won this game for the Packers with a 61-yard touchdown on the final play.)
 
2013 Rob Gronkowski NE 9 10 143 15.9 1 67 9 PIT 8.1%
(Eight of Gronkowski's catches produced first downs, the longest a 34-yarder on third-and-14. He also picked up 18 yards and another first down on a DPI.)
 
2010 Rob Gronkowski NE 5 5 72 14.4 3 67 10 PIT -15.7%
What a difference a week makes; after fumbling in the red zone and causing a fumbled kickoff against the Browns, Gronkowski had three touchdowns on five targets in Pittsburgh. Before Sunday, the Steelers had allowed just one passing touchdown to opposing tight ends in 57 targets, a 12-yard catch by Benjamin Watson in Week 6.
 
2015 Jordan Reed WAS 9 11 129 14.3 2 64 16 PHI 5.7%
Reed caught touchdowns of 22 and 12 yards, and also had a 28-yard gain and a 19-yard catch on third-and-5.
 
2012 Zach Miller SEA 8 9 142 17.8 1 64 Div ATL -2.4%
Miller had at least 685 yards receiving in each of his last three seasons in Oakland, but gained 629 yards, total, in two seasons after signing with Seattle in free agency. He only went over 40 yards four times in those two years, but he gained 48 yards on four catches in six targets in the wild card win over Washington, and then he exploded for eight catches and 142 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Atlanta. He had one touchdown and five other first downs on Sunday, including four plays of 20 yards or more. Is this two-game surge a random numerical fluke, or a sign that Russell Wilson is developing and learning to use all his receivers? Guess we'll have to wait until September to find out. (This was the last game of Russell Wilson's rookie year. He went on to develop quite well.)
 
2017 Rob Gronkowski NE 9 13 191 21.2 0 63 15 PIT -7.1%
Eight of Gronkowski's receptions produced first downs, including a fourth-down conversion. DYAR also accounts for the 23-yard DPI he drew to convert a third-and-3.
 
2016 Travis Kelce KC 11 12 160 14.5 1 62 16 DEN -31.1%
The 80-yard touchdown, obviously, was the big blow, but Kelce's catches produced five other first downs too.
 

Worst Games

As mentioned earlier, we found 25 bad games for tight ends, defined as those with -40 DYAR or less. No, there is no "anti-Gronk" who dominated that list; Jared Cook had three, Jimmy Graham had two, and nobody else had more than one. Two of Cook's games top the list of bad outings and, well, the coincidences between them are kind of amazing.

Worst Tight End Games, Total DYAR, 2010-2019

Year Player Team Rec Tgt Yds Avg TD Total
DYAR
Week Def Pass
DVOA
2015 Jared Cook STL 3 9 22 7.3 0 -52 13 ARI -9.4%
(Cook's three catches produced one first down and one fumble. That one first down was a fourth-down conversion with the Rams down 24-3 in the fourth quarter.)
 
2014 Jared Cook STL 3 9 22 7.3 0 -51 15 ARI 3.8%
(This is not a typo -- Cook really did have identical 3-9-22-0 statlines in back-to-back seasons against the Cardinals, and they happened to score as the two worst games for tight ends this decade. He only had one first down in both games, and both were played in St. Louis too. Cook didn't fumble in this one, but one pass thrown his way was intercepted.)
 
2017 Jimmy Graham SEA 3 8 8 2.7 0 -49 1 GB 22.0%
To a degree, Graham was a victim of the Seattle offense's general dysfunction. Often he was targeted on dumpoffs or checkdowns as Russell Wilson was running for his life. His catches included a 6-yard gain on third-and-12 and a 1-yard loss on third-and-10, both of which he caught behind the line of scrimmage. He also caught a pass 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage on second-and-4, and actually turned it into a 3-yard gain, his only successful play on the day. But he also failed to catch three other third-down passes.
 
2013 Garrett Graham HOU 3 11 36 12.0 0 -48 13 NE 4.1%
Only one of Graham's catches produced a first down. Meanwhile, he failed to convert on first-and-goal from the 8, second-and-goal from the 1, and second-and-6.
 
2011 Jake Ballard NYG 1 8 17 17.0 0 -46 Div GB 10.6%
Tight ends dominate the top of the rankings this week, so it's only appropriate to find one at the bottom too, right? This was, in fact, the worst game for a tight end this year. On third-and-8 in the second quarter, Eli Manning hit Ballard for a 17-yard gain. It was Ballard's only catch of the day. He failed to catch any of the other seven passes thrown his way, including one on third down, two in the red zone, and four with 5 yards or fewer needed for a first down.
 
