The 31 Most Precocious College Tight End Seasons of the Decade

Image via WBUR/Flickr
Image via WBUR/Flickr

pre·co·cious

priˈkōSHəs
adjective
having developed certain abilities or proclivities at an earlier age than usual.

Earlier this month I wrote an article called The 50 Most Precocious College Receiver Seasons of the Decade, which used the concept of age-adjusted production to grade and rank the top 50 college receiver season since 2005. That list obviously has some misses, but I think it also provides thought-provoking insight into the implications of early dominance by wide receiver prospects. Today’s article takes that methodology and applies it to the tight end position to see if a similar pattern holds.

Methodology

Using the download of the WR Career Graph app, I had access to about 8,000 individual player seasons between 2005 and 2013 (Technically, that’s nine years and not a decade, but “the decade” sounded better, so I went with that). From there I plugged in birthdates for as many players I could find, added a “TE” designation, and calculated ages for each player season. Then I created z-scores for age and dominator rating (the average of market share of yards and market share of touchdowns), such that a “good” age z-score would be lower than average (a negative number) and a good DR z-score would be well above average (a positive number). To arrive at the final season score, I subtracted the age z-score from the DR z-score to get a final number. To avoid over-complicating the matter, I’ve omitted those z-numbers from the article and just provided the raw DR and age numbers, but I explain this for the sake of transparency. For anyone wondering why I used MSyards in the receiver article, but use DR here, it’s because I have reason to believe that market share of TDs is a red herring for receivers, but is informative for TEs.

To be eligible, a player must have appeared in eight games in that season and accumulated 25 targets. Because the goal of this is to create a tool through which we can identify top NFL prospects while they’re still in college, military school players have been removed since we don’t get to see them in the NFL.

The 31 Most Precocious College Tight End Seasons of the Decade

31) Gavin Escobar, San Diego State, 2011, Age 20.91
Two seasons before he became the 47th overall pick in the NFL Draft, Escobar flashed big-time potential. He posted a line of 51-780-7 en route to a dominator rating of 29.9. That season, SDSU played three, 11-win teams (Michigan, Boise State, TCU) in which Escobar posted an average line of five catches, 81 yards, and one TD. As the Jason Witten era draws toward a close in Dallas, look out for Escobar to become a major threat in that offense.  MSyards: 26.4, MStouchdowns: 33.3, Dominator Rating: 29.9

30) Austin Seferian Jenkins, Washington, 2011, Age 19.25
Making his first of two appearances on this list, ASJ dominated from the start at Washington. In his debut season, he hauled in 41 passes for 538 yards and six TDs. Showing early signs of TD dominance, Seferian-Jenkins posted multi-TD games in two of his first 10 contests. For the season, he posted a dominator rating of 16.4.  MSyards: 16.2, MStouchdowns: 16.7, Dominator Rating: 16.4

29) Aaron Hernandez, Florida, 2008, Age 19.15
On a national championship team that featured Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow, Hernandez was the third-leading receiver. He caught 34 passes for 381 yards and five TDs on his way to posting a dominator rating of 15.9. Starting the season in style, Hernandez scored TDs in consecutive games against Miami (FL) and Tennessee. In the final regular season game, at Florida State, Hernandez posted the first multi-TD game of his career. We’ll see him again later on this list.  MSyards: 14.6, MStouchdowns: 17.2, Dominator Rating: 15.9

28) Martellus Bennett, Texas A&M, 2006, Age 19.81
Before he was The Black Unicorn, Bennett was just a dominant young TE for the Aggies. He posted a dominator rating of 21.6 in a season that saw him catch 38 balls for 497 yards and three TDs. In 2008 the Dallas Cowboys drafted him with the 61st overall pick, which resulted in limited early-career production. In both 2012 and 2013, when assuming a starter’s role, Bennett posted top 14 finishes at his position.  MSyards: 20.1, MStouchdowns: 23.1, Dominator Rating: 21.6

27) Chase Coffman, Missouri, 2006, Age 20.14
Catching passes from Chase Daniel, Coffman had a tremendous sophomore season for Mizzou. He hauled in 58 passes for 638 yards and nine TDs on his way to a 24.4 dominator rating. He scored TDs in five of eight conference games, highlighted by two multi-TD games against Colorado and Kansas.  MSyards: 17.8, MStouchdowns: 31.0, Dominator Rating: 24.4

