Welcome back to the NFL PRR! In this series, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, I will be ranking the top 12 players at each position for the previous season. This is not where I believe they will rank at the end of 2021, just where they stand now. Because of this, incoming rookies will be exempt from the "Following the 2020 Season" blogs. After the draft, leading up to the 2021 NFL season, I will be ranking where I believe each player will rank after the 2021 season, including incoming rookies.
These lists will be controversial, they will raise some eyebrows, but, most importantly, they will open some eyes towards who is actually dominating in the NFL today. Without further ado, here are my top 12 tight ends for the 2020 season:
Photo: San Francisco 49ers
12. George Kittle
Is George Kittle the best tight end in the league? Yes. Was he the best this year? No; but that was mainly because he only played in 8 games. So how could a tight end who only played in 8 games make the top 12 for 2020? His production per game. Kittle tallied 48 catches for 634 yards and 2 TDs on 232 passing snaps. For comparison, Travis Kelce played on 731 passing snaps. If we gave Kittle the same amount of snaps, and he maintained his production, he would have caught 151 passes for 1,997 yards and 6 TDs. Kittle would have broken the reception and yardage season records if he got as many opportunities as Travis Kelce did. Granted, he plays in a much different style offense and has a different QB throwing his way. The best player in 2019 looks to have a career year in 2021.
11. Noah Fant
Noah Fant broke out in his sophomore campaign. With struggles at QB all year long, Fant still manages to put up 62 catches for 673 yards and 3 TDs. His blazing speed and mismatching size put him in prime positions to speed past linebackers and power through defensive backs. PFF ranked him 5th with an 80.3 receiving grade. He's not the best run blocker, but that's not his strength. If he can improve in that area, he can be a real threat in the run and pass game for years to come.
10. Hayden Hurst
After minimal playing time his rookie year in 2018 and getting lost in a cluttered tight end room in 2019, Hayden put on a show after being traded to Atlanta in 2020. The former first-round pick hauled in 56 passes for 571 yards and 6 TDs. He struggled when it came to run blocking, which is something he did very well while in Baltimore. Most of that was due to a downgrade from one offensive line unit to the other, while also playing in a pass-first offense. With the Falcons bringing in Mike Davis and looking for other options at running back, they hope to be a more effective run team, and Hayden is the key to making that click in 2021.
9. Jared Cook
Jared Cook has quietly been a top 10 tight end in the league over the past several years. He struggled early in the season with drops, but got his act together and played lights out. In 15 games, Cook brought in 37 catches for 504 yards and 7 TDs. Although the reception number isn't great, he produced on every pass he caught, averaging 13.6 yards per catch, the third-highest mark in his career. New Orleans QBs also had a 120.4 passer rating when Cook was targeted. Cook looks to finish his career strong in Los Angeles as a viable passing option for Justin Herbert (the future MVP for 2021).
8. Mike Gesicki
The third-year tight end went off in 2020. There were many questions about Gesicki's ability to perform well in the NFL. He has great size and athleticism, but the technique in route running and run blocking was questionable when he was at Penn State. He put all those questions to rest as he dominated in both, posting 53 catches for 703 yards and 6 TDs, as well as ranking 8th overall with a 78.1 PFF grade for all tight ends in 2020. With no true star running back in the backfield, Gesicki still did his best to drive defenders inside and open lanes for Myles Gaskin and others. If Tua improves on his accuracy, Gesicki could be a much more effective weapon in 2021.
7. Logan Thomas
What a ride for Logan Thomas. The former backup quarterback found his way to playing tight end and had a career year in 2020. Thomas caught 72 passes for 670 yards and 6 TDs. For reference, since his move to the tight end, caught 35 passes for 317 yards and 2 TDs from 2017 to 2019. He outplayed his entire career in his first season in Washington and will look to have the same impact with a new QB at the helm in 2021.
