If you don't think tight end is an important position in today's NFL, consider that Kyle Pitts went fourth overall to Atlanta in this year's draft, the highest ever for a player at the position. The Falcons are hoping that Pitts can have the same type of impact on their offense as guys like Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller. It's no coincidence that those three lead Athlon Sports' list of the top tight ends entering the 2021 season.
Kelce has put together five straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, which is indicative of the increasing role tight ends are carving out within their respective teams' passing attacks. Waller also went over 1,000 yards in 2020 while Green Bay's Robert Tonyan emerged from nowhere to tie Kelce for the most touchdown catches by a tight end (and tie for fifth overall) with 11.
And if you still aren't convinced that teams aren't starting to prioritize tight end more, look no further than New England. The Patriots signed not one, but two of the guys to make Athlon's top 10 in free agency this offseason - Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. And former Patriot Rob Gronkowski showed he has plenty left in the tank, returning from his brief retirement to play a big role in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run.
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 Juszczyk, who is able to impact a game as both a receiver and blocker. And for the second season in a row, 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 2021 Pro Football magazine.
2021 NFL Tight End and Fullback Rankings
1. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Kelce has gained over 1,000 receiving yards in each of his last five seasons, and over that time, he leads NFL tight ends by far in receptions (473), receiving yards (6,144) and TDs (38). The prototype for the new-age “Y-iso” tight end who can beat defenders either inline, outside the formation or aligned as a wideout, Kelce is particularly devastating in packages in which he’s Patrick Mahomes’ single backside read and Tyreek Hill is the inside slot receiver. Kelce is on a Hall of Fame pace, and he’s the best at his position in the business.
2. George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
Following a 2018 season in which he set the then-single-season record for receiving yardage by a tight end with 1,377, and a 2019 season in which he made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro rosters, Kittle signed a five-year, $75 million contract extension with the 49ers. Things did not go as expected — like almost everybody else in San Francisco, Kittle missed time with injuries, foot and knee issues in his case. He still caught 48 passes for 634 yards and two touchdowns in his abbreviated season.
3. Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
Waller was waylaid by injuries and substance abuse his first few years in the league, but he exploded with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three TDs in 2019, following that up in 2020 with 107 catches for 1,196 yards and nine TDs. Outside of Travis Kelce, there is no more dangerous pure receiving TE in the game today.
4. Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers
Speaking of productive tight ends who came out of nowhere, how about Tonyan, the undrafted free agent out of Indiana State who blew up with 60 catches for 668 yards and 12 touchdowns (including the postseason). Only Travis Kelce had more trips to the end zone among tight ends last season with 14, and Tonyan became Aaron Rodgers’ secret weapon against two-high safety looks when defenses were blanketing Davante Adams.
5. Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have excelled in multiple tight ends sets for years, and Andrews is a big part of that equation. In 2020, he caught 66 passes for 770 yards and seven touchdowns, and though just five of those catches were on passes of 20 or more air yards, Andrews gained 152 yards and scored two touchdowns on those throws.
6. Hunter Henry, New England Patriots
Henry’s career has been beset by injuries. But when on the field, he’s been one of the most dynamic players at his position in the NFL, which is why the Patriots looked to the former Chargers star to redefine their tight end room with a three-year, $37.5 million contract. If Henry can stay on the field, he projects very well in the “Y-iso” tight end that Travis Kelce and Darren Waller have defined.
7. Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As Tom Brady adjusted to Bruce Arians’ deep-ball philosophy, it was Gronkowski who benefited as much as anybody, with nine catches on 20 passing attempts of 20 or more air yards (which led the league) for a league-high 282 yards and three touchdowns. Gronkowski still offered plus-level blocking and a peerless connection with Brady.
8. Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots
The Patriots haven’t had a true two-tight end threat since the days of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but Bill Belichick went back to the future in the offseason by signing both Smith and Hunter Henry to lucrative contracts. Smith is the do-it-all guy who blocks very well, catches clutch passes aligned to the formation and can create the occasional explosive catch downfield.
9. Jared Cook, Los Angeles Chargers
Cook has been one of the league’s more underrated tight ends when it comes to making plays in the intermediate and deep areas of the field. He’s an elusive mover with power to break tackles.
10. Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
In an Atlanta offense struggling with the absence of Julio Jones for half the season, Hurst set career highs in targets (88), receptions (56), receiving yards (571) and touchdowns (six). Now, with new head coach Arthur Smith bringing in more creative stuff for tight ends as he had when he was the Titans’ offensive coordinator, Hurst could enjoy even more productivity.
11. Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
12. Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
13. Evan Engram, New York Giants
14. Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
15. T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions
16. Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
17. Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
18. Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh Steelers
19. Logan Thomas, Washington Football Team
20. Kyle Juszczyk (FB), San Francisco 49ers