There’s been a true changing of the guard in the NFL at the tight end position over the last few years. Antonio Gates retired, Rob Gronkowski retired then unretired and other players are getting long in the tooth, while guys like George Kittle, Mark Andrews and Darren Waller have emerged as the next great NFL tight ends.
That's what makes the tight end position so unpredictable. It's notoriously one of the hardest transitions from college football to the pros. That's why Kittle, a fifth-round pick, Andrews, a third-rounder and Waller, a sixth-round selection, have all become top-10 tight ends, and first-rounders such as O.J Howard, David Njoku and T.J. Hockenson have struggled early in their careers.
But who are the best tight ends in 2020? We've ranked the top 20 heading into the season.
20. O.J. Howard, Buccaneers
As a rookie, Howard looked like a star in the making. However, he has never fully gotten back on track since suffering a foot injury midway through the 2018 season. Howard had some nice moments in 2019 but he still failed to live up to expectations.
That being said, Howard is only 25 and has the skills to be one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL. He’s also competing with the best wide-receiver duo in the NFL — and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski — for targets.
With Tom Brady joining the Bucs, Howard could still be featured in the passing game, but he's most likely going to take a backseat to Gronk.
19. David Njoku, Browns
After injuries kept him out for almost the entire 2019 season, it’s hard to project what Njoku is going to do in 2020. While he was on the sidelines, plenty of other tight ends got an opportunity to shine and passed him in the pecking order.
That being said, we have to remember that Njoku will be just 24 at the start of the 2020 campaign.
He was also a first-round pick just a few years ago. Most importantly, Njoku was a monster at times in 2018, hauling in 56 passes of 639 yards. If Njoku ever reaches his sky-high potential, he could really rise up this list.
18. Jack Doyle, Colts
Tight ends don't get much more reliable than Doyle. After Andrew Luck retired, there was no doubt that Doyle's production would dip, but that doesn't mean he's not a quality tight end.
With Philip Rivers in town, Doyle could see a spike in opportunities almost instantly. He's not as good as Hunter Henry, sure, but he can still be a trusted target for Rivers in Indy.
17. T.J. Hockenson, Lions
The No. 8 in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hockenson burst onto the scene by tallying 131 receiving yards and a touchdown in his first career game. But then Hockenson suffered some injuries and hit the rookie wall.
Don't count out Hock yet, though. The talented tight end could make a massive leap in his sophomore season to add to an underrated passing attack in Detroit.
Hockenson might be the biggest sleeper on this list.
16. Eric Ebron, Steelers
Ebron has been tough to figure out. He had an amazing season in 2018 with 750 receiving yards and 13 touchdown catches. But with Andrew Luck out of the equation, Ebron had just 375 receiving yards in 2019. Of course, he also missed a lot of time due to injury and did manage a career-high 12.1 yards per catch.
He’ll be on the move again in 2020 after signing a two-year deal with the Steelers. To some extent, he’ll be fighting with Vance McDonald for playing time. However, with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, Ebron is a good bet to have a bounce-back season if he can stay healthy.
15. Jonnu Smith, Titans
Now that he'll be the starting tight end for the Titans, Smith has a legitimate shot at being the No. 2 option in Tennessee's passing game behind rookie phenom A.J. Brown.
14. Dallas Goedert, Eagles
Goedert would surely rank higher on this list if he wasn't sharing the field with Zach Ertz, one of the best tight ends in the league.
Goedert would probably be the No. 1 tight end on the depth chart of about 30 teams in the league, but the Eagles aren't one of them. Still, Goedert is a much-needed target on the Eagles offense that lacks talent at the wide receiver position.
Despite playing second fiddle to Ertz, Goedert still racked up more than 600 yards receiving in his second season in Philly. If — and when — Ertz leaves the Eagles, Goedert could soar up this list.
13. Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers
He's baaaaack! After a season-long retirement that included a WWE Championship, Gronk has returned to the league to join Tom Brady in Tom-pa Bay.
There's no telling which Gronk will be playing in the sweltering heat. Will it be the greatest tight end in NFL history whose physicality made him unstoppable in the passing game, or will it be the guy who looked like he was running with a pirate ship on his back?
That's what makes him so tough to rank, but we're betting on the Brady-Gronk connection to flourish.
12. Mike Gesicki, Dolphins
In his rookie year, Gesicki looked like an absolute bust. He struggled to the tune of just 202 receiving yards in Miami. But that's why you never count out a young tight end.
In his second season, Gesicki flourished with Ryan Fitzpatrick unfurling passes to him over the middle. A jump ball specialist, Gesicki tallied 570 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
It'll be interesting to see if Tua Tagovailoa will trust Gesicki like Fitzpatrick did.
11. Noah Fant, Broncos
A year ago, Fant was a first-round pick with a bright future. His pro career got off to a slow start, but he started to come on strong the second half of the season. He ended up with 562 receiving yards and three touchdowns while also being named to the All-Rookie Team. That's pretty impressive when you consider that tight ends notoriously take a long time to develop.
Fant’s 75-yard touchdown in Week 9 last season is a great example of his upside. The former Iowa star must improve his consistency if he wants to be a top-10 tight end.
