The NFL is billed as a matchup league, and for the most part, that is absolutely the case. What advantages does your offense have over an opponent’s defense, and vice-versa? Tight ends have long been billed as mismatch weapons, and over the years, we’ve seen many dominate the NFL as pass catchers. Michael Mayer and Dalton Kincaid have been widely regarded as top 30 players in the 2023 NFL Draft, but should they go in Round 1?
Why Michael Mayer and Dalton Kincaid Should Not Go Round 1
As a general rule, teams shouldn’t use a first-round pick on a tight end. Even using hindsight, how many current NFL tight ends would be worth using a first-round pick on? Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Mark Andrews, and… who else? It’s too early to know for sure with Kyle Pitts, but he’s the ONLY tight end since 1961 to produce a 900-yard season as a rookie.
Additionally, many teams simply don’t feature tight ends in the passing game. Even Kittle, who in 2018 had a nearly 1,400-yard season, can go missing in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Mike Gesicki saw his snap count slashed when Mike McDaniel took over in Miami because Durham Smythe was a superior blocker.
None of this is meant to denigrate the position. The difficulty of tight ends jobs makes it nearly impossible to be consistent contributors early in their careers.
Think of it this way; an offensive lineman spends all of their time working on their footwork, striking, and assignments to survive against defensive linemen who are rapidly becoming more and more like cyborgs athletically. Wide receivers spend all of their time on their footwork as route runners, hands as pass catchers, all while studying coverages so they make the correct decisions on option routes.
Tight ends are forced to do both. And it’s hard to become an expert early on because of it.
Let’s take a look at all of the recently drafted tight ends in Round 1 and see how things went.
2021: Kyle Pitts (status unknown)
2019: T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant both traded in first contract
2018: Hayden Hurst (was immediately the second-best TE on his team from his own draft class)
2017: O.J. Howard (injury bust), Evan Engram, and David Njoku
2014: Eric Ebron (underwhelming Detroit tenure)
2013: Tyler Eifert (injury bust)
2010: Jermaine Gresham
2009: Brandon Pettigrew
2008: Dustin Keller
2007: Greg Olsen (breakout AFTER first contract)
2006: Vernon Davis
Ding ding ding! We finally have a winner. It wasn’t until Davis’ fourth season that he toppled 509 yards receiving, but he broke out with a 965-yard season and the most receiving touchdowns in the league for the team that drafted him.
That’s the rub with a tight end. It often takes years upon years to become a top-10 player at the position, even as a first-round pick. By that time, the team has had one solid year of production and must decide whether or not to pay them.
Mayer and Kincaid Both Have First-Round ADPs
The Notre Dame tight end ranks 19th on PFN’s Industry Consensus Big Board. Kincaid is a few spots lower at 25. But akin to running back, there are almost always better options for drafting in the first round. Mock draft data has Kincaid with an ADP of 30.7 and Mayer at 31.5.
As American General Anthony McAuliffe replied to the Germans after an ultimatum to surrender before Christmas in 1944, “N U T S !”
There are a few things that should disqualify Kincaid from the running for being the first TE taken in the 2023 NFL Draft. First, he’s 23 compared to Mayer, who is 21. Second, Kincaid didn’t test at the NFL Combine or the Utah Pro Day, meaning we don’t know his athletic measures. And if there is one position on offense where high-end athletic testing is imperative, it’s tight end. Thirdly, he was unable to test because of a fractured vertebra.
The NFL Draft is as much an exercise in risk mitigation as it is talent evaluation. Even if Kincaid is the more complete product and, to date, the better receiver, if they’re closely graded from a tape perspective, a team would be foolish not to take Mayer.
Personally, I prefer what I saw from Kincaid on tape, but age and experience could play a part in that. He looks more advanced on the field and more like a professional tight end than the 21-year-old from Notre Dame.
He’s a loose athlete with real route-running ability, both as a physical presence using his frame to create separation and with nice explosion and fluidity in and out of breaks. He’s also as physical as Mayer after the catch and a good bit more creative.
As blockers, neither should remind one of prime Rob Gronkowski or Kittle. Mayer won’t use his hands if a defender has a decent amount of speed coming his direction, probably from fear of breaking a finger he needs to catch the football. But it makes him inconsistent on the hoof, and he doesn’t wow with raw power at the point of attack in line.
Kincaid is a bit more technically sound but was used more often in a sniffer role than as an in-line player. It will likely take him quite some time to round into a consistently productive blocker in the NFL if either of them ever actually gets there.
Kincaid admitted he needed to improve as a blocker.
“I think I’m one of the best pass catchers there is – not only in the tight end position but kind of throughout the draft,” he told the media at the NFL Combine. “I think that’s my best strength. I think I’m developing as a blocker, and I have room to grow in that aspect of my game.”
