Like the quarterback position in the NFL, there are not 32 starting-caliber tight ends in the league. The best tight end in the NFL is about to become an AARP member, and the position as a whole is a difficult transition to make from the college level.
And with the continued rise of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan-inspired West Coast attacks, the TE position isn’t seen the same way as it is in other offenses.
Who’s the Best Tight End in the NFL?
Are you sitting down because this news may be shocking? Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the NFL. Now that we can all breathe again, let’s get down to brass tax.
Only Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill have more receiving yards since 2018. And at a position of attrition, Kelce has missed very few games throughout the course of his career. The realization that Rob Gronkowski is less than five months older than Kelce is sobering. Injuries took from us what could have been one of the greatest position rivalries ever.
Gronk’s peak was as the greatest tight end ever. Nobody at the position has ever impacted the game in as many ways as he could. But Kelce’s consistency has also never been matched, and at 33, he’s somehow still trucking along as the position’s unquestioned ruler. And at his age, he remains one of the craftiest pass catchers in the NFL after the catch.
Tight Ends Rankings 2-11
Only two players inside the top 11 are on their rookie deals. The position is historically difficult to make an impact early.
2) George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
Draft tight ends who are fans of professional wrestling. Not the Kurt Angle-winning Olympic gold type, but the Kurt Angle who was the WWF Champion type. The meat-headed, entertainment-based acrobatics seem to be a common theme for many a freak tight end.
Gronk has dabbled, Kelce paid homage to The Rock when he called the mayor of Cincinnati a “Jabroni,” and George Kittle might be the biggest WWE fan among the three.
Despite Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel becoming the main focus of Shanahan’s offense over the years, Kittle is still arguably the most dangerous TE in the league with the ball in his hands. Among tight ends with at least 60 targets, Kittle’s 6.5 yards after the catch was third best.
He also happens to be an outstanding blocker, which we get to see him do very, very often. Shanahan and John Lynch have simply found a way to bring YAC monsters into the fold at receiver, allowing Kittle to play a backseat role.
3) Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
To get an idea of how underwhelming the position is at the moment from a pass-catching perspective, look no further than Mark Andrews. In what seemed an utterly disappointing campaign in 2022, Andrews’ 847 yards receiving ranked third in the NFL among tight ends.
It was the first time since 2013 that only one TE had over 1,000 yards receiving. But even 2013 had seven with over 800 yards. In 2022, only three had over 800 yards.
Andrews is part of the new “move tight end” evolution that has slowly become more en vogue. He’s not a bad blocker for the position; he’s simply not put into positions that force him into difficult roles often because he’s only used sparingly in line. However, that means his value is more tied to his receiving production than someone like Kittle, who provides value on every play.
4) Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
Kyle Pitts was sabotaged in 2022. He caught only 50% of his targets this season and averaged just 35.6 yards per game after having a 1,000-yard season as a rookie.
In hindsight (many had the foresight, too), the Pitts pick never made sense for Atlanta. One look at Tennessee’s TE production under Arthur Smith would have told you that. However, Pitts is not a tight end, but a 240-pound receiver who should be used as such.
Pitts was used similarly in 2022 as he had been as a rookie. Yet, he pass protected a bit more often and was used out wide less often, with Drake London taking over duties as the team’s big, long receiver.
Pitts is as dangerous a weapon as there could be a league that tips the scales by utilizing mismatches. Pitts is one of the ultimate mismatches, but he needs an offense built around him as a receiver.
5) Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
Darren Waller is one of the more unfair chess pieces in the NFL when healthy, but over the past two seasons, that’s been the problem. That’s been a consistent theme for Waller throughout his NFL career. He’s only played full seasons in 2019 and 2020, and has never played more than 12 games otherwise.
MORE: Highest-Paid Tight Ends in the NFL
Nevertheless, Waller still has ridiculous production potential when healthy. He’s violently explosive and has truly unfair size at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. But as young tight ends like Dallas Goedert, Pat Freiermuth, and T.J. Hockenson continue progressing, we could see Waller slip down the board if he can’t get healthy in 2023.
6) Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
Shane Steichen’s evolution of the Eagles’ offense was perfect for Goedert. Goedert was a draft darling coming out of South Dakota State, proving to be an excellent all-around TE prospect. After playing second fiddle to Zach Ertz for a few seasons, the young tight end began to shine in 2021.
While some of his post-catch production comes from Philadelphia’s offensive creativity and execution of the screen game, Goedert is a springy athlete with good vision and decent contact balance. And in a league where serviceable blocking is harder and harder to find at the position, Goedert is more than enough help on the edge of the offensive line.
7) Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers
Freiermuth spurned the “Baby Gronk” moniker when he was at Penn State; a smart decision on his part. Expectations for the Nittany Lion were high, but thankfully, his hype did not outpace his college tape, which was good but not revolutionary.
Freiermuth isn’t quite a blast from the past, but he’s a bit old school. When building a professional tight end in a lab they’d probably come out being 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, and spend 60-70% of their time playing in line.
That’s exactly what Freiermuth does. He isn’t an overwhelming athlete, and he’s not a dominant blocker, but he’s a good pass protector, a great safety blanket, and is still progressing as a player at only 24.
8) T.J. Hockenson, Minnesota Vikings
Hockenson is another example of a tight end drafted incredibly high, who, while good, has underwhelmed. In fact, Hockenson never even finished out his rookie deal with the Lions, who traded him to an intra-divisional rival, for Pete’s sake!
The blocking highlights from Hockenson in college masked the technical flaws in his game, which were only exposed consistently when playing NFL-level competition. Hockenson remains a bit of an “all-or-nothing” run blocker and pass protector, and he’s never proven to be the bowling ball after the catch that he was at Iowa.
Yet, he had a career year in Minnesota and is still only 25, which means he’s likely still a few years away from his ceiling.
9) David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
Drafting a tight end high is a bit like investing in bonds. They take time to fully vest, and even if you need the money now, the investment hasn’t broken even yet. You may perish by the time they’re profitable.
David Njoku was taken with the 29th pick of the draft in 2017, and 2022 was only his second season with over 500 receiving yards as a move tight end. He was very young coming out of Miami, and like Tremaine Edmunds, we should’ve all seen the slow development curve coming.
Njoku has improved as a blocker in the run game. It’s a necessity with a strong offensive line and a stable of backs that get the ball so often. Among the biggest difference-makers at the position, he’s rounded into one of the better blockers, albeit hitting a not-so-high bar.
10) Dalton Schultz, Dallas Cowboys
Dalton Schultz has become far more than we ever expected him to be coming out of Stanford. As a Cardinal, he was a technically-sound, undersized blocker who underwhelmed as a receiver in the land of treetop tight ends catching passes up the seam for Stanford.
But in 2020, Schultz became one of Dak Prescott’s favorite targets and, in 2021, became a real difference-maker, earning him the team’s franchise tag.
Schultz has rounded into a savvy route runner who separates nicely against man coverage using his frame and quickness. There is more post-catch than he ever showed in college, and he’s a fine safety blanket and red-zone target. And while Schultz is an underwhelming blocker at times, he’s far from the worst.
11) Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills
In a world filled with athletic first-round tight ends who underwhelm, be the team that drafts the Dawson Knoxs of the world. Draft the athletic TE on Day 2 or early Day 3. No matter what they do in college, they’re almost surely going to start slow at the NFL level. So why waste a top pick on a ’68 Fastback Mustang that’s going to take two full years to restore?
The QB-turned-TE is an explosive athlete used well in the red zone for the Buffalo Bills. Knox is not the strongest blocker in the world, nor is he ever going to be Kelce as a receiver. But as the third or fourth option for Josh Allen and a serviceable blocker in the run game, he’s everything Buffalo could’ve expected, given their investment into him.
