A Totally Biased Feature: Which NFL Tight End Reigns Supreme?

The tight end is perhaps one of the fastest changing, and hard to predict positions of the modern day NFL. Many great men have lined up to crack down on an opposing lineman, or fool a linebacker on his way to paydirt. From the old greats like John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, and of course, Mike Ditka, to the superstars still hanging around like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, the position has had its fair share of studs.

The 2011 season has been on the downside of tight end production. There’s a handful of them making plays every week, but there are even more sinking to the bottom of the barrel, withering away into obscurity. Consider this: for how many teams could you name their number one wideout? An experienced NFL fan would be somewhere between 25-32, while the casual fan would still be right around 15-20. But how about every teams starting tight end? I feel as if I am near the top when it comes to knowledge of the NFL, from coaches, to teams, to specific players, however, even this question stumps me. I had to look up the starting end for a handful of teams including the Cardinals [Jeff King], the Rams [Lance Kendricks], the Chiefs [Leonard Pope], and plenty of others.

The group that we here at Totally Biased are more concerned with, is the one with the playmakers. Tony Gonzalez has reigned supreme for the last ten years, but his seat on the throne is quickly diminishing. As Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, and Heath Miller begin to age, we quickly start to search out worthy replacements for the heroes of yesterday. Young studs like Jermichael Finley, Dustin Keller, and Aaron Hernandez are out for the crown.

However, there are two tight ends, who above all else, have incredible hands, impeccable red zone ability, and aren’t afraid to get a little dirty in the trenches. Let’s take a deeper look at the leagues best.

Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski

NFL Crossbar height: 10' above ground...

Before I continue, I beg you to please watch this video before continuing. The true story of what determination and dedication can do for you. Tear jerker, without a doubt. If you don’t have respect for the man, you literally have no soul. None.

The Jimmy Graham Story

Back to the topic. Jimmy Graham is not only the most athletic tight end in the NFL, but he also does it with very little experience under his belt. For those of you who might not have known, Graham was a basketball player first, and a football player, well, dead last. He went three years in a row, playing for the Miami Hurricanes basketball squad, before finally being convinced to give football a chance when he returned to Miami to take graduate classes.

His basketball stats are good, but nothing stand-out, and his one season on football at The U brings about the same thoughts. He sputtered in mediocrity, finishing the season with 17 receptions, 213 yards, but also found the end zone five times. The Saints took a flyer on him in the 2010 NFL Draft, selecting Graham in the 3rd round, with the 95th overall selection. For his rookie season, Graham was stuck behind former Hurricane Jeremy Shockey, and didn’t get in too often during the first half of the season. However, Graham came into his own towards the end of the season, and became a red zone favorite of Drew Brees, notching four of his eleven receptions for TD’s over the last three games.

As the 2011 season kicked off, Graham’s name was often thrown out as a player to watch, as his strides made during the offseason would pay extreme dividends, especially in the pass happy offense that head coach Sean Payton loves to run. The Saint’s fans, and general public, weren’t let down at all, as Graham has completely exploded this season.

Although it does nothing for the argument of being a better tight end overall, I think it goes without saying that with Graham having merely one college season, and the same number of full NFL seasons under his belt, it is incredible how much better he has gotten in such a small time frame.

Do you REALLY have to ask if he came down with it?!

Rob Gronkowski played his college ball at Arizona, and did it in style. When he left after the 2009 season, he held a plethora of records, including the career milestones of most receptions, yards, and touchdowns for any Arizona Wildcat alum. He was promptly scooped up in the 2nd round of the 2010 Draft, with the 42nd overall pick by the New England Patriots. I can almost guarantee you that Pats fans worldwide boo’ed this pick, and now regret it, as they so often do when Belichick makes a bold, yet calculated move.

Despite standing at 6′ 6”, and tipping the scales at 265, it didn’t take long for Gronk to slide right into the offense in Foxborough. He finished his rookie year with 10 TD’s, on only 42 catches. Gronk and Hernandez quickly became the best TE duo in the NFL, and it was totally up in the air who would be breaking out in 2011.

