What is the greatest tight end draft class of all time? In terms of production it's hard to argue with the 2003 class. If you include undrafted free agent and future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, that class produced two likely Hall of Fame tight ends in Gates and Jason Witten. That class also included Dallas Clark, L.J. Smith, Visanthe Shiancoe and Donald Lee. The 2003 group produced 19 Pro Bowl berths and six All Pros. No other NFL tight end class comes close in terms of receiving yardage and Pro Bowl awards. The 2003 class is a very good nomination for the best tight end class of all time.
Another nominee might include the 2010 class, which featured Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jermaine Gresham, Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta and Aaron Hernandez. This group has produced 10 Pro Bowl berths and three All Pros, and more awards are likely to come. Gronkowski, when healthy, is in the conversation for the greatest tight end of all time. Jimmy Graham, if he can string together a few more good years, might well find himself inducted into the Hall of Fame.
It's too early to know for sure, but the 2013 class might eventually work its way into the conversation, with Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed leading the way. This class already has amassed four Pro Bowl berths and one All Pro.
1978 saw a deep and talented tight end class headlined by Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, Todd Christiansen and the Jets' own Mickey Shuler. The 1978 class produced 10 Pro Bowl nods and three All Pros.
The final nominee in this category goes all the way back to 1963, a class headlined by two Hall of Famers in John Mackey and Jackie Smith. The class of 1963 produced 10 Pro Bowl berths and three All Pros.
Those are five good candidates for best tight end class of all time. 2003 was particularly amazing. But the best tight end draft class of all time might not be any of these great classes. There is a distinct possibility that when we look back at the 2017 tight end class in fifteen years or so this will be the clear choice for greatest tight end class ever.
As great as the classes we discussed here have been, none of them can hold a candle to the off the charts raw athleticism of the class of 2017. A guy like Bucky Hodges, at 257 pounds, runs an insane 4.57 40 yard dash, long jumps 11+ feet, and high jumps 39 inches. The 40 yard time would be acceptable for a receiver 50 pounds lighter, and the jumping numbers would be top notch for any wide receiver class. Evan Engram runs in the low 4.4s, good for any wide receiver. George Kittle, at 247 pounds, runs a 4.52 40 and long jumps 11 feet, good numbers for a receiver 40 pounds lighter. And then there's O.J. Howard, the most athletic of any of the tight ends, who ran a 4.51 forty and at 6' 5" and 251 pounds ran the shuttles at the NFL Combine in times many wide receivers can't match. And those are just some of this incredibly deep tight end class. David Njoku, Adam Shaheen, Jake Butt, Gerald Everett and Jordan Leggett all might have headlined many other tight end classes. With this class they're one more high end talent in a loaded group. Even guys like Jeremy Sprinkle and Jacob Hollister have the potential to develop into high end options at tight end.
This class features an insane 17 tight ends who have run sub 4.7 in the forty. In most classes you might get five or less. In some classes you're lucky to find two or three. As the draft plays out it would not be surprising to see eight or nine tight ends drafted in the first three rounds. As their careers develop at least eight to ten of these tight ends have the ability to develop into top end, Pro Bowl level tight ends. It would not be surprising to see as many as a dozen eventually develop into starters. At least four or five have Hall of Fame potential.
Now, of course, there is a vast difference between potential and actuality. There will no doubt be multiple busts among the 2017 tight end class. There always are. How many end up not living up to their potential will determine whether this class eventually goes down as just another good tight end class or one of the best, if not the best, of all time. However, I can safely say that I have not personally ever seen a more athletically gifted class with a higher collective ceiling.
In fifteen years we may all look back on this class of tight ends and marvel. I only hope the Jets get in on the party. There is potential here to double dip and instantly transform the worst tight end group in the NFL to potentially the best a few years down the road. While it's never a good idea to go into the draft thinking you MUST get particular positions or players at all costs, regardless of how the draft board falls, I would be a bit disappointed if the Jets don't come away with one of the top eight to ten tight end prospects. And if they managed to snag two, assuming they didn't pass up on clearly superior talent elsewhere in the process, I would be elated. A two tight end offense, with Enunwa giving the Jets a third big physical mismatch at receiver, with the rumored power running game the Jets are planning on implementing, would be an interesting development for a team that in recent years has not appeared to acknowledge that tight ends do in fact exist and can be important pieces in the modern passing game.