How the NFL’s Best are Telling us Tight Ends are Undervalued

by Warren Sharp

The salary-cap era of the NFL has always been a tale of class structure.  But not about rich or poor, since teams can’t merely outspend limitlessly.  Its about intelligent and unintelligent.  The teams who make the smart decision about player acquisition (draft, free agency) and player retention typically find themselves at the top year in and year out.  Certainly there is the element of the new CBA and the desire to obtain cheap labor in reasonable first year contracts, thus, collecting a lot of draft picks (as discussed in my FOX Sports piece).  But let’s merely discuss key positions, and one in particular.  Obviously the most important piece is the quarterback.  More than skill positions, a sound offensive line can make a good QB great enough for one season to win a Super Bowl.  But I’d argue that the tight end is a more important weapon than the running back or wide receiver positions.

Part of the reason is supply and demand.  While no doubt there are special talents at all skill positions in the NFL and each position experiences drop off at some point, the drop off from elite tight end to average tight end occurs the fastest.  How many tight ends in the NFL are truly ridiculous talents?  And how many are simply adequate players who get usage simply because the tight end position is a key position which many offenses can utilize effectively against a defense?

The New England Patriots have the NFL’s best tight end:  Rob Gronkowski.  This past offseason, they traded for another solid tight end in Martellus Bennett.  The rich get richer.  The Packers decided to go out on a rare limb to sign a free agent in tight end Jared Cook, which tells you how important the tight end is for Green Bay, considering they rarely sign free agents.  The Pittsburgh Steelers similarly made a move to bring in Ladarius Green, the former Charger, to take over for Heath Miller.  When three of the best NFL franchises make moves to acquire tight ends via free agency or by trading away draft picks, it should turn on a light bulb for you, if it already wasn’t on.

The Washington Redskins decided that contracts aren’t getting any cheaper, and in a franchise year for Kirk Cousins this year, (which will help the team decide if they want to hold onto Kirk for years to come) tight end Jordan Reed could see a lot of usage.  So the team signed Reed to a five year, $46.75M contract before he became an unrestricted free agent next spring.  This gives Reed the 3rd highest average TE salary, joining Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Julius Thomas and Rob Gronkowski in the top 5.  But the contract’s cap hit doesn’t go crazy until year 3 (2018).  Until then, Reed hits the 2016 cap for $3.4M (19th most for a TE) and the 2017 cap for $5.8M (13th most for a TE).  Compare those numbers to some of the other TE contracts for players far less skilled, such as the Colts Dwayne Allen (hits the cap for $8.9M in 2016 and $6M in 2017) or the Lions Brandon Pettigrew (hits the cap for $4.65M in 2016 and $5.35M in 2017) and you can see this won’t really stretch the Redskins too thin at the position until 2018.

So what does Reed do that made the Redskins decide he was worth keeping long term for a hefty total?  For one, its his hands.  The 6’2″, ~240 lb tight end from the Florida Gators has the best hands the NFL has seen, not just from a tight end, but from any receiver over the last decade.  For any receiver (TE or WR), Reed has the best catch rate in the last 10 years, and its not particularly close:

reed catch rateAnd these are career numbers, not just 2015 from Kirk Cousins.  It includes over 100 passes from Colt McCoy and Robert Griffin III.  Yet that didn’t matter for Reed. Nor did it matter that due to injuries in 2013 and 2014, he was in and out of the lineup and couldn’t develop real consistency with any QB.  If you notice, most of the top players on the above list had perennial Pro-Bowl and/or Super Bowl-winning QBs throwing them passes:  Jermichael Finley (2nd) and Randall Cobb (4th) from Aaron Rodgers; Jason Witten (3rd) from Tony Romo; Steve Smith (5th) and Odell Beckham (6th) from Eli Manning; Wes Welker (7th) and Julian Edelman (11th) from Tom Brady and some from Peyton Manning.  Catching 78% of all passes is obscene.  It’s ridiculous.

Second, its his importance to what GM Scot McCloughan and HC Jay Gruden envision the passing game heading in the future.  Last year, apart from Cousins, there was no more important player to the Redskins than Jordan Reed.  Teams up at halftime win at an exceptional rate, and the Redskins led at halftime in 11 games.  Only two teams led more often at halftime:  The Panthers and Bengals.  The Redskins 11 games up at halftime tied with the Patriots, Seahawks and Cardinals.  And a big part of the reason for their halftime lead was Jordan Reed.

