With creativity at the tight end position becoming more of the norm, tight ends of all shapes and sizes are getting chances to thrive both in-line and in the slot. Specialization has led to a new age of success.
The 2019 tight end class featured some very promising players. There were two selected in the top 20, and 16 tight ends drafted that year. Some of those players saw early playing time, but for the most part, it was a developmental year for the class.
As we approach 2020, there are a handful of tight ends who have the chance to really breakout.
Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
Noah Fant, the 20th pick in the 2019 draft, had an up and down rookie season. Fant struggled both as a blocker and receiver, but he managed to finish the year with 40 receptions for 562 yards and three touchdowns.
Fant’s production, when broken down in greater detail, is encouraging. He was second on the team in targets (66) behind wide receiver Courtland Sutton (124) and one-fourth of his receptions were for plays of 15 yards or more.
Earlier this offseason, Broncos coach Vic Fangio gave some context to some of Fant's struggles and some encouraging words to what he'll do in the future.
“He had his ups and downs,” Fangio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Some of those downs you didn’t see on the field. We saw them in meeting rooms and we saw them on the practice field. They never manifested themselves during a game. He just kept going. He never, ever got discouraged.
“When we had the illness going through the team last in the year, the trainers came up during lunch and said, 'Noah isn’t able to go today we are going to keep him in.' Then I went out to practice and there he is. He just decided he was going to go out and do it. He got discouraged but never lost his fight.”
With all his learning curves in 2019, as well as sub-par quarterback play, for Fant to be second on the team in targets speaks to what he can accomplish as soon as the 2020 season.
Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills
Through the 2019 draft process, it became clear Dawson Knox's lack of production at Ole Miss wasn't due to a shortage of athleticism or overall talent, but rather an offense that had too many mouths to feed; in previous few seasons, the Rebels’ offense featured A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge.
In his first season in Buffalo, Knox had 28 catches for 388 yards with two touchdowns in 15 games played. Those numbers aren't all that impressive on their own, but when you take into account that Knox's rookie targets (50), catches and yards were the highest they had been since high school, it's a good starting point for him.
And I'm not the only one who thinks so. In an interview with KSN, a local news station in Kanasa, Knox's teammate, wide receiver John Brown, also spoke highly of Knox's potential.
“I’m really excited. One thing that people don’t know… the tight end, Dawson Knox. I think it’ll be a big year for him,” Brown said. “So a lot of guys will have to watch out for him. I think he’s going to be an outbreak player this year. I’m really excited.”
When Knox got word of Brown's exciting expectations, he responded with some motivating words of his own.
“Well I definitely appreciate the shoutout,” Knox said. “I definitely want to do the best I possibly can, whatever I do, so I think, going from having my head spinning the whole year, I kind of really am looking forward to this year. Having that foundation, being comfortable with the playbook for the most part, and kind of being able to play … I’m going to try to play without thinking as much, being a little more free to just go out there and compete.”
Knox is slated to be the top tight end target for the Bills in 2020, and that projects to another career year.
Jace Sternberger, Green Bay Packers
Jace Sternberger became a bit of a draft darling during the late months of the pre-draft process. He started his college career at Kansas, where he really couldn’t get on the field at all. After transferring to Texas A&M and sitting out a season, he caught 48 passes for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In his rookie season, Sternberger's impact was pretty quiet, and by pretty quiet I mean he didn’t have a single catch during the regular season. He spent most of the year behind tight ends Jimmy Graham and Mercedes Lewis, who played 622 snaps and 487 snaps, respectively, to Sternberger's 60.
But as the season went on things began to look up for Sternberger, who caught the first touchdown pass of his career in the NFC Championship Game.
With no Graham on the depth chart for 2020, Sternberger has a chance to really stand out, something Packer offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett talked about this offseason.
“[Sternberger] has an element of speed that is very impressive. He’s got fearlessness. He’s very aggressive. He has a lot of intangibles,” Hackett said. “Just being able to be consistent, both being available and understanding what he needs to accomplish on the field is going to be huge, and if he gets that, I think he’s going to be a guy that potentially helps us.”