In recent weeks, the idea that the Cowboys might invest heavily in the tight end position has gained steam. Jerry Jones talked up the importance of having players like Travis Kelce or George Kittle while the team met with a long list of tight ends at the combine. Then, word emerged that Dallas was looking to make a big move, with some hinting the target was a difference making tight end.
Not too long after that, a handful of mock drafts from the top draft experts around the country suddenly had the Cowboys selecting a tight end with their first-round pick, with Utah’s Dalton Kincaid being the most common selection. The Cowboys’ subsequent decision to franchise tag Tony Pollard - and not Dalton Schultz, who appears set to leave the team via free agency - only adds fuel to the fire. And the thought of investing such premium resources to the position has provoked a strong, negative reaction from much of the fan base.
Well, it shouldn’t. Obviously, there are a lot of variables that will factor into evaluating whether a draft pick was the right move or not, and it’s impossible to know until the Cowboys are actually on the clock who the best player available actually is. But this notion that drafting a tight end in the first round would be some huge error of positional value is largely misplaced. In fact, tight ends have never been more valuable than right now.
The tight end position is in a very weird spot right now. There are only a handful of tight ends that can truly be considered elite - Kelce and Kittle for sure, while arguments could be made for Darren Waller, Mark Andrews, and Dallas Goedert - and yet these elite players that are focal points of really productive offenses are not paid well. Waller has the highest annual average value (AAV) at $17 million, and that ranks 51st among all offensive players. Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett is 20th among receivers in AAV with $17.25 million, for context. Waller has dealt with injuries each of the last two years, but he was producing like a top receiver before then; the same can be confidently said for both Kelce and Kittle, both of whom finished among the top two receivers on their respective teams every year going back to 2018.
The rub, though, is that there are so few tight ends that play at that level. Since 2018, there are 11 tight ends who have been drafted in the first two rounds. Just two of them have been named to a Pro Bowl or All Pro team; one of them (T.J. Hockenson) was traded during the season this year after the Lions decided they didn’t want to commit to him long term, while the other (Kyle Pitts) is struggling to live up to his hype as a generational player and is the subject of trade rumors. By contrast, Kelce was selected in the third round, Kittle in the fifth, and Waller in the sixth.
The takeaway many have from this is that tight ends aren't valuable and can be found anywhere in the draft. The takeaway everyone should have is that NFL teams haven’t figured out how to scout the position in the modern day yet. If that seems like an outrageous suggestion, just consider how often teams still swing and miss on quarterbacks, or how teams (sans Cowboys) are just now starting to realize they shouldn’t spend premium resources on running backs. The art of scouting is constantly evolving, and it has yet to evolve enough when it comes to tight ends.
Consider the nature of the position. For a very long time, tight ends absolutely had to be able to block, and any ability as a pass catcher was just icing on the cake. Players like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham revolutionized the position with their elite receiving skills, and the trio of Kelce, Kittle, and Waller are the latest iteration of that.
The league has become more pass happy than ever, and NFL defenses have responded to that with the widespread adoption of the two-deep safety scheme that Vic Fangio has always used, in an attempt to limit explosive plays through the air. That only ratchets up the value of a tight end, as it makes a big difference to have a great pass catcher that operates in the intermediate areas of a defense like tight ends do. Kelce just had a career year doing exactly this, with nearly 70% of his targets coming on throws under 10 yards.
Tight ends are also valuable because of their legitimate threat as a blocker. The chip-and-release function has resulted in plenty of wide open catches for all kinds of tight ends, and it’s increasingly common to see tight ends fake a block and go out for an easy catch on the goal line. Much like how a defense respects the run fake regardless of whether the running game is working, defenses have to respect the threat of a tight end working as an extra blocker even if they’re not particularly good at blocking. The same can’t be said for receivers no matter how good they are at blocking.
What this means for the position long term is that teams need to shift their priorities when scouting tight ends. Pass catching skill is the priority now, while blocking ability should be weighed much less. Obviously this can change based on each offense’s scheme, but consider last year’s rookie Chig Okonkwo. He was an electric pass-catching tight end in college, but lacked the size and blocking ability scouts traditionally look for at the position. Okonkwo fell to the final pick of the fourth round, but as a rookie he led all tight ends in both yards per route run and yards after the catch per reception. And he did all that in a Titans offense that was so bad they fired their offensive coordinator after the season.
The tight end has become an incredibly valuable position in today’s pass happy NFL, but scouts are still shifting their process to view tight ends as pass catchers first and foremost. That could change this year, as the upcoming rookie class is littered with athletic receivers at the tight end position. Kincaid is just one of the best, but Michael Mayer, Luke Musgrave, Sam LaPorta, Will Mallory, and more are primed to completely reshape the way NFL teams view the position.
If the Cowboys do indeed draft a tight end early, it should be viewed first and foremost as a more serious attempt at upgrading their pass-catching weapons than anything the team did a year ago. That is objectively a good thing, and especially so in a draft that’s heavy on talented tight ends but not so deep at the wide receiver position. Plus, the Cowboys may actually be ahead of the curve for once when it comes to league trends. That should be celebrated, too.