The tight end position is one of the most interesting positions in the game of football. On certain downs they are expected to be a physical run blocker. On others, they are expected to serve as the security blanket for quarterbacks who can't get a good look at their receivers downfield. Still, on other plays, they are expected to be a playmaker who can catch a 50-50 ball 20 yards down the field.
Tight ends don't get the credit that they deserve, so a few of them have created "Tight End U," which is expected to be an annual meeting of the minds in Nashville, Tennessee with the greatest tight ends in the world. They want to further the position, and the NFL world has definitely started to realize how important a good tight end is to an offense. Below, we will rank the top 10 tight ends in the NFL when it comes to their outlook this season. We factor in their abilities as an athlete, a blocker and of course how dynamic they are in the passing game. Some names may surprise you this year, so let's go ahead and jump in.
10. Mike Gesicki
Gesicki is an up-and-coming star in this league, and he put up career numbers across the board in 2020 with 53 receptions for 703 yards and six touchdowns. He also had the longest reception of any tight end in the NFL last year, with a 70-yard gain off a double move against the San Francisco 49ers. Additionally, he showed off the ability to make tough catches, and incredible one-handed grabs.
One weakness Gesicki has had to deal with is blocking, and it's something that we have to address as we break down the best tight ends in the NFL because it's in their job description. Still, it's an aspect of the game that he has improved on as time has gone on, and his home-run hitting ability makes up for it. While the Miami Dolphins added some speedsters on the outside such as Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, that could actually open up the middle of the field for Gesicki in 2021. He also has proven very effective from the slot, so Miami can move him around wherever they'd like.
9. Hunter Henry
We struggled in deciding which New England Patriots tight end would make this list, but we opted to take the player who has consistently been one of the best players at his position -- even though Jonnu Smith is an intriguing weapon. Henry has struggled with injury issues in the past, but also has proven to be a dangerous weapon in many different situations. He caught a career-high 60 passes for 613 yards and four touchdowns in 2020, and now will be coached by Bill Belichick, who knows a little something about how to get the most out of star tight ends. Henry ranked fifth in receptions per game for tight ends, and was a top 10 tight end when it came to fantasy points per game last year. I would expect that to again be the case in 2021.
8. Noah Fant
Fant is going to be a star in this league, and should be higher on this list when we publish our 2022 edition. Just 23 years old, he caught a career-high 62 passes for 673 yards and three touchdowns last season. He was top 10 in targets per game and receiving yards per game among all tight ends, and came in at No. 7 among all at his position with 62 catches. Even while the Denver Broncos made it a point to try to get the ball to rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy in 2020, Fant led the Broncos in receptions and in YAC as well with 372 yards. While he works well underneath, you can never rule him out downfield or for the Broncos to mix things up and get him in the open field on a screen.
Some may be wary of Fant because of the Broncos' quarterback situation, but it's also possible this could help him. Fant will serve as both a security blanket for either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater, and also someone offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will use as a focal point in his scheme.
"A lot of people look at that as a negative, like it's going to be hard to get people the ball or things like that," Fant said about the Broncos weapons, via The Denver Post. "But Pat (Shurmur) does a great job with spreading the ball around. Those guys on the outside of me are going to open me up so much more than if it was just me trying to get open by myself."
Goedert is seen as a solid tight end by NFL fans, but he may have a chance to explode in 2021. The biggest reason for this is Zach Ertz, who appears to be on his way out of town. The 30-year-old has been a legendary member of the Philadelphia Eagles for the last eight seasons, but it's time for Goedert to take over. In fact, if you're a fantasy football fan, Goedert is already a top 10 tight end, as he finished No. 9 when it came to points per game. He also came in fifth among all tight ends with 47.64 receiving yards per game, and that figure could grow in 2021.
Another reason Goedert comes in at No. 7 on our list is his blocking ability. He takes that aspect of his game seriously, and can impact matchups even when he's not running routes. Goedert isn't the fastest tight end or the most athletic, but he has great size and continues to find ways to get open and make life easier on his quarterback.
6. Mark Andrews
If Lamar Jackson didn't have Andrews to throw to, we may think of him very differently as a quarterback. In Jackson's MVP campaign, Andrews led the Baltimore Ravens in receiving with 852 yards and 10 touchdowns on 64 receptions. While Marquise Brown was Baltimore's leading receiver this past season, Andrews was by far the more consistent target, and still caught 58 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns.