Below is a look at directional passing success in the first half in opposing territory.  Its evident how often Reed was targeted, and how successful the Redskins were when targeting him:

Reed stats in 1H in opp side of fieldIn fact, collectively, when targeting Jordan Reed in the 1st half in opposing territory, Kirk Cousins went 28/33 (85%), 10 yds/att, 7 TD : 0 INT and a 149 passer rating.  When targeting everyone else, Cousins had a 110 passer rating (which is still very good).  Combined, Cousins’ passer rating was 129, the very best in the NFL.

The above infographic is color coded to depict success, and the Reed line looks strikingly similar to another key tight end:  Rob Gronkowski.  In that while Reed’s numbers are slightly better, its clear that even though both are tight ends, their usage all over the field, sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone, is a constant weapon.  And even though the Redskins have deep threat DeSean Jackson, in the above situation (1st half in opposing territory) Reed was used more on deep passes than even Jackson.

NE stats in 1H on opp side of fieldIts not just Reed’s direct ability to utilize his incredible hands and skilled running ability for a bigger player, but its his ability to win battles which at times result in better opportunities for other players.  As a result, when Reed wasn’t on the field last year, Cousins posted just a 73 passer rating and a 5 TD : 7 INT ratio.  But when Reed was on the field, the defense had to adjust, and Cousins posted a 112 passer rating with a 24 TD : 4 INT ratio.

Like most of the smart teams, the Redskins decided to lock up a game changing tight end.  One who can line up as a traditional tight end or in the slot or as an outside receiver.  This allows the Redskins to do many things, but a key element is to enable the offense to operate at a faster pace.  In Cousins’ first season at the helm, the Redskins were exceedingly slow.  They were the 2nd slowest tempo team in the NFL in the first half, and 3rd slowest overall.  But, when trailing by 7 or more points, their pace rocketed up to 10th in the NFL.  When trailing, the Redskins passed the ball on 72% of play calls (3rd most often in the NFL) and over 22% of those attempts went to Reed, which Cousins turned into 63% completions, a 5 TD : 0 INT ratio and a 110 rating.

The Redskins would be wise to operate faster in situations to keep tired defenses on the field on extended drives, which would improve the offense’s efficiency even more.  And with Reed’s ability to stay on the field and play multiple positions, it gives the Redskins the option to reduce substitutions and increase the tempo.  I would be shocked if the Redskins did not play faster in 2016, particularly because they will be in for a difficult season going up against the 4th most difficult schedule (in part due to their 1st place finish in the NFC East in 2015).

Despite the tight end position being such a boon for offenses, and basketball players crossing over to the NFL with success (see Tony Gonzalez & Antonio Gates as some of the patriarchs), the NFL still lacks an abundance of multi-dimensional talent at the position.  The Carolina Panthers just went to the Super Bowl with a tight end (Greg Olsen) as their best receiver.  The Patriots won it the year before with Rob Gronkowski.  While the Redskins are forecast to come back to earth in a big way in 2016, with current odds showing them struggling to even finish 8-8, locking up Jordan Reed long term as a key difference maker for whichever QB is under center in DC is the right move.

Redskins GM Scot McCloughan was previously GM in Seattle.  Seattle locked up Jimmy Graham.  As previously mentioned, the Patriots, Packers and Steelers locked up tight ends this offseason as well.  Add to that list the Baltimore Ravens adding Benjamin Watson.  Between those teams and their GMs, you literally have the some of the best of the best in the NFL.  Personnel guys who “get it”.  Bill Belichick, Scot McCloughan, Ted Thompson, Kevin Colbert, Ozzie Newsome, John Schneider.  And they “got” tight ends either this year or last year.  And these are not teams accustomed to outbidding or overspending.  But perhaps they see the market for solid tight ends is undervalued right now, and these elite difference makers are well worth it.  Time will tell.  But when so many of the very best have made the similar moves after coming to similar conclusions, its unwise to think  contrarian of their strategy.

The 2nd round is no PLACE for a KICKER

by Warren Sharp

First let me say I hope I’m wrong.  I hope place kicker Roberto Aguayo has a tremendous NFL career.  I hope this move isn’t the one for which Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Jason Licht is infamously remembered.  But when you break the full scope of the move down, as I do below, the nicest way to possibly put a trade up to the 2nd round to draft a kicker ahead of teams that would never contemplate drafting a kicker in the 2nd round, is highly questionable.

The Buccaneers traded the 74th and 106th selections to the Chiefs in exchange for the 59th selection.  From this perspective alone, the trade was a value-loser for the Bucs according to the AV-based model from Football Perspective.

But this move was bad from so many different perspectives:

Trading into the 2nd round moved them ahead of teams who know how to draft and know what to do with valuable picks, such as the Patriots, Panthers and Broncos.  Do we really think that those teams would have drafted a kicker?  For the Patriots, the team the Bucs jumped directly in front of, it was their first pick in the entire draft due to losing their first round pick for Deflategate.  It would be a cold day in hell before Bill Belichick used his first pick in a NFL draft to draft a kicker.

