Welcome to the final piece in Quick Reads' Decade in Review. Today we're going to look at the best tight end of the 2010s to show who helped (or hurt) their teams the most. We're also going to take a peek at rushing and passing data, where some familiar names pop up.
Prior pieces in this series:
- Best/Worst QB Games
- Best/Worst QB Totals
- Best/Worst RB Games
- Best/Worst RB Totals
- Best/Worst WR Games
- Best/Worst WR Totals
- Best/Worst TE Games
Best Total DYAR, Tight Ends, 2010-2019
We are gathered here today in praise of Gronk.
It's no surprise that Rob Gronkowski was the most valuable tight end of the past 10 years, but it's hard to wrap your head around the size of the gap between Gronk and anyone else. Second-place Jimmy Graham has only 55% of Gronkowski's total; he is closer to the 203 DYAR of Anthony Fasano in 39th place than he is to Gronk. Part of this is simply good timing -- if you want to be the best tight end of the decade, it certainly helps to start your career in 2010. Even on a per-game basis, however, Gronkowski dominates the competition; no other name in this table can even get within two-thirds of Gronkowski's average of 18.4 DYAR per game. We'll get into the finer details of Gronkowski's statistics later, but for now I'll just point out that Gronkowski's 80 touchdown catches in the 2010s were the most of any player, tight end or otherwise, and he averaged nearly a yard and a half more per catch than anyone else listed here. And that's just what he has done as a receiver. FO doesn't have statistics to measure individual blocking, another skill in which Gronkowski has proven to be a master.
The same cannot be said for Jimmy Graham, the second-most valuable tight end of the decade. A basketball player in college, Graham himself has argued that he should be considered a slot receiver, not a tight end. An NFL arbitrator disagreed, and so Graham falls into this category, whether he wants to block anyone or not. Regardless, Graham was an electric receiver, leading all tight ends in targets and yards and finishing second in catches and touchdowns. If he were considered a wideout, his 74 touchdown receptions in the 2010s would have tied Antonio Brown for the most at that position.
While Gronkowski and Graham hit the league in 2010, Travis Kelce wasn't drafted until 2013, and wasn't a starter until his second season. Since then he has caught 507 passes for 6,465 yards and 37 touchdowns, leading all tight ends in each of those categories in that timeframe.
And then we get a string of old men who were drafted long before the decade began but were still productive, at least for a little while. Greg Olsen began his career in 2007, one year after Vernon Davis. Antonio Gates and Jason Witten both started in 2003. Tony Gonzalez was drafted in 1997. Yet each was among the most valuable tight ends of the 2010s. That's a credit to those men for lasting so long in such a violent game. It may also be a sign of how the game is changing, as more passes are going to wide receivers and running backs and fewer are going to tight ends. That's not to say there are no good young tight ends, however -- the 49ers and Chargers are perfectly happy with George Kittle and Hunter Henry.
Worst Total DYAR, Tight Ends, 2010-2019
To a degree, John Carlson is a victim of bad timing here. For the first two years of his career, he was a perfectly adequate starting tight end in Seattle, finishing eighth in DYAR as a rookie and 25th in 2009. Unfortunately, as the calendar flipped over to 2010, the bottom fell out of Carlson's career. He never made the top 40 again, finishing below replacement level every year as he bounced from the Seahawks to the Vikings to the Cardinals.
Carlson is not alone here; many of these players managed to get a lot of targets despite subpar results. Unlike what we saw among running backs and wide receivers, when the players with the worst DYAR usually washed out of the league quickly, most of these players stuck around for a few years; 16 of them qualified for the DVOA leaderboards we'll get to later. That is likely because backs and wideouts who can't produce with the ball in their hands usually have nothing else they can bring to the table, but at this position, fantasy production is only part of the job. That's right, we are in the world of the blocking tight ends! What, you think Jermaine Gresham racked up 500-plus targets because Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer were forcing him the ball in Cincinnati and Arizona? No, he was on the field because he was there to clear space for runners such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and David Johnson, and that meant he was occasionally the target on a third-and-long dumpoff when A.J. Green or Larry Fitzgerald were double-covered.
And again we see that many of these men were actually drafted in the prior decade. The most obvious example there is Dallas Clark, who was drafted in 2003 and became a tremendous weapon for the Colts, making the top 10 in DYAR four times. But the end of his career was not nearly as successful as he finished below replacement level in three straight seasons for Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore. Other players here who were holdovers from the last decade include Dante Rosario, Alex Smith (no, the other one), Daniel Graham, and Marcedes Lewis.
As you might expect, the best tight ends in receiving DYAR are virtually unchanged from the best tight ends in total DYAR. In the lower stretch of the table, Kyle Rudolph and Martellus Bennett replace Jordan Reed and Aaron Hernandez, but there are few other changes. However, it's still worth running the following table to see some of the more granular data.
Best Receiving DYAR, Tight Ends, 2010-2019
We mentioned earlier how Rob Gronkowki's explosive ability was unmatched among other tight ends. Since he was running deeper routes than his peers, it's no surprise that his catch rate was less impressive, below average in this table. This does not mean, however, that he was unreliable or erratic as a receiver. Quite the opposite, in fact -- he was one of three players in this table to pick up a first down on more than half of his targets.