10. Evan Engram, Giants
It seems like such a long time since Engram looked like a star in the making as a rookie in 2017. He tore it up that season but has struggled to stay healthy over the past two seasons. Engram has still had flashes of brilliance, although his stock has dropped considerably.
Heading into 2020, staying healthy will be the name of the game for Engram. He also needs to keep building a strong rapport with Daniel Jones. The talent is still there, but it’s not exactly a safe bet that Engram will be able to replicate his rookie season.
If Engram can stay healthy, he's easily the most-talented pass catcher on the Giants.
9. Tyler Higbee, Rams
Higbee is an interesting player to evaluate because he was a role player at best when the Rams were the most dynamic offensive team in the NFL in 2017 and 2018. But as the Rams offense slowed down a little in 2019, Higbee became a much bigger part of their passing attack, catching 40 passes for 435 yards.
To be honest, we probably should have seen it coming. The Rams are banking on it, as they gave him a four-year, $31 million extension last September.
Higbee is still developing, too, but he must continue the progress he made in 2019 if he wants to remain a top-tier tight end.
8. Jared Cook, Saints
Cook might be the tight end equivalent to a fine wine. He’s getting better with age, as his last three seasons have been some of the best of his career. Over the last two years, Cook has registered 15 touchdowns compared to 19 touchdowns in his first nine seasons.
With Drew Brees returning in 2020, there’s a good chance he and Cook will continue to connect. The veteran was also a monster after the catch last season, averaging a career-high 16.4 yards per reception.
Based on last season, Cook should have a few good years left in him.
7. Austin Hooper, Browns
Somewhat quietly, Hooper has improved every season over his first four years in the NFL. Over the last two seasons, he’s amassed over 1,400 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches. However, his contributions have gotten a little overshadowed due to playing on the same team as Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
Fortunately for Hooper, that won’t be a problem any longer after signing a four-year, $44 million deal with the Browns this offseason. If David Njoku can come back healthy, Cleveland could have one of the best tight-end tandems the NFL has seen in several years.
6. Hunter Henry, Chargers
If he could stay healthy, Henry might have a compelling case for the best tight end in football. He has all of the attributes you could want in a tight end nowadays. The only question is how will he hold up physically after a string of knee injuries.
Despite being limited to 12 games last year, Henry still managed 652 receiving yards and five touchdowns. It was more than enough for the Chargers to use the franchise tag on him. However, Henry likely won't have the same amount of opportunities in the passing game as the Chargers shift to a more run-focused team with Tyrod Taylor (or Justin Herbert) under center.
5. Darren Waller, Raiders
The funny thing about Waller is that he’s been around since 2015 but he didn't make a name for himself until 2019 when he was one of the best tight ends in the league. In his first three seasons, he had 18 total receptions, only to have 90 catches for 1,145 yards in 2019. It was a truly remarkable story.
Like Higbee, there is a chance that Waller ends up being a one-season wonder. But we think he’s more of the late-bloomer type. He’ll be 27 when the 2020 season starts and without a lot of wear and tear before last season, Waller is a great candidate to continue producing at a high level.
4. Mark Andrews, Ravens
It’s possible we’re jumping the gun on a young tight end with just two years in the league, but Andrews looks like the real deal. Even on a team that likes to rotate its tight ends and run the ball a majority of the time, Andrews still put up 852 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019.
The chances are good that Lamar Jackson will continue to have success with short and medium passes to his tight ends. That should ensure that Andrews remains an important part of the Baltimore offense.
Another big year will put Andrews in the conversation of the best tight end in the league.
3. Zach Ertz, Eagles
With three straight Pro Bowl nods and five straight seasons with at least 800 yards receiving, there’s no denying that Ertz is among the premier tight ends in the NFL. After all, he owns the tight end record for 116 receptions in a season, which he set in 2018.
Matching what he accomplished in 2018 will be nearly impossible, but Ertz was actually close last season, catching 88 passes for 916 yards. Until further notice, he’ll be a favorite target of Carson Wentz and one of the NFL’s elite tight ends.
2. Travis Kelce, Chiefs
Kelce might be the least-fun player in the NFL for opposing defenses to face. His skills as a pass-catcher are almost unfair for a player with his size and speed. He’s been a Pro Bowler in five straight seasons and gone over 1,000 yards receiving in four consecutive campaigns.
The bad news for defenses is that Kelce shows no signs of slowing down in 2020. The last two seasons have been the best of his career and the best quarterback in football throwing him the ball. Kelce is a beast and that isn’t changing anytime soon.
1. George Kittle, 49ers
It’s hard not to label Kelce as the NFL’s best tight end, but Kittle has a slight edge. For starters, Kittle is a few years younger, which matters with Kelce on the wrong side of 30. Plus, Kittle has no discernible weakness in his game and comes from a long line of great tight ends at the University of Iowa.
It took just two years for Kittle to go from fifth-round pick to a player who set the NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season. He’s already accomplished so much, and his age indicates that there’s still room for Kittle to get better, which is why he’s our pick to be the best tight end in the NFL in 2020.
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