As the NFL has changed over the past 20 years to a passing league, so too have the tight ends. The AFC West has been the gold standard for receiving at the position with Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and the all-time leader in receiving touchdowns for tight ends, Antonio Gates. Tight ends are still very much used as extra blockers as well, but the guys getting paid, are the guys catching touchdowns.
While evaluating this division, I weighted pass-catching as the highest valued skill but rated these players based on their full skill-set. I also graded these teams based on the production expected out of each team’s top-two projected players at the position. The Chargers have some talent at the position, but is it enough to claim the best in the West?
Chargers Position Groups Vs. AFC West: Volume 6 – Tight End
4. Oakland Raiders
Right now the leading man at the position for the Raiders is Darren Waller. You might be wondering who that is, and you are not alone. Since being drafted as a wide receiver by the Ravens in the 6th-round in 2015, the young player has been an enigma. After being suspended twice at Georgia Tech, he has matched that in the league, missing 20 games due to suspensions of substance-abuse. He had six catches in four games for the Silver and Black last season, but the coaching staff has raved about his speed and receiving abilities all off-season. He has rare speed and route-running for the position, but he is going to have to stay out of trouble to produce at a high level.
The rest of the tight ends are anything but flashy, but the man likely to be the second-string tight end is Luke Willson. The Raiders brought Willson in as a free-agent after his least productive season as a pro with the Lions. While being an average blocker, Willson is less than that as a receiver which hurts the Raiders on this list. Overall, Willson is what he is, and average back-up.
Maybe 2018 3rd-round pick Foster Moreau will be the answer, but it’s too soon to tell. As of now, the Raiders have major question marks at the position
3. Denver Broncos
This unit should get a boost in production because of the addition of Joe Flacco. The Broncos even got their new quarterback a present in the draft taking Iowa tight end Noah Fant 20th overall. We haven’t seen Fant in the pros yet, but I loved what I saw from him in college. Fant was arguably the best receiving tight end in college football the last two years with 69 catches 1,013 yards and 18 touchdowns. He can beat you with speed, he can out-jump you, he can beat you with route-running. His incredible receiving skills far outweigh his average blocking ability and translates perfectly to today’s NFL.
The Bronco’s “starting” tight end will more than likely Jeff Heuerman. The team re-signed the four-year veteran to a 2-year $8 million deal and he’s coming off his best season as a pro. Heuerman caught 31 passes last season more than he had his first two years combined. He is best known for his blocking ability and blue-collar style of play and is overall a solid pro.
I believe that Noah Fant should lead this team in production, even if he doesn’t technically start to begin the season. Rookie tight ends tend to struggle, but if Noah Fant can live up to the hype, they could easily pass the Chargers on this list.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
Hunter Henry leads the way for the Chargers after missing all of the 2018 regular seasons with a torn ACL. The former 2nd-round pick has yet to play a 16-game season but has been prolific when on the field. Through Week 14, 2017, Henry was the highest-graded tight end on Pro Football Focus (88.5) ahead of Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. He has ridiculously soft hands, runs great after the catch and has been productive in the red zone. The former Razorback is very well-rounded showing physicality in the running game as well.
The depth chart for the Bolts has a steep drop off at the position between Henry and his back-up Virgil Green. The ex-Bronco is known best for his ability to move people in the running game but has been lacking as a receiver. After losing Henry, Green struggled to make an impact managing only 19 receptions, while dropping three balls.
The Chargers are extremely thin at the position and will struggle if Henry can’t stay on the field. If he can stay healthy, he should put up monster numbers in 2019.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City is another team that isn’t very deep at the position but are holding strong at the top of this list due to the excellence of one player. Travis Kelce seems to have taken the torch from Gronkowski as the best tight end in the game. Three-straight 1,000-yard seasons, and a ridiculous 103 catches and 10 touchdowns last season speaks for itself. He’s a constant mismatch against basically every play he lines up with his size and speed. Kelce is ultra-talented and is still only 29-years old, so I don’t think he’s slowing down anytime soon.
The backup job seems to be between Neal Sterling and Blake Bell. Neither of these guys has been able to latch on to a team and get consistent playing time. In 8 combined seasons, the two have amassed just 54 catches and zero scores. This job seems pretty wide open heading into training camp.
Some have even suggested that undrafted free agent quarterback John Lovett could be an option. Lovett played some tight end in college and a guy who Andy Reid could use many different ways but he’s very raw.
For the most part, these teams are only as strong as their best player because solid depth is lacking. Having a player like Travis Kelce gets you to the top of this list but an injury to any of the top guys would be devastating. This season we will see if Henry can finally stay healthy, whether Kelce can continue his dominance and if Fant can be the next big thing. One thing we know is that these guys are all heavily involved in their offenses and we should be in for some fireworks from the tight ends in this division.