The NFL Draft never fails to bring optimism to fans across the league. Months removed from any sort of live football, the draft is a chance to wonder what could become of some college prospects your team picked over the course of a boring weekend in the middle of the offseason.
One position where fans and fantasy owners tend to get a bit too far ahead of themselves is tight end. The big, bulking mismatch creators seem like sexy picks coming out of the draft, but how often do they pan out as rookies?
Well, let’s consider some statistics. Of the 185 rookie tight ends to appear in 10 or more games in their rookie season since 2000, only 47 have caught more than 20 passes. Only 52 caught more than 1 touchdown. Right off the bat, our success rate has fallen through the floor.
But not every rookie tight end is created equal. Some are drafted just to block, or play special teams. So we’ll narrow it down to rookie tight ends who caught 20 or more passes, and look back since 2008. That gives us a list of 20 rookies to analyze using Net Expected Points (NEP), numberFire’s in house metric that you can read more about here.
Since 2008, the average rookie right end has earned 36.50 Reception NEP during their rookie seasons, at a clip of .65 Reception NEP per target. They also earned an average Success Rate of 83.2%, which measures how often their receptions were deemed an NEP success for their team.
To put that into perspective, the “average rookie tight end” would have finished 23rd in Reception NEP in 2013 among tight ends with 20 or more catches, while finishing 18th in Reception NEP per target and 23rd in success rate. Strangely enough, the average rookie tight end winds up looking a lot like 2013 first-year tight end Zach Ertz of the Eagles.
So the average rookie tight end winds up being less efficient than most of the starters at the position around the league, meaning they’re less likely to be regularly involved in the offense by a smart coaching staff.
But there are outliers to every statistic. So who are some of the players who stood out, and how can we predict which players will have stronger rookie campaigns?
Since 2008, there have been four tight ends who would have finished in the top 10 in Reception NEP in 2013, 7 who would have finished in the top 10 on a per target basis, and 5 who would have finished in the top 10 in Success Rate had they played this past season.
Let’s begin with Reception NEP, which is a raw indication of how much production a tight end had on passes he caught. Dustin Keller, John Carlson, Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright were the four players to post well-above average totals in this metric, so what can we learn from them?
Opportunity to play stands out as the biggest common thread here, as the Bucs were devastated at the tight end position in 2013, and the 2008 Seahawks and Jets were not talented enough on offense to limit Carlson or Keller from playing time. And, obviously, Gronkowski was a perfect fit for what the Patriots were looking to do on offense with the rising popularity of the two-tight end set.
But otherwise, there’s not much of a predictor of rookie tight end success, and since only 4 of the 20 qualified players since 2008 would have posted a top 10 season had they played in 2013, the general trend is that rookie tight ends will be average at best.
Using the other metrics, we see that draft position is not a strong predictor of success. The three highest drafted tight ends on this list did not finish anywhere close to a top-10 season, while the lone undrafted player on the list posted one of the most impressive lines of stats of the whole bunch.
In the table above, the bolded numbers are ones that represent what would be top-10 performances if they occurred in 2013. It's also sorted by draft position, so you can see the trend of earlier picks not necessarily having the best success.
In 2014, premium NFL Draft picks were spent on tight ends Eric Ebron, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Jace Amaro. All three seem to have very potent offensive skill sets, and all three have a clear path to playing time.
But if our history tells us anything, there's a good chance that none of these players will finish alongside the better veteran tight ends in the league. Chalk it up to adjusting to the NFL game, problems with blocking NFL defenders, or a hesitance from offensive coordinators to use rookies heavily in the passing game, but there's something that holds back first year players at the position.
So while the future may be bright for Ebron, ASJ and Amaro, don't bank too heavily on them for 2014.