While the Ravens added some wide receivers to help Jackson in 2021, it will be up to the quarterback to accurately get them the ball. According to ESPN, Jackson ranked 19th in attempted throws 20 yards or longer downfield (45) and 24th in completion rate on those passes (37.8%) last season. We haven't seen Jackson be able to hurt teams downfield on a consistent basis, but the versatile Andrews will always be there working the middle of the field.
Hockenson is not a household name just yet, but that could change very soon. The Detroit Lions weren't fun to watch in 2020, but in his first full season, Hockenson caught 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns. He ranked fourth among all tight ends in receptions, third in yards and tied for ninth in touchdowns. Hockenson was dangerous working the middle of the field and effective in the red zone. Additionally, he's a solid run blocker.
Some may think Hockenson's stock could drop a bit in 2021 considering he lost quarterback Matthew Stafford, but you have to remember the Lions downgraded in a big way at the wide receiver position. Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams and then maybe the rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown are going to be the top wideouts, which leaves the door open for Hockenson to be Detroit's leading receiver in 2021. The best is yet to come for Hockenson, and he's going to be a top tight end for years to come.
4. Kyle Pitts
I can sense the shock on your face as you read this. Pitts enters the NFL with sky-high expectations, but the thing is he's talented enough to make that kind of impact in his first season. Pitts caught 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games last season for the Gators. He was a unanimous All-American and was honored as the best tight end in college football with the John Mackey Award. Pitts fits the new generation of tight end, as he runs routes and makes catches like a wide receiver and possesses athleticism that will allow him to stand out immediately. He won't be an elite blocker in his first season, but he's a hard worker who will put in the work.
So why do I have Pitts so high on this list? I feel like the Atlanta Falcons will make him a focal point of their offense if they used the No. 4 overall pick on him, so his receiving stats could be impressive. Atlanta also parted ways with Julio Jones, so maybe first-year head coach Arthur Smith will look to fill that hole with what Pitts can do on offense. Pitts probably won't be able to exceed the expectations set for him or turn the Falcons around by himself, but when we take a step back following the 2021 season and examine his stats along with his highlight-reel plays, maybe it won't be preposterous to claim he was a top five tight end in his first professional season.
The former wide receiver broke out in a big way during his first full season with the Oakland Raiders in 2019 with 1,145 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but he took his production to a new level in 2020. He led all tight ends in receptions with 107 and came in second with 1,196 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He came in at No. 10 overall in the NFL in receiving yards when you throw in wide receivers -- one of only two tight ends. Waller has been the Raiders' leading receiver for two seasons now, and he could make it three in 2021.
Waller also has improved as a blocker, and is dangerous when he's charged with doing so in the open field. Anyone who is this athletic standing at 6-foot-6 is capable of really anything on offense, that's why he's so high on this list. When Waller is lined up on the inside and covered by a linebacker, it's usually a mismatch due to his speed. When he's split out wide -- especially near the goal line -- a cornerback will be hard-pressed to win in a jump-ball situation. Waller the walking mismatch.
Kittle is dominant as both a receiver and a blocker. A playmaker when called upon, but not above doing the dirty work to help San Francisco's run game excel. Kittle was limited to just eight games played in 2020 due to injury, but expect a big bounce-back season. The two-time All-Pro had what was a record-breaking season for a tight end in 2018, when he caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. Kittle then caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns in 2019, as he helped the 49ers get to Super Bowl LIV. An argument could be made for Kittle to come in at No. 1 on this list, but after what our next selection did in 2020, it's hard not to tab him as the best tight end in the NFL.
1. Travis Kelce
It wasn't the speedy Tyreek Hill, it was actually Kelce who has led the Kansas City Chiefs in receiving over the past two years. Blocking, catching, creating the big play, saving the broken play -- Kelce can basically do it all. A big reason he tops our list is because he just doesn't slow down. Even after four straight seasons of posting more than 1,000 yards receiving, Kelce turned in his best campaign ever in 2020. In 15 games last year, he caught 105 passes for a record-breaking 1,416 yards and 11 touchdowns. All three figures set career highs. Kelce then took his game to another level in the postseason, as he caught 31 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns in three games. He set the record for most receptions in a conference championship game with 13, and passed Rob Gronkowski for the most receiving yards by a tight end in a single-season in NFL history including playoffs.
A pro through and through, Kelce told us this offseason he's more motivated than ever to win a Super Bowl in 2021. So don't expect any drop-off.