Game Theory

Which NFL rookie tight ends will be most productive in 2021? My analytics-based top-five rankings

Draft season might seem like a distant memory at this point, but don't forget that history was made at the tight end position this year. Kyle Pitts became the highest-picked TE in draft history when the Falcons selected him fourth overall. The former Florida star is obviously the cream of the crop, but he's certainly not the only intriguing NFL newbie at the position this season. So, just what can we expect from this crew in Year 1?

As I did last week with rookie running backs, I've used contextualized data and my computer-vision models to project which rookie tight ends will be the most productive in 2021.

Rank
1
Kyle Pitts
Florida
Atlanta Falcons
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 4 overall

First, some background info to set the table, via Next Gen Stats. Last season as the Titans' offensive coordinator, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith used 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) on 32.7 percent of snaps, the second-highest rate in the NFL behind only Philadelphia. The Falcons used it on just 13.9 percent of snaps in 2020 (ninth-lowest rate in the NFL). So, you might expect to see Pitts and his fellow Falcons tight end, Hayden Hurst, on the field at the same time a lot. Context matters a ton here, though, because not only did the presence (and departure) of Julio Jones matter to this projection, but Pitts does not forecast to be a traditional tight end, which you know after watching all of our draft coverage. Pitts lined up wide on over 35 percent of his snaps for Florida last season, and his wingspan is ridiculous (83 3/8 inches). So, I measured something new for you in this exercise because the impact of such a massive catch radius is an interesting thing to explore with him. Pitts caught passes thrown more than four feet away from his body at the highest rate of any pass catcher (including wide receivers) from the past two draft classes in their final collegiate season. Of the pass catchers selected in the first three rounds over the past two drafts, the average catch rate on such passes was 14.8 percent (15.3% for first-rounders only). Pitts' rate? 23.5 percent! My normal draft predictor model (which doesn't include the catch radius metric) ranked Pitts as the most likely future All-Pro from the 2021 draft class. I'm glad the new stat backs that projection up even more.

Rank
2
Pat Freiermuth
Penn State
Pittsburgh Steelers
Draft pick: Round 2, No. 55 overall

Pro Football Focus data shows that the Penn State offense ran though Freiermuth with his 27.8 percent target share in the four games he played last season. When I tracked the former Nittany Lions star's route running, I saw he was able to find a halo of at least six feet in diameter at the third-highest rate among all Power Five tight ends, and he earned the fourth-most yards after contact. Combine those metrics with the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is throwing shorter passes more often at this stage of his career, and you can see why Freiermuth could become a key target for Pittsburgh in his rookie year. Roethlisberger attempted a league-high 436 passes of fewer than 10 air yards last season, per Next Gen Stats.

Rank
3
Tommy Tremble
Notre Dame
Carolina Panthers
Draft pick: Round 3, No. 83 overall

The Panthers had the second-fewest receptions by tight ends last season (27). They had a league-low one reception by a tight end on a pass of 10-plus air yards. In other words, the opportunity is there for significant growth at the position for Carolina, especially with Christian McCaffrey returning healthy -- which will draw the attention of defenses -- and greater upside at the quarterback position following the acquisition of Sam Darnold. No tight end in the FBS last season earned a better center of gravity percentage on both passing and rushing downs than Tremble. This metric reflects a player's ability to maintain his center of gravity when hit or making a hit and has proven to be highly correlated to NFL blocking success since I started measuring it back in 2008. It also helps forecast that he'll earn his way onto the field. While Tremble was not the main target for Notre Dame (and not even main TE target) last season, Matt Rhule and Joe Brady's ability to create pass-catching opportunities for him shouldn't be underestimated. 

Rank
4
Houston Texans
Draft pick: Round 5, No. 147 overall

Well, this projection is more of an estimate than I prefer given the uncertainty at the quarterback position for Houston, but there is potential upside for Jordan. As of right now, the Texans' top three receivers are Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and Chris Conley. No matter who the QB is, the lack of depth could create an immediate opportunity for volume for Jordan. As measured in game speed, Jordan was the second-fastest player among Power Five tight ends during his college career. He forced 21 missed tackles on 105 targets at Miami, per PFF, and my computer vision counts him as earning the second-most yards after contact as a percentage of total yards in the FBS among tight ends last season. 

Rank
5
Hunter Long
Boston College
Miami Dolphins
Draft pick: Round 3, No. 81 overall

Long is my second-highest ranked rookie tight end when it comes to win share. However, this article focuses on production in fantasy football categories, so he slides a bit in the forecast because of the pass-catching situation he finds himself in (with Will Fuller, Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker and Jaylen Waddle also competing for opportunities). However, Long was targeted 17 times in one game at Boston College -- and PFF gave him an impressive 83.2 pass game grade last season -- so it's not hard to see his pass-catching potential. On passing downs where the target was in the middle third of the field, Long was able to create separation of at least three feet at the second-highest rate last season among Power Five tight ends. Given his strong performance in blocking and spatial metrics, Long's versatility helps project usage in the NFL. Being on the field doesn't ensure fantasy gold, but it's certainly a good starting point and helps drive value for the entire offense.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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