Last year’s draft class said something about the way NFL teams are coming to view skill-position players on offense. An equal number of wide receivers and tight ends — three at each position — were drafted in the first round.
It was just the second time in the last decade that there had been as many or more tight ends as receivers drafted in the first 32 picks. The only other instance was in 2008, when tight end Brandon Pettigrew was the only player taken at either position.
“I kind of just say, ‘Who can make a difference?’ ” said NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock. “It doesn’t matter what you call it. It doesn’t matter if you call it a wideout, tight end, or H-back, whatever. Who can make a difference?”
This has not been the approach over the last decade, when 36 receivers but only eight tight ends have been taken with first-round draft picks. The game has changed rapidly, though, and skill-position players are moving around formations enough that traditional position designations have lost value. That’s reflected in the players getting drafted.
“There’s a bunch of tight ends in this draft; 90 percent of them are pass only, receivers only,” Mayock said.
A team in search of a dynamic receiving option doesn’t necessarily need to take a traditional wide receiver (and they don’t need to take a tight end either; just ask Saquon Barkley). As pass-catching becomes more and more the central duty of today’s top tight ends, the prototypes at both positions are converging.
“I think it’s showed on my tape that when I’m flexed out wide, I’m able to change the game for our offense,” said South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, who could be the first tight end off the board. “Whatever team drafts me, I think that’s what I specialize in.”
Imagine a tight end declaring that as his specialty a decade ago.
Differences remain, though, and one that sticks out, looking over the past 10 drafts, is this: Wide receivers have the higher ceiling, but tight ends offer more consistent production and generally are safer picks.
We have only one year’s worth of data for the 2017 class, so take this with a grain of salt, but teams got a lot more out of their first-round tight ends than they did their first-round wide receivers.
Wide receivers Corey Davis (Titans), Mike Williams (Chargers), and John Ross (Bengals) all had injury issues last year. Davis was the most productive, with 34 catches for 375 yards. Williams had 95 yards on 11 catches. Ross didn’t catch a pass. None scored a touchdown.
O.J. Howard (Buccaneers), Evan Engram (Giants), and David Njoku (Browns), meanwhile, all surpassed Davis’s numbers and all caught at least four touchdown passes. Howard caught 26 passes for 432 yards and 6 touchdowns. Engram was the most productive, with 64 catches, 722 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Njoku had 32 catches, 386 yards, and 4 touchdowns.
Again, injuries were a major factor, and draft picks take years to fully evaluate. Looking at rookie seasons for first-round receivers and tight ends over the last decade shows that their production is fairly similar. Wide receivers averaged 39 catches, 553 yards, and 3.6 touchdowns their rookie years; tight ends averaged 39.5 receptions for 448 yards and 3.5 touchdowns.
The only significant difference is the yardage. Yes, many tight ends are effectively big, jumbo receivers. There is still a ton of value, however, in fast outside receivers who can take the top off.
That’s one reason teams may be more inclined to take wide receivers. Another is financial value. Receivers make more on the open market, so there’s more value in having a good one on a cheap rookie deal than there is for a tight end.
The average receiver salary is $2,299,331, according to Spotrac, and the average tight end salary is $1,856,383. The differences at the top of the market are even more pronounced, with Mike Evans counting $18.25 million against Tampa Bay’s salary cap next season and Rob Gronkowski — for now — coming in under $10.9 million against the cap.
Top receiver salaries will keep pushing toward the $20 million-per-year mark, especially as more members of the incredible class of 2014 (Sammy Watkins, Evans, Odell Beckham, Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin in Round 1; Paul Richardson, Allen Robinson, and Jarvis Landry in Round 2) sign extensions or second contracts. Those players’ rookie deals expired this offseason, except for those like Cooks, who had their fifth-year options exercised.
The downside is that not every class is the 2014 group, or even close.
Look at the first-round tight ends and compare them with the first-round receivers and you’ll notice that drafting a tight end in the first round seems significantly less risky.
Among receivers, there are plenty of players such as Justin Blackmon, Jonathan Baldwin, A.J. Jenkins and Laquon Treadwell who haven’t worked out. The tight end group consistently produced: Eric Ebron, Tyler Eifert, and Jermaine Gresham were all good picks, and Pettigrew and Dustin Keller each gave five good seasons to their teams — not the ceiling for a first-round pick, but not a bust by any means.
On the flip side, that group of eight tight ends has produced three Pro Bowl appearances and zero 1,000-yard seasons. The receivers? They made 32 Pro Bowls and had 45 1,000-yard seasons (though Cordarrelle Patterson’s two Pro Bowl nods were for special teams).
