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Top-10 tight ends in the NFL

Darren Waller is one of the absolute best tight ends in the NFL. (Twitter // @PFF_Fantasy)

Everybody loves a good list.

And even if you don’t, deep down, you really do.

I’ve never seen a list that everyone agrees with, and I highly doubt this one will be the first. But with the action from the NFL’s free agency dying down and the NFL Draft still a little while away, I’ve decided to rank the 10-best players at each offensive skill position.

Here are the top-10 tight ends in the league today.

10. Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins

It’s fair to say Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki broke out during the 2020 NFL season. The 25-year-old hauled in a career-best 53 receptions for 703 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Volume was difficult to find at the beginning of the year as Gesicki saw five-plus targets in just three of his first eight contests. Over his last seven games, the Lakewood, New Jersey native saw five-plus targets in each game, a development that coincided with Tua Tagovailoa taking over at quarterback.

At 6-6, 250 lbs, Gesicki’s elite speed makes him one of the biggest coverage mismatches at tight end. Entering his fourth NFL season, I expect the 2018 second-round pick to continue honing his skills. His third-year performance was solid, but there’s more to come here.

9. Noah Fant, Denver Broncos

Noah Fant’s 2020 season was excellent for second-year tight end standards, and given context, it’s even more impressive. Anyone who turned on a Denver Broncos game last season could tell that the 23-year-old wasn’t fully healthy. The sophomore dealt with ankle and rib injuries that didn’t cost him much time (just one game) but evidently compromised his abilities. Still, Fant finished the year with 62 catches for 673 yards and three touchdowns.

Entering his third campaign, the hope is Fant can receive some more consistent play from his quarterback. The Broncos didn’t upgrade the position in free agency, so for now, it appears Drew Lock will be returning as the team’s starter. Lock struggled in his second campaign, earning a 75.4 passer rating, ranking 32nd amongst all qualified QBs. Fant’s excellent receiving skills will continue to make him a trustworthy option for whoever is quarterbacking the Broncos in 2021.

8. Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles

2020 wasn’t the third-year breakout many were expecting from Dallas Goedert for a number of reasons. After a successful season debut that saw the 26-year-old snag eight balls for 101 yards and a touchdown, Goedert would total just five receptions for 37 yards in the following two weeks before being placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Returning in Week 8, it wasn’t until Week 11 when Goedert topped 50-receiving yards again thanks largely to a bye week and inconsistent quarterback play from Carson Wentz. After three-straight weeks of 50-plus receiving yards, the switch to Jalen Hurts at QB in Week 14 didn’t yield positive results as Goedert finished below 50-receiving yards in each of his three games played with Hurts. In Week 17, the 2018 second-round pick sat out with a calf injury.

Despite a fairly tumultuous season, I am still really intrigued by Goedert. With Wentz no longer around and Zach Ertz having one foot out the door, I think Goedert can excel as the de facto No. 1 tight end in an Eagles passing attack short on receiving options. His strong abilities as a run blocker in addition to being a sound receiver is another reason why the South Dakota State product is one of the best at his position.

7. Hunter Henry, New England Patriots

With back-to-back 600-plus yard seasons under his belt, Hunter Henry has arrived in the NFL. The 26-year-old set career-highs in targets (93) and receptions (60) across 14 games last year. He didn’t have too many blow-up spots in 2020 as he topped 50-yards just four times, but he is a solid and reliable option in any passing game.

Entering 2021 with the New England Patriots, Henry will likely be even more involved in the passing game as the team has arguably the worst group of wide receivers in the NFL. Joining forces with head coach Bill Belichick, the coach that popularized 12-personnel with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez during the early 2010s, Henry could be primed for a career-year.

6. Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots

One of the fastest and most athletic tight ends in the NFL, Jonnu Smith struggled to see massive target volumes on a Tennessee Titans team that was one of three in the league last year that passed on less than 50% of its plays. Despite appearing in 15 games, Smith’s 65 targets were just two more than George Kittle, who suited up for just eight games in 2020. Questionable usage didn’t stop Smith from corralling eight touchdowns, tying Jimmy Graham for fourth at the position.

