Rankings the 2019 Rookie Tight Ends

By Kyle Dvorchak
Kyle Dvorchak

Tight end is one of the most difficult positions to rank rookies. Most rookies at the position enter the league as backups and even the starters have a lot to learn. Route concepts can be more complex in the NFL for some tight ends while others have to adapt to the concept of playing as a blocker entirely. These players are also coming from colleges where they were far superior athletes. Now they're forced to protect their quarterback from an All-Pro pass-rusher on one snap and then beat safety on a 50/50 ball 25 yards downfield on the next. With the advantage of hindsight and a season of play under their belts, how does the 2019 rookie tight end stack up now?

1. Noah Fant, Denver Broncos, 20th NFL Draft Pick

40 receptions, 562 yards, 3 TD
Noah Fant didn't enter the 2019 season as the highest-ranked rookie tight end but he certainly left holding that crown. Fant didn't post eye-popping numbers because no first-year tight end does. He ended the season as TE16 in PPR leagues, first for the rookie class by a Patrick Mahomes out of stadium throw.

Even though Fant was out here winning fantasy championships, a little context goes a long way in describing just how good his debut was.

Fant's 562 yards were 15th all-time for a rookie tight end. They're the 6th-most since the year 2,000. His initial outing was better than the likes of Mark Andrews, George Kittle, and any other current star tight end that you can think of not named "Evan Engram".

These historic numbers are great but a reasonable caveat to them is the lack of any real competition at tight end in Denver. Only Troy Fumagalli and Jeff Heuerman took snaps from Fant. Fumagalli had yet to play an NFL snap before 2019 and Heuerman-a third-round selection from Ohio State-couldn't eclipse 300 yards in three years with Denver.

To dispel any notion that he was only productive because he had a pulse and hands:

  • 8.5 yards after the catch per receptions - No. 1 among tight ends
  • 14.1 yards per reception - No. 2

Fant also joined Jeremy Shockey as the only tight ends to record multiple 100-yard games as a rookie in the past 40 years.

Denver has their tight end of the future and he's should be the unquestioned king of his position within the 2019 class. Fant's dynasty outlook is tremendous if Drew Lock can hone in his accuracy for year two, the short-term could be just as prolific.

2. T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions, 8th

32 receptions, 367 yards, 2 TD
Lions fans and dynasty players will always remember T.J. Hockenson's first NFL game: 6-131-1 versus the Arizona Cardinals. Then they'll remember nothing else from his rookie season (except maybe the time he tried to hurdle a defender and it almost ended his season) because there was almost nothing to remember. Hockenson would cap out at 56 yards in the 11 remaining games of his freshman campaign and that would also be the only other time he topped the half-century mark in a game. The Arizona eruption accounted for 35.7% of Hockenson's receiving yards as a rookie and he scored one of the pair of touchdowns in that game as well.

Sending an opponent packing isn't a bad indicator for Hockenson but it is concerning that he could not repeat even half of this performance in any other contest. He also put up these video game numbers against an all-time terrible defense versus the tight end. Arizona allowed 19.9 DraftKings points per game to the tight end position in 2019. No team has been that awful versus the position since 2013...when the Arizona Cardinals allowed more than 20 per game.

Hockenson's 6.2 yards per target were a low-mark for rookie tight ends but in all fairness, he played a handful of games with the worst quarterback tandem in the league: David Blough and Jeff Driskel.

With Matthew Stafford under center, Hockenson averaged 20 more yards and caught more passes on fewer targets (per the RotoViz Game Splits App).

Between injuries of his own (concussion, shoulder sprain, and an ankle sprain that ended his season) and injuries to his quarterback, Hockenson's rookie outing doesn't give us much useful data to work with.

It's best to fall back on the 22-year old's collegiate resume-760 yards as a sophomore at Iowa- and draft capital until he puts another year in the books. Had Fant not surpasses expectations in year one, his fellow Hockeye might still be the most coveted tight end from their class.


3. Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills, 96th

28 receptions, 388 yards, 2 TD
The biggest surprise (in a good way at least) of the 2019 tight end class has to go to Dawson Knox. Coming out of Ole Miss with very little production to his name-605 yards in his final two years combined-Knox wasn't expected to make an impact no matter where he landed. However, as Week 1 approached, the Bills were forced to get Knox involved because of injuries to their tight end unit. He scored his first NFL touchdown in Week 3 while adding 67 yards on three catches. He started every game but one after that and topped 50 yards two more times.

The best sign for Knox's future in Buffalo was his deep-ball usage. He averaged 9.5 air yards per target, 5th-most for a tight end. Getting used downfield is the most important factor for functioning in a Josh Allen offense and Knox has that down.

Because Knox's targets are very high-leverage for his position, he could have a nice weekly ceiling if his snaps come up next season.


4. Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings, 52nd

36 receptions, 311 yards, 2 TD
Knox and Irv Smith Jr. posted similar lines in 2019 but see their outlooks diverging as the expectations for Smith were significantly higher. Smith was drafted as the eventual replacement for veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph and he competed admirably. Smith caught three fewer passes for 56 fewer yards. Not too shabby for a first year.

The problem lies in Smith's long-term outlook. Less than two months after drafting Smith, the Vikings signed Rudolph to an extension, keeping him with the team through 2023. It's unlikely that he sees the end of that contract but it does put him in Minnesota for at least another year. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are also in Minnesota until 2023 and unlike Rudolph, they could actually stay for the length of their contracts.

No tight end is going to deal with more competition for targets over the next two years than Smith.


5. Kaden Smith, New York Giants, 176th

31 receptions, 268 yards, 3 TD
From here on out, we're just looking at deep dynasty stashes and waiver wire fodder. Kaden Smith backed up Evan Engram, starting six games in 2019. He scored in half of his starts but doesn't figure to play a role in the Giants' offense unless Engram misses time.


6. Foster Moreau, Las Vegas Raiders, 137th

21 receptions, 174 yards, 5 TD
The Raiders' tight end to own was undoubtedly Darren Waller and should be Waller for years to come. However, the 27-year old breakout is rare and it would surprise no one if Waller ends up as a one-hit-wonder.

That makes Moreau worth keeping an eye on as the second tight end in line for Derek Carr's check-downs. Unless that happens though, Moreau will just be a touchdown vulture living in Waller's shadow.

Drew Sample (CIN), Josh Oliver (JAX), Jace Sternberger (GB)