Team of the Decade: Tight End
With the NFL Draft over and the 2019 season fading into the past it is time to take stock of the last decade of NFL action with The Touchdown’s Team of the Decade. This team will be based on a statistical analysis of the past 10 years, looking back at how each player performed overall and on a per game basis. In order to make this a true representative of the decade, only players who have played in 40 regular-season games (a quarter of the decade) will be included, with that being 40 games started for the quarterback position.
In this article we will be looking at the tight end position, which is a position that has a lot of demands, both catching passes and blocking in the run and pass games. The stats in this article will be from the regular-season only, unless specifically stated. We will be looking to select three tight ends for our Team of the Decade, so let’s get down to business.
The tight end position has been a strange one over the decade as it has been dominated by a couple of star names. However, arguably a true test of a tight ends ability is reflected in their longevity in the league, and that is where our honourable mentions focus.
Gates’ career spanned an incredible 16 years as he pulled in 955 passes for 11,841 yards and 116 touchdowns. In the last decade alone he played in 127 games, was targeted 720 times and found the end zone 57 times. The problem for Gates is that in the last decade he has not dominated anywhere, ranking outside the top 10 in most categories. He does rank sixth in touchdowns per game, which demonstrates how he remained a threat in the league for so long.
Olsen’s career has been blighted by injury in the last few years, but in general he has been an amazing reliable player. At 142 games played, only three players rank above him in the decade, which is a tremendous accomplishment. Throughout the decade Olsen has been a solid contributor, but has not shined anywhere which is why he sits as an honourable mention.
This was a tough call on the final name of the six to include in the main article. Ertz ranks fourth in targets, receptions and yards per game. However, on a per target or per reception basis his yardage numbers do not stand out from the crowd at the position. On top of that he ranks in the 20s in touchdowns per game, meaning he just slips into the honourable mentions.
George Kittle - San Francisco 49ers
Kittle just scraped into consideration for this team with 45 games played but his performances on the field are worthy of inclusion. He ranks fifth at the position in yards per reception (13.6). third in yards per game (65.4) and has a catch percentage over 70%.
The lack of time played in the decade is really the only knock on a tight end who is lethal as both a pass catcher and a blocker. In terms of Pro Football Reference’s Approximate value per game he is one of just five qualified tight ends over 0.5 and ranks fourth at the position in the last decade.
Jason Witten - Dallas Cowboys
Witten ranks third at the position in terms of games played and total yards in the decade and ranks second in targets. His ranks eight in yards per game, seventh in targets per game and fifth in receptions per game. His numbers in terms of yards per target and reception are quite low on the list, emphasising his role as a safety blanket for the Cowboys.
Touchdowns are perhaps his biggest knock, as while he ranks fifth overall, he averages just 0.31 per game, which places him joint-20th. In terms of approximate value per game he sits ninth and that is ultimately going to be the reason he finds himself on the outside looking in when it comes to our Team of the Decade
Jimmy Graham - Saints/Seahawks/Packers
Graham’s career has spanned the entire decade and has really been a career of two halves. In the first half of the decade he was a dominant threat for the Saints. He topped 1000-receiving yards twice and scored double-digits touchdowns three times in those five years. Since his move away from New Orleans his numbers have fallen off a little. After being targeted over 100 times in four straight years in New Orleans, he has never seen that many targets again.
He has topped 1000-receiving yards and scored double-digit touchdowns just once apiece since. His per game and per reception numbers have both dropped off since leaving New Orleans. He led the league in targets per game in New Orleans, but now ranks just eight for the decade. In terms of yards per reception he ranks just 16th but does still sit seventh in yards per game.
His ability to find the end zone is his saving grace, as he ranks third in touchdowns per game at 0.48. Overall, he ranks sixth in approximate value per game and with his blocking having been questioned previously, it is a tough fit to find a place for him in the Team of the Decade.
Rob Gronkowski - New England Patriots
Despite numerous injuries since entering the NFL, Gronkowski has cemented himself as one of the best to ever play the tight end position. When you watch the tape his blocking ability is as good as it gets at the position and his receiving numbers are pretty impressive as well. He topped 1000-receiving yards four times in his career, and would likely have done so more had he been healthier. He also found the end zone 10 or more times a fantastic five times in his nine years in New England.
Gronkowski leads the position in the past decade when it comes to yards per reception, yards per game, touchdowns, touchdowns per game, yards per target and approximate value per game (both overall and per game). His biggest knock is ranking 42nd in catch percentage at 65%, which is why he ranks outside the top five in receptions per game. However, when you lead the position in numerous statistical measures and provide a solid blocker in both run and pass games, it makes it hard for you to not be the starter in our Team of the Decade.
Tony Gonzalez - Atlanta Falcons
Gonzalez spent the majority of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, but spent his entire four years in this decade with the Atlanta Falcons. Despite being 34 when the decade began, Gonzalez was still an incredible performer for the Falcons, averaging over 800 receiving yards and seven touchdowns a year.
Gonzalez ranks second at the position when it comes to targets and receptions per game while placing fourth in touchdowns per game and sixth in yards per game. He also ranks 15th in catch percentage at just a shade below 70%. His biggest knock is his per reception and per target numbers, where he ranks outside the top 50, as he became more of a safety valve for Ryan in his final few seasons.
Travis Kelce - Kansas City Chiefs
Kelce has been a monster at the tight end position in the back half of the decade. In the last five years he has missed just one game while topping 1000-receiving yards in four of those five seasons. He ranks ninth in yards per reception, but second in yards per game. That is thanks to leading the position when it comes to targets and receptions per game, as well as having a catch percentage over 70%.
His blocking is perhaps his biggest knock as a traditional tight end, but he ranks so highly in the other categories that it can to some extent be forgiven. He does rank down in ninth in touchdowns per game and has only reached double-digits once in his career. However, when it comes to approximate value per game he ranks second behind only Rob Gronkowski and an impressive distance clear of third place.
Tight End Selections for The Touchdown’s Team of the Decade:
Starter: Rob Gronkowski
Backups: Travis Kelce and Tony Gonzalez
Gronkowski takes the starting spot in front of an almost equally deserving Kelce thanks to his blocking prowess. Gonzalez beats out both Kittle and Graham by a hair for the final spot but all three of them would have made a worthy third selection in this spot.
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