Jonnu Smith
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Ranking 28 impending NFL free agent tight ends from best to worst, based on an accumulation of their 2020 statistics.

Using an agglomeration of six different key statistics, I ranked the 28 impending NFL free agent tight ends that logged at least 200 snaps in 2020. This is the fifth in a series of articles that will rank all of the qualified free agents at key positions of need for the New York Jets – I have already ranked 47 free agent wide receivers, 47 free agent edge rushers, 53 free agent cornerbacks and 30 free agent running backs.

The players were ranked according to their performance both as receivers and blockers. As receivers, they were ranked by their average percentile ranking among qualified tight ends across these four statistics:

Receiving yards per game: I included one volume-based statistic to give an edge to players who had larger roles, preventing small-sample efficiency wizards from rising too far up the rankings.

Yards per route run: Formula: receiving yards divided by routes run. The average amount of receiving yards gained per snap in which the player ran out as a receiving option on a passing play. This stat is effective at combining a player’s per-target efficiency with their target frequency.

Percentage of routes gaining a first down or touchdown: It is important to look beyond solely yardage totals when evaluating receivers. Yardage doesn’t tell us everything, as not every yard carries the same value. A receiver can gain one yard on a go-ahead touchdown or gain six yards on a fourth-and-7 catch that yields nothing of value for his team.

Yardage totals also tend to favor explosive-play receivers who make a handful of big plays over quick-hitting chain-movers who make an abundance of solid plays. A receiver can have a 90-yard game with one catch while another receiver can dominate a game with six first downs and two touchdowns while only gaining 80 yards. The second receiver was clearly better, but the yardage totals suggest otherwise.

Including one per-route stat for yardage and one per-route stat for conversions gives all different types of receivers a chance to fly up the leaderboard. Taking into account conversions is especially important at the tight end position, where many players do not have the athleticism to make explosive plays but still make a massive impact through their short-to-intermediate game and red-zone presence.

Pro Football Focus receiving grade: PFF’s all-encompassing evaluation of a player’s performance as a receiver based on the grading of every receiving snap. It takes into account volume, efficiency, drops, the difficulty of catches made, and extra production created after the catch. Altogether, it does a good job of separating receivers who create their own production through fantastic individual efforts from receivers who are a product of their surroundings and rack up easy production. Poorly-graded receivers tend to drop a high rate of passes, win a low percentage of contested-catch situations, and consistently fail to create yardage after the catch beyond what is presented to them.

Each player’s percentile rankings in those four categories were averaged together to create a receiving score.

In the blocking game, each player was ranked by the combination of their percentile rankings in PFF’s pass blocking and run blocking grades. Those two rankings were averaged together to create a blocking score, weighted according to the percentage of their blocking snaps that occurred in each phase – i.e. a player who played 90% of his blocking snaps in the run game had his run blocking grade factored as 90% of his overall blocking score, while his pass blocking grade factored in as 10%.

Altogether, each player’s receiving and blocking scores were averaged together equally to create the overall score by which the group was ranked. It makes sense to account for both phases equally, as in 2020, the average tight end blocked on 52.4% of his snaps and ran a route on 47.6%, a near-even split.

Let’s start with a look at how the group stacked up as receivers.

Best Receiving NFL Free Agent Tight Ends 2021 ranking

Here is how the group stacked up in the blocking game, featuring a breakdown of how their playing time was dispersed between running out as a receiver, pass blocking and run blocking.

Best Blocking NFL Free Agent Tight Ends 2021

Finally, here is how the group stacked up when combining their receiving and blocking scores.

Ranking Best NFL Free Agent Tight Ends 2021

Takeaways

Hunter Henry is the clear prize

Combining age, playing time, and efficiency in both phases, it is hard to debate that Hunter Henry will head into March as the best tight end on the open market.

Henry was a workhorse for the Chargers this past season, leading all players at the tight end position with 65.2 snaps per game. He was heavily utilized in all facets of the offense, ranking fourth among tight ends in routes run per game (34.4), sixth in run blocking snaps per game (25.2) and eighth in pass blocking snaps per game (5.6).

