DTR Top-10: Travis Kelce and George Kittle Solidify Spots Among NFL’s Top Tight Ends

George Kittle

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Twice a week this offseason Blaine Grisak and Jake Ellenbogen will share their top-10 players from each position in the NFL. We’ll discuss our lists and why we ranked players where we did as well as the position in general.

We also asked the rest of the Downtown Rams staff who their top-10’s were and will have a poll and its results at the end.

In this edition, Blaine and Jake unveil their top-10 tight ends in the NFL heading into the 2019 season and who is ready to take that next step.

Previous Top-10’s

Top-10 Quarterbacks

Top-10 Running Backs

Top-10 Wide Receivers

Top-10 Tight Ends

Blaine
1. Travis Kelce – KC
2. Zach Ertz – PHI
3. George Kittle – SF
4. Hunter Henry – LAC
5. Evan Engram – NYG
6. O.J. Howard – TB
7. David Njoku – CLE
8. Kyle Rudolph – MIN
9. Eric Ebron – IND
10. Jared Cook – NO

Jake
1. George Kittle – SF
2. Travis Kelce – KC
3. Zach Ertz – PHI
4. Delanie Walker – TEN
5. O.J. Howard – TB
6. Hunter Henry – LAC
7. Eric Ebron – IND
8. David Njoku – CLE
9. Evan Engram – NYG
10. Chris Herndon IV – NYJ

Blaine: Onto our fourth position – the tight ends. Travis Kelce is the obvious top guy for me. Outside of Gronkowski, physically, he has probably been the most difficult guy to cover over the past couple of years. Behind him I have Zach Ertz who made strides last year, going for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

In the middle, I have the young guys. I fully expect Evan Engram to get back to where he was his rookie year as well as OJ Howard and David Njoku to solidify themselves as two of the top tight ends in the league.

At the bottom is where it’s complicated. I included Eric Ebron as I’m excited to see what he does in another year in Indianapolis and then while I hate to include Jared Cook, he put up back-to-back 50+ catch, 500+ yard seasons in Oakland. It will be interesting to see what he does in New Orleans.

Jake: I think Travis Kelce is the obvious top two guy for me. However, I kick things off with the former 5th-round selection made by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft, George Kittle. Kittle is a physical specimen; he doesn’t have the prototypical height but has just about everything else. He also just set the single-season record for receiving yards.

Following him was Kelce but also the Philly tight end Zach Ertz who I would call the Super Bowl savior for the Eagles two years ago. Delanie Walker gets the nod at four in what may surprise people but let’s not forget I don’t take injury into effect in this one and Walker before last year might have been the best tight end not named Gronkowski. After those guys, former Alabama draft crush O.J. Howard rounds out the top five.

The rest of the list I highlight young talented guys like Hunter Henry, Eric Ebron, David Njoku, Evan Engram, and my surprising 10th placement: Christopher Herndon IV. I saw you had Jared Cook, and I just couldn’t put him in the top-10 after never having the type of season he had last year now into his early 30’s. An anomaly? That’s not fair, but I would need to see that replicated in New Orleans.

Blaine: That’s a fair assessment, and there’s certainly a lot to discuss here. I want to start our discussion with the guy that would have topped our lists most likely if he was still playing and that’s Rob Gronkowski. How surprised were you that he retired? He dealt with injuries throughout his career, but without his play in the Super Bowl, the Patriots maybe don’t beat the Rams. How do you see the Patriots adjusting to life post-Gronkowski?

Jake: I love that you started this off with the greatest player (in my mind) to ever play this position. For the record, I think his play had started to go downhill to the point I would have ranked him third or fourth. You can thank the injuries for robbing him of his elite ability. I was and wasn’t surprised. He had toyed with this idea in the past, but I guess, if Jason Witten is back, don’t count out Gronkowski just yet. The Patriots absolutely will need a player to step up in Gronk’s absence (again I’m not sold he’s fully retired yet).

I do think that’s kind of why they brought in a bigger bodied receiver in N’Keal Harry (even if I don’t agree with the pick), but like you said, without Gronk, who knows if the Patriots beat the Rams. That play was a turning point for a game that didn’t have a lot of splash plays.