Receivers (including tight ends) are risky picks, according to a 2015 study by FiveThirtyEight. By comparing ProFootballReference’s approximate value data with a draft value chart created by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective (it expects less of top picks and more of later-round picks than the old Jimmy Johnson chart, but follows the same kind of curve), they found that only 41 percent of receivers lived up to expectations of someone drafted in their position. That meant receivers lived up to expectations less than players in any other position group measured.
A 2015 Bleacher Report study looking at the last 25 years showed that 30 percent of first-round receivers drafted wound up starting fewer than 50 games in their careers. For tight ends, that proportion was only 21.4 percent.
Just looking at the 10 years before the study, 35 percent of receivers busted by the 50-start criteria, while only 14.3 percent of tight ends did.
One reason tight ends tend to be safer is that they’re often athletes who can do a lot of things. That’s certainly the case with this year’s crop. Penn State’s Mike Gesicki credits his ability going after 50-50 balls to his basketball and volleyball backgrounds. He nearly played volleyball at Penn State instead of football.
“When the ball’s in the air, I consider it mine,” he said at the Combine.
It’s only because of a severe case of the yips that Hurst, who played two years of minor league baseball in the Pirates organization, is a tight end and not a righthanded pitcher.
Former South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert switches things up by riding his unicycle.
“It shows a little bit of my athletic ability,” he said.
(OK, fine, Goedert played basketball, too.)
It’s hard to quantify exactly, but there may be some added security that comes from drafting one of those all-around athletes who can rely on different elements of their physical toolbox when others are challenged.
If it’s all about security, then it seems like teams are still better served going tight end. Receivers can work out fantastically, but carry more risk.
Drafts vary year to year, and the 2018 draft may end up being a poor test case since it’s considered relatively weak at the top at both receiver and tight end. The good news, though, is that teams on the hunt don’t have to look for one or the other, they can just look for a player they think is going to help them.
|Hayden Hurst||South Carolina||6-4||250||4.67||1-2|
Hurst is a polished player with a versatile game. The former minor league pitcher is a well-rounded athlete, but his two-year baseball detour does mean he'll enter the NFL at age 25.
|Mike Gesicki||Penn State||6-5||247||4.54||1-2|
Matchup tight end who can win easily against linebackers and safeties. He doesn't block much but has great hands and loves a jump ball.
First-team All American who was Baker Mayfield's favorite target. He's a former receiver and, despite his great size, that's where he excels.
|Dallas Goedert||S. Dakota State||6-5||258||n/a||2|
Pass-catcher with great hands, body control, and plenty of highlight-reel grabs, but he'll have to convince teams he can do it against better competition than he saw in college.
Best blocker of the top-tier bunch, but he's very raw as a route-runner and dealt with injuries as a senior.
BEST OF THE REST: Dalton Schultz*, Stanford (6-6, 242, 4.75, 3-4); Durham Smythe, Notre Dame (6-5, 257, 4.81, 4-5); Tyler Conklin, Central Michigan (6-4, 240, 4.8, 5); Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin (6-6, 248, n/a, 5-6); Chris Herndon, Miami (6-4, 245, n/a, 5-6), Will Dissly, Washington (6-4, 267, 4.87, 6).
Consensus top pick of the receivers with great speed and ability to separate. Only major knock is that his thin frame can get pushed around.
Big-bodied receiver who's had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Mustangs. Lacks elite speed but has the size and contested catch-making ability to be a good red zone target.
Big Ten Receiver of the Year who set a school record with 80 receptions in 2017. His short-area quickness is better than his pure speed and he could move to the slot in the NFL.
|Christian Kirk||Texas A&M||5-10||201||4.46||2|
Also a first-team All American punt returner, Kirk is quick in and out of breaks and savvy in traffic. He doesn't have the length teams covet, but is a good option for a team looking for a sturdy slot receiver.
|Chark has a desirable size-and-speed combination and comes from a program that has produced plenty of wide receiver talent, but scouting reports say he didn't show a ton of growth in college.|
Brown has only three 100-yard games in his career, but he's fast for his size and can play outside or in the slot.
BEST OF THE REST: Auden Tate*, FSU (6-5, 228, 4.68, 3); Anthony Miller, Memphis (5-11, 201, 4.52, 3); Simmie Cobbs Jr., Indiana (6-3, 220, 4.64, 4); James Washington, Oklahoma State (5-11, 210, 4.54, 4); Dante Pettis, Washington (6-0, 186, 4.55, 4).