JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Coach Urban Meyer was pretty clear the Jacksonville Jaguars needed a pass-catching tight end, and since they didn’t sign one in free agency it’s equally clear it will be a priority in the draft.
The Jaguars had better pick one in the first three rounds, though, because recent history shows that it’s hard to find an impact tight end after that. It’s not impossible -- Antonio Gates was undrafted, Delanie Walker was a sixth-round pick, and George Kittle was a fifth-round pick, for example -- but drafting one early is a much better option.
In looking at the highest-producing tight ends over the past 20 years, 13 of the top 20 in terms of receptions were first- or second-round picks. Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s all-time receptions leader among tight ends (and third overall), was a first-round pick. Rob Gronkowski, who has the third-most TD catches among tight ends since 2001 with 86, was a second-round pick. Zach Ertz, who holds the single-season record for most receptions by a tight end (116 in 2018), was a second-round pick.
Four more of the top 20 were third-round picks, including Jason Witten, whose 1,228 receptions are second only to Gonzalez among tight ends and rank fourth overall in NFL history, and Travis Kelce, who surpassed 100 catches twice in the past three seasons. Jimmy Graham and Jared Cook also were third-round picks.
Only three of the top 20 players were taken after the third round: Gates, Walker and Owen Daniels (fourth round).
So the Jaguars’ best chance of landing a tight end that can be a major part of the passing game -- something that hasn’t happened much around here, and certainly never to the extent of what the players mentioned above have done -- is to find one by the end of Day 2 of the draft. The Jaguars have five picks in the first three rounds (two each in the first and second rounds) and are likely taking quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall.
Florida’s Kyle Pitts will almost assuredly be long gone by the time the Jaguars pick 25th, but there are some other intriguing prospects -- such as Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, Boston College’s Hunter Long and Miami’s Brevin Jordan -- that the Jaguars could target in the second or third round. Freiermuth could be the pick to start the second round.
There’s no guarantee about any of those players and the Jaguars shouldn’t force the pick, but if they do have good evaluations on any of them and believe they can be impact players, then it’s better to take them in the second or third rather than waiting at the position or hoping they slide.
The Jaguars’ draft history with tight ends is ... not good. They’ve drafted nine since the team’s inception (including Derek Brown in the 1995 expansion draft), but just two earlier than the fourth round: Marcedes Lewis (28th overall in 2006) and Josh Oliver (third round in 2019). Lewis is the franchise’s all-time leader among tight ends in receptions (375), receiving yards (4,502) and TD catches (33), and he’s third overall in the first two categories and second only to wide receiver Jimmy Smith in touchdown catches.
Oliver played in four games and had just three catches in his first two seasons because of injuries, and the Jaguars traded him to Baltimore last month for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2022.
Of the remaining nine players in the franchise’s top 10 in terms of tight end receptions, six were either free-agent signees, signed off the street, or acquired via trade: Kyle Brady, Pete Mitchell, James O’Shaughnessy, Julius Thomas, Clay Harbor and Tyler Eifert.
After Lewis, the best tight end the Jaguars have drafted is George Wrighster, a fourth-round pick in 1990 who went on to catch 94 passes for 850 yards and nine touchdowns in his six-year career.
Jaguars tight ends have rarely been prominent parts of the passing game. Only three in franchise history have caught 48 or more passes -- an average of just three per game over 16 games -- in a single season: Mitchell (52 in 1996), Brady (64 in 2000) and Lewis (58 in 2010 and 52 in 2012).
Three catches per game, even for a run-oriented team, isn’t asking too much. Especially since the Jaguars haven’t exactly had dynamic receivers since Jimmy Smith retired after the 2005 season. They’ve had only three receivers record 1,000-yard seasons since then (Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in 2015 and DJ Chark Jr. in 2019) and have had only two players with 70 or more catches in a season (Robinson in 2015-16 and Chark in 2019).
Tight end is a priority in the NFL today more than ever and the Jaguars should treat it as such.