It’s worth mentioning the Patriots cut a young revitalized Austin Seferian-Jenkins before his Patriot campaign could even start. It’s also worth mentioning they acquired Stephen Anderson, a former California standout, Ryan Izzo, a do-it-all type of guy from Florida State to go with the former long snapper turned tight end in Matt LaCosse and a Benjamin Watson reunion that couldn’t feel anymore storybook for this organization. Watson has become another level of tight end and has found his receiver side of his game in the latter half of his career. It will be interesting to see how this all works out though, Watson has familiarity, but he’s also 38 years old.

Blaine: Ya, I felt like it would be tough to talk about the tight ends without discussing the guy that has dominated the position for the past six years. It’ll be interesting to see what the Patriots do to replace him. Matt LaCosse might be a guy to watch there.

You mentioned him a little bit, but I do want to talk about George Kittle. I wasn’t surprised to see him as your top tight end. I know you were very high on him coming out of college. What did he do at Iowa that caught your eye and what has separated him so far in the NFL? The thing is, I don’t know if we’ve even seen the beginning of Kittle as he hasn’t had a true starting quarterback under center throwing him the football? If you think about that – it’s a scary thought considering how good he’s been.

Jake: Matt LaCosse is going to be a guy to watch now for sure. Now, onto my guy Kittle, you, of course, know I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and found myself pounding the proverbial table for him in regards to the Rams 2017 draft. Well, the reason for it is because he does everything well.

It was clear, from the moment I turned on the tape, Kittle was not only an elite athlete, (ran a 4.51 at the combine) he was also an elite blocker with ruthless aggression and someone that could fly under the radar due to his lack of usage and opportunities because of his quarterback situation with C.J. Beathard (I still don’t know how in the world they not only ended up on the same team, but Beathard went higher than Kittle) and that he did. Kittle, as mentioned, was a 5th-round pick.

Now, having just set the single-season record with Beathard and Nick Mullens, Kittle is set to get back his franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. You mentioned Garoppolo, I’ve always been a big fan of his as well, and if he is precisely what most people think he can be, Kittle could be looking at the Calvin Johnson record next.

Blaine: Those are some bold words! I like it. I do see a big year for him and wish he didn’t play in the same division as the Rams. Kittle does create a nice segway to my next topic I want to discuss. Iowa has been the tight ends factory it seems like. Kittle gets drafted from there, and then TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant get selected this year and are the consensus top-2 tight ends in the draft. Hockenson goes to the Lions, and Fant goes to the Broncos. How do you like each of their destinations, and how do you see both of them fairing in their rookie years? I’ll take that one step further, who do you think will end up having the better career between the two?

Jake: Hockenson. However, I like them both. Fant is more of an Eric Ebron clone that will do well and be in the middle of the top 10 list, but I think when it comes to Hockenson, he’s the spitting image of guys like Gronk, Kelce and Ertz. You get everything, including the size with Hockenson. He’s a slower and taller Kittle if you will. I think he fell into the perfect fit playing with Matthew Stafford. Stafford just announced that he struggled last year because he played with a broken back.

As for the Broncos, I’m not a Joe Flacco fan at this point in his career. Injuries have robbed him and so for the long-term Fant is going to have a franchise quarterback with a big arm in Drew Lock. I think Hockenson is a better fit and in a better situation now but they both have options in the future, and both will not have to carry the offense due to the weapons on each of them.

That’s one thing I like. It may hurt the overall numbers, but the pressure is off Hockenson. He has guys like Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Jermaine Kearse and of course, Kerryon Johnson to take away all of the attention from him. With Fant, the Broncos will have Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders, DaeSean Hamilton, Philip Lindsay, and Royce Freeman to take the pressure off of him.

So to double back and answer your question, I think it’s Hockenson who will have the better career, but both of these guys are going to have outstanding careers. I just see Hockenson being among the elite while Fant is among the good or even the borderline elite.

Blaine: I don’t think you can go wrong there. These two are always going to be connected not only because they got drafted in the same class, but they played on the same team. I think I favor Fant a little more for the simple fact that he’ll have a chance to grow with Lock whereas the Lions don’t have a plan in place after Stafford. Like you said though, I think both guys end up with good careers.

The next guys I want to talk about are the guys that come from the 2017 class. Evan Engram was the immediate standout here. He has an excellent rookie season. OJ Howard is making a name for himself while Njoku seemed to put it together last year. I have them 5-6-7, you have them 5-8-9, what do they need to do to take that next step and maybe break into the top-3 and of those three which guy has the best chance of doing so? Engram’s quarterback situation will be interesting whereas Njoku and Howard are each in a line of deep offensive weapons.

