The 2021 NFL Draft is just 10 days away and while the top two picks appear to be etched in stone, the rest of the top 10 is still in flux. One of the more polarizing prospects in the mix is Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. The 2020 John Mackey Award winner is an enigma to a league that specializes in compartmentalizing its personnel.
Pitts is expected to be a candidate for the Atlanta Falcons at No. 4 if they decide not to draft the heir-apparent to Matt Ryan, or trade the pick to a quarterback-needy time with stars in their eyes for Trey Lance or Justin Fields. If he falls past Atlanta, many think he could go off the board a pick later to the Cincinnati Bengals. No one appears to have a clue where Cincinnati is leaning, be it to protect 2020 No. 1 pick Joe Burrow with an offensive tackle like Oregon’s Penei Sewell, or support his development with an additional weapon like Pitts or Burrow’s former teammate Ja’Marr Chase.
Then there are the Miami Dolphins at No. 6, who like the Falcons with Hayden Hurst already have a dynamic pass-catching tight end in Mike Gesicki. That has not halted speculation that Pitts is a top target for general manager Chris Grier & Co. due in part to 2021 being a contract year for Gesicki. Miami could opt to create football’s best two-tight end set, or could opt to take a receiver like Chase or 2020 Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith.
The general consensus, however, is even if somehow Pitts gets past Miami at six, there is a snowball’s chance in hell he gets past the eighth pick, be it selected by Carolina, or due to a trade up from someone else. That is how special Pitts is as a prospect, embodied best by his college coach Dan Mullen’s description of him as a “unicorn.” If Pitts is drafted eighth, it won’t raise many flags seeing as how tight end TJ Hockenson was selected by the Lions at eighth overall just two years ago. Seeing as how eighth is the absolute floor, it’s more likely that Pitts will find himself in less precedented waters.
If Pitts goes sixth to the Dolphins, it will mark the highest a tight end has been selected since the San Francisco 49ers took Vernon Davis out of Maryland sixth overall in 2006. If Cincinnati snatches him up at five, that will mark the third time in history a tight end was selected fifth overall, joining Houston’s Riley Odoms selected by the Denver Broncos in 1972 and Pittsburgh’s Mike Ditka taken by the Chicago Bears back in 1961. That’s where the precedent ends, however, as no tight end has ever been taken higher than five, meaning Atlanta would set a new mark for the position should they go with the Florida prospect.
So where does that leave us with Pitts? The NFL’s positional valuation is an ever-changing dynamic. For instance, in five of the last 10 years, the first running back was not taken off the board until the 20s. In the 10 years before that, that only happened one time. The opposite is true for quarterbacks as 22 signal-callers were taken in the top 10 from 2011-2020. From 2001-2010, 15 quarterbacks were selected in the top 10. Elite quarterbacks have always been taken near the top of the draft, but the reaches have grown even for the second-best QB prospect. In the last 10 years, the average selection for the second quarterback off the board is 9.9, compared to 15.5 in the 10 years prior.
So, how should the NFL gauge tight end value relative to the draft? A total of 14 tight ends have been drafted in the top 10, with seven coming since 1980. Those seven are Hockenson (eighth in 2019), Eric Ebron (10th in 2014), Davis (sixth in 2006), Kellen Winslow, Jr. (sixth in 2004), Rickey Dudley (ninth in 1996), Kyle Brady (ninth in 1995), and Junior Miller (seventh in 1980). Out of those seven, three (Davis twice; Dudley, and Brady once each) appeared in Super Bowls in their careers, a good percentage. Unfortunately, only Davis appeared in one for the team that drafted him. He had a monster game of six catches on eight targets for 104 yards in the 49ers’ loss to the Ravens. The other three appearances saw Davis (with Denver), Dudley, and Brady combine for one catch on two targets for a total of three yards.
While that provides some historical perspective over the decades, let’s look back at recent history. Here are the first tight ends off the board over the last decade:
2020: Cole Kmet taken in the second round, 43rd overall
2019: TJ Hockenson taken in the first round, eighth overall
2018: Hayden Hurst taken in the first round, 25th overall
2017: OJ Howard taken in the first round, 19th overall
2016: Hunter Henry taken in the second round, 35th overall
2015: Maxx Williams taken in the second round, 55th overall
2014: Eric Ebron taken in the first round, 10th overall
2013: Tyler Eifert taken in the first round, 21st overall
2012: Coby Fleener taken in the second round, 34th overall
2011: Kyle Rudolph taken in the second round, 43rd overall
Out of those 10, not one them has made a single All-Pro team in their career. Additionally, none of them played in a Super Bowl. Howard’s team made it to the 2020 Super Bowl, but he was sidelined with injury, and found himself all year in a logjam at the position with Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, anyway. The All-Pro list over the last decade features a significant amount of redundancy as a handful of tight ends have dominated the spots.
