George Kittle is a matchup nightmare as a receiver and just as effective as a blocker
If you don't think tight end is an important position in today's NFL, look no further than the most recent Super Bowl. The top two at the position entering 2020 — George Kittle and Travis Kelce — were on opposite sides of the field at Hard Rock Stadium on Feb. 2 for Super Bowl LIV. Kelce's Chiefs got the better of Kittle's 49ers that day, but it's the latter who leads off these rankings.
A couple of other tight ends who are familiar to performing well on Super Sunday also land in the top 10. Philadelphia's Zach Ertz caught what proved to the game-winning touchdown in the Eagles' victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. In that same game, Rob Gronkowski, who is now in Tampa Bay after a brief one-year retirement, posted 116 yards and two scores. It was one of four Super Bowls that Gronk played in for New England, with the Patriots splitting those games.
And while the position is not nearly as prominent in current offenses, some teams still use a fullback. San Francisco has the best in the league in Kyle Juszczcyk, who is able to impact a game as both a receiver and blocker. He's also the only fullback to crack the top 20 of these joint rankings with tight ends.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2020 Pro Football magazine.
2020 NFL Tight End and Fullback Rankings
1. George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
It certainly helps that Kittle has Kyle Shanahan designing his route concepts for him, but Kittle has become the most unstoppable weapon at his position in short order. Kittle has the strength, speed, toughness and catch radius to be the best tight end in the game, but when you factor in his blocking ability, that moves him into the discussion as one of the best offensive players overall.
2. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Nobody expected Kelce to become what he’s become, or he wouldn’t have lasted until the third round of the 2013 draft. But he’s put up four straight 1,000-yard seasons since 2016, making all four possible Pro Bowls and adding two All-Pro nods in that time. He’s just about impossible to deal with as a receiver in Andy Reid’s multiple passing game — especially since Patrick Mahomes defined it in a deep-ball sense.
3. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles had to rely on Ertz more and more as their receiver group became almost totally depleted by injury through the season, and he did his best with 51 catches for 492 yards and five touchdowns in November and December alone. Ertz isn’t the ultimate downfield weapon, but he’s a reliable receiver, especially in short-yardage and red zone situations.
4. Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
Andrews wasn’t thought of as an explosive weapon in Baltimore’s offense last season, but the stats tell an interesting story — he tied with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce for the most catches of 20 or more air yards with eight last season, and he tied with New Orleans’ Jared Cook for the most touchdowns (four) on such passes. Given the extent to which Baltimore loves to run two- and three-tight end sets, you can expect those trends to continue.
5. Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
Selected by the Ravens in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, Waller overcame injury and substance-abuse issues to become Jon Gruden’s top receiver in the 2019 season, with 90 receptions on 107 targets for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. Waller is more a formation receiver than a true blocker in the traditional tight end sense, but he’s also a weapon everywhere on the field.
6. Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints
Cook has been a sneaky-productive player through his tenures with five different teams, and he added a ton to New Orleans’ passing game in his first season under Sean Payton on a two-year, $15 million contract. The veteran gave Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater a reliable target with 43 catches on 65 targets for 705 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns.
7. Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
The only thing keeping Henry from a higher place on this list is his unfortunate inability to stay healthy. The second-round pick in 2016 out of Arkansas has never played a full season and missed the entire 2018 campaign, but when he’s on the field, the 6’5”, 250-pound Henry presents a formidable slot weapon on everything from quick slants to deep posts. Henry caught 55 passes on 76 targets for 652 yards and five touchdowns. Doing that in 12 games makes one wonder what he could do in a full season. The Chargers obviously think there’s more and better to come because they placed the franchise tag on him for the 2020 season.
8. Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns
Adding Hooper to David Njoku in Cleveland’s tight end room makes a ton of sense with new head coach and offensive play-designer Kevin Stefanski taking over. As Minnesota’s offensive coordinator in 2019, Stefanski called as many two-tight sets as anyone in the NFL. Hooper isn’t a dominant tight end — he needs a system to make it work — but the system he’s in now should make that happen.
9. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings
Rudolph was never one of the NFL’s most explosive tight ends — his style has always run more to the traditional as a quality route-runner, a reliable hands-catcher and an above-average blocker. Though he caught just 39 passes on 48 targets for 367 yards, he also brought in six touchdown catches with his toughness and catch radius. Nothing else about Rudolph screams “highlight reel,” but he’s still an important player in the right scheme.
10. Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We’re giving Gronk a relative pass here in that he hasn’t played since Super Bowl LIII, he hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2011, he hasn’t enjoyed a 1,000-yard season since 2017 and he’ll be working in a new offense without the benefit of minicamps and training camps on a standard schedule. But he’s also the guy the Patriots needed to win that final Super Bowl on the crucial game-winning drive, and once he gets his bearings in Bruce Arians’ offense, he should be able to bring at least some of the old Gronk to the field.
11. Evan Engram, New York Giants
12. Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
13. Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
14. Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Greg Olsen, Seattle Seahawks
16. David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
17. Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans
18. Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
19. Kyle Juszczyk (FB), San Francisco 49ers
20. Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins