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OFD Investigates: Is Notre Dame Really "Tight End U"?

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Which program over the last decade has the best claim to the imaginary (but often-claimed) title of "Tight End U"?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The sheer amount of talent at the tight end position that has called South Bend home over the past decade is staggering. The torch has been passed from one future NFL player to another, with multiple high round draft picks and Mackey Award finalists. Many fans were surprised last summer when ESPN put together a ranking for which school was most deserving of "Tight End U" and the Irish didn't even crack the top ten.

ESPN awarded points for post-season awards, NFL draft picks, All-American and All-Conference selections (Notre Dame was at a disadvantage with no opportunity to gain points here) from 2000-2013, and Miami took the title. But given the surprising results, let's put together our own criteria to investigate: can Notre Dame really stake the best claim to Tight End U?

The criteria:

I love the early 2000s more than anyone else I know - the times of Will2K and Ja Rule, the best seasons of 24, and the humble beginnings of the Fast and the Furious dynasty - but I really want to know what happened in the last ten years, so unlike ESPN's rankings we're just looking at the 2005-2014 seasons. This moving timeline helps make the title more of a championship belt that can pass from program to program over time versus a definitive proclamation based on the long histories of every school.

As a qualifier, in order to be "Tight End U" you need at least two legitimate players in the past decade to have come from that school - for example, Rob Gronkowski is an amazing athlete/party cyborg, but the only tight end from Arizona drafted since 2001 (outside the scope of this exercise), so Arizona is ineligible. I'll evaluate three main categories, which we'll break down one at a time. We'll rank each school in the top 15 in each category, and then average those rankings for our final result.

College Performance: Awarded based on a combination of production (total tight end receptions, passing yards, and touchdowns) and "honors" - hitting significant yearly milestones and Mackey Award winners and finalists. Production doesn't account for blocking, situational factors (extremely pass heavy offenses will naturally have more opportunities for bigger numbers) or a player's role in greater team success (think of teams bracketing Tyler Eifert leading to open receivers). In a perfect world recognition helps account for this - we'll pretend most voters were that savvy.

NFL Draft Picks: If college performance overrates receiving ability and underrates blocking and other factors, then this category and NFL GM's perceptions should account for total player performance and value coming out of college. The value of draft picks is much bigger than simply accounting for round - it generally requires at least a 3rdround pick or more just to move up a few spots in the first round - so let's use the traditional NFL Draft Value Chart to assign point values per pick.

NFL Performance: As with college performance, this is primarily a combination of production and recognition (we'll call this honors - hitting milestones each season, selection to Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams). Points in the "honors" category will also be rewarded for having a tight end that played in the NFL that season - seems like a small milestone, but that rewards guys who may have become excellent blockers or special teams contributors.

This will consider all NFL production from the past ten seasons (including players drafted before 2005) - I'm really looking to answer this question: Which programs have contributed the most productive players in the NFL?

In an attempt to be somewhat unbiased, all criteria were decided before I ran any numbers (I swear this on Malik Zaire's ACLs). To find the teams to evaluate I used most of the top ten programs from ESPN's ranking, and added a few from the honorable mentions that made the most sense looking at the different time period.

Category 1: College Performance

This I did not see coming - sure, there have been a number of good tight ends coming out of Wisconsin, but my assumption was that the Badgers run too much. The tight ends job is really to block and watch Melvin Gordon (and the running back cyborgs in red and white before him) run for touchdowns, right?

