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Ranking the top 5 tight ends in the NFC North

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Parsing out a thin group.

NFL: NOV 03 Lions at Raiders Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Good tight ends are few and far between in the NFL. There seem to be only a few true impact tight ends around the league, and two of them met in the Super Bowl last season. Having a good tight end can be game changing, though, as it seems that almost every team that has had recent success on offense did so with a top-tier tight end on the roster. Teams like the Baltimore Ravens have found success by focusing on building depth in the tight end room instead of at receiver.

A tight end who can both play as a blocker and a receiver at an elite level could make your offense unstoppable. While none truly exist in the NFC North, if one of these teams’ tight ends do emerge this year then it might be enough to put them over the top in what is setting up to be an incredibly close division race.

Today we rank the division’s tight ends, and look at which team is most likely to find success at the position.

5. Cole Kmet (Chicago Bears)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Boston College at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bears shocked a few when they added Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet to their already crowded tight end room in the second round of the 2020 draft. Their thinking makes some sense, though, as potentially adding a safe short range target for new quarterback Nick Foles could be valuable.

Kmet has the makings to be a potentially great tight end. His big 6-foot-6 frame and great athleticism make him a potential star at receiver, and if he adds blocking to his game, he can be a cornerstone player for the team. He will also benefit from getting to play behind one of the all time greats in Jimmy Graham.

Do not set your expectations for Kmet too high in 2020, as he will likely serve as a TE2 at best, but do not be totally surprised if he has a breakout rookie year in a new-look Bears offense.

4. Irv Smith Jr. (Minnesota Vikings)

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Irv Smith had a ton of hype surrounding him when he entered the league in 2019. The second-round pick was huge for the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2018, and many were excited to see what the receiving tight end could do at the next level.

While Smith did not erupt as a star last year, he did not really disappoint either. He largely served as TE2 behind Kyle Rudolph, and proved to be a valuable receiving option. Smith caught 36 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns, and managed to earn some targets in an offense that was saturated with receiving talent.

Expect Smith to grow in year two. He still lacks a lot as a blocker and primarily serves as a receiving tight end, but with Stefon Diggs out the door, the targets will have to go somewhere. He may not fill up the box score—and he will still be the second option at tight end—but a year two jump could definitely be in the cards.

3. T.J. Hockenson (Detroit Lions)

NFL: NOV 17 Cowboys at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Detroit took a risk with the eight overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. They elected to pass of defenders like Ed Oliver and Brian Burns to snag Iowa Hawkeyes tight end T.J. Hockenson. The Lions were coming off of a year where their tight ends were essentially non-existent, and Hockenson seemed to have everything a player needed to succeed at the NFL level.

Hockenson’s 131 receiving yards and two touchdowns made his NFL debut one for the history books, but he vanished after Week 1 last year. He only caught 26 passes for 236 yards and one touchdown in the other 11 games he played in 2019, and never again reached the heights he found in his league debut.

While the remainder of his season was disappointing, Hockenson’s first game shows that he can succeed in the NFL. His ceiling is extremely high, and is he makes a year two leap then he has potential to enter elite status in 2020 now that he has a year of NFL experience under his belt.

2. Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota Vikings)

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Vikings playoff hero may not be a star—and may not have ever been one at any point in his nine-year career—but he has proven himself as a reliable tight end for Minnesota over the past decade.

Rudolph has not missed a game in five years. The tight end has totaled over 2,800 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns during that time, while also proving to be a great blocker in both the passing and rushing game. He is a strong, physical, receiver, that is reliable on short yardage throws.

The tight end is often overlooked by the national media, but Rudolph has been chugging along just fine for the Vikings. Expect nothing to change for him this year as he puts up another clean 300-yard season with a few touchdowns here and there.

1. Jimmy Graham (Chicago Bears)

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Jimmy Graham could potentially end his career as a Hall of Famer. While he has certainly fallen off in recent years, he is one of the bigger names in the league and is a legend in New Orleans.

Graham signed with the Bears this offseason after a two-year stop with the Green Bay Packers. While he is far beyond the days where you can expect the tight end to total over 1,000 receiving yards and double digit touchdown totals, he can reliably catch around 40 passes for around 400 yards, which is decent production for a veteran tight end.

He is also an exceptional red zone target, and that is where he will likely end up making an impact for the Bears. At a huge 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, the tight end can box out and beat pretty much every defender in the league on contested catches.

It is hard to carve out a long-term career for yourself as a tight end in the NFL, but Graham has done just that. He is far beyond his prime at this point but still can provide value to any NFL offense you place him in.