2017: The Best Tight End Draft in NFL History. Why the Wait?
Decades of missed picks and an evolving position made teams reluctant to select these generational talents.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because three Gronks are better than one.
History was made at last month’s NFL draft, due in no small part to the surprising rush of quarterback picks that has dominated conversation ever since. For the first time since 1978, the tight end position made record-setting, first-round noise. Now, as teams head to minicamp, fans and analysts must wait to see if this was truly the best tight end draft in NFL history.
For the second time in 38 years, three tight ends were drafted in the first round.
In 2002, the last time this occurred, Jeremy Shockey, Dan Graham and Jerramy Stevens proceeded to play 30 combined NFL seasons and win four Super Bowls. Prior to 1979, three tight ends went in the first round three times, with the players totaling 23 seasons in 1978, 29 in 1973 and 31 in 1970.
The first-round uptick in ends reflects that a revaluation of the position may be underway. The NFL morphed in 1979, when San Diego’s Dan Fouts became the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a single season. The next year, he hit 4,700, and the rest of the league followed. Suddenly, blocking tight ends were valued less than the speedy wide receivers flying up draft boards. Ends were still important cogs in the NFL wheel, but there was little reason to waste first-round picks on a position that, until 2002, had yet to adapt to the modern game.
With current NFL offenses has come the specialization of tight ends. Pass catchers have essentially become slot receivers, while block-first ends are a dime a dozen. Usually, when NFL teams look to build through the draft, tight ends are low priority. Only 20 tight ends have been drafted in the past 20 first rounds, the least of any skill position. This year, though, tight ends were on the rise.
“It really is an impressive group,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay told OZY prior to the draft, predicting that “probably eight or nine, 10 tight ends could go in the first three rounds.” McShay wasn’t far off, as six ends were drafted in the first three rounds and 12 in the top five rounds. Still, even with the predraft hype surrounding this class, teams were hesitant to pull the trigger early on.
Alabama’s O.J. Howard, whom ESPN analyst Mel Kiper described to OZY as a “multidimensional talent that hasn’t been seen in the NFL in a while,” was widely considered a top 10 pick entering the draft. But Howard slipped to Tampa Bay at No. 19. From there, Mississippi’s Evan Engram and Miami’s David Njoku were picked 23rd and 29th by the Giants and Browns, respectively. The first-round trifecta must have emboldened draft rooms, as ends began flying off the board. Chicago selected Ashland University standout Adam Shaheen, a former basketball player, in the second round; through five rounds, the most ends (12) had been selected since 2010.
“I love the pick of David Njoku,” McShay tells OZY. “He is a weapon that not many teams have — a guy who can stretch the field with speed and explosiveness.” When it comes to yards after the catch, McShay says, Njoku and Howard are unrivaled.
In Tampa Bay, Howard will team up with rising superstar quarterback Jameis Winston and All-Pro wideout Mike Evans, providing the Buccaneers a dynamic boost in the passing game. Engram will likely start in New York, where he could flourish alongside veteran quarterback Eli Manning, and Njoku will be key in Cleveland’s rebuilding effort.
Typically, dual-threat tight ends like these three are so rare that teams focus first-round draft attention on positions that more consistently return the investment. Shockey, Graham and Stevens were the first modern pass-catching draft class trio, but only Shockey truly blossomed into a dangerous offensive weapon. After 2002, teams once again reverted to the “diamond in the rough” approach when scouting the position. If Howard, Engram and Njoku find NFL success, a greater emphasis on drafting and developing the position should follow.
Either that, or NFL teams can keep recruiting LeBron James.