If one were attempting to defend this move, one of the best pieces of evidence that they could present would be a run on kickers getting drafted in the 3rd round, and that Tampa Bay’s move got them the best of the bunch.  But there was no run on kickers in the 3rd round.  Or the 4th round.  Or the 5th round.  Or the 6th round.  Or the 7th round.  In fact, Roberto Aguayo was the ONLY kicker drafted in the entire draft.  I’m certainly not proposing by that logic that a team could have drafted him in the 7th round.  But to trade up to the 2nd round ahead of teams who would never draft a kicker that early is laughable.

Additionally, what this tells you without a doubt is that the Buccaneers could have used a 6th round pick (they had two) to take the 2nd best kicker in the draft if they really needed a kicker (more on that later).  With an increased focus on accuracy from a kicker, are we to believe that the 2nd or 3rd best kicker in this year’s class is so steep a drop from the best kicker to warrant a 5 round gap (from 2 to 7)?

As an example, Ross Martin from Duke went 4-4 on kicks of 50+ yards this year, and the last 2 years, hit 81% (13/16), on kicks 40+ yards.  Roberto Aguayo hit 1-3 kicks of 50+ yards this year, and the last 2 years, hit 64% (14/22) on kick 40+ yards.  Both hit 100% of their extra point attempts.  Yet Martin went undrafted and the Buccaneers took Aguayo in the 2nd round after trading up. [Ross Martin signed with the Jets as an Undrafted Free Agent, costing the Jets nothing]

Next, let’s introduce some of the reasoning that is more analytics based, and let’s begin with a geographical fact that Tampa Bay is in Florida.  Being in Florida, the weather is warmer than most other NFL cities.  Per a description of the weather in the city:

Tampa, like the other two Florida teams, basically is in an atmospheric dome. The weather there is consistently nice, and the winter becomes a sort of dry season for them. They don’t average much rainfall, and their temperatures don’t drop below the 70s at all during the season.  That is basically dream weather.

TampaMTMPThe reason why weather is an important key is that it’s easier to kick field goals in warmer weather.  According to a study done by Brian Burke, field goal success rate increases as the temperature increases.  Meaning, on average, it’s easier for ALL kickers to perform in Florida than it is in Buffalo or New England.  Which is why having a great kicker in a warm climate is LESS a weapon than it would be in a cold weather city.  So in terms of winning games and having a kicking advantage, the fact that the last 5 years, the Patriots Stephen Gostkowski is banging 88% of 40-53 yard FGs in New England, while opponents they host are hitting only 68%, it is a solid edge.  But when opponents are capable of kicking the NFL average in Tampa Bay (75%), that edge per game is not as large.  Additionally, playing in the NFC South means games played in domes (ATL, NO) and in Charlotte, North Carolina, so it’s not even as if the Buccaneers can bring this weapon to get a surprising edge in a cold weather game that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

In a minute, we will cover Roberto Aguayo’s stats in detail.  But another related consideration is the vast majority of his stats are skewed to an extent because he has gained an edge virtually his whole career due to playing games in the warm Southern climate.  In fact, despite kicking for 3 years, there are only 4 games Aguayo played outdoors north of the North Carolina state line.

Field goals attempted of 30+ yards in said games:

  • @ Boston College (9/18/15) – 0/1 (missed 42 yd FG)
  • @ Louisville (10/30/14) – 0/1 (missed 41 yd FG)
  • @ Pittsburgh (9/2/13) – 0/0
  • @ Boston College (9/28/13) – 1/1 (made 40 yd FG)

This extremely small sample size over 3 years doesn’t give us much to work with, but it certainly doesn’t provide reassurance.  Aguayo has attempted just 3 FGs longer than 30 yards when outside the friendly confines of warm climates in his entire college career, and he missed two of them.  Both were less than 45 yard kicks (41, 42).  Neither were in November, December or January.  And as those from Pittsburgh, Louisville or Boston may attest to, generally September and October are pretty nice.

Of course, as I mentioned previously, Aguayo won’t have to kick in cold weather often in his career, so it may not be an issue.  But saying that he’s “been tested” in those conditions would be false, and his performance from the few games he played before the end of October in those cities did not exactly bleed confidence.

Next we move to the fact that kicking in generally is getting more reliable annually.  FiveThirtyEight did a study on it and found accuracy is increasing tremendously:

kickingThis means acquiring a talented kicker early in the draft (like Sebastian Janikowski being drafted in 2000 or Mike Nugent being drafted in 2005) would make more sense years ago than it does now.

