What Does the Career of an Average Tight End Look Like?

Antonio Gates has had a prolific and long career in the league. Is his level of dominance the norm for an NFL tight end?

The tight end position in the National Football League has always seemed to be a lot like Chinese takeout: it’s a hit-or-miss proposition that will likely be either awesome or terrible. Either you’re going to get an outstandingly tender tray of steamed pork dumplings, or your orange chicken will be floating in a bath of sugary citrus mess.

Man, I’m hungry now.

Fast food fever dreams aside, the tight end is a bit of an enigma to those of us interested in the developmental aspects of football players. As I showed in our last article about how NFL teams should value the tight end in the draft, there’s actually less value per cost in some of the later rounds than the earlier ones of the draft. We’re less concerned now about draft capital for professional teams, and more about mapping out the course of a typical tight end’s career. Will we find a solid pattern, or will this position prove the exception to the rule yet again?

Happy Family

Former Alabama tight end Ozzie Newsome was drafted in the first round of the 1978 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. Nicknamed “The Wizard of Oz”, Newsome’s 13-year career in Cleveland saw him make three Pro Bowls and compile a stat line including 662 receptions for 7,980 yards and 47 receiving touchdowns. Remember, too, this was at a time that the tight end was expected to primarily be an additional blocking body for the league’s still run-focused offenses. Newsome was one of the prototypes for today’s incredible “move” –- or receiving -– tight ends. Prior to him, only rare athletes at this position were major factors in the passing game.

In the 25 years since Newsome, we’ve seen this position revolutionized from a quicker offensive lineman to a jumbo-sized wide receiver, essentially, epitomized by the likes of Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. Even in the last 15 years, we’ve seen a sea change: the 2000 NFL season saw just two tight ends with over 750 receiving yards, while 2014 had nine such players. In 2000, there were a mere six tight ends with 50 or more receptions on the year. In 2014, there were 17.

Since this position has become so vitally important to many an offense in the NFL today, we had better figure out what the anatomy of a tight end’s career looks like.

Four Seasons

To map out the likely course of this position, we will use numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we see in the box score and assign them contextual value as they relate to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each player influence the outcome of the game. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

For this study, I wanted to pull apart a few different factors. First, what does the course of a typical tight end career look like under the lens of NEP? Second, does draft round affect anything about this expected career arc?

I plotted out the Total NEP (NEP gained from both receiving and rushing) data by year of each tight end drafted since 2000, as well as assigning their draft round and overall pick. The table below shows our first tool: a map of average Total NEP production for each league year of a tight end’s career. What do we find?

League YearTotal NEP

The first thing I noticed about our map here is that tight ends have a conspicuously lower average Total NEP score than wide receivers have over the arcs of their careers. It’s easier to compare the production of this position and wideouts, since they both function primarily on Reception NEP; running backs gain most of their scores from Rushing NEP, which is inherently less efficient than its Reception-based cousin. So, despite the tight end’s upward trajectory in the receiving game in recent years, they are still not the kings of the catch.

By examining the average of every tight end in our database (225 have been drafted since 2000), we can see a clear arc in annual production for the position. The tight end in Year 1 actually has had a surprisingly productive average, especially given that just 64% of them even had a positive Total NEP score in their first season.

Year 2, however, sees a 50% production increase, and then this peak plateau seems to last through about Year 5 in the league. In Year 6, production sees a drop-off that lasts through Year 8. And by Year 9, if they’re still in the league, the final decline begins for the average tight end.

Remember, too, these are averages and not expected values for a player. This is intended to show us the basic curvature of a tight end career’s production, and it’s highly likely that if a tight end makes it to Year 9 –- only 30 out of 255 have -– they are exceptional players and this decline will be likely more drawn out. In all, though, this provides a basic idea of the course of a tight end’s NFL lifespan. Can we get more specific and see how draft round affects a career?

Seven Stars Around the Moon

We want to figure out how draft round affects the course of an NFL tight end, so that we can determine exactly what makes up a draft selection for this position. Can we see a pattern emerge among higher valued tight ends, or will there be more equity in this position?

The table below shows the average length of an NFL tight end’s career in terms of years played in the league, years above replacement-level (set at the 64th-best wide end by Total NEP in 2014, theoretically the worst roster-worthy one in the league), and years above elite level (set as a top-10 tight end by Total NEP in 2014). These are divided by round of draft pick. What do we find when we break this apart?

Round DraftedCareerR-LevelE-Level

Now this is extremely interesting. We can see a clear progression downward in career length, seasons at R-Level, and seasons at E-Level with each lower round, but there is a very different trajectory for each of these components. First round tight ends not only have the longest and most prolific careers on average, in each category they average nearly double the next highest mark by draft round. In addition, their years at replacement level are also nearly as long on average as their full careers.

Oddly, there is actually a solid tier of elite-level production possible for tight ends from Round 2 to Round 4. Usually, this potential drops off entirely after the first two rounds for each position, but the tight ends seem to sustain some value here. Similarly, every round’s players at this position –- except Round 7 -– has at least an average of a year and a half of replacement level production, and there is also nearly no difference in career length average between Rounds 2 through 6. From an NFL standpoint, this shows that there are really only three tiers of tight end value: top-notch and surefire Round 1 talent, anyone else who is pretty darn good to moderately passable, and then the dregs. If a team doesn’t acquire an elite offensive player at this position in the first round, the average success of everyone before the seventh is fairly similar.

What can we take from this as fantasy players? Essentially the same lessons as an NFL general manager: elite talent is the only flavor of tight end worth drafting early. Leave everyone else to late-round rookie fliers or waiver pickups. Odds are, that late-round NFL tight end in a decent landing spot that you got as a free agent will have just as solid of a career as your friend’s selection that went in the 3rd round of the Draft. I’d rather take the free fortune cookie than have to pay for the cream cheese wontons anyway.