Joining the Patriots, Smith is the most talented option in the squad’s lacklustre receiving room. Teaming with Henry, the expectation is New England will be among the league-leaders in 12-personnel in 2021. Given the opportunity that lies ahead, the 25-year-old seems like a lock to smash all previous career-bests. This is a rising star who is already among the best in what he does.

5. Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens

After a mammoth season that saw Mark Andrews total 64 receptions, 852 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019, he like many others in the Baltimore Ravens offense, took a step back in 2020. Still an elite producer at the position, Andrews’ receptions (58), receiving yards (701) and touchdowns (7) were all top-10 numbers amongst tight ends.

In 2021, Andrews will likely post similar numbers. Even as the 25-year-old continues to develop, his receiving totals will remain capped in Baltimore’s offense as the Ravens threw the ball on just 44.96 percent of its plays last year, the lowest of all 32 teams. Unless offensive coordinator Greg Roman has a serious change in heart and philosophy, it’ll be hard for the 2018 third-round pick to approach the 1,000-yard mark. Still, from a talent standpoint, he is one of the best blocking and receiving tight ends in the game.

4. T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions

With wide receiver Kenny Golladay playing just five games in 2020, T.J. Hockenson excelled while taking on an expanded role in the Detroit Lions’ passing game. After dealing with injury concerns during his rookie season, Hockenson appeared in all 16 games for the Lions last year. The second-year tight end impressively topped 50-receiving yards or caught a touchdown in 12 contests, something that’s even more impressive when you consider that he only registered more than 5 targets in just nine games.

Detroit’s offense will look a lot different in 2021 as Matt Stafford, Marvin Jones Jr. and Golladay have departed. Jared Goff, Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams are ones that have been added to help fill the gaps. Considering Williams didn’t play last season, and Hockenson finished with more targets (101-60), receptions (67-30) receiving yards (723-505) and touchdowns (6-3) than Perriman, it’s not far-fetched to believe that Hockenson will still see a solid share of the volume in the passing game. The 23-year-old will continue to get better and it wouldn’t shock me at all if he blew past his totals from 2020 this upcoming season.

3. Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders

For the second-straight season, Darren Waller showed everyone that he is a bonafide stud. The 28-year-old set career-bests in targets (145). receptions (107), receiving yards (1,196) and touchdowns (9) while pacing the Las Vegas Raiders in each category as well. His 2,341 receiving yards since 2019 are the second-most amongst all tight ends during this span.

The Raiders will still rely heavily on Waller, but the team will hopefully be able to spread the ball around a little bit more his upcoming season. Waller saw nearly twice as many targets (107-56) as Hunter Renfrow, who ranked second on the squad. With 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs, 2020 third-round pick Bryan Edwards and off-season acquisition John Brown all in the receiving room, quarterback Derek Carr will likely distribute the ball a little more evenly in 2021. Regardless, Waller has now shown twice that he can be one of the most dangerous vertical threats the league.

2. George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers

Dealing with knee and foot injuries for large portions of the 2020 season, George Kittle was only able to suit up for eight games. Still, the superstar’s 634 receiving yards ranked ninth amongst all tight ends thanks to three 90-plus-receiving yard games, including one monster 15-reception, 183-yard performance in Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Kittle plays the game as physical as anyone and his style of play does lend itself to higher risk of injury. When he’s on the field, however, he is one of the most impactful non-quarterbacks in the NFL. His high-end skills as a blocker in addition to his phenomenal receiving chops make him one of the games truly elite players. Even as Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk continue to develop, the San Francisco 49ers will rely heavily on Kittle in the passing game.

1. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs

What more can be said about Travis Kelce? The three-time All-Pro continued to dazzle in 2020, setting career-highs in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,416) and touchdowns (11). The most impressive part of Kelce’s 2020 campaign was how close he was to capturing the NFL’s receiving-yard title. The ultra-talented tight end wound up finishing second, only trailing Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills who finished with 1,535 receiving yards.

Entering 2021, the sky remains the limit for Kelce with Patrick Mahomes behind centre for the Kansas City Chiefs.

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