2019 Vance McDonald PIT 3 7 11 3.7 0 -46 10 LAR -1.3%
McDonald's totals include -38 DYAR receiving, zero DYAR rushing for his one carry for 2 yards. His three receptions: 3-yard gain on second-and-10; 1-yard loss on first-and-10; 9 yards and a fumble on first-and-10. (With final opponent adjustments, this game was still worth zero rushing DYAR, though it obviously fell to -46 receiving DYAR.)
 
2011 Jason Witten DAL 4 12 28 7.0 0 -46 8 PHI -3.4%
The Eagles' cornerbacks shut down the Dallas wide receivers for most of the game Sunday night, so Tony Romo was left to force the ball to Jason Witten, who was the target on eight incomplete passes. His four receptions included a 3-yard gain on second-and-8 and a 2-yard gain on third-and-10.
 
2011 Greg Olsen CAR 4 11 45 11.3 0 -44 10 TEN 8.6%
(Only two of Olsen's catches produced first downs. He also committed a fumble in the red zone.)
 
2018 David Njoku CLE 3 7 13 4.3 0 -44 1 PIT 7.5%
None of Njoku's catches produced first downs. Only one -- an 8-yard gain on first-and-10 -- was a successful play. He failed to convert any of his third-down targets, including a third-and-1.
 
2019 T.J. Hockenson DET 6 11 18 3.0 0 -42 13 CHI -4.1%
(Only two of Hockenson's catches produced first downs, and those two plays gained a total of 5 yards. Only one other catch was even considered successful.)
 
2014 Delanie Walker TEN 4 10 27 6.8 0 -42 14 NYG 8.9%
(Only one of Walker's catches produced a first down; it came with Tennessee down 36-7 in the fourth quarter. Two passes thrown his way -- one by Zach Mettenberger, one by Jake Locker -- were intercepted.)
 
2017 Gerald Everett LAR 3 6 16 5.3 0 -42 17 SF 23.1%
(None of Everett's catches produced a first down. One resulted in a gain of 6 yards and a lost fumble on third-and-20.)
 
2012 Benjamin Watson CLE 4 8 15 3.8 0 -42 3 BUF 13.1%
(None of Watson's catches produced a first down. His longest was a 9-yard gain on third-and-15. One of his catches lost 4 yards; another ended in a fumble.)
 
2019 Darren Waller OAK 2 8 11 5.5 1 -41 8 HOU 19.4%
It's not often you'll see a player in the "worst receiver" box who scored a touchdown but didn't fumble. And Waller actually gained DYAR in opponent adjustments. But his score was his only successful target on the day, and his average target came with just 5.9 yards to go for a first down. Plus, there just weren't that many disastrous receiver games this week -- -31 DYAR might not make the bottom five in a typical edition of Quick Reads.(This game dropped to -41 DYAR by the end of the year when we realized how bad Houston's defense was.)
 
2011 Brandon Pettigrew DET 4 8 27 6.8 0 -41 12 GB 10.6%
(None of Pettigrew's targets produced a first down. Three were intercepted. And yes, Matthew Stafford was playing quarterback for Detroit in this game.)
 
2011 Aaron Hernandez NE 8 14 68 8.5 1 -41 6 DAL 8.5%
(Hernandez scored an 8-yard touchdown with 22 seconds to go to give New England a 20-16 win. It was just his fourth first down of the day. He lost a fumble just outside the red zone late in the third quarter. And it's Aaron Hernandez, which makes you realize how trivial all this silliness is.)
 
2012 Kellen Davis CHI 1 5 6 6.0 0 -41 10 HOU -12.4%
(Davis' first target resulted in a lost fumble. His next target resulted in an interception. His next three targets were all incomplete.)
 
2011 Marcedes Lewis JAX 4 12 47 11.8 0 -41 12 HOU -6.6%
In addition to the numbers shown here, Lewis also drew a 12-yard pass interference call. That all led to only three first downs, though, and Lewis failed to catch eight passes. What's most remarkable is just how heavily Jacksonville leaned on him. In one stretch of the second quarter, Lewis was the target of five out of six Blaine Gabbert passes.
 
2014 Antonio Gates SD 5 8 34 6.8 0 -40 14 NE 2.5%
(Gates only had one first down. Three of his catches were failed completions, including a fumble on second-and-8 and a 4-yard gain on fourth-and-5.)
 