Between volume and efficiency, Gronkowski's numbers in this table are so dominant that it's almost fruitless to compare him to other tight ends. Instead, let's look at how he fared compared to the best wide receivers of the past decade. If you read last week's piece, you'll recall that Michael Thomas gained a first down on 50.8% of his targets, the highest rate of any of the decade's top 20 wideouts. Well, Gronkowski gained a first down even more often than Thomas, 51.0% of the time, and he averaged 3.4 more yards per catch. Gronk led the decade's top tight ends by averaging 9.9 yards per target. Only one of the decade's best wideouts gained yards so efficiently: DeSean Jackson, the NFL's preeminent deep threat, averaged 10.1. Gronk is the only player at either position to score a touchdown on more than 10% of his targets. Anyway you look at it, Gronkowski may have been the league's most dangerous passing-game weapon of the 2010s.
The bottom 20 tight ends in receiving DYAR are the same as the bottom 20 in total DYAR, in the same order, but we'll run that table to show you the more specific receiving numbers.
Worst Receiving DYAR, Tight Ends, 2010-2019
We also have receiving DVOA info for tight ends, which means -- yes -- it's time to talk about Gronk more.
Best Receiving DVOA, Tight Ends, 2010-2019
|(Minimum 100 targets; 107 players qualified)|
We've limited this to players with 100 targets -- theoretically, enough to qualify for our leaderboards in four different seasons, though of course some players got there much faster than that. We found 107 players who qualified.
In smaller sample sizes, we start to find individual players who were superior to Gronkowski in one receiving facet or another. Henry and Jermichael Finley had better first-down rates; O.J. Howard averaged more yards per catch and per target; Darren Fells and Tim Wright scored touchdowns more frequently. (For those unfamiliar with Wright -- i.e., most of you -- he had a short career in the middle of the decade, playing 41 games for the Buccaneers, Patriots, and Lions. He only caught 89 passes in his career, but 13 of them were touchdowns.) None of those players saw Gronkowski's workload, however -- collectively, they were targeted 837 times, only 41 more than Gronk by himself -- and none of them could match his combined efficiency either. We'll also remind you that Gronkowski is a top-shelf blocker. There is no question that he was the best player at his position in the past 10 years; the only question is whether any player anywhere else in the league did their job better than Gronk did his.
Right about now, readers across central Florida are putting their eyeballs back into their heads, because they realize that not only do the Buccaneers have Gronk, but they also have Howard, one of the league's best young players at the position. And yes, if there was any doubt, both will be on the field at the same time quite a bit this year. In fact, you might even see Tampa Bay going with triple-tight end sets -- Cameron Brate, yet another name on this list, restructured his contract with the Bucs in March.
In fact, most of the players at the top of this list are young and active -- Howard, Brate, Hunter Henry, Mark Andrews, Darren Waller, George Kittle, and Austin Hooper will all be 29 or younger this season. Perhaps the future of the tight end position is not so bleak as the DYAR totals would suggest.
Finally, we should point out the Zach Miller in this table is the Zach Miller who played for the Jaguars and Bears, not the Zach Miller who played for the Raiders and Seahawks.
Worst Receiving DVOA, Tight Ends, 2010-2019
|(Minimum 100 targets; 107 players qualified)|
As we mentioned before, most of the tight ends who were terrible in total DYAR had enough targets to qualify for the DVOA leaderboards, so many of these names will be familiar. The least efficient tight end of the decade was Dante Rosario, who had a few good years in the 2000s for Carolina before floundering with the Panthers, Broncos, Dolphins, Chargers, and Bears for several years. He qualified for our tight end leaderboards twice this decade, with DVOAs of -29.3% in 2010 and -56.8% in 2013.
Delanie Walker finished the decade with a -0.3% DVOA on 698 targets, most of anyone with below-average efficiency. Jermaine Gresham had -171 DYAR on 566 targets, most of anyone who finished below replacement level.
New England's Aaron Hernandez had nine rushes for 97 yards and 60 DYAR, most among tight ends this decade in all three categories. That works out to 10.8 yards per run, and six of them gained first downs.
Noah Fant had -25 DYAR, worst among tight ends. He had three carries as a rookie for Denver last year; remarkably, all of them lost yardage. He lost 5 yards on one carry against Oakland in September, then got two carries against Minnesota in November, resulting in a loss of 2 and a loss of 5.
There were five passes thrown by tight ends in the 2010s, one each by five different players. Logan Thomas completed his for 15 yards and 15 DYAR with Buffalo in 2018. (Note that this does not include Thomas' all-or-nothing stint as a quarterback with Arizona in 2014; Thomas' 11 dropbacks that season resulted in eight incompletions, two sacks, and just one completion, but that one completion was an 81-yard touchdown. He finished with -18 DYAR.)
Travis Kelce's one pass with Kansas City in 2017 was intercepted. That was worth -22 DYAR, worst among tight ends in the 2010s.
These numbers do not include postseason data. You may recall that Philadelphia's Trey Burton completed a pass for a 1-yard "Philly Special" touchdown in the Super Bowl against New England. That play was worth 18 DYAR, so if you want to say Burton was the best passing tight end of the 2010s, we won't argue.
We're not going to go in-depth on the best and worst seasons of the decade because A) we just wrote about that for ESPN+ in December, and B) all that information is freely available elsewhere on the site for anyone who wants to compile it. But a few bullet points:
- Gronkowski's 461 DYAR in 2011 was the best in this or any other decade. The second-best mark of the 2010s was Antonio Gates' 361 in 2010.
- Gronk's 339 DYAR in 2017 were third best. His 279 DYAR in 2012 were fifth. He had three other seasons in the top 11.
- Marcedes Lewis' -161 DYAR with Jacksonville in 2011 was the worst mark of the decade.
- Jared Cook, Jimmy Graham, and Greg Olsen were the only tight ends to qualify for our tables in every year of the 2010s. Graham is the only player with positive DYAR in each of those years.
- Jermaine Gresham qualified for our tables with negative DYAR six times, most in the league.