We quickly got our answer, when Gronk broke out for five scores in the first three games of the season. He’s had four multi score games, and three games with over 100 yards. Besides being Tom Brady’s go-to-guy, Gronkowski broke Mike Ditka’s record for fewest games to reach 20 TD’s, doing it in 26. He continues to light up the scoreboard week after week, and if I had to put 100 dollars on a specific player scoring a touchdown on any given Sunday, I’d put it on him. That says a lot.

The only question that remains, is who is truly better? I figured I would stick to my status quo, which essentially is bringing forth only the best statistics, which I found after a little research. Now, it’s on to the tale of the tape.

The Receiving Essentials
The numbers that are most recited during a game, but aren’t the MOST important. Though, a great criteria for simple comparison

Former BBall player ... current beast.

Jimmy Graham: 957 [1st among TE’s, 4th overall]
Rob Gronkowski: 864 [2nd among TE’s, 8th overall]

Jimmy Graham: 67 [1st among TE’s, 2nd overall]
Rob Gronkowski:  60 [2nd among TE’s, 6th overall]

Jimmy Graham: 8 [2nd among TE’s, T-4th overall]
Rob Gronkowski:  11 [1st among TE’s, 2nd overall]

This leaves no doubt that these two are the best in the game. Gronk is a red-zone beast, but Graham consistently reels in big catches with his enormous frame, and edges Gronk ever so slightly. However, in a league built around offensive output, Gronk gets major points for his ability to find the end zone in what seems like every single week. As I stated, these numbers are fantastic for ending petty arguments, where the participants are clearly not on the same level. For example, if a diehard Packers fan was touting Jermichael Finley as the leagues best tight end, his numbers would quickly get squashed when brought through this ringer

Although, when two competitors find themselves at the 1’s and 2’s in every category, the need for some more separation is clear. Some deeper stats are necessary to try and pry apart the inevitable tie. Let’s see what I uncovered

The Bare Bones
Some of the more obscure stats, but still often on the mind of the NFL’s faithful followers

In some circles, taking a pic with an adult film star is worth bonus points. This is that kinda circle.

Reception Percentage
Jimmy Graham: 65.68% [67 catches, 102 targets]
Rob Gronkowski:  82.19% [60 catches, 73 targets]

1st Downs
Jimmy Graham: 51 [1st among TE’s, 2nd overall]
Rob Gronkowski:  47 [2nd among TE’s, 5th overall]

Yards After Catch… Per Catch
Jimmy Graham: 4.98 YAC/PC
Rob Gronkowski: 7.71 YAC/PC

Reception percentage is one of my favorite NFL stats, although it relies a little heavily on the quarterback’s accuracy, and timing, as well as the tight end. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that Gronk’s is absurdly high, and although critics will point to his QB being a master of accuracy, Tom Brady, it should be noted that Brees has a completion percentage a whopping 5 points higher than Brady [70.2 > 65.8]. Shut. Down.

Catches over 20 yards is another great stat, which Graham takes over Gronk by a few. Combined with YAC/PC, you can figure out that Gronk’s receptions over 20 yards have a far greater chance of him running for the extra yardage, and not actually covering all that ground before TFB fired one his way. Graham also skates by with a mere four point edge when it comes to first downs. Moving the chains is one of the most important factors in today’s game, which allows defenses extra time to rest on the sidelines.

Before we move on to the really deep stuff, it should be noted that both players have yet to fumble, both have four dropped passes, and both have a season long reception between 50 and 60 yards. Clearly, more digging is necessary.

Stats That Are Probably Buried In An Ancient Crypt Somewhere
Only the bravest of statisticians dare to venture into the dark and doom filled tunnel that contains these nuggets of info… Let me shed some light

We can gather some real good info here. First off, the Ravens should most likely stop sending Ed Dickson deep, since he has only one reception when being targeted a good deal downfield. Graham has a full 208 yards on passes traveling more than 20, which destroys Gronkowski’s 26 in the same category. I love this stat, because home run throws are becoming more and more essential to beating tough defenses, and Graham does it better than anyone else. This table is as recent as the 10th, and it should be noted Gronk had a massive gain against the Chiefs on MNF, which would add to his numbers, although they still wouldn’t add up to JG.