Like most tight ends, Knox should only continue incrementally improving as he ages into his prime playing years, as long as he remains healthy.
Top Tight Ends Remaining
12) Evan Engram, Jacksonville Jaguars
Evan Engram was fantastic in his first season in Doug Pederson’s offense. While he’s currently a free agent, there’s no reason to believe the Jaguars won’t find a way to bring him back for 2023 and beyond. The 28-year-old isn’t really a tight end, but a 240-pound receiver, not unlike the likes of Pitts and Waller.
MORE: Tight End Free Agency Rankings
Engram’s career year feels like just the start. If Calvin Ridley is able to return to football, it will open a ton of opportunities for Engram to run crossing patterns and seams up the field. He holds an athletic advantage against most defenders, and his size lets him play a physical brand of football at the catch point. Engram will never be an in-line blocker, but he doesn’t have to be.
13) Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears
The Bears’ tight end has one of the brighter futures in the NFL. The second-round pick has the type of explosiveness and size to be the archetype two-way te in the league. A historically difficult position to assimilate to has been the same for Cole Kmet, but he’ll be only 24 in the 2023 NFL season.
Kmet is incrementally improving as a run blocker, and he’s already a serviceable pass blocker. The Notre Dame TE is still growing as a route runner, but he’s already a solid receiver in the play-action game.
14) Hunter Henry, New England Patriots
The NFL is a funny place. Hunter Henry is not a bad football player. In fact, he’s a good receiving tight end who, while a bit uninspiring as a blocker, suffices. But because he’s going to have the third-highest cap hit of any TE in the league for 2023 — teammate Jonnu Smith, not listed, is at No. 2 — Henry will be ridiculed endlessly for… producing in the exact same manner he produced when he was paid by the Patriots.
See, Henry is part of this interesting group of fourth-tier tight ends who can start at the NFL level and be a receiving threat but will only ever average 40-60 catches and 400-600 yards per season. In each of his six seasons, Henry has somewhere between 478 and 652 receiving yards.
15) Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Mike Gesicki is the casualty of the Shanahan system. The starting tight end must be able to get in line, pass protect, and run block. That is the last thing that you want to do with Gesicki, who is a 6-foot-6 receiving mismatch and not much else. After consecutive 700-yard seasons, Gesicki practically disappeared from the face of the earth.
That will change at his next stop. Few in the NFL, if any, have better hands than Gesicki, whose hands make passes disappear completely. Whatever team pays Gesicki will line him up in the slot and prosper. But because Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill exist, he was the odd man out in Miami’s passing attack.
16) Noah Fant, Seattle Seahawks
Noah Fant has never been properly used at the NFL level. At Iowa, he was a receiver in a tight end’s body. He’s a move tight end who shouldn’t be consistently asked to block defensive ends.
After finding some decent receiving production in Denver despite playing about 70% of his snaps outside of the tackle, his production slipped with the Seahawks. Seattle’s offense runs through the run game, DK Metcalf, and Tyler Lockett.
17) Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams had themselves a disastrous campaign in 2022. Nearly every integral piece to their overall Super Bowl success went down with a serious injury, and the pieces they’d lost on the offensive line caused struggles early on, even before injury crushed them.
MORE: QB Power Rankings 2023: Patrick Mahomes Sits at the Top, Jalen Hurts Nearly Elite
Higbee caught a career-high 72 passes, but because they had such poor QB play, he posted the lowest per-catch average since his rookie season.
18) Tyler Conklin, New York Jets
The New York Jets pulled a New England Patriots and signed two different tight ends to multi-year deals. The deals weren’t as lucrative, but much like the Patriots, the deals have been very one-sided thus far. C.J. Uzomah was awarded the bigger contract, but through one season, Tyler Conklin has been the bigger deal in New York.
In 2022, Conklin caught 58 of 87 targets for 552 yards Tight end is an incredibly difficult position to play at the NFL level. Offensive linemen spend their lives perfecting their craft, which is blocking. Receivers spend their time running routes and catching passes. Tight ends are unfairly asked to do both at a high level. It’s simply not feasible.