2017 Jared Cook OAK 1 5 2 2.0 0 -40 12 DEN 8.2%
Cook's one catch came on second-and-13, for the record. One of his incompletions came on first-and-goal from the 1.
 

Comments

26 comments, Last at 07 Jul 2020, 12:11am

1 Interesting...

No Kittle. I'd figure he might show up on the best list.

8 His best game was 59 DYAR…

In reply to by barf

His best game was 59 DYAR against Denver in Week 14 of 2018, when he gained 210 yards, all in the first half. But 137 of those yards came on two catches, and plays that big get turfed a bit in DYAR calculations. 

2 This is echoing my Calvin…

This is echoing my Calvin Johnson comment. I have seen some great tight ends in my time watching football. However, there are Hall of famers and then there are players who transcend the position. There has never been a tight end as good as gronkowski that I've seen.

4 As good as Gronk was

He wasn't THAT far ahead of everyone else in any year other than 2011.  Hell, guys like Tony Gonzalez were still playing when Gronk was in the league, and you're talking about a 6x All-Pro, 14x Pro-bowler and HOF tight end that redefined the position into what it is today. 

Where Gronk shined was in TDs.  Outside of that (which is more a product of team and scheme), he is still great, but is definitely comparable to other contemporary tight ends.

 

17 Comparison

Gonk reminds me of Erik Lindros in hockey; Probably the best offensive football player I've ever seen, but with a body that couldn't possibly stay together. The two items are not unrelated, Gronk was probably physiologically unsuited to the pounding of the NFL, and he certainly was not skilled at protecting himself (watch how tall he is when he runs compared to a RB, no wonder he got hit so hard so often). I've never been sure how to evaluate that - it's a really useful asset in any given game, but over his career he wasn't the most valuable TE to his team in the league very many years. Honestly I think AH would have had a better career than Gronk if he wasn't, you know, a violent felon.

18 Admittedly, their draft…

In reply to by sbond101

Admittedly, their draft comments were along the lines that they were both talented, but Gronkowski had injury problems and Hernandez had concerns with decision-making and run ins with the law.

Those turned out to be spot on in both aspects.

10 Blocking

With the exception of Kittle, though, Gronkowski was a much, much better blocker than the other prolific modern receiving TEs. That was a huge part of what made NE's scheme so effective - Gronkowski was awesome both blocking and catching passes, which let them disguise their intentions. 

I fully agree with the initial comment. He was hurt a lot, but when he played, he was just by far the best TE I've ever seen. 

14 Gronk gets a lot more…

Gronk gets a lot more competition in the 2010s when you realize Kelce only had six seasons this decade (he amortizes to 5 peak games if you give him Gronk's career timing) and Gates's peak was 2004-2014 -- Gates falls victim to Calvin Johnson Syndrome, where his peak straddles the 5s instead of the 0s.

As for best ever, that requires an illogical Don Hutson debate.

20 If the NFL season gets…

If the NFL season gets delayed long enough, this site can fill some space by re-running these "Best of ..." articles using rolling 10-year periods, i.e. best TE numbers over any given 10-year period.

9 Oops

The 2010 Gronk game seems to list him having 7 yards.

12 Have to say I'm surprised…

Have to say I'm surprised that Jimmy Graham only had one game on the top performances list. While he was never a good blocker, in 2011 he and Gronk both scored a ton of TDs and broke the previous  TE yardage record, so for Gronk to have 7 of the best games while Graham only had one is interesting.

I guess Graham might show up better in the totals then?

 

16 I'm fascinated that Olsen…

I'm fascinated that Olsen and Witten don't appear on the good list (although Olsen does appear on the bad list). Ertz, too.

19 Olsen/Witten/Ertz

Probably will be high in the decade-overall lists. Both Witten and Olsen seem to me to have been very good, and very steady--in other words, a guy who is regularly good without being great.

21 The game on that list that…

The game on that list that sticks out in my mind is Antonio Gates against the peak LOB Seahawks. Only 7 catches for 96 yards, but every one of them was a thing of beauty in terms subtle route running (he had no speed by that stage), and great hands. Rivers accuracy was also stunning that day. 

26 So fitting that three of…

So fitting that three of Gronk's 7 games on the list are against the Steelers. In 2019 the Steelers finally get the pieces set up to maybe be able to defend Gronk and he decides to take the year off.

The Steelers protested the injustice by refusing to defend anyone at all in their game against New England.