Rank

Team

Rec

Yds

TDs

Honors (points)

1

Wisconsin

596

7608

74

63

2

Mizzou

622

6281

56

63

3

Stanford

483

6053

59

39

4

Iowa

511

5845

56

38

5

Notre Dame

484

5890

42

47

6

Purdue

486

4908

33

26

7

Minnesota

387

4847

42

27

8

UGA

353

5013

50

24

9

USC

389

4406

49

25

10

Miami

375

4685

41

22

11

Florida

338

4093

33

25

12

Maryland

338

4028

27

14

13

UNC

328

4102

22

16

14

California

232

2796

29

5

15

Texas

239

2618

26

9

Wrong, wrong, wrong - Bret Bielema loved him some tight ends. Travis Beckum led the way here, but most years there were two and often three tight end making major contributions. It may have helped that there weren't a ton of other receiving options on some of those Wisconsin teams, but the Owen Daniels-Beckum-Garrett Graham-Lance Kendricks combinations show how stacked that position was in Madison over a span of six seasons.

Mizzou had a similar run from 2005-2008 - check out the output from Martin Rucker, Chase Coffman, and Michael Egnew over a four-year span:

Team

Year

Rec.

Yds.

TDs

Mizzou (Rucker, Coffman)

2005

94

1070

5

Mizzou (Rucker, Coffman)

2006

111

1149

14

Mizzou (Rucker, Coffman)

2007

136

1365

15

Mizzou (Coffman, Egnew)

2008

94

1009

10


Ridiculous. After Egnew graduated in 2011, however, the Tigers have pretty much stopped throwing to tight ends - maybe due to personnel, maybe due to shifts in Gary Pinkel's offensive scheme. This total drop-off (they've only had 34 catches, 291, and 2 touchdowns the last three seasons combined) seems almost impossible, but the Tigers have won more games recently, so hard to argue with those results.

Did anyone else think Notre Dame would end up outside the top three here? Even with a ton of talent, the high-production years are actually not all that great in the last decade for the Irish - the top single season coming in 2011 when Tyler Eifert led the unit to 66 catches, 826 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

Other receiving options probably played a factor here - not many other programs had a group of talented receivers like Jeff Samardzija, Michael Floyd, and Golden Tate to split targets between. Sometimes the talent was there but the passing game, protection, or injury luck were the issue - Kyle Rudolph is as physically gifted as any tight end of the last decade, but never caught more than 33 passes or broke the 400-yard mark in a season in an Irish uniform.

Notes and Surprises:

  • Miami's claim to Tight End U is really damaged here - Greg Olsen and Clive Walford provided solid but unspectacular production and there was a dearth of production in between them. Jimmy Graham has piled up video-game like numbers at the next level but only played one season in Coral Gables after primarily focusing on basketball.
  • The best overall season by any program? Stanford had Andrew Luck and three more future pros to throw to in 2010, and he was happy to spread the wealth - combined Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levi Toilolo totaled 86 catches, 1,356 yards and 18 touchdowns.
  • Boiler up? It may be a result of not throwing downfield very often, but Purdue's tight ends have caught a huge percentage of the team's total receptions, highlighted by Dustin Keller.


Category 2: NFL Draft Picks

As a reminder, we're looking again only at the last decade, so counting just the 2006-2015 NFL Drafts. Players in the NFL during the last ten seasons drafted before those years will still be accounted for in NFL Performance.

Rank

Team

Points

Top Player

1st Rd.

2nd Rd.

3rd - 5th Rd.

5th-7th Rd.

1

Notre Dame

2541

Eifert (800)

1

4

0

1

2

Maryland

1601

Davis (1600)

1

0

0

1

3

UNC

1574

Ebron (1300)

1

1

0

1

4

Stanford

1151

Fleener (560)

0

2

1

1

5

Miami

990

Olsen (600)

1

2

0

2

6

Wisconsin

727

Kendricks (430)

0

1

4

0

7

USC

661

Davis (420)

0

1

2

2

8

Purdue

645

Keller (620)

1

0

1

0

9

Minnesota

550

Williams (350)

0

1

1

0

10

Iowa

447

Fiedorowiscz (265)

0

0

3

1

11

Mizzou

380

Egnew (200)

0

0

3

0

12

UGA

362

Pope (230)

0

0

4

0

13

Texas

296

Thomas (160)

0

0

2

0

14

California

273

Stevens (165)

0

0

2

0

15

Florida

263

Reed (165)

0

0

3

0

This is where Notre Dame's reputation for producing NFL tight ends is validated - no program in the last decade comes close to producing as many high value draft picks, with one 1st rounder (Eifert) and four 2nd round picks (Fasano, Carlson, Rudolph, and Niklas) giving the Irish a big edge over any other program.

