The tight end position has experienced quite the evolution in the National Football League over the past several decades. Gone are the days when tight ends were known as blockers who could occasionally catch passes every now and again. In the modern football era, NFL tight ends are essentially glorified wide receivers, offensive weapons who, in some offenses and schemes, are vital targets for quarterbacks. The New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens are just four examples of teams who have found top-tier tight ends to match-up against secondaries and linebackers. Those clubs feature tight ends who can scorch any opposing defense and who can also carry your seasonal and weekly fantasy football lineups to impressive points victories on weekends throughout a campaign.
With that said, NFL tight ends are somewhat of a dime a dozen in that teams can find elite athletes and All-Pro talents at that position outside of first rounds of drafts. In fact, a majority of individuals who would be considered the best tight ends in the NFL as of the spring of 2017 were not first-round picks. It's because of this that some tight ends who don’t make highlight-reel plays on a weekly basis could be seen as surplus to requirements by teams. Granted, each of the tight ends mentioned in this piece who theoretically shouldn’t be in the league could eventually prove critics wrong and become stars, but one cannot help but wonder if there aren’t better players available who are either unsigned or who will be in the NFL a year or so down the road.
15 Better: Eric Ebron
It was not all that long ago when it seemed as if Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron was almost a bust. The Lions selected Ebron in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft ahead of talents such as Odell Beckham, and the product out of North Carolina did not play like a player worthy of such high value throughout the first few years of his pro career.
Ebron caught fire during the fall of 2016, however, he finished that campaign with a total of 61 receptions. The next step in his development will be to become a better red zone target for quarterback Matthew Stafford, something that could help make Ebron one of the best players at the position before 2017 comes to an end.
14 Out: Connor Hamlett
Connor Hamlett nearly never played a down of football in the NFL in the first place. Hamlett considered leaving the sport after college because of knee injuries, among other reasons, but he eventually had a change of heart and decided that a break away from the game before pursuing a career in the NFL was what he truly needed.
Hamlett entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, and he has floated between several teams as a journeyman who has not yet found a long-term home with a franchise. The 25-year-old spent some time with the lowly Cleveland Browns during the 2016 season, and he is currently a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Whether or not he’ll be with the Cowboys come September 2017 is unknown as of the posting of this piece.
13 Better: Delanie Walker
It’s almost difficult to believe every team passed on Delanie Walker to the point that he fell to the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft before he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Walker was somewhat of an afterthought as a member of the Niners, but he became a superstar tight end after joining up with the Tennessee Titans before the start of the 2012 campaign.
Walker has been good for at least 60 catches per season during his time with the Titans, and he found the end zone a total of seven times in 2016. While Walker will be 33 years old before summer comes to an end, he has to be seen as one of the best overall tight ends in all the NFL at the moment.
12 Out: Kellen Davis
For all we know, Kellen Davis may actually be out of the NFL before the 2017 holiday seasons concludes. Davis entered the league in 2008 when the Chicago Bears acquired him via a fifth-round draft pick, but he struggled in the team’s offense until the Bears parted ways with him after the 2012 season.
Since that time, Davis has been a journeyman who has spent time with multiple franchises, none of which have offered him any real job security. In November 2016, the New York Jets waived the injured Davis. He had zero receptions at that time of the season. It’s possible the 31-year-old may never again catch on with any team moving forward, as "Father Time" is now working against him.
11 Better: Dennis Pitta
The Baltimore Ravens have a history of locating talented individuals who play tight end, and that tradition has continued thanks to Dennis Pitta. The club selected Pitta in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and the player out of BYU has been a member of the franchise ever since.
A one-time Super Bowl Champion, Pitta has proven himself to be a dependable target for quarterback Joe Flacco over the years. Perhaps the most impressive part of his story is that Pitta managed to make a full comeback from a hip injury that nearly ended his career back in 2015. He caught 86 passes and had two touchdowns in 2016, and the 31-year-old will hope to continue to defy the odds moving forward.
10 Out: Braedon Bowman
Braedon Bowman is another example of a tight end who hasn’t caught on with NFL teams for one reason or another. Bowman played his college football at South Alabama, and he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent when the Jacksonville Jaguars took a flier on him in 2016.
Unfortunately for Bowman, the Jaguars parted ways with him before ever seeing him play as a member of the offense during a regular season game. The 23-year-old was given an opportunity by the New York Jets, but his season came to an early end in October after he suffered a torn ACL. While there is certainly still time for Bowman to resurrect his NFL career, one has to wonder if the Jets and other teams will look at other talents.
9 Better: Jason Witten
When all is said and done, Jason Witten will be regarded as one of the best tight ends of his generation and a player worthy of a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Witten has been a member of the Dallas Cowboys since 2003, and he thus far has been named to ten Pro Bowl squads during his illustrious career. While it does seem age and the wear and tear that comes with playing in the NFL for over a decade are catching up with Witten, he did catch 69 passes playing alongside rookie quarterback Dak Prescott in 2016.
