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2019 NFL preview: Ranking the NFC North tight ends

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Could the Lions go from worst to first?

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NFL: Detroit Lions-Minicamp Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The importance of tight ends varies from team to team. Some will use two tight ends early and often. Others will barely utilize them at all. Some of that has to do with overall scheme, but a lot has to do with the scarcity of tight end talent. Given the right talent, a good tight end group could present one of the bigger mismatches in the game.

So let’s take a look at which of the NFC North teams has the best opportunity to create these mismatches. Here are my rankings for the top tight end corps in the division.

Previously:

1. Detroit Lions (T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Logan Thomas, Isaac Nauta)

The Detroit Lions have a serious chance of going worst to first in this category. Last year, I rightfully ranked them last and they absolutely lived up to that billing. This year, they literally gotten rid of everyone.

Detroit went out and got themselves the best tight end available in free agency in Jesse James. And while he hasn’t exactly had an illustrious career, anytime the Steelers relied upon him, he seemed to answer the call. James actually finished with a higher overall PFF grade than Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph (65.7 vs. 64.0) in 2018, thanks—in part—to his balanced game between receiving and both pass and run blocking.

Of course, the Lions also spent their eighth overall pick in the draft on T.J. Hockenson. While he’s still obviously unproven at this point, expectations are sky high.

Even Logan Thomas is experienced depth at this position. It’s abundantly clear the Lions are better at the tight end position, and I think they’ve skyrocketed to the top of the division.

2. Chicago Bears (Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Dax Raymond, Ben Braunecker)

Trey Burton is in the conversation for a top-10 tight end in the league. Last year, he was the league’s best run-blocking tight end, according to PFF, and he pulled in an impressive 54 catches for 569 yards and six touchdowns, as well. All of those stats place him in the top 15 in the league.

Adam Shaheen is a player that has all the of the tools to be the perfect complement to Burton, but he has just been plagued with injuries in his first two years. The 2017 second-round pick has played in just 19 games thus far and has only caught 17 passes. There’s still plenty of time for the 24-year-old to reclaim his NFL career, but I’m not banking on it right away.

3. Minnesota Vikings (Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., David Morgan, Tyler Conklin)

The Vikings have the best (see: most proven) tight end in the division in Kyle Rudolph. In the past four years, Rudolph ranks eighth among tight ends in receiving yards and third in touchdowns. He’s also been traditionally a pretty solid pass blocker, though he’s coming off a rough year.

Behind Rudolph is 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith Jr., who is not exactly a favorite of our own Kent Lee Platte:

With Rudolph nearing the twilight of his career and not much else behind him, the Vikings just seem okay at this position. Rudolph is great, but if you rely on just one person, you’re asking for trouble.

4. Green Bay Packers (Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, Jace Sternberger, Robert Tonyan)

If this was 2013, the Packers would have the best crew in the division. However, Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, with their combined age of 67, are well past their prime. Graham is still capable of making a big catch or two—his 11.6 yards per catch in 2018 is right there with his career average (12.2). But the burst and speed that made him such a unique draft prospect are no longer at their peak. Lewis remains a good run blocker, but not much else.

2019 third-round pick Jace Sternberger provides a little bit of optimism for this unit’s future, but for now, the Packers are a distant fourth in the division at tight end.