Not many do. And most of the ones that do are blocking TEs who go on Day 3 as roster depth and 12 personnel in-line players who might catch 15-20 passes all season.
It’s the famous Arrested Development scene.
Tobias Fünke: You know, Lindsay, as a therapist, I have advised… a number of couples to explore an open relationship, where the couple remains emotionally committed but free to explore extramarital encounters.
Lindsay Bluth Fünke: Well, did it work for those people?
Tobias Fünke: No, it never does. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking it might, but… but it might work for us.
Could it work? Theoretically, absolutely. We’ve seen young tight ends outside of the first round be early contributors. T.J. Hockenson has remained inconsistent as a blocker, but he’s a good player. Pat Freiermuth, Hunter Henry, Dalton Schultz, and others have contributed early on. But they were all Day 2 or Day 3 picks.
Yes, the entire NFL Draft is an unknown. Late in the first round, you might miss 40% of the time or more on your picks. But when the history of first-round TE is as grim as the above list is, it’s better not to go that route and let someone else take the risk instead.
In fact, it’s probably a better decision to draft a running back that high, because, at least then, you could almost guarantee production in their first few NFL seasons for relatively cheap.
But did you notice I left a name out of the Day 2 talent?
Darnell Washington Could Be Worth the Risk
Show me a list of Day 3 tight end prospects, and I’ll probably tell you to draft the best athlete in the group.
Chigoziem Okonkwo ranked 158th and the ninth TE on NFL Mock Draft Database’s consensus big board a season ago. But the 6-foot-3 “tight end” had a 97th-percentile 40-yard dash and an elite vertical jump. He’d end up with 450 receiving yards, the most of any rookie tight end.
Only Pitts has topped 600 yards as a rookie TE since 2017 — when Engram had 722. They are the only two to do so since 2010, regardless of draft position. Young tight ends simply aren’t massive producers through the air.
So value must come from being an elite in-line blocker. And boy, do I have news for you regarding Darnell Washington.
At a hair under 6-foot-7 and weighing 264 pounds wearing No. 0 on his jersey, there might not be a more menacing figure in this draft class. While questions surrounding his lack of receiving production and target rate at Georgia make him passable in a fantasy football draft, his blocking makes him a first-round-caliber gamble.
Washington is legitimately a third offensive tackle on the field. And although he only had 45 career receptions in college, defenders looked deflated every time they tried tackling him. Heck, even defensive ends like LSU’s Ali Gaye probably curse his name at night before they have nightmares about his double-teams with Broderick Jones.
And this isn’t like Hockenson, who wowed us all with Quenton Nelson-level splash blocks that put linebackers and secondary members on the grass. No, this is a consistent mauling akin to an offensive tackle.
He’s not perfect. Washington will need to play with a bit more control at times, reaching the point of attack as a blocker. However, his attitude toward blocking is the best part of his game. He seems to thoroughly enjoy blocking, whereas most tight ends do it because their parents made them 245 pounds and too slow to play wide receiver.
Like most other young tight ends, it will likely take time for the 21-year-old to round into productive form as a receiver. But as defenses get smaller and faster, the nearly 270-pound Washington running into them with 4.6 speed will not feel like a Sunday picnic.
But unlike the others, he’ll not only be an active participant in the run game and in pass protection (where he also excels), he’ll actively improve the offense in both regards.
Yet, he’s consistently been seen as a second or even third-round prospect. There’s no denying he’s a lumbering presence and a completely underdeveloped route runner. But he is still a seam mismatch because of his size and raw athleticism and could do damage on shallow crossers and as a sniffer.
Additionally, Kirby Smart offered some interesting insight into Washington during Georgia’s Pro Day.
“He’s done a tremendous job, I think his weight was 264 at the Combine, and he played at high 270s, even 280s,” Smart told reporters. “He’s a much bigger passing threat than people probably understand when he’s at 264. I think he becomes a weapon in that league. He’s such a great target, and he’s hard to cover.”
Even then, it’s unlikely we see Washington produce meaningfully as a receiver until he’s nearing or into his second contract. That’s just how the position shakes out. So teams must wrestle with what his value is in their specific situation.
A team like Cincinnati — with three legitimate pass-catching weapons on the outside — could find Washington’s services worthwhile. However, Mayer, a Cincinnati native, already made it known at the NFL Combine that he wouldn’t mind being a Bengal.
“Joe Burrow throwing me that ball, man. Look, he’s a national champion. He’s taken his team to the Super Bowl,” Mayer said. “I’m trying to go to the NFL. I’m trying to win ballgames and win a Super Bowl. I want to be put in a good position for sure to be able to have a good quarterback throwing my way, to be able to win some Super Bowls.”
For the sake of minimizing risk, letting each of these players slide safely into Round 2 is probably the better course. But in a weak class overall, we could see two or even three of them inside the top 31.
And it likely won’t work out for the teams drafting them.
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