NFL Draft: The unsolved mystery around the first round tight end

Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (87). Mandatory Credit: Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY Sports
Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (87). Mandatory Credit: Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY Sports /

It is no secret that the NFL Draft is filled with an abundance of uncertainty every year. The tight end has been a polarizing position when it comes to first round talent.

Elite prospects are few and far between for a position that seems to be becoming more antiquated by the year. Big-bodied, athletic freaks are all the rave at tight end–Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Mark Andrews—to name a few.

However, not one of these players was selected in the first round of their respective drafts. In more recent years, Kyle Pitts, Noah Fant, and T.J. Hockenson are a few examples of players that teams decided to roll the dice on in round one.

However, is selecting a tight end in the first round of the NFL Draft actually a good decision?

It is a simple question, with a fairly complex answer, and there always seems to be one guy each year that makes teams think long and hard about it. As for the 2023 NFL Draft, Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer will once again have general managers and scouts begging the question, “Are 1st-Round tight ends worth the risk?”.

Standing 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, at first glance Michael Mayer fits the profile that NFL teams seek out of their tight end. He finished his Junior season with over 800 yards receiving and 9 touchdowns on a less-than-stellar Notre Dame offense.

He has compiled a statistical college career at Notre Dame that mirrors that of Tyler Eifert, which is incredibly impressive, and holds the school records for yards, catches, and touchdowns for Tight Ends. He appears ready for the NFL, but is he worthy of a first round selection in the NFL Draft?

The following players are first round tight end selections from previous NFl Drafts within the last fifteen seasons:

  • Kyle Pitts, Falcons (2021)
  • T.J. Hockenson, Lions (2019)
  • Noah Fant, Broncos (2019)
  • Hayden Hurst, Ravens (2018)
  • O.J. Howard, Buccaneers (2017)
  • Evan Engram, Giants (2017)
  • David Njoku, Browns (2017)
  • Eric Ebron, Lions (2014)
  • Tyler Eifert, Bengals (2013)
  • Jermaine Gresham, Bengals (2010)

While this list provides evidence that talent can be had in the first round at the tight end position, it is fair to say most of these names are subpar relative to cost. At a dying position, is it really their fault?

That is an entirely different question, but fair to ask considering the utilization of tight ends in the modern game. Jermaine Gresham had a nine-year NFL career, split between the Bengals and Cardinals. He set a Bengals record for catches by a rookie tight end with 52 but was replaced by Tyler Eifert after just three seasons.

Speaking of Eifert, he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and showed much promise after a nice rookie campaign. Injuries, however, have been the story of his career, as he has started an average of just five games per year in his entire eight-year career.

Eric Ebron was named to a single Pro Bowl in his career as well but bounced around between Detroit, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh before finally calling it a career at age 28. David Njoku impressively still remains with the Cleveland Browns six years later, and although he has lacked consistency, he has been a late bloomer and shed “bust” status within the last two years.

As a Giant fan who has personally watched almost every game that Evan Engram dawned Blue and White, I can attest to his lack of consistency and frustrating mistakes throughout his career. O.J. Howard came highly regarded out of a high-powered Alabama offense in 2017, but tallied just a few quiet seasons in Tampa before departing for Buffalo, and now Houston.

Hayden Hurst was a constant disappointment in Baltimore and has played for three teams in five years. Noah Fant played second fiddle to T.J. Hockenson throughout college, and it is fair to say that the jury is still out on both players. However, neither team that drafted them decided to keep them around after being drafted just three short years ago.

Lastly, Kyle Pitts who was the Fantasy Football Bust of 2022, Pitts has underwhelmed in every way. It is fair to blame Arthur Smith for his utilization of Pitt—What in the world is an athletic animal like Pitts doing as a blocker at the line of scrimmage? —but Pitts has been deeply disappointing nonetheless.

When you think of the best tight ends in the NFL, a select few names come to mind. Kelce, Andrews, Kittle, and arguably Goedert, are among the elite status. Outside of them, the NFL has a cesspool of mediocrity at a position that most teams do not place a lot of value on in 2022.

It is unfair to write off Michael Mayer, but it is certainly fair to say that he has the deck stacked against him. Value can be had much later in NFL Drafts when selecting a tight end, simply based on looking at a sample of the last fifteen drafts.

I believe the answer to our question that was begged earlier, “Are 1st-Round Tight Ends worth the risk?”, might not be as complex as we previously thought. In fact, the answer to that question could be staring us right in the face. The proof is in the pudding.