Ravens Rookie TE Metrics vs. the NFL’s Best
The Ravens invested heavily in the tight end position during the 2018 draft, taking Hayden Hurst with the number 25 overall pick and Mark Andrews in the third round. Expectations are high for first round selections on any team at any position. While Lamar Jackson might be the player everyone is going to tune in for during camp and in otherwise meaningless preseason games, it is the development of the tight ends that could ultimately make or break the offensive efficiency this season.
Pro Football Focus offers all of their premium stats and more for a hefty price. It went from free, to $1,500 and for media only, and after some other pricing changes, it’s currently $200/year for anyone. Still not in my budget, but if you read the free articles, they will sprinkle some of their premium stats in there.
Looking at strictly the metrics, how do the NFL’s best compare to what Hurst and Andrews have accomplished in their college careers? The real question is will college success translate to the NFL? We know air-raid attack quarterbacks in college aren’t going to jump to the NFL and throw for 5,000 yards. But do the advanced metrics of PFF show a better correlation between how a player performs in college and in the NFL? Mind you, PFF has dabbled in college stats for only a few years now.
The five factors in measuring the success of tight ends are the following: Deep ball catch rate, drop rate, slot performance, yards per route run, and pass blocking efficiency.
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Deep ball catch rate:
Rob Gronkowski is the total package when it comes to tight ends. However, he hasn’t played a full season since 2011. But when he plays there is no one better. All other tight ends pale in comparison.
On the deep ball, he has been a top-3 TE in catch rate in each of the last three seasons. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons he caught every catchable deep target his way (14 for 14). 14.4% of his catches traveled over 20 yards in the air. Last year he did drop two, finishing the season 7 for 9 resulting in 205 yards on those seven catches. Deep ball catch rate dropped slightly to 10.1%.
Ravens third round pick, Mark Andrews, led all FBS tight ends in deep ball catches last season with nine (out of 12). A deep ball catch rate of 14.5% puts him in Gronk like territory. The only player across the board close to Gronk has been Travis Kelce. Kelce actually led the league’s TEs in deep ball targets in 2017 with 17 of them. He hauled in nine for 266 yards and scored on three of those nine big plays. His deep ball catch rate was 10.8%.
Jordan Reed ranks as one of the most sure handed tight ends in the game. Like Gronk, he has trouble staying on the field though. But in 2016 he caught 66 of 67 catchable balls thrown his way.
Hands are obviously important and that’s one reason the Ravens selected Hayden Hurst with their first overall pick. Hurst dropped zero passes in 2017 (43 out of 43 catchable targets), and throughout his college career dropped just three balls in 155 chances. Hurst’s 1.96% drop rate over three seasons vs. Reed’s best season that saw a 1.49% drop rate. Hurst has the hands that should matchup with some of the league’s best.
Another sure handed tight end in the NFL that isn’t a big name is Cameron Brate. Brate ranks in the top-5 in drop rate over the last two seasons, having only dropped five of the 110 catchable balls thrown his way in that span. 4.55% drop rate, while top-5 caliber, a higher drop rate than Reed and Hurst. Hurst’s hands will play well at this level if he brings them.
The three TE leaders in receiving yards from the slot in 2017 were Travis Kelce (588 yards), Rob Gronkowski (554 yards) and Jack Doyle (399 yards). Kelce was targeted on 21% of the routes he ran from the slot last year and ranked fifth in catch rate from the slot (79.2%). Jack Doyle actually made the most catches from the slot last year with 46 of them while being targeted just about as much as Kelce from the slot (20.9% of the time). But it’s apparent Doyle doesn’t have the big play ability, racking up almost 200 yards less than Kelce on more catches from the slot.
