The tight end position has changed a lot over the last decade. Instead of blocking and being a big target, tight ends are now wideout-like matchup nightmares that can threaten to lead the league in receiving yards. Let’s look at the league’s tight ends for the coming year, through the prism of which divisions have the best – and worst – groupings of players at that particular position. You’ll notice some of the teams with the top tight ends have the best Super Bowl odds.
1) AFC West
The combination of Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, Darren Waller of the Las Vegas Raiders, Jared Cook of the Los Angeles Chargers, and Noah Fant of the Denver Broncos is hard to ignore as the best grouping. Kelce is a superstar, one of the central targets and playmakers who has become a trusted resource and outlet for Patrick Mahomes.
Kelce opens up the field for the Chiefs’ receivers and running backs. He makes so many things possible for Mahomes and is a difference-making player. He wasn’t as prolific under former quarterback Alex Smith, but that was less of a commentary on him and more of a commentary on how a gifted quarterback such as Mahomes can unlock his talents.
Waller busted through in 2020 for the Raiders. He stepped forward and developed a strong rapport with quarterback Derek Carr. He will remain a force unless something surprising happens in his evolution with the Silver and Black. He should be on course for a big year in Vegas.
Cook had a disappointing playoff run with the New Orleans Saints. His fumble against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers changed that divisional playoff game against the Bucs, but he is still a tight end who can stretch the field and change the math for opposing defenses as they try to account for the whole field. Justin Herbert should be able to make good use of him with the Chargers.
Noah Fant needs a quarterback who is better than Drew Lock in Denver, but Fant’s actual skill set is great. If he ever does get an upgrade at quarterback, his career is going to take off. This is the best quartet of tight ends in one NFL division.
2) AFC North
The Cleveland Browns have Austin Hooper, who used to be an excellent tight end with the Atlanta Falcons before he came north to Ohio. The Baltimore Ravens have Mark Andrews, who has become a trusted go-to option for quarterback Lamar Jackson in the Ravens’ passing game. The Pittsburgh Steelers have talented veteran Eric Ebron, plus newly drafted depth piece Pat Freiermuth out of Penn State University.
The AFC North has noticeably skilled pass-catchers, especially Hooper and Andrews. The fact the AFC North put three teams in the NFL playoffs last year is no accident, relative to the tight end position. It is clear that the quarterbacks in the division have tight ends who command respect from opposing defenses, which makes it harder to defend the wide receivers each team has. Cleveland, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh can all spread the ball around to various targets in the passing game, which makes them tougher to defend.
3) NFC West
The San Francisco 49ers have George Kittle, a top-three tight end in the NFL and probably the top tight end in the NFC (with Travis Kelce being the top tight end in the AFC). That immediately boosts the profile and quality of the tight ends in this division. The Los Angeles Rams have the capable Tyler Higbee, who was a reliable target for Jared Goff and who should flourish under Matthew Stafford I Los Angeles.
Gerald Everett used to play for the Rams but went to the rival Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks hired the Rams’ 2020 passing game coordinator as their new offensive coordinator for 2021. Shane Waldron should be able to call plays that help Everett fit smoothly into the Seattle offense. There is a lot of quality in this division.
The Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers are co-favorites to win this division with NFL divisional odds of +175.
4) NFC East
The Philadelphia Eagles have both Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert at tight end. Ertz is the better receiver, but Goedert is an elite run-blocker at tight end. The Washington Football Team has Logan Thomas, who played quarterback in college at Virginia Tech and has a great mixture of toughness and speed. He is a freak athlete who is extremely hard to defend on third-and-five or similar situations.
His body is so big and strong that a linebacker has a hard time denying him position on short, high-percentage routes that are designed to gain six or seven yards. Blake Jarwin of the Dallas Cowboys and Evan Engram of the New York Giants aren’t as consistent as Ertz or Thomas, but they are talented and are capable of having more productive seasons than they have displayed in the recent past. There is potential for this group to be better than what it currently is.
5) NFC South
The Tampa Bay Bucs have a great tight end group with Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate, which lifts up this division. Kyle Pitts of the Falcons should be an elite tight end, but he has to prove himself first coming out of college at Florida. This division is only fifth and not higher because the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers do not have strong tight ends. This is where you begin to see a measure of erosion.
6) AFC East
The New England Patriots have Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Smith had a good year for the Titans in 2020. Henry has had a great career but has been injured in recent seasons. He needs to show he can be durable. Mike Gesicki is a talented tight end for the Dolphins, but the Bills and especially the Jets aren’t as skilled or developed at the tight end position, which limits the ceiling for the AFC East’s tight ends as a group.
7) NFC North
If T.J. Hockenson is the best tight end in the division, that’s a problem. Hockenson is hugely skilled, but with the Detroit Lions, it is hard for him to reach his ceiling as a player, given the lack of other resources around him. Robert Tonyan of the Packers had a solid 2020 season with Aaron Rodgers, but if Rodgers isn’t a Packer, it’s hard to see how Tonyan will remain productive in Green Bay. Irv Smith of the Vikings is decent, but nothing special. This is a modestly talented group in the NFC North.
8) AFC South
The Indianapolis Colts have tight ends who generally do not stretch the field, and have a lot of value as run blockers instead of being vertical threats: Mo-Alie Cox and Jack Doyle. The Tennessee Titans have Anthony Firkser, who is replacing Jonnu Smith. That’s about it. The Texans and Jaguars do not have especially strong tight ends, leaving this division’s tight ends relatively depleted, all things considered.