The New York Giants had what looked like a good tight end room entering the 2021 season. It didn’t turn out that way. Evan Engram had what has become a typical season for him, showing flashes but frustrating with drops and not living up to his first round draft pedigree. General Manager Joe Schoen let him walk during the off-season, and he signed a contract averaging $9 million per year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Veteran Kyle Rudolph, who turned 31 last season, had surgery for a footinjury after signing his Giants contract and contributed little other than a long reception against the Los Angeles Chargers. He was released to create cap space and is now a free agent. Kaden Smith played only about half the season and was also released, his career possibly over due to injuries.
The 2022 Giants tight end room looks less impressive on the surface, with fourth-round draft pick Daniel Bellinger plus a group of free agents released by other teams and undrafted free agents. Could it turn out to be better than the 2021 group?
Today’s NFL is more than ever a balancing act among talent, positional value, future performance, and cost. Kevin Wilson (@after_yards on Twitter) recently published an article discussing a strategy for building a defense that had many parallels to what Joe Schoen did this offseason. Last week he discussed similar issues for the tight end position. Here are some of the points he makes.
Elite tight ends are rare
Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Mark Andrews, Darren Waller, Kyle Pitts. That is pretty much the complete list of game-changing tight ends in the NFL. There are other good ones, but not good enough to keep defensive coordinators awake at night. Not good enough to carry a team to the Super Bowl. By comparison, there are maybe 10-12 “franchise” quarterbacks in the NFL and probably as many elite wide receivers as there are teams.
If you don’t have one of the few elite tight ends, or one of the next tier of good ones (Wilson lists Dalton Schultz, Dallas Goedert, and T.J. Hockenson, and maybe Cole Kmet and Pat Freiermuth as future ones), then tight end is not a position of high value, and teams should not pay them as if it is.
And as with most other positions, tight ends start to decline quickly at age 28-29, according to Timo Riske of PFF. At age 30 and beyond, TEs as a group only generate 19 percent of their career wins above replacement.
Finding a good tight end is difficult
Another study by Riske highlighted by Wilson shows that compared to other positions, the receiving grades of tight ends drop off very slowly from the first round of the draft to later rounds:
Of course tight ends play an important role as blockers also. Riske finds that there is effectively no difference between the blocking abilities of tight ends drafted in Round 1 and other rounds.
A recent study by Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap cited by Wilson makes a similar point, showing that the financial value of taking a tight end in the first round is pretty small when compared to signing one in free agency (unlike say QB, where having a good one on a rookie contract is just short of priceless in a cap-constrained NFL).
The message: Don’t waste a high draft pick on a tight end unless he is a unicorn, and unless you expect him to become the focal point of your offense. Here are the tight ends drafted first, or in the first round, in the past 10 NFL drafts:
2022: Trey McBride (Rd. 2, No. 55)
2021: Kyle Pitts (Rd. 1, No. 4)
2020: Cole Kmet (Rd. 2, No. 43)
2019: T.J. Hockenson (Rd. 1, No. 8)
2018: Hayden Hurst (Rd. 1, No. 25)
2017: O.J. Howard (Rd. 1, No. 19); Evan Engram (Rd. 1, No. 23); David Njoku (Rd. 1, No. 29)
2016: Hunter Henry (Rd. 2, No. 35)
2015: Devin Funchess (Rd. 2, No. 41)
2014: Eric Ebron (Rd. 1, No. 10)
2013: Tyler Eifert (Rd. 1, No. 21)
Kelce was a third-round pick, as was Mark Andrews. Kittle went in Round 5 (partly due to injuries). Darren Waller lasted until the sixth round. We’ll see about McBride, Kmet, and Hockensen as their careers progress. But the rest weren’t worth it. As bad as Giants fans feel about the Evan Engram pick, he was only one of a trifecta of bad 2017 first-round TE selections - Kittle was the only good TE that came out of that class.
Finding good value in tight ends in the draft
Wilson concludes that drafting a tight end in Round 1 makes little sense from a value vs. cost standpoint. The question is how to identify tight ends in the later rounds who will succeed in the NFL. He cites studies that suggest a combination of physical traits and college production.