In Oklahoma’s Spread offense, Mark Andrews ran 81.4% of his routes from the slot. It’s as if Andrews is a wide-receiver playing the tight end position which could spell mismatch given his 6’5” 240 pound frame. He led the draft class in slot performance with 54 catches, 874 yards and six scores from the slot. The Ravens don’t run a spread offense. But if the slot is something Andrews is used to, usually a free release at the snap, as well as making plays down field, they may want to use him in that fashion predominantly. Would like to see Andrews catch 25%+ of his balls out of the slot this coming season. That would shows us that the Ravens are playing to his strengths. He could be Kelce like in that regard, and with his deep ball ability, could have the Kelce and Gronk like yardage numbers from the slot too, unlike Doyle.
Yards per route run:
This is one of the most telling signs of efficiency by a receiver. You get more yards per route run by getting open in route running, affording you the opportunity to be targeted. By making catches when targeted and by racking up yards after that catch. It comes as no surprise that in 2017 Rob Gronkowski led all tight ends with 2.40 YPRR, which was .35 more than the next qualified TE.
Mark Andrews ranked second in the draft class with a 2.63 YPRR mark. However it doesn’t exactly turn into success at the next level. Another guy who was very efficient in college, was second in his draft class in YPRR, was Maxx Williams. It does show Andrews was one of Baker Mayfield’s favorite targets though.
Pass blocking efficiency:
Here’s where not having the PFF subscription makes it tough. The long and short of it that if you are a great blocker, it leads to more snaps you get to play. More snaps lead to more opportunity to show up in the stats columns. The Vikings Kyle Rudolph is one of the best pass blockers among tight ends. He has parlayed that into seeing the field a lot and scoring the second most TDs for a TE behind just Rob Gronkowski over the last three seasons. Gronk is also a tremendous blocker, but he is on another planet and in his case blocking rarely is brought up. Rudolph also saw 120 targets in 2016, but that number dropped dramatically in 2017 for some reason. Perhaps the Case Keenum effect, or the breakout of emerging WR Adam Thielen.
If Hayden Hurst or Mark Andrews are going to see plenty of opportunities, they may need to show off their blocking ability. Or else Nick Boyle figures to be in line to get more opportunities. Andrews is not a blocker, as mentioned he’s more of a slot receiver. Hurst can block, on tape it shows more in run blocking at the second level, not so much against edge rushers or larger defensive lineman.
If we think about Maxx Williams, highly touted coming out of the 2015 draft class, and Nick Boyle out of the same draft class but being taken in the 5th round, lauded more for blocking, not very athletic running a 40-yard dash over 5+ seconds. It was Boyle who has emerged as the opportunist. In fact, it was Boyle who got more playing time early in their rookie years than Williams. Both players have missed significant time over the last three seasons with injury, or suspensions, but look at the snap counts for both.
Maxx Williams – 29 games, 846 offensive snaps. 29.2 snaps per game.
66 targets, 47 catches.
Nick Boyle – 32 games, 1,105 offensive snaps 34.5 snaps per game.
66 targets, 52 catches.
Maxx is slightly more efficient as a receiver. But Boyle brings more to the table on any given play, thus sees the field more often. Not to mention plays on all special teams which Coach John Harbaugh loves and rewards for. Counting special teams snap counts, Boyle sees about 10-15 more snaps a game than Maxx.
In conclusion, the TE battle is quite an interesting battle to watch. Everyone is going to want to watch and talk about Lamar Jackson. But Joe Flacco is the starting quarterback, period, end of story. The receiving group is full of fresh faces here and the incoming tight end class compares well on paper and in skillset to the best tight ends in the league.
But will college metrics translate to the pro game? Will Nick Boyle eat into the rookies playing time because of seniority and blocking ability? Will Hayden Hurst be able to earn the number one spot over Boyle? Will Mark Andrews get into the slot with Willie Snead being brought in? Will they somehow keep four tight ends and allow Maxx Williams another shot?
If you could combine the best parts of Hurst, Andrews, and Boyle into one guy, you would have Rob Gronkowski. But having three guys with different skillsets and in most cases only being able to use one or two at a time, it is going to make managing each players opportunities and maximizing their output a tough juggling act. One I hope the Ravens can figure out.