Photo: USA Today
6. Rob Gronkowski
Yes, the Bucs passing attack was loaded. Yes, Tom Brady is the best QB of all time, but that doesn't take away any of Gronk's production in 2020. After stepping away from the game in 2019, Gronk came back in 2020 and posted 45 receptions for 623 yards and 7 TDs. He also posted a 78.4 receiving grade, ranking 8th among all tight ends in 2020. His run blocking wasn't as sharp as it normally is, but he still did a solid job in that area. Gronk has already confirmed he is returning for 2021 and will continue to build chemistry with Tom Brady.
5. TJ Hockenson
TJ Hockenson balled out in his second season. The former Iowa tight end (the third one on this list) tallied 67 receptions for 723 yards and 6 TDs. He became the main weapon for Matt Stafford after Kenny Golladay missed significant time due to an injury. TJ also did a great job run blocking, posting a 70.9 run-blocking grade per PFF, ranking 11th out of all tight ends. With Jared Goff starting at QB and Tyrell Williams projected to take the WR1 spot, TJ will be one of the main options for the Lions offense in 2021. Look for him to make a significant impact and put his name into the top 3 tight ends conversation.
Photo: The Athletic
4. Robert Tonyan
Tonyan had an incredible year in 2020. After struggling to find his place in his first two seasons, Tonyan played lights out last year, catching 52 passes for 586 yards and 11 TDs. He also was targeted 59 times, meaning there were only 7 passes that weren't caught that came his way. He also had the highest passer rating when targeted out of all receivers - 147.6 - in 2020; that's nearly perfect. With most of the Packer's offense returning in 2021, Tonyan looks to improve on this connection with Aaron Rodgers and continue to dominate opposing defenses.
3. Mark Andrews
Mark Andrews has made a name for himself since arriving in the league in 2018. In 14 games in 2020, Andrews hauled in 58 catches for 701 yards and 7 TDs. He also ranked 10th out of all tight ends in 2020, with a 76.7 overall grade. So why do I have him ranked at the 3 spot? He is the key piece to the Ravens offensive success. In a tight end-heavy scheme, he does a great job of run blocking, as well as getting open in space. He also has the sneaky speed to get past defenders for extra yardage. His speed, size, and strength are uncommon for the tight end position, and he knows exactly how to use them. Andrews has consistently been in the top 5 tight end conversations over the past two seasons and looks to have a career year in 2021.
2. Darren Waller
I love Darren Waller. After struggling with addiction early in his NFL career, Waller started his recovery process and found his way to the Raiders. After having a strong returning season in 2019, he blew everyone out of the water in 2020. He brought in 107 receptions for 1,196 yards and 9 TDs. He quickly became Derek Carr's favorite target after Tyrell Williams went down for the season. He also had 5 games of over 100 yards, which is really good for a tight end. If you use just those 5 games, Waller would rank 5th in receiving yards for all tight ends. He is easily the fastest tight end in the league, and the Raiders are getting him for a bargain, averaging $7.45 million a year. If Darren improves in 2021 as he did in 2020, he could very well be considered the best tight end in the NFL.
1. Travis Kelce
Is anyone surprised by this? Not only was Travis Kelce the best tight end in 2020, but he is also making his case as one of the best tight ends to ever play the game. In 15 games, Kelce caught 105 passes for 1,416 yards - the most ever for a tight end in a season - and 11 TDs. Kelce is also the only tight end in NFL history to have 5 straight seasons of 1,000 yards receiving. His run blocking was also on another level this year, as he had the 3rd highest run-blocking grade (77.2). Kelce seems to be getting better with age and is a near Hall of Fame lock at this point in his career.
Photo: Associated Press
Sources: Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, FFtoday
There were no other tight ends I was really considering for this list. You could make a case for Jonnu Smith and Dalton Schultz, but they did not have the same production as some of the other guys on this list had. Along with these guys, watch out for Evan Engram in a bounce-back season, as well as Tyler Higbee, Dallas Goedert, and Jack Doyle, as they look to put their names in the conversation for best tight ends of 2021.
Join me next time as I cover the top 12 interior defensive linemen in 2020!