The 2018 NFL Draft will be well regarded in a historical view. The league saw the introduction of 2019 unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson along with several other gifted quarterbacks, a slew of talented defensive hybrids (such as Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Chargers safety Derwin James) and a number of physical defensive tone-setters on the line.
In all, this draft brought plenty of talent to the table. But not every position from the 2018 draft has found its footing so easily. The 2018 tight end class seems to be lagging behind.
The tight end group included a surprise first-round pick in South Carolina's Hayden Hurst, but it was the other Baltimore selection at tight end who has gone on to prosper in former Oklahoma Sooner target Mark Andrews.
Andrews is, to date, the face of the 2018 tight end class with his 98 receptions for 1,404 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns through two seasons as the key target over the middle of the field in Baltimore's tight end heavy pass attack.
A few of his fellow tight ends from 2018 appear to be showing signs of life after an improved season, but which one is best poised to join Andrews as a standout at the position from the 2018 class?
Chris Herndon, New York Jets
Stats: 40 receptions, 509 receiving yards, four touchdowns
Chris Herndon was suspended for the first four games of the 2019 season following a violation of the league's substance abuse policy and then played 18 snaps before a hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. Nearly all of Herndon's production to date came as a rookie. He may be well aligned to break out in 2020 if he's fully healthy given that quarterback Sam Darnold has shown a preference to target TEs often. The only thing standing in Herndon's way may be himself.
Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
Stats: 91 receptions, 941 receiving yards, nine touchdowns
If only the Eagles didn't have Zach Ertz in front of Dallas Goedert. Goedert is still the second most productive TE from the 2018 class after two years and is no slouch with his production on the field. But Ertz lingering at the top of the depth chart figures to be a massive hurdle to an explosive season; Ertz has logged over 100 targets and 800 yards in each of his last five NFL seasons.
Goedert is a budding stud in his own right, but the barriers to a statistical breakout season are going to be hard to circumvent.
Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
Stats: 43 receptions, 512 receiving yards, three touchdowns
Perhaps the change of scenery will prove to be exactly what this former first-round pick needs. Hurst was traded to Atlanta this offseason, where he'll look to replace Austin Hooper in Atlanta's passing attack. Hurst found the ball more frequently in 2019 and enters an offense that saw over 5,000 yards passing in 2019 and 235 vacant targets from last year's attack with the departures of Hooper, running back Devonta Freeman and receivers Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy.
If Hurst lives up to his billing as the top pick at the position, he won't find a better chance to breakout than this season.
Ian Thomas, Carolina Panthers
Stats: 52 receptions, 469 receiving yards, three touchdowns
Ian Thomas is trending in the wrong direction. The Panthers tight end logged 333 receiving yards and 158 yards after contact as a rookie in 2018. The 2019 version of Thomas totaled nearly 200 yards less (136) and saw his yards after contact cut in half despite playing in all 16 games. His snap rate dwindled to 27% to boot, but the departure of Greg Olsen leaves Thomas unimpeded and unquestioned as the team's top option at the position. A bounce-back is likely, but not a statistical breakout.
Jordan Akins, Houston Texans
Stats: 53 receptions, 643 receiving yards, two touchdowns
Jordan Akins doubled his receptions and nearly doubled his yardage from Year 1 to Year 2. That's the good news. Add in the departure of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and some budding chemistry with quarterback Deshaun Watson, Akins figures to be a consistent contributor. But a volume target? That doesn't feel likely. Not with Akins splitting reps with fellow 2018 pick Jordan Thomas and veteran Darren Fells and the presence of new receivers Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb.
Oh, right, and the Texans added running back David Johnson (80 receptions in 2016 and 86 catches over the last two seasons) this offseason to pair with Duke Johnson, who is so good catching the ball that he's been called upon as a potential convert to receiver for years. Don't count on a booming season from Akins in the stat sheet. There are too many mouths to feed.
Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Stats: 73 receptions, 772 receiving yards, five touchdowns
Few tight ends played better than Mike Gesicki in the second half of the 2019 season. Once the Dolphins won their first contest (Week 8), Gesicki flipped the switch and became a dynamic threat in the passing game. He logged 36 receptions, 417 yards and five touchdowns over those final nine games, which projects to a 64-reception, 741-yard and nine-touchdown pace over a full season.
There's more reason for optimism when considering the Dolphins will be running an offense rooted in more spacing and spread concepts in 2020 and didn’t upgrade their pass catchers at all — instead electing to run everything back. But new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has not traditionally found much production in tight ends. The best inspiration Miami can hope to emulate for Gesicki under Gailey's watch?
Former tight end Scott Chandler, who finished second in targets (74), receptions (43), yards (571) and tied for first in touchdowns (six) for the 2012 Bills.
Will Dissly, Seattle Seahawks
Stats: 31 receptions, 418 receiving yards, six touchdowns
Will Dissly faces two big barriers to a big breakout season in 2019: the injury bug and the presence of Olsen. Olsen comes to Seattle in the twilight of his career hoping to find an elusive Super Bowl and provide a more accomplished receiving presence and security blanket for quarterback Russell Wilson. Dissly may end up being the perfect TE2, but there seem to be too many barriers to a massive season of receiving production in 2020.
So, who is the most likely to breakout in 2020? Here are the three top candidates:
- Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
- Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
- Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Ironically enough, that's the same three tight ends who were first off the board back in 2018 — and in the same order too.