Why You Should Almost Never Draft a Tight End in the First Round


Todd Heap
Originally uploaded by Keith Allison
Two days ago I took a look at the immediate impact that first-round tight ends typically have on their team's offense and found that the impact was surprisingly low. The results were in line with my initial impression when the Detroit Lions drafted Brandon Pettigrew--that drafting a tight end was a "luxury" pick that was very unlikely to bring the sort of transformative change to the Detroit Lions that an 0-16 team needs. Now, however, after looking into the relative success of tight ends drafted in the first round I am ready to go a bit further: as a general proposition, NFL teams should almost never draft a tight end in the first round.

Why? Let's start with the value that a tight end brings to the team. The best measure of the value of having a star tight end relative to other positions on a football team is probably market value. Although NFL contracts can be irreducibly complex, the NFL does give us a pretty good sense of market value in the form of "the Franchise Tag" which averages the salaries of the ten most highly paid players at each position. By this measure, the market value of a tight end is very low compared to other positions. Here are the numbers for the 2009 franchise tags, which are calculated by taking the top ten most highly paid players at each position:

Wide Receivers
Defensive Ends
Offensive Linemen
Running Backs
Defensive Tackles
Tight Ends
14.651 Million
9.957 Million
9.884 Million
8.991 Million
8.451 Million
8.304 Million
6.62 Million
6.342 Million
6.058 Million
4.462 Million
2.483 Million

Yikes. Although I would not go as far to say that a great tight end brings "no value" to a football team, it appears that NFL franchises at least, would rather have star defensive tackles, quarterbacks, wide receivers, etc., although they apparently prefer Tony Gonzalez to Adam Viniatieri.

However, just because NFL tight ends have low value in a relative sense, does not in and of itself mean that drafting them is unwise. For instance, I have always understood that guards and centers have low relative value compared to left tackles and quarterbacks, but when you draft a guard or a center in the first-round, it is a safe investment. In other words, when you draft an internior lineman in the first round, the lower upside of the pick is offset by much lower risk.

However, I wasn't able to find any evidence that this is the case. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: first-round tight ends are less likely to be stars the best at their positions than other first-round draftees. What follows is a list of football positions and the percentage of the players drafted between 1990 and 2008 at that position who have made at least one pro bowl:

Running Backs
Defensive Tackles
Offensive Tackles
Defensive Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Defensive Ends

This is a pretty rough way to measure success, but it is effective. The position that yielded the second-lowest number of pro bowlers on a per pick basis were tight ends, with only stars at the defensive end position being rarer. Although there were some more tight ends drafted in the 80's who made some pro bowls, even if we expand the inquiry to include players drafted from 1980 to 2008, tight ends are still the group that yields the second-smallest number of pro bowlers on a per pick basis.

I also wondered if maybe the problem was that tight ends tend to go later in the draft, so the question should not be "are tight ends more or less successful than first rounders" but "are tight ends more or less successful than late first rounders." However, of the fourteen tight ends drafted in the second-half of the first round (picks 16-32) only Todd Heap and Eric Green made a pro bowl, while 22.5% of other players drafted in the second-half of the first round made the pro bowl.

None of these numbers prove definitively that tight ends are the riskiest proposition in the draft, but I do think it indicates very strongly that drafting a tight end is not any less risky than drafting any other position except for maybe defensive end.

So where are all of the good tight ends in the NFL coming from? All over the place. Here are the top tight ends drafted (and undrafted) from 1990 to 2008, who have made the pro bowl and their draft position (or lack thereof):

Tony Gonzalez
Shannon Sharpe
Antonio Gates
Ben Coates
Jason Witten
Alge Crumpler
Jeremy Shockey
Mark Chmura
Frank Wycheck
Bubba Franks
Eric Green
Todd Heap
Chris Cooley
Dave Moore
Byron Chamberlain
David Sloan
Ken Dilger
Stephen Alexander
Brian Jennings
Kellen Winslow, Jr.
Owen Daniels
1(13 Overall)
7(192 Overall)
5(124 Overall)
3(69 Overall)
2(35 Overall)
1(14 Overall)
6(157 Overall)
6(160 Overall)
1(14 Overall)
1(21 Overall)
1(31 Overall)
3(81 Overall)
7(191 Overall)
7(222 Overall)
3(70 Overall)
2(48 Overall)
2(48 Overall)
7(230 Overall)
1(6 Overall)
4(98 Overall)

As the above chart shows, good tight ends can pretty much come from anywhere. Sure, Tony Gonzalez was a high first-round pick, but there are a heck of a lot of six and seventh rounders on the list.

So, adding this all up, successful tight ends provide the least value to an NFL team of any other position besides kicker and are less likely to come from the first round than perhaps any other position. First-round tight ends come with nearly the highest risk and nearly the lower reward. So why would any team burn a first-round pick on a tight end?

Of course, bust-hood for Brandon Pettigrew is far from certain, and he could very well be the first first-round slam-dunk success at the position since Tony Gonzalez in 1997. Pettigrew has been hailed as the best blocking tight end to go in the first-round in some time. He has good size for the position, and if he learns how to use it, he could be a very dangerous receiver in traffic, able to pluck passes from hungry defenders with his exceptionally long arms.

However, Pettigrew has serious questions about his long-speed. Ultimately, tight ends go to the pro bowl based on their receiving skills. If Pettigrew's lack of long-speed prevents him from being able to outrun linebackers and split the safeties deep down the middle, he ultimately becomes a Michael Gaines: a good blocker who is nearly useless in the passing game. These concerns are underscored by the fact that Pettigrew was not as productive in college as the typical first-round tight end, cracking the 500 yard receiving mark only once in his college career.

Pettigrew's selection came at the expense of players at other positions that have traditionally been "safer" picks that add more value to the team. Specficially, the Detroit Lions passed on OT Michael Oher, CB Vontae Davis, DT Peria Jerry, C Alex Mack, and ILB Rey Maualauga. Only time will tell if the Lions have made a shrewd pick that will buck historical trends or if they are indeed the "same old Lions."



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