As a receiver, Henry wasn’t necessarily dominant, but his efficiency was solid on a large volume. Henry ranked ninth among tight ends with 43.8 receiving yards per game, while he ranked between the 56th percentile and the 65th percentile in each of yards per route run, conversions per route run, and PFF’s receiving grade. Regarding his worthiness of a top-tier contract for the position, it is a bit worrisome that his efficiency wasn’t better than slightly above-average, but at the volume of snaps he played, those numbers are respectable.

Henry’s 68.8 run blocking grade was good enough for the 84th percentile, cementing his ability to be an every-down tight end.

On our list, Henry checked in at fourth overall, trailing only three lightly-used players who combined for 73.8 snaps per game, barely more than Henry’s number.

Gerald Everett and Jonnu Smith offer intriguing upside

Following Henry, the battle for the No. 2 spot appears to be a toss-up between Everett and Smith.

Everett (who was broken down in-depth by our own Thomas Christopher) and Smith offer extremely similar profiles. Both on the younger side and have consistently produced efficiently at a mid-tier level of involvement, promising the potential to break out if given more opportunities. In addition, their skill-sets are reminiscent of one another as well.

Let’s start with the efficiency. Over the past two seasons, Everett has averaged 1.54 yards per route run, well above the 2020 positional average of 1.27. Smith is a tick higher at 1.64 over that span. For comparison, Dallas Goedert – who ranked fifth among tight ends with 47.6 yards per game in 2020 – averaged 1.62 yards per route run this past season. T.J. Hockenson, who ranked seventh in YPG, posted 1.57 yards per route run.

In terms of skill-set, both Everett and Smith are known for their athleticism with the ball in their hands. Among the 34 tight ends with at least 40 targets in 2020, Everett and Smith ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in yards after catch per reception. Everett checked in at 5.9 while Smith was right on his heels at 5.8.

A team looking for a high-upside option at a relatively low cost – one that also provides a reliable floor of efficient low-volume production – has a couple of good options in these two.

Richard Rodgers is the ultimate low-cost swing for the fences

After a three-year span in which he had 13 catches for 167 yards and one touchdown, Rodgers came out of nowhere with a marvelous mid-season stretch for the Eagles in 2020, his seventh NFL season.

From Weeks 3-12, Rodgers averaged 38.3 yards per game on only 3.4 targets and 14.2 routes per game. Over that span, he posted an otherworldly average of 2.70 yards per route run, second-best behind only George Kittle over that span. Rodgers ended up at 2.64 yards per route run on the season, still trailing only Kittle (2.84).

This campaign by Rodgers stands out as incredibly fluky compared to his first six NFL seasons, so he probably will not replicate it, but that hot stretch gives him far more upside than most other tight ends in his price range.

Plenty of blockers to choose from

The Jets have had major issues with blocking at the tight end position for quite some time. Trevon Wesco provides some hope of solving that problem, but he hasn’t been much more than decent as a blocker over his two-year career, so the Jets can still remain open to looking for an upgrade in this area.

If Joe Douglas, Mike LaFleur and the Jets do indeed have their eyes on a blocking tight end, there will be quite a few solid options available. Our list features 12 unrestricted free agents who posted a PFF run blocking grade that ranked above the 50th percentile. Half of those players ranked above the 70th percentile in the category.

Tyler Kroft is a premier blocking name. Kroft ranked at the 95th percentile in pass blocking grade and the 68th percentile in run blocking grade this past season. In 2019, Kroft ranked at the 82nd percentile in pass blocking and the 84th percentile in run blocking (out of 100 tight ends with 100+ blocking snaps). He has allowed only two pressures over 67 protection snaps over the past two seasons, a 3.0% rate (2020 positional average: 6.9%). In addition, he has helped the Bills rank sixth in yards per carry (5.7) and third in conversion rate (38.9%) on carries directed “left end” or “right end” since 2019.

Trey Burton has never delivered on the receiving promise he showed early in his career, but he can definitely block. Burton has allowed only three pressures over 70 career protection snaps (4.3% rate). His career pass blocking grade of 65.9 would have ranked at the 61st percentile among tight ends with 100+ blocking snaps in 2020, while his career run blocking grade of 69.2 would have placed at the 82nd percentile in 2020.

As George Kittle displayed on a national level, blocking at the skill positions is crucial in Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco offense. If LaFleur plans to employ a similar running scheme in New York, the Jets need to emphasize finding a tight end or two that can block at a high level.

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