2020: Travis Kelce, drafted third round (63rd overall) and was the fifth tight end taken
2019: George Kittle, drafted fifth round (146th overall) and was the ninth tight end taken
2017: Gronkowski, drafted second round (42nd overall) and was the second tight end taken
2013: Jimmy Graham, drafted third round (95th overall) and was the fifth tight end taken
2012: Tony Gonzalez won the AP, drafted first round (13th overall) and was the first tight end taken; Gronkowski won the PFWA; Jason Witten won the SN, drafted third round (69th overall) and was the fourth tight end taken
So out of the last 10 years of All Pros, there were as many fifth round picks as first round picks, with Gonzalez as the lone player who was the first tight end taken in his draft class. While being the best at your position is well-and-good, football is a team sport where winning is what ultimately matters. Now, no one is ever going to say wins are a tight end statistic, but let’s take a look at the starting tight ends in the last 10 Super Bowls and see where they were picked and how they stacked up statistically that season.
2020: Kelce (3rd:63rd) vs Gronkowski (2nd::42nd)
Kelce was first in the NFL for yards as a tight end; Gronkowski was 10th
2019: Kelce vs Kittle (5th::146th)
Kelce was first in yards; Kittle was second
2018: Gronkowski vs Tyler Higbee (4th::110th)
Gronkowski was sixth in yards; Higbee was 29th
2017: Gronkowski vs Zach Ertz
Gronkowski was first in yards; Ertz was third
2016: Gronkowski vs Levine Toilolo (4th:133rd)
Gronkowski was *20th in yards; Toilolo was 40th
*Gronkowski played in just eight games with Martellus Bennett ranking ninth among tight ends in yards in 2016.
2015: Owen Daniels (4th:98th) vs Greg Olsen (1st:31st)
Daniels was 17th in yards; Olsen was 2nd
2014: Gronkowski vs Luke Willson (5th:158th)
Gronkowski was first in yards; Willson was 24th
2013: Julius Thomas (4th:129th) vs Zach Miller (2nd:38th)
Thomas was eighth in yards; Miller was 30th
2012: Dennis Pitta (4th:114th) vs Vernon Davis (1st:6th)
Pitta was 11th in yards; Davis was 17th
2011: Gronkowski vs Jake Ballard (Undrafted)
Gronkowski was first in yards; Ballard was 17th
Out of the 20 appearances by starting tight ends, more often than not the tight end was in the top 10 in the league in receiving yards at the position. It has become increasingly important, however, as in the last four Super Bowls, only Higbee was outside of the top 10 for the season as Gronkowski, Kelce, Kittle, and Ertz have shown to be the class of the position.
Ultimately, a lot of this has putting the cart before the horse. After all, Pitts is just three years removed from his Senior Prom and despite looking like a fully grown man, will begin his rookie season at just the age of 20. If he lives up to the ceiling set for him by others and does go down as one of the best to ever play the position, he has a precedent set before him. A total of nine tight ends have been enshrined in Canton, Ohio as part of the Hall of Fame for their playing careers: Ditka, Mackey, Jackie Smith, Kellen Winslow, Sr., Ozzie Newsome, Dave Casper, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, and Gonzalez. Out of those nine, almost half (Ditka, Winslow, Newsome, and Gonzalez) were all selected in the first round.
What, if anything, does this really conclude? If you are one to look at patterns, you should be able to surmise that vastly more often than not, the tight end that ends up becoming the best in the league or helping his offense to a Super Bowl is not the first tight end taken, nor is it usually even in the first round.
Conversely, Pitts is not being trumpeted because he’s a tight end. His respect and hype is due to talk about him being unlike any tight end we have seen come into the draft in a generation. If that is indeed true, then nothing else that’s happened in recent history should affect that thinking. Gronkowski is the most dominant tight end of this millennium, appearing in six of the last 10 Super Bowls and earning All-Pro honors in five of the last 10 seasons, despite taking a brief hiatus from the league in 2019. If a general manager believes that Pitts can be as transcendent of a player as Gronk has, then he would be wise to do what he can to get him.
No matter what, in just a few years time, all of will know whether or not unicorns are real.