There has been talk more recently about tight ends coming into the NFL being more pro ready. With players like Kyle Pitts coming into the league in 2021 and putting up 1,000 yards as a rookie, there has been a push from media and writers talking about how college tight ends are more pro ready recently. So, with that in mind, let’s delve into this narrative to see if it’s true.
We will go from 2016-2022, so we can get an accurate measure of rookie tight ends and how much they contribute. We will also be doing just the first three rounds, since those tight ends tend to get the most playing time as rookies. I used Pro Football Reference for my stats.
For 2016 we had Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper, and Nick Vannett drafted in the first three rounds. We have Henry with 36 catches for 478 yards, 13.3 average, and eight TDs. Hooper had 19 for 271, 14.3 average, and three TDs. Vannett collected three catches for 32 yards, 10.7 average, and 0 touchdowns. This gives us an average of 19 catches, 260 yards, 13.6 average, and 3.67 TDs; so pretty below average numbers for a starting tight end.
For the 2017 class there was definitely a bigger group. You had OJ Howard, Evan Engram, and David Njoku draft in just the first round. After that you had Gerald Everett, Adam Shaheen, and Jonnu Smith drafted in the 2nd and 3rd rounds.
Howard had 26 catches for 432 yards, 16.6 yards a catch, and six TDs. Engram followed up with 64 catches, 722 yards, 11.3 a catch and six TDs. Njoku put up 32 receptions, 386 yards, 12.1 yards a catch, and four TDs. After that Gerald Everett collected 16 passes for 244 yards, 15.3 average and two TDs. Adam Shaheen caught 12 balls for 127 yards, 10.6 average and three touchdowns. Finally we have Jonnu Smith with 18 catches for 157 yards, 8.7 yards a catch and two TDs.
This gives us an average of 28 catches, 345 yards, 12.3 average, and 3.8 touchdowns. Looking at the numbers, catches and yards went up, but average per catch went down, and TDs were about the same.
In 2018 there was Hayden Hurst, Mike Gesicki, Dallas Goedert, Mark Andews, and Jordan Akins. Hurst caught 13 passes for 163 yards, 12.5 average, and one TD. Gesicki collected 22 balls for 202 yards, 9.2 average and 0 touchdowns. Goedert had 33 catches for 334 yards, 10.1 average and four TDs. Andrews had the best numbers of the group with 34 catches for 552 yards, 16.2 yards a catch and three TDs. Finally Jordan Akins had 17 catches for 225 yards, 13.2 yards a catch and 0 touchdowns.
Averaging that all out; 23.8 catches, 295 yards, 12.4 average, and 1.6 TDs. So, similar numbers to 2016, outside of the drop in touchdowns.
For the 2019 NFL draft we, of course, had T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Irv Smith Jr., Drew Sample, Josh Oliver, Jace Sternberger, Kahale Warring, and Dawson Knox.
To start off, Hockenson had 32 catches for 367 yards, 11.5 average, and two TDs. Noah Fant collected 40 passes for 562 yards, 14.1 per catch, and three TDs. Smith had 36 catches for 311 yards, 8.6 average, and 2 TDs. Drew Sample had just five catches for 30 yards, six yards a catches and 0 touchdowns. Josh Oliver had three catches for 15 yards, five yards a catch and 0 TDs. Sternberger had 0 catches on the season. Warring did not play as a rookie. Knox had 28 catches for 388 yards, a average of 13.9 and two TDs.
Averaged out, those players had 20.6 catches, 239 yards, 11.6 yards a catch, and 1.3 TDs. I did not count Warring since he didn’t even play. Again somewhat similar to 2016 and 2018.
The 2020 class was a bit of a smaller group. There was Cole Kmet, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, and Adam Trautman. Kmet started us off with 28 catches, 243 yards, 8.7 a catch and two TDs. Asiasi had two catches for 39 yards, 19.5 yards a catch, and one TD. Keene had three catches for just 16 yards for an average of 5.3 yards, 0 TDs. Trautman collected 15 balls for 171 yards for an average of 11.4 yards and one TD.
All told, that comes out to 12 catches, 117.25 yards, with a 9.77 yard average, and one touchdown. Those are pretty terrible numbers.
The 2021 class was shallow at the top with just Kyle Pitts and Pat Freiermuth being taken in the first two rounds, followed by Hunter Long, Tommy Tremble, and Tre McKitty in the third.
Pitts, of course, had the big rookie year with 68 catches, 1,026 yards with a 15.1 average, but just one TD. Freiermuth followed up with 60 catches, 497 yards, 8.3 yards a catch, and seven TDs. Long had just one catches for 8 yards, 0 TDs. Tremble had 20 catches for 180 yards for an average of nine yards a catch, and 1 TD. Finally McKitty had six catches for 45 yards, 7.5 yards a catch and 0 TDs.
All together they averaged 31 catches, 351 yards, 11.3 yards a catch, and 1.8 TDs, so even with Pitts big year, they still averaged out similar to 2017, but fewer TDs, of course.
Finally, to 2022. We start with Trey McBride, then to Jelani Woods, Greg Dulcich, and Jeremy Ruckert. McBride had 29 catches, 265 yards for a 9.1 yard average and one touchdown. Following him, Woods (everyone’s favorite draft crush) had 25 catches, 312 yards, 12.5 yards a catch, and three TDs. After him Dulcich had 33 catches, 411 yards, 12.5 yards a catch, and two touchdowns. Finally Ruckert had one catch for eight yards.
Averaged out you come up with 22 catches, 249 yards, 11.3 yards a catch and 1.5 touchdowns.
Looking over the numbers since 2016, the averages are all around the same area between 20-28 catches 240-340 yards and 1-3 touchdowns. While there have been guys who have “blown up” here and there like Pitts the vast majority rookie tight ends struggle, and Pitts was used more like a big receiver as a rookie than a tight end. The old adage of tight end being one of the most complicated positions to learn in the NFL still holds true.
Even though we had a record nine tight ends get taken in the first three rounds, expect at least eight of them to have their struggle as rookies, maybe even all nine. There has been talk of even some guys like Luke Musgrave putting up 500-600 receiving yards. The chances of that happening are astronomically low.
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