That brings us to the Giants’ Daniel Bellinger, their Round 4 No. 112 pick obtained with part of the draft capital the Giants secured by trading down in the first round of the 2021 draft. From a traits standpoint, Bellinger stands out among the tight end prospects in the 2022 draft:
Daniel Bellinger was drafted with pick 112 of round 4 in the 2022 draft class. He scored a 9.66 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 35 out of 1014 TE from 1987 to 2022. https://t.co/WVwvRa2b84 #RAS #Giants pic.twitter.com/pijrXOosZa— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 30, 2022
Among 2022 tight end draftees, Bellinger’s RAS is second overall behind that of Jelani Woods, according to Steelers Depot. He is among the fastest and most explosive of the drafted tight ends, and he is elite in the 40-yard dash and broad jump, two physical traits that are predictive of professional success according to the studies cited by Wilson. These numbers are magnified by the fact that Bellinger is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, prototypical size for a tight end. According to Kent Lee Platte’s RAS Information calculator, these are the comps for Bellinger’s RAS:
The first three of these speak for themselves. Alex Ellis, now with the Cardinals, has played bits of seasons with three previous teams but made no substantial impact. Luke Wilson was a productive but not elite tight end on the great Seattle Seahawks teams of the Legion of Boom era.
As the Ellis and Wilson comps indicate, traits aren’t everything. Production matters too. This is where Bellinger’s projection to the NFL is difficult. Bellinger was not used heavily in the passing game by San Diego State, and when he was, he had a measly 3.7 yard average depth of target according to Mike Renner’s 2022 PFF Spring Draft Guide. When he was targeted past the line of scrimmage, it was mostly 5-10 yards downfield (though with the occasional deep shot):
SDSU was 103rd in the nation with 6.6 team yards per pass attempt, according to Team Rankings. So Bellinger did not exactly play in the Greatest Show on Turf. However his 31 receptions tied for second on the team, his 357 receiving yards were third, and his 8.3 yards per target was higher than the team average. Wilson points out that every current NFL tight end in the elite tier, plus recently retired Rob Gronkowski, has at least 11.8 yards per reception. In 2021, Bellinger had 11.5 yards per reception. Evan Engram clocked in at 8.9 in 2021, though his career number is 10.8.
Bellinger’s lack of use as a receiver in college may portend a difficult transition to becoming a productive NFL receiving option. That’s why he was the sixth tight end selected and still there in Round 4. But the attributes are there.
Getting favorable matchups for tight ends
A player like Bellinger will be most likely to thrive in the NFL if the offensive coaches can create mismatches for him. In general, we expect tight ends to be covered by safeties and the quicker linebackers, players who traditionally can match their speed and/or strength. One way for an offensive coordinator to avoid that is to design pass routes that occupy the safeties and linebackers elsewhere, forcing a smaller cornerback to cover the tight end.
In the Giants-Chiefs game last season, Patrick Graham intentionally put James Bradberry, a tall CB, on Kelce - and that worked well. In the first Washington game, though, the Football Team managed to isolate now-Giant TE Ricky Seals-Jones on smaller CB Adoree’ Jackson, resulting in a lead-changing TD late in the game.
The flip side of this is that if a cornerback is covering a tight end, that may leave a slower linebacker having to cover a wide receiver. Here is the list of wide receivers most often covered by linebackers in 2021, according to PFF’s Riske:
Wide receivers with the highest % of route runs during which they are covered primarily by linebackers, 2021:— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) July 5, 2022
Cooper Kupp 21.3%
Jerry Jeudy 20.7%
Amon-Ra St. Brown 19.7%
Tyler Boyd 18.7%
Adamm Humphries 18.3%
Robert Woods 17.7%
And the corresponding list of TEs covered by CBs:
Same with tight ends <-> cornerbacks:— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) July 5, 2022
Kyle Pitts, 46.7%
Mike Gesicki, 46.2%
Darren Waller 42.5%
Travis Kelce 38.9%
Tyler Higbee, 37.3%
Skillwise, Higbee doesn't belong in this list and this is exactly McVay's plan, I guess. Letting a mediocre TE out to dry to scheme WRs open
As Riske notes, two of the top five WR-LB matchups and one of the top five TE-CB matchups were engineered by Sean McVay’s Rams. Travis Kelce was one of those TEs often covered by CBs. Maybe it was mostly intentional, as in Graham’s use of Bradberry. Or maybe it was the schemes of Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy. Either way, hopefully Mike Kafka took notice of this and will recognize that in Daniel Bellinger he has a TE with similar physical attributes and will design route combinations accordingly to create mismatches.
That’s not to say that Bellinger is in Kelce’s class - few if any are. But that doesn’t matter. Tyler Higbee, a capable but not top-tier TE, also managed to see a lot of coverage by CBs. On a team with Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Van Jefferson, and for part of the season, Odell Beckham Jr., defenses wound up wasting a CB on Higbee 37 percent of the time while Kupp or Woods were isolated on LBs a combined 39 percent of the time. Amazing. If Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka can scheme things so that Bellinger or Seals-Jones draws CB coverage while LBs try to cover Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, or Wan’Dale Robinson, the Giants’ passing offense could be fun to watch.