Lining Up In The Slot

Although we typically imagine the tight ends lining up right next to their offensive lineman, that is not always the case. Many tight ends will often line up in the slot, creating coverage problems for defenses, especially those in a 4-3, since the LB’s are already limited. Graham has more targets, more receptions, and more yards [much more], than Gronkowski when lining up from the slot, although he sees a smidge less time in the position when the ball is snapped [44.3% < 46.8%]. Gronk, unsurprisingly, has more TD’s from the spot, which is expected.

Pass Blocking Effeciency

The man isn't afraid to get his hands dirty in the trenches

It is unbelievably hard to find concrete blocking statistics for tight ends, but there is a shimmer of light. I was able to find a list of the Top 10 for pass blocking, and a bottom 5. Neither player is on the list, but that doesn’t mean that all is lost. The 10th best player, Brandon Pettigrew of Detroit, had a PBE [Pass Blocking Efficiency] of 96.7, as he allowed a hit on the gunslinger, and a hurry, on 46 pass blocking snaps.

The 27th ranked tight end, David Johnson of Pittsburgh, had a PBE of 89.8, allowing three hurries in 22 snaps. This means that both Gronk and Graham are in between 90-96 percent when it comes to blocking, and finish roughly between 11th and 26th.

It should be noted, it is widely regarded that Gronk remains a better blocker, and he excels on running plays. Graham is still working on that aspect of his game, since it is still so new to him, but Sean Payton says he is “trying to get him in there” more often, as the Saints feature a blocking TE also, John Gilmore [Tied for 1st in the NFL for PBE, allowing no hurries, no sacks, and no hits in 31 snaps].

In Conclusion…

In what will inevitably go down as one of the hardest decisions to make, I must first say this. Both of these players are very different. While Gronk remains a better blocker, it is because he HAS to be, as the Patriots run the ball much more often than the Saints do. Graham is a much more complete receiver, and he has to be, since Drew Brees averages 38 throws a game. Both of these studs suit their respective teams perfectly.

Although touchdowns are the driving force of the NFL, I think a lot has to be said for a player who can stretch the field at the coaches whim. Graham flies down the field with great speed for a man that big, but lacks the touchdowns, due to the mass number of weapons on the Saints staff. Gronk makes LB’s look foolish in the red-zone on a regular basis, with a lot of that accredited to the lack of red-zone targets besides himself and Wes Welker.

A completely dominating duo, don't expect the action to slow down anytime soon with these two

All in all, I would take Graham. I think if he’s this good in his second year, he will be scary good as his career progresses. Although the same could be said for Gronk, I think his ceiling is a tad lower than that of Grahams. If the Saints didn’t have so many weapons, I shudder at what Graham’s numbers could be. One thing is for certain. If you can find a linebacker to consistently cover these guys, I’d like to meet him. Because I highly doubt one exists.

8 Responses to “A Totally Biased Feature: Which NFL Tight End Reigns Supreme?”
  1. klownboy says:

    I’d personally take Gronky. Don’t count out Jason Witten…

    • Travis Rand says:

      I’ve actually met Witten a few times, and the guy is a monster. Incredibly built. Witten is still a factor in the Tight End game for sure. It’s interesting how ever changing the position is. Tight ends are starting to look worthy of taking in the first round. Something out of the ordinary a bit.

      Thanks for the comment my man!

      • Justin Yattaw says:

        I agree with klownboy. I also think that Gronk is the better tight end because he would fit in more completely into any scheme across the league. Aaron Hernandez or Graham (who’s basically Hernandez on Gamma radiation) wouldn’t fit ino as many schemes as Gronk because they aren’t as highly efficient overall at the position. Gronk can block just as well as he can catch, and the asshole’s got hands of gold, so that says something.

        You aren’t foolin anyone with this one, Travie…

  2. Travis Rand says:

    I disagree. Gronkowski WOULDN’T fit into most schemes, because you can look at evidence as to how many tight ends out there that are like him. There’s not many at all. Gates doesn’t block for his team, Manu does. Shiancoe didn’t block, Kleinsasser did.

    I would say 20-25 teams would take the guy who can stretch the field, and has the athleticism of Graham, over someone like Gronkowski. And like the facts show, they both fall in the 11th-25th scale in terms of blocking, so you really have no evidence to say he’s a better blocker than Graham is.

  3. Travis Rand says:

    Trav…this might be the best article you have written on here….very insightful…..awesome research!

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