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Is a tight end worth a top-10 pick?

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We do a deep statistical analysis to see if the Lions made the right decision with Hockenson.

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NFL Draft Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

T.J. Hockenson is a pick that not many can criticize when talking about the individual player. As a prospect, he’s pretty darn clean. He can block, he can catch, he can run routes and create separation. He checks every character box and doesn’t have much of anything in the way of red flags—from personality to injury history. He’s about as safe of a pick as you can make, if there is such a thing as a safe pick in the NFL Draft.

But the question that keeps coming up is one that has little to do with Hockenson as a prospect at all; it’s more of a fundamental question that’s absolutely worth considering: Is any tight end worthy of a top-10 pick?

Picking that high in the NFL Draft is a rare opportunity to get an impact player that can transform your franchise. It’s an opportunity to potentially nab yourself a potential All Pro player—or if you’re lucky, even a Hall of Famer. When thinking of transformative players, tight ends very rarely come to mind.

But let’s not rely on heuristics to base our judgement of tight ends. Let’s take a close look into the history and present value of tight ends in the NFL.

History

NFL history has provided us with just five instances in the past 30 years of a tight end being selected in the top 10 of the NFL Draft. That’s an incredibly low sample size, but it speaks to the general sense that tight ends don’t (shouldn’t?) be drafted so high.

As for the five players that have gone in the top 10, the results are inconclusive. Eric Ebron obviously didn’t work out in Detroit, but he certainly helped the Colts a lot last year. Kellen Winslow II busted, but that had more to do with unfortunate injuries and serious character flaws—two outlying factors that don’t seem to be a risk with Hockenson.

The most successful case has undoubtedly been Vernon Davis. Davis was a key part in the San Francisco offense that led the team to back-to-back NFC Championship games. He’s made two Pro Bowls, been named to the second-team All Pro team, won a Super Bowl with the Broncos, and remains in the league 13 years after being drafted.

He hasn’t exactly put up Hall of Fame numbers, but since entering the league in 2006, only four tight ends have had more receiving yards: Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen. And he has undoubtedly made his teams better along the way.

The other two examples—Rickey Dudley (1996) and Kyle Brady (1995)—come from a lost era of football. Their careers were both modestly successful.

Salary

One way to gauge a position’s value is to simply look at how much NFL teams are spending on the position. Quarterbacks and defensive ends are considered the most important positions on the field and they have the salaries to match.

So where does tight end rank among the most “valuable” positions? I took the top-10 cap hits from each position—since the Lions are expecting Hockenson to have top-10 value among tight ends—for the 2019 season and averaged them out. Here are the results:

Top 10 cap hit averages by position

Quarterbacks: $26.1 million
Wide receivers: $16.0 million
EDGE: $15.7 million
Offensive tackle: $15.5 million
Cornerback: $14.2 million
Defensive tackle: $13.8 million
Safety: $12.0 million
Guard/Center: $11.8 million
Inside linebacker: $10.1 million
Tight end: $8.3 million
Running back: $7.9 million

So, yeah, NFL teams are clearly not shelling out for tight ends, and the Lions aren’t getting nearly as much of a bargain for Hockenson as they would have a top-tier defensive lineman.

Approximate value

It’s almost impossible to create an all-encompassing statistic that works across every position, but Pro-Football-Reference attempted to do just that with “Approximate Value.” In their own words, Approximate Value “is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year.” It far from an exact science, but it’s a good baseline to see how valuable tight ends are compared to their positional counterparts.

Again, I took the top 10 players at each position from the 2018 season and averaged their Approximate Value. Here’s how the positions ranked:

Approximate value average of top 10 players at each position in 2018:

QBs: 16
OT: 13.7
WR: 13.5
RB: 13
EDGE: 12.5
DT: 12.1
G/C: 11.4
LB: 11
CB: 10.2
S: 9.1
TE: 7.5

Tight end comes in dead last and it’s not even particularly close. Again, Approximate Value is a flawed statistic that tries to do the impossible, and even by the site’s admission, good blocking tight ends specifically are undervalued by this statistic. But it’s another piece to the puzzle and not exactly a promising one.

Recent NFL trends

One thing that stuck out to me from Thursday night was this quote from head coach Matt Patricia when addressing the crowd in attendance at the Detroit Lions’ official draft party (full context here).

“Right now the game is always moving towards the tight end position. That’s the mismatch that everyone is trying to figure out.”

This is a statement that, if true, would render a lot of the previous points moot. If the league is trending towards an increasing value in tight ends, who cares that the NFL hasn’t valued them highly in the past? Maybe the Lions are ahead of the curve.

And in some cases, it seems like that may ring true. Several young tight ends have recently made big impacts on the game, including fellow former Iowa alum George Kittle, Evan Engram, O.J. Howard, and even Eric Ebron.

But it’s tough to see any sort of league-wide trend. Here’s the offensive production of the top-10 tight ends by the last five seasons.

2018: 8,559 yards
2017: 7,671 yards
2016: 8,404 yards
2015: 9,286 yards
2014: 8,748 yards

There’s no clear upward trajectory there.

And when it comes to tight end usage, there’s clearly been no league-wide increase. The frequency of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) has remained dead-flat since 2010, sitting around 20 percent.

On the other hand, 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) frequency has been exploding over the past 10 seasons, as teams are much more inclined to spread their offense out with three receivers. That number has jumped from 34 percent in 2008 to nearly 60 percent in present day.

So unless Patricia is talking about a very recent trend that we won’t see for several years down the road, it’s hard to believe him at face value.

Scarcity

If you’ve made it this far, it seems like my conclusion is undoubtedly going to be: No, a tight end isn’t worth a top-10 pick. And, if I’m being honest, that’s pretty much how I felt last night.

But while recording last night’s PODcast after the first round, Mansur Shaheen brought up a really important point:

“I think the reason tight ends don’t get paid too well is because there aren’t a lot of good tight ends in the NFL.”

Indeed, if a talented player at a position is so scarce, one could make a legitimate argument that if you’re convinced you’ve actually found one, that sort of value would be great high in the first round.

So is that true? Is an elite tight end harder to find than at other positions? For here, I decided to look at 2018 PFF grades for each position, comparing the top five players to the next five players. The bigger the difference in grades between those two groups, the more scarce the top-tier talent. Here’s what I found.

The top five tight ends averaged a PFF grade of 84.66. The tight ends ranked six through 10 averaged a grade of 76.0. That difference of 8.66 points is by far the biggest disparity among all positions. Take a look:

Average PFF grade disparity from Top 5 ranked players to 6-10, by position:

TE: 8.66
S: 7.06
LB: 6.96
G/C: 5.5
QB: 5.42
CB: 4.86
OT: 4.62
RB: 3.26
WR: 2.74
EDGE: 1.96
DT: 1.72

So if you’re looking for an elite player at every position, tight end is undoubtedly the hardest to find.

Overall

What does that mean overall? Well, generally speaking, no, a tight end is not worthy of a top-10 pick. Their value in terms of production on the field just doesn’t have the kind of value that positions like quarterback, defensive linemen or wide receivers have.

But if the Lions believe that Hockenson can be in that elite tier of tight ends—and obviously they do—this pick does make some rational sense. Finding an elite tight end is hard to do, and if Detroit has finally hit on a first-round tight end, Hockenson will be worth it.