Tight end a weak spot across NFC North

  • Then-Green Bay tight end Jimmy Graham, right, was the most productive player at the position in the NFC North last season. Now with the Bears, the question remains: what's left in Graham's tank?

    Then-Green Bay tight end Jimmy Graham, right, was the most productive player at the position in the NFC North last season. Now with the Bears, the question remains: what's left in Graham's tank? Associated Press File Photo

 
 
Updated 5/18/2020 7:09 PM

Fourth in a series

In this series we rank the NFC North clubs at every position. Rankings are based on performance to date, scouting reports and evaluations from general managers, coaches and scouts around the NFL.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tight ends

1. Minnesota Vikings B-minus: That the Vikings have the best tight end group in the NFC North is far more an indictment of the lack of quality tight ends in the division than anything for Vikings fans to celebrate.

Kyle Rudolph is better than average at best, but is also the most dependable and productive tight end in the division, averaging 49-478 with 5 TDs over the last six seasons.

While he dropped off to 39-367, 9.4 yards per catch and 6 TDs last year, he won't turn 31 until November and is a solid Y, which is a much harder spot to fill than the U these days.

Irv Smith Jr. had a decent rookie season last year -- 36-311, 8.6, 2 TDs -- after being drafted with the 50th pick. He will see a lot more targets this year with the Vikings terribly thin at wide receiver, but he is unlikely to become a significant factor as a blocker.

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Tyler Conklin is a solid No. 3 able to line up at either the Y or the U.

2. Bears C-plus: That's right, this is how thin the division is here.

As controversial as the contract they gave 33-year-old Jimmy Graham is, and however disappointed the Packers and their fans may have been in him, he was the most productive tight end in the NFC North last year.

Graham's 38 catches were one behind Rudolph for second most, but his 447 yards and 11.8 average per catch were easily the best in the division.

As a five-time Pro Bowler and former All Pro, if there's any magic left with the Bears committed to using him much differently than the Packers did, he could be a real upgrade in Matt Nagy's offense?

Journeyman Demetrius Harris is the equal of any No. 2 but Smith Jr., and Cole Kmet offers more promise than any other youngster in the Division, but Smith Jr. and T.J. Hockenson.

Ben Braunecker, J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted offer a lot of depth.

3. Detroit Lions C-minus: Hockenson is as exciting a young prospect as you'll find in the league, but after being the eighth overall pick in the draft last year, he posted a disappointing 32-367, 11.5, 2 TD rookie campaign, missing four games with injury, and the numbers are particularly troubling because a lot of that production (6-131, 1 TD) came in the first game of the season.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At 6-5, 250, he possesses everything you're looking for in your No. 1, but he's yet to show it all on the field.

He should be a true Y and is still likely to become a very good one, but until he does, the Lions have very little at the position.

After solid second and third seasons in the league in Pittsburgh, Jesse James dropped off in 2018, joined the Lions as a free agent last season and gave them just 16-142, 8.9 in 16 games.

Isaac Nauta is an undersized -- 6-3, 245 -- U tight end prospect the Lions took in the seventh round last year, but he played in just six games with two catches as a rookie.

4. Green Bay Packers D-plus: It's really hard to be last in this group, but if anyone knows what the Packers plan at tight end is, please share with the group.

The Pack were high on Jace Sternberger when they took him at 75 in the third round last year -- and we were too -- but he started the season on injured reserve, was activated Nov. 2 and was targeted just once in six games and is still looking for his first NFL catch.

Marcedes Lewis is now 36 and pretty much a designated blocker at this point in his career.

Robert Tonyan out of McHenry will most likely be No. 3, but he's a former quarterback and wide receiver at Indiana State who was an undrafted rookie free agent and has totaled just 14-177, 2 TDs in 27 games over his first two seasons.

They did add Cincinnati's Josiah Deguara with the 94th pick in the draft, but he projects more as an H-back than a tight end.

• @Hub_Arkush

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