A tight end is a quarterback’s best friend — whether it’s acting as a safety valve on third downs, a threat in the red zone or being an chess piece in an offense’s aerial assault, they are an interesting dynamic that can do much for a team’s offense.
In today’s modern NFL landscape, they are seeing expanded roles in the passing game that are have reached unprecedented territory. In 2016 alone, eighteen tight ends had fifty receptions or more and over twenty broke the five-hundred yards in receiving barrier. A decade ago, the numbers in those respective categories were just half of that. Quite simply, having a high-quality tight end on your favorite team’s roster can mean all the difference in the world when the rubber meets the road.
Reports indicate the Broncos are high on TE A.J. Derby heading into the 2017 season. pic.twitter.com/gWmk0fyQ3Q— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 21, 2017
The AFC West has a history of producing some of the greatest tight ends to ever play. Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez, Dave Casper and Kellen Winslow are players who will always be remembered for their playing prowess and ability to strike fear in the heart’s of opposing defenses during their careers. More currently, players such as future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates and juggernaut Travis Kelce have become the gold standard for what it is to be great at the position — and routinely have terrorized opponents on any given Sunday.
Today, I will continue Mile High Report’s AFC West positional rankings series and give my thoughts and rankings on the tight end’s in our division.
Note: As mentioned in other entries of this series, while we are pre-disposed to favor the Broncos, for this exercise we will try to be as objective as possible and welcome debates in the comments.
The Chargers coming in at number one in my rankings might be the most disagreeable aspect of my entire analysis, but I have to give credit where credit is due.
These tight ends produced when targeted pic.twitter.com/84QfsSZK0i— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 19, 2017
In my opinion, they possess the best tight end duo in the NFL with the ageless Antonio Gates and second-year pro Hunter Henry. Gates, who will be entering his fifteenth season in the NFL, is a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer, whose production is still fantastic at the age of 37. Last season, Henry posted 36 catches for 478 yards and 8 touchdowns as a rookie and has the potential to become a top five player at the position in the league.
If there is one thing I am jealous of as a fan, it’s the Chargers’ ability to keep churning out tight ends year after year who produce at a high-level. I expect more of the same for them in 2017, and believe Henry will have a breakout year for the Bolts.
Entering training camp, the Chiefs have six players listed on their roster at the tight end position, but in reality the only one who matters is Travis Kelce, who is one of the best, if not the best tight end currently in the NFL.
Kelce is a dynamic threat and one of the most feared offensive weapons in all of football, an All-Pro and two-time Pro-Bowler. After doing very little as a rookie, Kelce has reeled off three consecutive seasons of production, with an impeccable 85 receptions, 1,125 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2016. His 13 yard per catch is astounding and posted one of the best catch rates (nearly 75 percent of passes) of any player at the position.
Without Kelce, the Chiefs’ offense could be considered one of the worst in the league, but thanks to his on-the-field dominance, they are formidable enough to be a threat on a weekly basis.
#3) Denver Broncos
It’s been a few years since the Denver Broncos had a true difference maker at the tight end position. As it stands right now, the team has amalgamated a hodgepodge of talent at the position with A.J. Derby, Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt. It’s a talented group that has a lot of potential and if the Broncos want to make noise in the AFC West this season, they are going to have to produce much better than they have the past few years.
With Offensive Mike McCoy back in the fold, I expect big things from the Broncos’ tight end group in 2017. The last time he was in Denver, his offense was had Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen combine for 1,000 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. There is no question that the aforementioned players are more talented than those two, but they need to stay healthy in order to have an impact.
On a side note, here is a sobering thought to remember: former tight end Jeb Putzier produced better than anyone currently on the roster and nobody outside of Broncos Country even remembers who that is. It’s time for the Broncos’ tight end group to kick it up a notch and help make the offense great again.
#4) Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders have two tight ends worth mentioning, but it’s hard to give their unit as a whole much of a positive outlook. Clive Walford was a highly-touted draft selection three years ago, but has under-performed (61 catches, 688 yards, 6 touchdowns) in his two seasons in the NFL. With concerns about his overall career trajectory, the Raiders signed veteran Jared Cook to a two-year, $10 million deal this off-season.
Cook is a decent player, but his landing with Oakland will be his fourth different team in his nine-year career. It’s been years since he has been one of the top performers at the position in the league and profiles as a quality second-level tight end. On the bright side, Cook was the best postseason tight end in 2016, where he posted 18 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Moreover, 72 percent of his catches went for first downs.
Perhaps in Oakland, with young-gun Derek Carr at quarterback will be able to revive his career and post some big numbers this season.
As always thank you for reading and feel free to sound off in the comments section and debate my rankings, as well as offering your own in respect to the tight end groups in the AFC West.
Which team in the AFC West has the best tight ends?
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Los Angeles Chargers
Kansas City Chiefs