I’ll even throw our guy, Gerald Everett, in here. Do you see him taking that next step and breaking out this year? We’ve seen moments, but need consistency. Do you think when we do this list next year, he’s in the top-10?

Jake: I think you nailed it with Engram. His 2017 rookie season we had a chance to see him versus the Rams, and he was the only thing that was of entertainment coming from the Giants side of the ball. O.J. Howard took over this past year but unfortunately suffered an injury. David Njoku has the best situation out of all of these guys in my mind except you could make the argument Gerald Everett has the best low-pressure position with Jared Goff throwing him the ball, Todd Gurley, Darrell Henderson, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks, Tyler Higbee and Josh Reynolds in that offense.

When looking at these guys and I think you missed a critical focal point of the Jets offense in Christopher Herndon IV who will grow nicely with Sam Darnold. There’s just so much young talent at this position.

I think Howard leads that next tier, then I would say Njoku, then Engram and then Herndon. I think next year to answer your question, Gerald Everett could be in that top 10. However, there is a cautionary tale here, remember when the Rams took Higbee, and he was called “Baby Gronk” in camp. That didn’t work out, and he’s arguably become a better blocker than receiver which was not what many saw coming.

The jury is still out on Everett but this year will be put up or shut up time for him, and it’s going to be very telling. With a franchise that hasn’t had a ton of talent at the position outside of Pete Holohan and Billy Truex. Everett has a chance to become the greatest Rams tight end of all time, but he’s got to show significant improvement this year for that to come to fruition.

Blaine: Alright, Jake, before we wrap this up, who are your honorable mentions? For me, Delanie Walker is right there. After that, it gets tough. I probably go with Jordan Reed as we know what he can be when healthy and then a young player in Everett or Mark Andrews in Baltimore.

Jake: To me, I think you have to look at Jordan Reed, Jared Cook, Gerald Everett, Mark Andrews but I would put Trey Burton, a former Philadelphia Eagle ahead of all of them. Burton had a quiet year last year, but it still was a top 10 year for a tight end. After that, I would make the argument for a Kyle Rudolph type of player before those guys I mentioned, Austin Hooper for sure and Dallas Goedert.

The one tight end who is a super honorable mention you need to keep an eye on is Will Dissly of the Seattle Seahawks. Last year’s rookie out of Washington was considered to be a reach in the draft and mainly just a blocking tight end. However, Dissly kicked off the year with a monster first game and a solid second game but unfortunately, his season was cut short due to injury. I would say watch out for Dissly. And of course, Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki. That is a long list but that’s what you get with my honorable mentions.

Blaine: Hey, we like to mention as many guys as possible. Well, Jake, that will do it for this week. We’ve officially finished the skill positions on offense and will hit the trenches next week!

DTR Top-10
1. Travis Kelce – KC – 49 (4)
2. George Kittle – SF – 44 (1)
3. Zach Ertz – PHI – 42
4. Hunter Henry – LAC – 25
5. OJ Howard – TB – 23
6. Eric Ebron – IND – 18
7. Evan Engram – NYG – 13
8. Delanie Walker – TEN – 12
9. David Njoku – CLE – 11
10. Kyle Rudolph – MIN – 10

Others Receiving Votes: Jared Cook, Greg Olsen, Jack Doyle, Jordan Reed, Noah Fant  Chris Herndon IV, Austin Hooper, T. J. Hockenson

Pete Spetelunas: 1. Travis Kelce, 2. Zach Ertz, 3. George Kittle, 4. Kyle Rudolph, 5. Eric Ebron, 6. OJ Howard, 7. Jared Cook, 8. Delanie Walker, 9. Evan Engram, 10. Austin Hooper

Alex Washburn: 1. Travis Kelce, 2. George Kittle, 3. Zach Ertz, 4. Hunter Henry, 5. Greg Olsen, 6. Jack Doyle, 7. Jordan Reed, 8. Evan Engram, 9. Delanie Walker, 10. Eric Ebron

Skyler Burkhardt: 1. Travis Kelce, 2. George Kittle, 3. Zach Ertz, 4. O. J. Howard, 5. Hunter Henry, 6. Eric Ebron, 7. David Njoku, 8. Jared Cook, 9. Noah Fant, 10. T. J. Hockenson

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