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A Tight Value For TEs
Authored by Randolph Charlotin - 9th February, 2009 - 11:06 pm

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In pre-draft rankings, Brandon Pettigrew from Oklahoma State is the top rated tight end in the 2009 draft, but he isn?t projected as a first rounder. But is Pettigrew or another TE worth a first round pick?

Kansas City?s Tony Gonzalez was the 13th pick overall in the 1997 draft and since then he?s raised the standard of what a tight end can do for an offense. He?s been selected to 10 Pro Bowls. During Gonzalez?s career, 14 TEs have been selected in the first round. Only three have been selected as Pro Bowlers: Jeremy Shockey (14th overall), Todd Heap (31st), Bubba Franks (14th), and Kellen Winslow Jr (6th).

Three of the four were highly productive in their Pro Bowl years (Franks was the exception), but players from later rounds claimed a high majority of the Pro Bowl selections: 2nd round: Ken Dilger, Wesley Walls, Stephen Alexander and Alge Crumpler; 3rd: Chris Cooley, Jason Witten, and David Sloan; 4th: Owen Daniels; 5th: Ben Coates; 6th Mark Chmura and Frank Wycheck; 7th: Shannon Sharpe and Byron Chamberlain; Undrafted: Antonio Gates, Dwayne Carswell and Chad Lewis.

Clearly there are quality tight ends after the first round. But if a TE is rated higher than players at other positions, should a team draft one with the understanding that he?s the best player available? Or should a team draft one to fill a need?

Sure, but not so quickly. In 2006 Maryland?s Vernon Davis entered the draft as a tight end with a receiver?s speed and the strength that surpassed many linebackers. San Francisco took him with the sixth overall selection. In three years, Davis has averaged 34 receptions, 377 yards, and three touchdowns.

While some blame falls on the player, the team that drafts him should understand how they plan to use the player.

More and more teams are spreading the field offensively, utilizing three, four, or five receivers. That means the tight end is either one of the receivers, is used as a blocker, or is off the field completely. Either of the last two possibilities and the team isn?t getting full value for an early first round pick. A blocking TE can be had on day two.

Indianapolis got it right when they drafted Dallas Clark 24th overall in 2003. Clark?s role within Indy?s three wide no fullback offense grew year after year. Last season he put up outstanding numbers with 77 receptions for 848 yards and six TDs.

But other teams with dominant wide outs shouldn?t consider a brawny pass catcher in the first round. In New England (31 total receptions by the tight ends) and Arizona (22), the tight end is an afterthought because the receivers are so good. St. Louis? offense (28) isn?t designed for the TE to be targeted regularly.

As for the rest of the league, the tight end will get passes thrown his way. On an average offense the unit catches 50 to 70 receptions per season. That?s only part of their job description as a tight end must block when called upon. A good TE is equally versatile, able to compliment the offense.

And that?s important to note. The tight end is between a receiver and an offensive lineman, not quite either, but good enough in both roles ? a complimentary player. One that isn?t a good receiver but is a solid blocker quickly falls down the depth chart and becomes a member of the short yardage offensive package. An outstanding receiving TE on a team usually means the actual wide outs aren?t very good. It hides a larger problem.

An offense can be productive when the tight end leads the team in receiving, but the offense stalls in the playoffs. Gonzalez led KC in receiving seven times in 13 seasons, twice on playoff teams. The Chiefs lost both games. It?s a similar story for San Diego when led offensively by Gates: The Chargers are 2-3 in the playoffs. The New England Patriots, led by Ben Coates, couldn?t win their Wild Card game. In two seasons led by Eric Green, the Pittsburgh Steelers were 1-2 in the playoffs. None of these teams played in the Super Bowl, and in five of the combined eight losses they scored 17 points or less.

If Pettigrew can play in every situation, then he?s worth a first round pick and would be a valuable third option on pass plays. But Pettigrew and other tight ends should be selected in the first round no sooner than the 20th pick.

If the goal is to get a player worth his selection, then within the 20-32 range typically equals the value of a TE. The list of productive tight ends drafted in this range is quite good. Post-20th pick tight ends were great in their best season with their original team:

2008 ? 30th overall: Dustin Keller, New York Jets ? 48-535-3
2007 ? 31st: Greg Olsen, Chicago ? 54-574-5
2006 ? 28th: Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville ? 41-489-2
2005 ? 30th: Heath Miller, Pittsburgh ? 48-514-3
2004 ? 32nd: Ben Watson, New England ? 49-643-3
2002 ? 21st: Daniel Graham, New England ? 38-409-4
2002 ? 28th: Jerramy Stevens, Seattle ? 45-554-5
2000 ? 27th: Anthony Becht, New York Jets ? 40-356-4

They?re not Pro Bowl players, but they were contributors for their teams for the right value. And there will be more like them as long as teams don?t spend too high a pick for their tight end.