“If he’s the best player, you take him.” It’s the common refrain surrounding the potential selection of Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson with the 12th pick by the Packers. The fit is logical: Green Bay needs a blocker next to Jimmy Graham, particularly in this offense, and Hock possesses more than enough pass-catching ability to be the future TE1 for this team as Jimmy Graham makes his inevitable (and relatively imminent) exit.
A 21-year-old Mackey Award winner who could be a Pro Bowl tight end sounds like a no-brainer for the Packers, right? Wrong.
Let’s set aside for the moment the question of his quality as a prospect. Smart people disagree on these things as they almost always do, outside of a few top players. First, interrogate the base premise here: the Packers should take the best player. It has become common for media people to suggest this and even Ted Thompson defenders will point to Aaron Rodgers and insist the Packers do this. But they don’t because they shouldn’t.
Taking the highest graded player doesn’t make for the smartest pick. It may make for the safest pick, but not the most impactful. Best player available, such as that concept actually has merit in the NFL Draft, isn’t “take the player with the highest grade,” because it would be ridiculous for the Packers to take Dwayne Haskins at 12 if he were available. The “best” player available to a team in a given moment is the player who will maximize impact on the team relative to other players available.
This takes into account grade, positional value, team makeup, contract situations, and myriad other variables.
If we’re setting aside grade for now, what’s the tight end’s true positional value in the NFL? Having one makes the offense better, but the Rams are tight end by committee. So are the Saints. The Patriots rely on Rob Gronkowski mostly as a blocker at this point in his career. And nearly all of the best players at the position weren’t high picks.
Marcedes Lewis signed in Green Bay for a song. It wasn’t his fault Mike McCarthy refused to use him. Big Bob Tonyan, the tight end Packers fans are so excited to see, came to the league as a former receiver with talent, but he went undrafted. Look at the All-Pros at the position this season: Travis Kelce was a third-round pick and George Kittle was a fifth-round pick. In other words, you can find a quality tight end in Round 2-7 or even as an undrafted free agent. We are past the point of teams simply looking at college basketball players for options, but only just barely.
That opportunity cost matters. If the Packers are taking a tight end at 12, who are they not taking? A blue-chip edge rusher or a starting offensive lineman. There could be an impact overhang defender or a big-play receiver. What is the value of upgrading a position where the team can find a suitable substitute which either much less draft capital or in free agency?
In making these calculations, the Packers must also decide what a player like Hockenson would give to the team relative to another player at a more premium position. The league has long prized OT, EDGE, CB, and WR above TE. Although the position has changed considerably over the years, the impact of pass rushers, cover guys, and protectors in particular remain as great as ever. Considering Green Bay’s roster, would a tight end — a player likely to take time to develop and only play 30% of snaps in Year 1 — truly be a more impactful player than someone like Jachai Polite or Montez Sweat who could come in and provide an immediate boost to a flailing outsider linebacker group?
Year 1 shouldn’t be the only viewpoint, but the short view is really all the team can have at any given time. The team can change so drastically over a few seasons, and any given player is only so likely to have a long career, that short-term impact calculation stands as the most salient piece of the puzzle.
If Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams falls to 12, how can the Packers pass on a Day 1 starter at right guard or a future long-term starter at right tackle to add a luxury position piece where someone 85% as good can likely be had at the 30th pick?
This part of the opportunity cost equation matters more in 2019 than most years. Green Bay has a luxury pick: it’s at #30. If Hockenson truly is that good and that valuable, package picks 30 and 44 or 30 and 75 to move up to get him in the 20s. Passing on a potential blue chip premium position player of comparable talent to take a tight end just doesn’t make sense for the Packers or any team. Look how often Hock’s teammate winds up in mock drafts at 30: Noah Fant is an outstanding prospect in his own right, as are Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. and Stanford’s Kaden Smith (no relation). Green Bay can get a quality tight end in the draft without using such a premier draft pick.
This discussion can’t be fully had without some discussion of Hockenson’s quality as a prospect. To be fully transparent, I think he’s more of an early 20’s type player. He’s very good, but not a transcendent prospect by any means. He’s an anomaly as someone who can catch and block, but that novelty isn’t indicative of quality. But even if one believes he’s a very good prospect, recent draft history suggests the league doesn’t view tight ends as priority players.
In 2018, Mike Gesicki tested as the most athletic tight end in combine history after a productive career at Penn State. He went with the 42nd pick, while Hayden Hurst was the highest tight end selected at 25. The year before, O.J. Howard drew consideration as a generational tight end prospect while Evan Engram crushed the combine after putting him huge numbers at Ole Miss. Howard ended up going 19th and Engram at 23.
Every draft brings different situations, but it’s hard to make the case Hockenson deserves to go before someone like Howard, an athletic receiver who also demonstrated alacrity with blocking. In fact, the only tight end to go in the top-15 over the last 10 seasons is Eric Ebron in 2014, picked when the Lions could have drafted Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham Jr, Aaron Donald, Kyle Fuller, Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin or C.J. Mosley. That’s not cherry-picking, that’s the literal draft order after Ebron’s selection.
Before that, a tight end hadn’t gone in the top-15 since Vernon Davis in 2006, when Matt LaFleur was a 26-year-old quarterbacks coach at Northern Michigan. The NFL transformed considerably in the interim, but the value of the tight end, and the ease with which teams can find them, hasn’t.
This should be taken as nothing against Hockenson, who is a tremendous player with the talent to make the Packers better. If he somehow fell to 30, it would likely be a no-brainer for Brian Gutekunst and company. Combine everything from talent to opportunity cost, team makeup, and more; taking a tight end at 12, almost any tight end, doesn’t make sense.