Is Good Blocking an Indicator of Receiving Value for Tight Ends?

If a tight end can block well, should we assume he'll be on the field more often to get targets?

Real estate agents have always preached “Location, location, location” as the key factor in a property’s value on the market. Watch or read David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’ll hear that once or twice in between the myriad colorful curses the characters utter. Theirs is a ruthless world of competition where coworkers - in one instant - may just as easily help you find great personal success, as stab you in the back and pilfer your metaphorical wallet.

Maybe not to this extent, but NFL teams are always looking for the “Next Big Thing”, a new leg up on their competition. With this search for an advantage, over the past few years some teams have stumbled onto the idea of using the tight end position in a revolutionary “oversized receiver” role. The Patriots did this with both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The Saints have continued to do this with Jimmy Graham. And the Bengals are working in their own version of it, first with Jermaine Gresham and now with Tyler Eifert.

The name of the game in the NFL for player value, however, is “Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity”. There’s been a long-standing idea that the more a player is on the field, the better their chances are of contributing to the offense. For the tight end, we often suggest that they still need to have blocking ability in order to play nearly every snap. The presumption is: if they’re in for a rushing play and the quarterback audibles to a pass, they’ll still be out there and now will be a receiving target. But is the presumption true? Do the best blocking tight ends get more opportunity to receive? And are the best receiving tight ends still good blockers?

Bad Reception

More and more we’ve seen a trend toward the tight end being used in the passing game in recent years. In 2013, the average targets seen by the top 20 tight ends came out at 91.15. Compare that to 2000, where top 20 tight ends saw an average of 74.5 targets.

Even more intriguing for our purposes, the top 20 tight ends in 2013 averaged 61.97 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), as opposed to the 2000 group, which averaged only 42.99 Reception NEP. Our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric is a measure of how much any one player increases his team’s chances of scoring on any given play, and Reception NEP is the amount of NEP a player tallies for his team solely on plays where that player makes a successful reception.

There is a clear trend, but the question is: who is receiving this glut of new targets and valuable yardage?

If we follow the adage that “good blockers will be on the field more”, then we can assume it will be the plus blockers among the tight end position. At numberFire, however, we never merely assume things. We’ll dig behind this claim and use NEP data to examine its veracity. The chart below shows the NFL’s top 10 blocking tight ends from 2013 by their blocking metrics, as assigned by, and contributions to the passing game per Reception NEP (note: these two numbers do not have any relation to each other in terms of scale).

RankPlayerTeamPFF BlockingRec. NEP
1Brent CelekPHI4.842.58
2Jason WittenDAL3.477.36
3Jeron MastrudOAK2.15.72
4Delanie WalkerTEN2.055.36
5Zach MillerSEA1.340.86
6Vernon DavisSF1.076.50
7Anthony FasanoKC-0.719.95
8Scott ChandlerBUF-2.954.81
9Marcedes LewisJAX-2.924.10
10Sean McGrathKC-3.323.53

The first thing you may notice about the above players is that top pass-catching tight ends Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are nowhere on the list. That’s a huge red flag to begin with. Interestingly, only Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers and Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys crack both lists as top 10 blockers and top 10 receivers.

Witten and Davis are also both age 30 or older, possibly indicating that this dual-threat tight end mentality may be a bit more old school than we think. The other quality receiving options in our blocking top 10 are Zach Miller and Brent Celek, but neither was used very frequently in the passing game, amassing a mere 98 targets in 2013 between them.

It’s clear that for blocking tight ends, receiving is still not a major skill for them to have. At the very least, teams aren't perceiving them as being true dual-threats. Perhaps this is due to the growing specialization in the NFL, and general managers refusing to break players like Delanie Walker off of the line to use his natural receiving ability (this has happened even since his time as a 49er, and it’s quite frustrating to watch) because blocking is what he’s always done. Perhaps it’s that they are too valuable in the protection game to be used as another receiver.

Whatever the case, the top 10 blocking tight ends from 2013 averaged a fairly lackluster 42.08 Reception NEP, which would have put this hypothetical composite player just inside the top 20 tight ends in 2013, and even just barely inside the top 10 options in 2000 (before the explosion of tight end usage in the offense).

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

Again, we test the premise that best tight ends in the receiving game are also usually the best blockers – due to increased opportunity by being on the field more often. However, if looking at the top blocking tight ends’ NEP showed us no strong indication, perhaps looking at the top receiving tight ends’ blocking metrics will. If there is a correlation, the top receiving threats at the position will likely have at least average blocking ability.

The chart below shows the top 10 tight ends from the 2013 season in terms of our numberFire Reception NEP metric, and this is juxtaposed with their PFF blocking metrics to see just how well it matches up.

RankPlayerTeamPFF BlockingRec. NEP
1Jimmy GrahamNO-7.3119.71
2Tony GonzalezATL-14.087.89
3Jordan CameronCLE-11.780.46
4Julius ThomasDEN-15.578.15
5Jason WittenDAL3.477.36
6Vernon DavisSF1.076.50
7Greg OlsenCAR-12.565.89
8Antonio GatesSD-12.963.58
9Charles ClayMIA-8.762.73
10Timothy WrightTB-10.256.65

As you can see above, the top 10 receiving tight ends feature not even one positively-graded blocker except Witten and Davis, our two holdovers. If we expanded just a little bit, the Titans’ Walker would join this list at 11th among Reception NEP and 4th in blocking performance. But on the whole, good blocking tight ends and good receiving tight ends don’t seem to be the same players. It seems that in this specialized NFL the athletic receiving options, the Grahams of the world, tend to focus on their hoops skills instead of their trench warfare, and vice-versa for road-graders like Jeron Mastrud.

Convergence Point

We’ve picked through the best at each skill, both the blockers and the receivers at the tight end position, and yet there were still only two crossover players among them. So where does this leave us? After running a simple correlation formula, it appears that there is a -0.048 correlation coefficient between PFF’s blocking metrics and our own Reception NEP totals for all tight ends. This is such a weak correlation that it indicates, essentially, that there's no relationship between blocking prowess and value in the passing game. Even opportunity in the passing game seems to have little correlation with blocking, as a player's total targets and blocking ability still has only a -0.149 correlation.

On the whole, our myth about tight end opportunity seems to be busted. Yet maybe a tiny shred of truth holds true not for the elite or the specialized at this position, but for those who are somewhere between. Perhaps this is why Brent Celek (42.58 Rec. NEP, 4.8 total blocking grade), Zach Miller (40.86 Rec. NEP, 2.9 blocking), and Scott Chandler of the Bills (54.81 Rec. NEP, -2.9 blocking) were able to sustain any value in the muddy tight end middle class.

While players like these are not elite receiving options like Graham, nor top-notch blockers like Mastrud, perhaps they were able to get on the field and sustain value more because of their versatility. In today’s specializing NFL, they are the rarer breeds. While unspectacular, the value of their real estate remains steady, as teams shift towards glorified wide receivers at the position.