Witten isn’t done yet, as he put pen to paper on an extension with the Cowboys earlier this year, meaning he’ll have at least one more chance to pursue a Super Bowl ring with the club.
8 Out: Hakeem Valles
Hakeem Valles is another tight end mentioned in this piece who is facing an uncertain future as it pertains to his NFL career. The 24-year-old was given an opportunity by the Arizona Cardinals in the spring of 2016, and Valles did well to earn a roster spot because of his versatility and willingness to play in roles other than offense.
The problem is that Valles made zero real impact as a member of the team’s passing attack, as he failed to catch the two targets thrown his way during the campaign. The Cardinals are not lacking personnel at the position, as the club is currently carrying four tight ends. Don't be surprised if the Cardinals once again makes Valles earn a roster spot during the summer.
7 Better: Jimmy Graham
For the foreseeable future, any promising tight end who resembles a basketball player because of his size and athleticism will likely be compared to Jimmy Graham. When fully healthy and at his absolute best, Graham was close to unstoppable, as no linebacker or safety in the league could hang with him in one-on-one situations.
Now approaching 31 years old, Graham is seemingly nearing the end of his playing days, but he still managed to finish the 2016 season with 65 receptions and six touchdowns as a member of the Seattle Seahawks. The four-time Pro Bowl tight end would still be one of the better offensive players on a plethora of teams that would love to have his services as of the summer of 2017.
6 Out: Khari Lee
We couldn’t blame you if you were struggling to think of where Khari Lee has spent his couple of seasons in the NFL. Lee went undrafted in the spring of 2015, and he failed to make much an impression on the Houston Texans during his brief tenure with that team before Houston shipped him to the Chicago Bears.
The Bears elected to move on from Lee in September 2016, but he managed to catch on with division rivals the Detroit Lions last fall. Lee remains a member of Detroit’s roster even though he failed to register even a single catch during his one season with the franchise. We shall see if the Lions have any real major plans for Lee once training camp opens.
5 Better: Greg Olsen
Greg Olsen is a rarity among the top tight ends spotlighted in this piece in that he was actually selected in the first round of an NFL Draft. The Chicago Bears grabbed Olsen with the 31st overall pick of the 2007 draft, and he impressed during his time with the team before Chicago traded him to the Carolina Panthers in the summer of 2011.
Olsen became a key figure in an offense led by quarterback Cam Newton, and he caught 80 passes and had three touchdowns during the 2016 season. While Olsen turned 32 years old earlier this year, he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down just yet. We expect he will again be one of Newton’s favorite targets so long as he remains healthy.
4 Out: Chris Manhertz
He may never become a Superstar in the NFL, but Chris Manhertz is nevertheless a fascinating individual. Per his own words, Manhertz never played a down of football up through the end of his college days, and his only experience with the sport involved playing Madden video games. Despite that, he decided to pursue a career playing pro football, and the Buffalo Bills decided to give him a tryout in the spring of 2015.
Manhertz didn’t find a home in Buffalo, but he did receive opportunities from both the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers. Manhertz remains a member of the Panthers, but it seems his odds of making it big in the NFL are long, at best. Carolina could probably find a better player via free agency.
3 Better: Travis Kelce
The Kansas City Chiefs selected Travis Kelce in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but he has played like a first-round talent throughout his first three seasons in the league. Kelce has increased his receptions every season over the past three years, he's nearly averaging five touchdowns per campaign and he had 1,125 receiving yards in the 2016 campaign.
Best of all is that Kelce is just 27 years old, meaning we may not have yet seen him at his physical best as a member of the Kansas City offense. Yes, Kelce’s antics and perceived immaturity have cost the Chiefs during games, but those moments do not erase all of the positive things he has contributed to the club since September 2013.
2 Out: Randall Telfer
The Cleveland Browns may soon feel they need to make a decision regarding the future of Randall Telfer. While the club released veteran Gary Barnidge after drafting David Njoku in April, those currently running the Browns may feel they can find better value than Telfer in free agency.
The former USC tight end has had a rough go of it over the years, as injury setbacks have slowed him down since 2015. To his credit, Telfer did feature as a member of a lackluster Cleveland offense in 2016, but he caught only two of six targets. The Browns need an influx of talent on both sides of the football even if Njoku turns out to be a superstar for the club, and holding a spot for a tight end who is mostly a blocker may not be the wisest of roster moves.
1 Better: Rob Gronkowski
Physically speaking, Rob Gronkowski is probably the most dominant tight end in NFL history when healthy and fully motivated. Gronk, as he's affectionately known, is built like a combination of a wide receiver and offensive lineman, and no one defensive player in the league can stop him in red zone situations. It truly is a shame the four-time All-Pro and two-time Super Bowl Champion has dealt with multiple injury problems during his pro career, as the 27-year-old could have produced even better numbers over the years had availability not been an issue.
Gronkowski still remains better than many wide receivers currently in the NFL, and he should be seen as one of New England’s best overall draft picks of the past decade.