History says highly touted rookie tight ends don’t always make a major impact right away
Published 6:04 pm Monday, July 3, 2023
GREEN BAY, Wis. — This rookie class of tight ends already made quite an impact on the draft.
They’ll have to buck history if they’re going to leave the same type of impression on the field this year. Tight end arguably is the toughest position for rookies to make huge contributions.
Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell, who played tight end in the NFL from 1999-2008, understands why.
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“I always make this argument: Besides the quarterback, the tight ends have to know more than anybody else offensively,” said Campbell, who played for the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Lions. “You’ve got to know it all.”
Campbell has high hopes for Sam LaPorta, the tight end Detroit drafted out of Iowa in the second round. LaPorta was one of nine tight ends selected in the first three rounds of the recent draft, the highest total since the common draft era began in 1967.
The others are Buffalo’s Dalton Kincaid (formerly at Utah), Las Vegas’ Michael Mayer (Notre Dame), Green Bay’s Luke Musgrave (Oregon State) and Tucker Kraft (South Dakota State), Dallas’ Luke Schoonmaker (Michigan), Jacksonville’s Brenton Strange (Penn State), Pittsburgh’s Darnell Washington (Georgia) and San Francisco’s Cameron Latu (Alabama).
Kincaid, the 25th overall pick, was the lone first-round selection. Mayer, Musgrave, Schoonmaker and Strange joined LaPorta as second-round picks. Kraft, Washington and Latu went in the third round.
The question is whether there’s anyone who could approach the rookie production Atlanta’s Kyle Pitts had a couple of years ago.
Pitts caught 68 passes for 1,026 yards in 2021 after the former Florida star was selected fourth overall, the earliest a tight end had ever been drafted. But he’s an exception.
Only five rookie tight ends in NFL history have caught as many as 60 passes. Four have caught more than seven touchdown passes in their debut seasons. Pitts had one. Just two accumulated 1,000 yards receiving.
Pitts was the first rookie tight end to reach the 1,000-yard mark since Chicago’s Mike Ditka had 12 touchdown catches and 1,076 yards receiving – both rookie records – in 1961. The record for catches by a rookie tight end is owned by Keith Jackson, who had 81 receptions for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1988.
Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur agrees tight ends face a bigger learning curve than most because of all that’s expected of them. Some tight ends who might have put up big receiving numbers in college discover pass-catching skills aren’t enough to succeed in the NFL.
“There’s just so much that you have to, so much knowledge that you have to acquire in terms of you’re responsible in the running game and the passing game and you might have some protection responsibility,” LaFleur said.
LaFleur’s rookie tight ends already have discovered that.
“I think in college as tight ends you’re really not asked to do the extent that you are in the pros,” Kraft said.
Buffalo’s Dawson Knox puts it in more descriptive terms.
A 2019 third-round pick from Mississippi, Knox has caught 15 touchdown passes over the last two seasons. As he helps Kincaid adapt to the NFL, Knox remembers his own challenges as a rookie.
“It’s like trying to drink from a firehose,” he said.
Knox said the biggest adjustment is learning the playbook.
“it’s almost like a foreign language sometimes because it could be a 15-word play call and you’re trying to figure out which words are talking to you, what words mean something to the other guys and then all these different alerts and stuff,” he said.
This class of tight ends may have a chance to catch on quicker than most.
The group is headed by Kincaid, an exceptional receiver who had one of the most remarkable single-game performances of the 2022 college season when he caught 16 passes for 234 yards in a victory over then-unbeaten Southern California.
“I love his approach,” Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said. “Right now it’s been great. (He’s) just coming in eager to learn, eager to just build a foundation more so than anything, and I think that’s important.”
Mayer and LaPorta come from college programs known for producing NFL tight ends, which could help them make a fast adjustment. Mayer might have the best combination of receiving and blocking ability in this class.
“Michael really is what we thought he was – a really hard worker, great teammate, tries to get better every single day, very attentive in the meetings, works at his technique very hard, wants to know how he can get better as being a pro,” Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said.
The other rookie tight ends are trying to take a similar approach. They believe consistency will help them adapt to the NFL faster than past first-year tight ends.
“That’s the biggest struggle for any athlete, any rookie, transitioning in the NFL – being consistently better, getting better at one thing every single day,” Kraft said.