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Valuing the tight end position in the 2019 NFL draft

The best tight ends have come from a wide range in the NFL draft.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Mississippi State vs Iowa Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the free agent signing of quarterback Nick Foles the Jacksonville Jaguars have all but said they will not be drafting for that position in round one of the 2019 NFL draft. Based on this move, speculation on what the Jaguars will do with the number seven pick has ranged from offensive tackle to defensive tackle, with the most interesting mock being a tight end.

Opinions vary as to whether drafting a tight end that high is a value decision. You are more than likely to see teams look for high profile positions inside the top 10: wide receiver, quarterback, defensive end, corner back. The tight end is considered more of a luxury or necessity option, and many believe you should not pull the trigger on that position until later in round one, if at all.

The history of the Jaguars shows them following that trend, while also paying little attention to the position. Since their inception the team has only drafted six tight ends, with one being a first round selection and the others round four or later. They have not drafted for the position since 2015.

  • 2015 - Ben Koyack (7th)
  • 2009 - Zach Miller (6th)
  • 2006 - Marcedes Lewis (1st and the 28th overall)
  • 2003 - George Wrighster (4th)
  • 2002 - Chris Luzar (4th)
  • 1997 - Damon Jones (5th)

Marcedes is easily the most productive of the lot, but even he did not live up to either his collegiate success at UCLA nor his draft slot. With a mass departure of players at the position, and nothing yet added via free agency, tight end seems to be an obvious focus for the 2019 draft.

Iowa’s T. J. Hockenson has been a name mentioned at number seven on the basis of an impressive collegiate career, and an equally impressive NFL combine tryout. He has top shelf athletic skills to shine in the blocking game but more importantly as a receiver, a position Nick Foles values. While the position has been noted as being deep for this year’s draft, Hockenson stands out as the premium option, along with his fellow teammate Noah Fant. However, arguably, most draftniks rank T.J. as the better value.

The argument has been made that, historically, tight end is not a position you move on in the top 10 and therefore the Jaguars would find better value at a position like offensive tackle where they are also in need. I take issue with this on two points, First, the tight end position has transitioned to be just as valuable as a wide receiver. While still vastly outnumbered by wide receivers on the stat sheet (there are more on the field at any given time), the top 10 in receptions and touchdowns in 2018 included two tight ends. Over the past 10 years you could see as many as six tight ends in the top 20.

Second, the investment in Foles demands some creative thinking, and creative drafting. The position Jaguars leadership has put this team in at the many skill positions requires them to make decisions that may go against traditional thinking. Barring the option of trading back and still landing either a Hockenson or Fant, Jacksonville would surely not be faulted for addressing a glaring offensive gap, and also for doing whatever they could to optimize their investment in Nick Foles.

There is also some fault to be found in the argument for when the tight end position has been historically drafted. The truth is, historically value has been found anywhere from round one to finding an undrafted gem. Looking at the best tight ends in NFL history, and considering modern players who are excelling or have excelled at the position, while picking one in the top 10 is almost unheard of, selecting a tight end in round one does yield some Hall of Fame returns on investment.

This list is not extensive, nor does it reflect in totality those tight ends who are in the Hall of Fame. What it does show is that first round talent is often found in the first round.

  • Vernon Davis: Round 1 - 6th overall
  • Tony Gonzalez: Round 1 - 13th pick overall
  • Kellen Winslow: Round 1 - 13th overall
  • Jeremy Shockey: Round 1 - 14th pick overall
  • Ozzie Newsome: Round 1 - 23rd overall
  • Dallas Clark: Round 1 - 24th overall
  • Greg Olsen: Round 1 - 31st overall
  • Zach Ertz: Round 2 - 35th overall
  • Rob Gronkowski: Round 2 - 42nd overall
  • Kyle Rudolph: Round 2 - 43rd overall
  • Travis Kelce: Round 3 - 63rd overall
  • Jason Witten: Round 3 - 69th overall
  • Jimmy Graham: Round 3 - 95th overall
  • Shannon Sharpe: Round 7 - 192nd overall
  • Antonio Gates: UDFA

Other players who have specifically been drafted in the first round, and have not realized their draft status or are still to young to register are listed here.

  • Eric Ebron: 10th overall (2014)
  • O.J. Howard: 19th overall (2017)
  • Brandon Pettigrew: 20th overall (2009)
  • Tyler Eifert: 21st overall (2013)
  • Jermaine Greshman: 21st overall (2010)
  • Evan Engram: 23rd overall (2017)
  • Hayden Hurst: 25th overall (2018)
  • David Njoku: 29th overall (2019)

The interesting thing about Eric Ebron is that his move to Indianapolis greatly improved his production, giving Andrew Luck a 13 touchdown target.

There are very rarely “sure things” in the NFL draft, and the tight end position is no different, than any other. The pre-draft evaluations of Hockenson are that he may be the most sure thing to grab on day one. While that is surely a point of debate, what is not debatable is just how much a game changing, dependable tight can do for his quarterback. Philadelphia, New England, Kansas City, San Diego, Dallas, and Indianapolis are prime examples of just how the position creates matchup challenges, and in New Englands case allows you to not field a wide receiving corps that has WR1 threat.

How much of a difference is it to draft what you believe to be a playmaking tight end at seven versus 13? While T.J. Hockenson at seven might be considered a bit early historically based on actual draft numbers, that means very little if you think he can be productive. Jacksonville has more than one good reason to pull the trigger on the position where they presently sit, and history shows that such a decision makes good sense.