The number two and three programs here might come as a surprise, but are a reflection of how valuable early first round draft picks are, at least according to the value chart. As the sixth overall pick Vernon Davis has an assigned value of 1,600 points, more than every school except Notre Dame. Similarly UNC vaults into the third spot mostly by virtue of Eric Ebron's selection at tenth overall in the 2014 draft.

After looking at Wisconsin's incredible production, it's a bit surprising they haven't had more players taken early in the draft. Lance Kendricks was a 2nd round pick, Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham both 4th-rounders, and Travis Beckum (the most productive receiver in college) lasted until late in the 3rd . Despite Beckum's insane numbers, many teams were likely worried by his light weight and lack of blocking ability - in that Wisconsin offense Beckum essentially played a position much like Jimmy Graham plays today, rarely in-line blocking and split out wide the majority of the time.

Miami at #5 shows the potential changing of the guard over the last decade. If we run this exercise for the last 15 years instead of 10, they would add two more first round picks in Kellen Winslow Jr. and Jeremy Shockey and leapfrog into first place. Throw in a low contribution from the best tight end the Hurricanes have recently produced, Jimmy Graham (#95 overall), and you end up with a lower ranking than anticipated.

Notes and surprises:

  • Mizzou also struggles here for a program that had three tight ends that put up incredible numbers, but NFL franchises didn't end up regretting those picks too much - as we'll see in the next category, none of them have been able to establish themselves as weapons at the next level.
  • Vernon Davis is tied for the 4th highest drafted tight end of all-time with Kellen Winslow Jr., and every tight end drafted higher is from 1972 or earlier.

Category 3: NFL Performance

Here the Hurricanes rule - as we look over the last ten NFL seasons the production of Shockey and Winslow are now taken into account, with Olsen and Graham then ushering in the next wave of Pro-Bowl caliber tight ends out of Coral Gables. While other schools have produced multiple long-time starters, no competitor comes close to having four tight ends play at this level in the NFL in the last ten years.

Rank

Team

Rec

Yds

TDs

Honors

1

Miami

1686

19201

146

195

2

Iowa

959

10720

84

92

3

California

823

9059

63

121

4

UGA

861

8882

60

70

T5

Notre Dame

638

6823

65

57

T5

Wisconsin

685

7832

58

67

T7

Texas

576

6106

40

46

T7

Maryland

432

5515

55

55

9

Stanford

478

5144

41

43

10

USC

329

4163

27

45

11

Florida

343

3647

27

31

12

UNC

254

2934

24

36

13

Purdue

241

2876

17

22

14

Minnesota

140

1333

13

12

15

Mizzou

19

123

1

9

Iowa's production includes the last good years of Dallas Clark's career, as well as solid contributions from Brandon Myers and Scott Chandler. Moaeki has also shown flashes in his young career when healthy, but has been plagued with injuries.

California barely met the minimum requirements to be considered in this exercise, but had two players drafted in the past decade (Richard Rodgers and Craig Stevens). They get the bronze medal here pretty much entirely thanks to the output of the greatest tight end of all-time - Tony Gonzalez. He made the Pro Bowl each of his last four seasons, at ages 33-37, and probably would still be earning trips to Hawaii if he still wanted to play.

Like Miami, UGA benefits from some "old guard" players contributing much more than recent draftees. Randy McMichael and Ben Watson had long and productive careers, but no player drafted since 2005 has been able to find similar success.