We also must look at the replacement situation itself.  The Buccaneers current kicker is/was Connor Barth [Barth was cut Monday by the Bucs].  Let’s examine Connor Barth vs Roberto Aguayo:

Extra Points (last 4 years)

  • Aguayo = 100%
  • Barth = 99%

Less than 40 yd FGs (last 2 years)

  • Aguayo = 100%
  • Barth = 100%

Less than 40 yd FGs (last 4 years)

  • Aguayo = 100%
  • Barth = 98%

40+ yard FGs (last 2 years)

  • Aguayo = 64%
  • Barth = 63%

40+ yard FGs (last 4 years)

  • Aguayo = 72%
  • Barth = 78%

There is absolutely nothing that screams out that Aguayo will be a night and day improvement over Barth.

Part of the biggest issue with kickers is not their ability.  It’s their mentality and confidence.  Unlike virtually any other play in football, a kicker is ONLY judged on himself.  He doesn’t have to catch the snap (like a punter), the holder does that.  He doesn’t have to spin the laces, the holder does that.  All he must do is kick a (hopefully) stationary ball.  Either a kicker can or can’t perform that job adequately.  But the element that screws with them the most is the mental aspect.  Will they choke under the pressure?  Will they get the “yips” after missing a few key kicks?  Does their career spiral out of control as a result, or can they rebound?

As for Connor Barth, how is this for clutch?  The last five years Barth is 20/20 on FGs of 50 yards or less in the fourth quarter or overtime.  No other kicker is 100% unless they have 7 or fewer attempts.  Stephen Gostkowski and Steven Hauschka are the next most accurate kickers late in the game.

Additionally, the last five years Connor Barth has never missed a FG 55 yards or less in the second half when the game was within 3 points (meaning down by as many as 3 points or up by no more than 3 points).  His lone miss was a 56 yard attempt.

Thus, based on:

  1. Value lost in the trade up to grab Aguayo;
  2. The teams the Bucs moved ahead of would never take a kicker at that point in a draft;
  3. The 2nd or 3rd best college kickers were available in the 7th round, and neither was drafted.  Many of their stats were better than Aguayo’s stats, and could have been drafted by the Bucs at the end of the draft;
  4. Kickers are less valuable in warmer climates (when all kickers have an edge) and Tampa Bay is a warm climate;
  5. Aguayo has no experience relevant experience kicking in any environment apart from the warm South, and the few kicks in college that he took on the road, outside his normal temperature range, did not provide positive results;
  6. Kicking in general is improving league wide, so even average kickers are closer to the best kickers than they were a decade or more ago;
  7. Tampa Bay’s current kicker has nearly identical (and in some cases better) results at the NFL level as compared to Aguayo at the college level;
  8. Kicking in the NFL is more nerve wracking than it is in college, and yet the Buccaneers current kicker was the most accurate in the clutch of any NFL kicker the last 5 years.

I thought the decision to draft Aguayo 59th overall was not wise.  Is he a great kicker?  Will he have a great NFL career?  Will he win some games for the Buccaneers based on a late kick?  The answer to all three is likely, yes.  But that still does not make the move a smart one based on the above information.

Its not just my analytics and opinion that suggest it was a poor decision, here are some other respected opinions from the college draft universe:

  • “No kicker in the history of the NFL is worth a second round pick. None…. Dumbest pick I’ve ever seen” – Matt Miller @nfldraftscout
  • “Let me repeat, we (Bucs) just traded up in the 2nd round to take a damn kicker, unbelievable just unbelievable.  When u select a kicker that high it adds even more pressure to an already stressful situation.” – Shaun King @realshaunking
  • “I don’t care if you know for a fact that you’re getting the second coming of Morten Andersen, you don’t draft a kicker in the 2nd.” – Benjamin Allbright @AllbrightNFL
  • “Licht got greedy by trading up for Aguayo, sending Kansas City a fourth-round pick (106) in exchange for upgrading his third-rounder (74) by 15 slots — only to draft a kicker. I’m entirely not a fan of trading up to draft any kicker in the second round.” – Evan Silva @evansilva
  • “The Bucs earn a D- for trading up to draft kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round” – Pro Football Focus @PFF

It is always difficult to properly “grade” a draft pick because we don’t yet know how he’ll turn out.  For Tampa Bay’s sake, for Jason Licht’s sake, and for the young kid Roberto Aguayo’s sake, I hope it works out well.  And while busts are found everywhere in the first two rounds on an annual basis, the move to trade up (immediately before NE, CAR and DEN) to draft a kicker was highly questionable, to be kind.