Every week until the season begins, I’ll be going through each position group in the NFC South, ranking them by team from fourth to first. Today we jump into the tight end position, where the Bucs have arguably the deepest room in the NFL and the Falcons could also be in the Top 5. As for the once tight end-dominant Saints, 2021 will mark a year of change at an inexperienced position on their roster.
Tight End Rankings: Bucs Are The Cream Of The Crop
4. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have traditionally had one of the better and deeper tight end rooms in the NFL, but that’s going to change in 2021. I was one of Trautman’s biggest fans coming out of the draft a year ago, so the upside is there for him to have a solid season in New Orleans. He’s a talented route runner and good hands-catcher, but Trautman is just an average athlete.
After the inexperienced second-year player, the Saints are a wasteland at tight end. Vannett has been a poor backup for years at the position, and Griffin has three career catches – none last season. Wolf and Soehner have never played an offensive snap. The Saints one saving grace is that Taysom Hill has occasionally stepped in at tight end, although it remains to be seen if that will happen this season as he’s trying to be the starting QB.
3. Carolina Panthers
It’s an odd tight end room in Carolina, but one that has some real potential. Arnold caught 31 passes for 438 yards and four touchdowns in a mini-breakout season in Arizona last year. He’s a pure pass-catching tight end that does a lot of his work flexed, but he should be the starter in Carolina.
Tremble was a terrific blocker in college, and will try to fulfill that same role as a smaller tight end in the NFL. The Notre Dame product has untapped athleticism and upside as a receiver, but he’ll be a project in the passing game. Thomas is the most experienced of the trio, but has been a major disappointment in three seasons with the Panthers.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Quietly, the Falcons have put together a tight end room with the potential to be one of the best in the NFL. Hurst actually led all NFC South tight ends in catches (56) last season, but still finished well behind Rob Gronkowski in yards despite 11 more grabs than the all-time great. Hurst is a tough, sure-handed pass catcher who will be a good No. 2 for Atlanta. But he’s not athletic or dynamic enough in his skill set to ever live up to his first round pedigree.
I’m guessing the same won’t be said for Pitts. The best tight end prospect I have ever scouted, Pitts should receive ample opportunity in Atlanta’s offense, even as a rookie. The departure of Julio Jones and absence of a quality No. 3 wide receiver almost ensures that the Falcons will be one of the heaviest 12 personnel teams in the NFL this season. Pitts’ ability to flex out as a wide receiver will give new head coach Arthur Smith the ability to be creative in his 12 personnel packages. Offensive Rookie of the Year shouldn’t be out of the question for Pitts.
The Falcons’ depth isn’t bad, either. Smith is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and a perfect No. 3 tight end. He’s also a terrific leader and veteran presence in the locker room. Graham has flashed a little bit and provides value on special teams. It’s a strong group that should be among the most productive and versatile in the NFL.
1. Tampa Bay Bucs
The Bucs have the deepest tight end room in the NFL, which almost seems like overkill when you look at their wide receiver room. What Gronkowski did last season coming out of retirement didn’t get enough love, as his steady production paled in comparison to his performance on tape. Gronkowski was able to handle edge defenders in pass protection and as a run blocker, while also leading the league in deep catches from the tight end position. He’s the perfect fit for Bruce Arians’ offense.
In the passing game, Howard is, too. Staying healthy has been an adventure for the former first-round pick, but when Howard has been on the field, he’s been highly productive under Arians. The fifth-year tight end is at his best in the vertical passing game, where he can stretch the field and use his size to make plays on the ball in the air.
Howard is differently stylistically from Brate, who has also found his footing in this offense and developed an impressive chemistry with Tom Brady. The forgotten man during the regular season, Brate had 14 catches on 19 targets for 175 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs. nearly eclipsing his regular season totals in just four games. The Bucs have adapted his contract several times to keep him around. That speaks to Brate’s value, on and off the field.
Add in Hudson’s mismatch ability as a receiver, and the Bucs tight end group will rival anyone’s. The only question is how much production they can achieve with three of the best wide receivers in the league on the same team. With a list like that it’s no wonder the team has the best odds to win the division.