Notre Dame's disadvantages in this category stem mostly from youth and lack of elite performance. Anthony Fasano has proven to be a well-rounded NFL starter, but has never put up more than 528 yards receiving or 41 receptions. John Carlson started his career with consecutive 50+ reception seasons, but after suffering multiple injuries in 2010 and 2011 has struggled to regain a starting role.

The future is bright for Notre Dame's tight ends - if they can stay healthy. Kyle Rudolph had a mini breakout in 2012, earning the only Pro Bowl honor for an Irish tight end in the past decade, but has played in only 16 games the past two seasons. Tyler Eifert had a solid rookie season despite splitting time with Jermaine Gresham, but a shoulder injury in the first game of 2014 caused him to miss the entire year. Troy Niklas will probably never emerge as a receiving threat on the same level as Eifert or Rudolph, but his blocking ability and athleticism should keep him playing on Sundays for many years.

Notes and surprises:

  • Moving forward Stanford may be the biggest threat to Notre Dame's claim to the tight end title with three young tight ends (Fleener/Ertz/Toilolo) entering the upcoming season with starting roles.
  • On his own (and in just five seasons) Rob Gronkowski would rank 9th compared to all other college programs in touchdown catches with 54.
  • Mizzou's lack of NFL production - just 19 receptions, 123 yards, and one touchdown - is pretty staggering for a school that produced three highly decorated tight ends in Martin Rucker, Michael Egnew, and a Mackey award winner in Chase Coffman.

Final Results

Drumroll please...

Rank

Team

College Performance

NFL Draft Value

NFL Performance

AVERAGE

1

Notre Dame

5

1

5.5

3.83

2

Wisconsin

1

6

5.5

4.17

T3

Miami

10

5

1

5.33

T3

Stanford

3

4

9

5.33

T3

Iowa

4

10

2

5.33

6

Maryland

12

2

7.5

7.17

7

UGA

8

12

4

8.00

8

USC

9

7

10

8.67

9

Purdue

6

8

13

9.00

10

North Carolina

13

3

12

9.33

11

Mizzou

2

11

15

9.33

12

Minnesota

7

9

14

10.00

13

California

14

14

3

10.33

14

Texas

15

13

7.5

11.83

15

Florida

11

15

11

12.33

The Irish have the best claim to Tight End U. The number of early round draft picks blows the competition out of the water, and the production both in college and in the NFL has been consistently solid if not always spectacular. The future is bright too, with the best pro seasons yet to come for Eifert and Rudolph, and a potential future stud arriving on campus this fall in Alizé Jones.

The other big contender looking toward the future is Stanford, where under David Shaw they'll likely continue to recruit and probably come up with formations to play as many tight ends as possible. It is worth noting though that they have struggled to find a quality pass-catching replacement since Ertz and Toilolo left campus.

Miami may continue to slip down this list as time moves on, unless Clive Walford emerges as a starter at the next level. They'll have Jimmy Graham's production in the NFL to anchor on, but will soon lose Winslow and Shockey's numbers if we keep a moving timeline of the last ten years.

Now, you could make the argument that these categories should not be weighted equally - and if we're being honest, usually people are thinking about NFL production when assigning titles for "(Position) U". Miami's claim to the title is rooted here, and it's a legitimate argument. But if the tight end hasn't really been a huge part of your offense, and you haven't had a first or second round pick since 2007 ... that probably hurts your recruiting and your case for the title.

Jimmy Graham is sort of representative of this debate - he only played one year at Miami, didn't put up big numbers or win any awards, and then took the NFL by storm. Is that more meaningful than Chase Coffman putting up crazy numbers while at Mizzou and winning a Mackey award? It's a subjective answer, and the answer may be yes, but I will note that even if you weighted NFL production as twice as valuable as the other categories, your results don't change much (Notre Dame and Miami tie for first, Iowa and Wisconsin tie for third).

This won't stop everyone from claiming "Tight End U" the next time they have an All-American, NFL star, or first round draft pick, but Notre Dame's claim over the past ten years rests on the strongest foundation.