That’s why this group of carbon copy 6-foot-5, 250-pound players exist in the manner they do. Unless they’re a freak athlete, it’s very difficult to differentiate themselves from the next guy.
19) Hayden Hurst, Cincinnati Bengals
Hayden Hurst is another semi-reliable pass catcher who doesn’t break the bank and can start for your team. However, his off-the-field impact advocating for men’s mental health is probably greater than his on-field impact.
Hurst is a victim of expectation. He should’ve never been a first-round pick, and his current production and value is akin to where he should have been taken in the NFL draft. If Hurst can remain healthy in 2023, he’ll have every opportunity to produce a career year alongside the best weapons in the NFL.
20) Austin Hooper, Tennessee Titans
NFL contracts aren’t real. Austin Hooper signed a ridiculous contract after a 787-yard season in the final year of his rookie deal with Atlanta. He went to Cleveland on a four-year deal worth “$42 million” but was cut after two seasons as a June 1 designation. He earned $23 million over his two lackluster seasons with the Browns.
Before that contract, there were talks of Hooper being a top 5-10 tight end in the NFL. But Njoku was the better TE on the Brown’s roster, and Harrison Bryant also flashed at times.
Hooper got back on track a bit in Tennessee a season ago, but the quick ascension of Chigoziem Okonkwo stole his shine a bit.
21) Zach Ertz, Arizona Cardinals
Much like Henry, Ertz won’t offer all that much in the form of blocking, but he was a high-volume pass catcher in Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid system that relied on quick passes underneath. That is largely what Ertz has left. He’s a reliable pass catcher against zone coverage. His 8.6 yards per reception before an injury ended his season in 2022 was by far the lowest of his career.
Ertz tore both his ACL and MCL in Week 10 last season, and at 33, there might not be enough left in the tank — or enough desire — to continue into Year 12 of his illustrious career.
22) Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Chargers
After spending years behind Higbee in Los Angeles, Gerald Everett had a decent season in Seattle that netted him a two-year deal with the Chargers. Now, Kellen Moore’s presence in LA could be the best thing for the 28-year-old tight end.
Moore loves getting the position on the field and giving them options as primary pass catchers in his offensive system.
Everett is not a guy you like having to block the end man on line. In fact, he’s just not really a great blocker at all, but the Chargers will undoubtedly add someone to the position in free agency or the draft who can better fit that specific role.
23) Chigoziem Okonkwo, Tennessee Titans
Chigozeim Okonkwo posted elite speed and an elite vertical jump at the NFL Combine, and was a fourth-round pick for the Tennessee Titans. Despite his mid-round draft status, Okonkwo outproduced all other rookie tight ends not named Cade Otton, and he did his work on a third of the offensive snaps.
Athletic mismatches are the way to go if you’re drafting the position. Taking a leap of faith on height/weight/speed prospects is the way to go at tight end. Okonkwo’s 14 yards per catch were the most among rookies, and the next-closest was Jelani Woods, who posted the best RAS ever for the position.
24) Daniel Bellinger, New York Giants
Daniel Bellinger probably would have been the most productive rookie in the league at his position had he remained healthy for the entire season. It should come as no surprise that Bellinger posted a 9.65 Relative Athletic Score, posting elite speed marks and great explosive numbers at a respectable 253 pounds.
Bellinger’s already an important piece in the Giants’ offense. If he continues to progress as a route runner and blocker, he could round into one of the more impressive tight ends in the league.
25) Jake Ferguson, Dallas Cowboys
It’s curious that Jake Ferguson tested like an average athlete because his on-field spring is apparent after the catch. Ferguson lept over defenders a few times in 2022, and he held his own as a run blocker, even though it’s clear he needs to get stronger and more technical at the craft.
With Schultz likely off to a new team in 2023, Ferguson will have every opportunity to prove himself as the Cowboys’ starter.