By Craig Ellenport | April 24, 2019
Multiple mock drafts have not one but two tight ends from the University of Iowa being taken among the top 12 picks in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night in Nashville. There’s no denying the thought of two tight ends from the same school being drafted that high is amazing. But it’s also absurd.
The teams that draft Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, if they take them in the top 20, should automatically receive failing grades for the draft. That’s not a knock on either player. The great Gil Brandt has Hockenson as the sixth-best prospect in the draft and he’s got Fant at No. 22 in his most recent draft grades.
The problem is this: The tight end position is not impactful enough to waste such a high pick on.
The NFL draft is as inexact a science as there is in sports. That’s why past performance history is so important. And the past performance of tight ends drafted in the top 20 tells you all you need to know.
In the last 30 years, a total of 13 tight ends have been taken in the top 20. Some of them have been serviceable – guys like Brandon Pettigrew, Vernon Davis, Rickey Dudley, Kyle Brady. But if your team has a pick in the top 20 of the draft, do you want to hear your GM say, “We’re looking for a serviceable player?”
Eric Ebron, for example, was taken 10th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2014. Ebron had a breakout season last year with the Colts after four mediocre campaigns in Detroit. But over his five-year career, he’s averaging 50 receptions for 560 yards and five touchdowns. Is that what you want from a 10th overall pick?
The best tight end taken in the top 20 since 1989 was certainly well worth it. Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez was the 13th overall pick when the Chiefs took him in 1997. The rest of the pack? Meh.
Here’s the rundown:
2017: O.J. Howard (19th overall, Buccaneers)
2014: Eric Ebron (10th, Lions)
2009: Brandon Pettigrew (20th, Lions)
2006: Vernon Davis (16th, 49ers)
2004: Kellen Winslow Jr. (sixth, Browns)
2002: Jeremy Shockey (14th, Giants)
2000: Bubba Franks (14th, Packers)
1997: Tony Gonzalez (13th, Chiefs)
1996: Rickey Dudley (ninth, Raiders)
1995: Kyle Brady (ninth, Jets)
1993: Irv Smith (20th, Saints)
1992: Derek Brown (14th, Giants)
1992: Johnny Mitchell (15th, Jets)
One of the reasons Hockenson and Fant are getting so much attention is the retirement of New England Patriots superstar Rob Gronkowski. While tight ends generally are not game-changers, Gronkowski was the outlier. So even though Gronkowski himself was a second-round pick when he came into the NFL in 2010, teams are going to make a big investment if they think they can find “the next Gronk.”
But that’s easier said than done, and teams might miss out on an impactful player at a more important position if they go out of their way to draft a tight end.
Back in 1983, NFL teams were looking for the next Kellen Winslow. The Chargers tight end was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career and there was nobody in the league like him.
The Buffalo Bills used the 12th pick in the ’83 draft to get Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter. A leg injury ended his career in 1986, but Hunter’s first three seasons in the NFL were nothing special. More importantly, Hunter was part of the greatest draft in NFL history. Players taken after Hunter in the first round included Jim Kelly (also taken by the Bills), Joey Browner, Dan Marino and Darrell Green.
Some mock drafts have the Patriots taking one of the Iowa tight ends with their first-round pick. After all, they’re in search of the next Gronk as much as anyone. That would be a lot of pressure on Hockenson or Fant if they end up in New England, but at least expectations aren’t as high when it’s the 32nd overall pick.