How Valuable Is a Tight End in the NFL Draft?

Jason Witten -- drafted in the third round -- has the highest career Total NEP of all tight ends since 2000. Are discounts like him the norm on draft day?

I have a riddle for you all: when is it Christmastime, but also warm enough to wear shorts? If you guessed the NFL Player Selection Meeting, better known as the NFL Draft, then you are correct.

Draft Weekend is nearly upon us, and the eyes of the entire football world will be trained upon Chicago, Illinois. Commissioner/Santa Claus Roger Goodell will be ready to lavish us spectators with 32 presents on Thursday night, but one position appears poised to receive a Round 1 lump of coal.

The tight end position has become highly important to the NFL offense in recent years, but this 2015 draft class doesn’t appears to contain any true first-round tight end prospects. This lack of top-notch talent does bring up an interesting question, however: where does the historical value of selecting a tight end in the draft lie? How much should teams invest in this position on Draft Day?

It’s a Wonderful Life

Our task is to figure out how much draft value the tight end position is worth, and we’ll achieve this by seeing how much each player has produced by their given draft slot. To measure this, I plotted out their Total Net Expected Points (NEP) to help us see just how valuable each was for his team. Total NEP is a metric that shows us the number of expected points a player adds for his team both with his receiving work and rushing ability. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

I compared that data with each player's round selected in, overall pick, and draft cost per the standard NFL draft evaluation chart, which assigns each draft pick a relative value from 3,000 points for first overall to 0 points for 250th Overall. Next, I measured the correlations between each of these draft factors and a player's career Total NEP or average Total NEP over their career. By comparing these factors, we get to see where the strongest statistical relationships are and how we might analyze their careers.

Island of Misfit Toys

In order to figure out exactly how successful these players were, I decided to assess thresholds of value and production. Raw numbers are interesting on their own, or within each player’s career, but over a large sample of data, I want to know how many players crossed into “replacement-level” or “elite” territory how many times in their careers. Assuming an average of two tight ends in regular use on an NFL roster, I decided on this as our threshold for “replacement-level”. This means that our value for R-Level is 7.46 Total NEP Score (the 64th-best tight end Total NEP in 2014). We also want to figure out the potential for upside too, however, so I set an E-Level score of 62.66 Total NEP (the 10th-best tight end Total NEP in 2014).

The dark side of all of this, however, is risk -- the potential to bust. I applied a Non-Factor Rate to this study as well, measuring the amount of players that did not contribute any Total NEP in their first year in the league. Tight ends do get somewhat divided by their skill sets; some are primarily blockers and will contribute almost no offensive Total NEP, others are primarily “move” or receiving tight ends and will contribute a lot of Total NEP.

With these benchmarks in place, it was time to see how our jumbo-sized receivers and athletic blockers measured up by their draft values. My goal was to see the percentage of players in each round that even once reached these replacement and elite thresholds. The table below shows this data by round value.


This is by far the most interesting by-round profile of a skill position I have seen so far. In the big picture, the Non-Factor Rate plummets by Round 4, and then hits epic proportions in Round 7, to the point that nearly three out of four tight ends drafted will not contribute in their first year in the league. This is compounded by an interesting arc of probability for the R-Level: every single tight end drafted in Round 1 since 2000 has had at least one replacement-level season. By Round 4, however, just over half of the players meet this mark, and in Round 7 a paltry one-in-eight contribute at all in their time in the league. As for elite upside? In Round 1, half of the tight ends drafted have had a top-10 season. This upside is largely depleted by Round 5, however.

As could be expected, first-round tight ends have the highest chance of panning out, the lowest chance of busting, and the best upside by a long shot. This should indicate that tight ends drafted in the first round have the out-and-out top chance of success Interestingly, however, only two tight ends have been drafted in the first round since 2011, indicating that it takes a lot to have the talent needed to go in Round 1, so late first-round picks shouldn’t be assumed as instant successes.

In the second and third rounds, there is still enough solidity that drafting a tight end there will likely get you a solid contributor, with enough chance of elite upside to make it even more enticing. The absolute last round I’d really consider taking a receiving tight end is in Round 4, where there is still a less than 25% chance of a bust, more than a 50% chance of replacement-level, and a similar upside to those in Rounds 2 and 3.

Love, Actually

I’ve done this with every other position, so I’m not about to stop here. I want to examine how well the value of spending draft picks on this position works out for teams. By taking the average career Total NEP of tight ends per round and dividing that by the average slot value for those rounds (per the standard NFL value chart), I was able to come up with a sort of cost-benefit ratio. Essentially, the cheaper the pick you spend and the more production you get from it, the better off you are. If I can get Brent Celek (359.64 career Total NEP) at 162nd Overall for a draft value cost of 26.6, I’d much more prefer that to spending the 41st Overall pick with a draft value cost of 490 on Bennie Joppru (0.00 career Total NEP).

The table below shows this average data in a per-round manner.


Unsurprisingly, some of the best value-per-cost comes from the later rounds, where the cost of a pick is essentially nothing. Interestingly, however, the high value of Round 1 tight ends shows itself, in that the value-per-cost of Round 2 actually dips. We’d expect it to get higher with each round as the cost of a pick gets lower, but this is a fascinating –- albeit small -– diversion from the expectation. One other interesting anomaly exists in Round 5, where only three players (Celek, Kevin Boss, and Donald Lee) have accumulated more than 100.00 career Total NEP. The remainder have not even produced enough to live up to the low average draft value of 30.2 (about the 153rd Overall pick).

To recommend a best possible point for teams to select a star tight end, factoring in reliability (Non-Factor% and R-Level%), potential (E-Level%), and per-cost production (NEP/Value), I would suggest only truly paying the premium for elite talent in Rounds 1 or 2. If the need is great, Rounds 3 and 4 offer some cost upside as well, but Round 5 is where reliability becomes so diminished that there’s little value outside of a major flier pick. The late rounds are an absolute wasteland for tight end value.

General managers should be willing to pay top dollar for the best talent at tight end, and it appears to be worth it. The only dilemma for teams looking at drafting players like University of Minnesota prospect Maxx Williams is whether or not he has real professional upside. If he does, he’s well worth a first-round pick tomorrow. In a somewhat barren class, though, teams in need of a tight end should expect nothing, but hope for the best, from their second-to-fourth round tight end picks.