26) Garrett Mills, Tulsa, 2005, Age 22.22
Nearly a year older than anybody else on this list, Mills kicked some major ass in his final season. Catching passes for the Golden Hurricanes, Mills posted a dominator rating of 41.7 during an 87-1235-9 campaign. For the year, he went over 100 receiving yards on seven occasions. In 2006 he was drafted in the fourth round by the New England Patriots, but has only nine career receptions in the pros.  MSyards: 40.4, MStouchdowns: 42.9, Dominator Rating: 41.7

25) Brandon Barden, Vanderbilt, 2008, Age 19.8
In his debut season for a Vanderbilt team that would end a 26-year bowl drought, Barden was the second-leading receiver. A key contributor in big spots, Barden caught TD passes in two early season SEC upsets against South Carolina and Auburn. For the year, he caught 28 passes for 209 yards and four TDs en route to a 22.2 dominator rating.  MSyards: 13.7, MStouchdowns: 30.8, Dominator Rating: 22.2

24) Aaron Hernandez, Florida, 2009, Age 20.15
One of the rare seasons on this list where a player had more MSyards than MStouchdowns, Hernandez was brilliant for the 2009 Gators. He posted a stat line of 68-850-5 en route to a dominator rating of 25.3. In the final three games of his career against Florida State, Alabama (SEC Championship) and Cincinnati (Sugar Bowl), Hernandez averaged seven catches, 93 yards, and one TD. Off the field issues caused him to fall to the fourth-round of the 2010 NFL Draft, but he was one of the best young TEs in the game before his summer 2014 arrest.  MSyards: 28.9, MStouchdowns: 21.7, Dominator Rating: 25.3

23) Cody Slate, Marshall, 2007, Age 20.38
Making his first of several appearances on this list, Slate was a standout TE/H-back for the 2007 Herd team. As a second-year player, he led the team in yards (818) and TDs (five) on his way to a 27.3 dominator rating. The highlight of his season was a 5-82-1 performance in a loss against No. 3 ranked West Virginia.  MSyards: 25.1, MStouchdowns: 29.4, Dominator Rating: 27.3

22) Vance McDonald, Rice, 2010, Age 20.55
Three years before he became the 55th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft (49ers), Vance McDonald was an outstanding sophomore at Rice. For the season, he caught 28 passes for 396 yards and eight TDs, including two multi-TD games. Standing 6’4” 270 lbs with impressive athleticism, McDonald seems to be the heir to the throne if and when Vernon Davis’ contract expires or is terminated.  MSyards: 18.9, MStouchdowns: 40.0, Dominator Rating: 29.4

21) Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette, 2009, Age 19.59
Before he became one of the hottest commodities in the fantasy football world, Ladarius Green was a 19-year-old sophomore TE on a .500 Sun Belt team. Limited to only nine games, Green was the leading receiver, posting a line of 32-533-2 en route to a dominator rating of 21.7.  He ended the season with a bang, averaging six catches, 125 yards, and a TD over his final two contests. That flash of dominance was a precursor to his absurd 2010 season, but more on that later.  MSyards: 26.7, MStouchdowns: 16.7, Dominator Rating: 21.7

20) Philip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn, 2011, Age 20.58
Best remembered for catching critical fourth-quarter TDs against South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama in the 2010 Cam Newton title season, Lutzenkirchen was Auburn’s leading TD receiver in 2011. For the year he posted a line of 24-238-7 en route to a 29.8 dominator rating. Sadly, Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident in June of 2014.  MSyards: 12.9, MStouchdowns: 46.7, Dominator Rating: 29.8

19) Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma, 2007, Age 19.46
As a sophomore, Gresham caught passes from Sam Bradford in a 37-518-11 campaign. Playing in 14 games, he grabbed TDs in seven of them, including a two-TD game against Texas and a four-TD game against Texas A&M. A year later he posted a 66-950-14 season during Bradford’s Heisman campaign. Despite missing the entire 2009 season to injury, Gresham was a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. (Fun fact: I sat next to him on a plane one time)  MSyards: 15.5, MStouchdowns: 30.6, Dominator Rating: 23.0

18) Travis Beckum, Wisconsin, 2007, Age 20.93
Two seasons before becoming a third-round pick of the New York Giants, Beckum carried the Wisconsin passing offense to the tune of 75-982-6. He caught TDs in five of eight conference games on his way to posting a 35.8 dominator rating. The highlight of the year was his 6-106-1 performance against No. 13 Michigan in a November upset win.  MSyards: 36.3, MStouchdowns: 35.3, Dominator Rating: 35.8

17) Rob Gronkowski, Arizona, 2007, Age 18.72
Playing in 10 games as a true freshman, Gronk caught TDs in five of them, including an early season line of 4-115-2 against Washington State. In total he caught TDs in four of seven conference games. Foreshadowing his monster 2008 season (keep reading) Gronk averaged four catches, 70 yards, and .75 touhdowns over the final four games of the season.  MSyards: 14.2, MStouchdowns: 21.4, Dominator Rating: 17.8

16) Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State, 2011, Age 20.12
In his first season at TE after converting from the defensive line, Gillmore posted a 29.4 dominator rating. A quick learner, he caught TD passes in three of his first four games en route to a 45-468-4 performance. He was the 99th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and looks to be a future contributor at the position for the Ravens.  MSyards: 22.4, MStouchdowns: 36.4, Dominator Rating: 29.4

15) Travis Beckum, Wisconsin, 2006, Age 19.93
In his first season after converting from linebacker, Beckum lead the 12-1 Badgers in receiving yards and TDs. He surpassed 60 yards receiving on eight occasions on his way to a 61-903-5 stat line. It looked like he might become the Giants starting TE in 2012 before a torn ACL derailed his career.  MSyards: 32.8, MStouchdowns: 23.8, Dominator Rating: 28.3

14) Devin Funchess, Michigan, 2013, Age 19.61
Part TE, part receiver, Funchess was a force for the 2013 Wolverines. He was the team’s second-leading receiver, hauling in 49 passes for 748 yards, and six TDs. The highlight of the year was a two-week stretch in which he caught 11 passes for 263 yards and three TDs against Minnesota and Penn State.  MSyards: 23.2, MStouchdowns: 28.6, Dominator Rating: 25.9

13) Devin Funchess, Michigan, 2012, Age 18.61
No, you are not seeing double, Funchess is on this list twice in a row.  As an 18-year-old, he caught TDs in his first two collegiate games on his way to a 16-266-4 season. Similar to Eric Ebron, he’s more of a big WR than a true TE and will, reportedly, be playing receiver full-time in 2014. He’s one of the top pass catchers, regardless of position, eligible for the 2015 draft.  MSyards: 9.8, MStouchdowns: 26.3, Dominator Rating: 18.1

12) Cody Slate, Marshall, 2008, Age 21.38
2008 was the third consecutive season in which Slate led the Herd in TDs. For the season he caught 40 passes for 510 yards and eight TDs, including TD catches in seven of 10 games played.  MSyards: 17.8, MStouchdowns: 50.0, Dominator Rating: 40.8

11) Jesse James, Penn State, 2012, Age 18.58
A 6’7” monster, James posted an 18.0 dominator rating during his age-18 season. For the year he caught 15 passes for 276 yards and five TDs, making him the second-leading TD threat behind my man Allen Robinson. He’ll be one of Christian Hackenburg’s favorite targets for the 2014 season and a name to monitor for the ’15 or ’16 draft.  MSyards: 11.1, MStouchdowns: 25.0, Dominator Rating: 18.0

10) Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette, 2008, Age 18.59
Making his second of three appearances on this list, Green was a strong contributor as a freshman for a mediocre Sun Belt team. In a limited passing offense, he caught 22 passes for 268 yards and five TDs. In a move indicative of an emerging baller, Green caught TDs in each of his final four games of the 2008 season.  MSyards: 12.0, MStouchdowns: 27.8, Dominator Rating: 19.9

9) Chase Coffman, Missouri, 2005, Age 19.14
Making his second appearance on this list, Coffman was an outstanding player in his debut season. Playing alongside the dynamic Brad Smith, Coffman posted a line of 47-503-4. A stud from the get-go, Coffman caught TDs in each of his first two career games. To end the 2005 campaign, the Mizzou TE averaged seven catches, 93 yards, and a TD in the season’s final two games against Kansas State and South Carolina. Despite being the 98th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Coffman has only recorded four catches in the pros.  MSyards: 20.5, MStouchdowns: 28.6, Dominator Rating: 24.6

8) Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington, 2012, Age 20.25
The second-leading receiver on a Washington team that would upset two top-10 teams, ASJ was a beast in 2012. One of the more impressive raw-stats seasons on this list, he caught 69 passes for 852 yards and seven TDs. Playing in nine conference games, ASJ caught TDs in five of them, highlighted by two games with at least eight catches, 110-plus yards, and a TD. He’s an elite dynasty asset playing on the “Dunkaneers.”    MSyards: 30.8, MStouchdowns: 36.8, Dominator Rating: 33.8  

7) Andrew Quarless, Penn State, 2006, Age 18.23
Playing the first month of the season at age 17, Quarless was a solid contributor to a nine-win Penn State team. He was the fourth-leading receiver and caught 21 passes for 288 yard and two TDs. He would eventually become a fifth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and continues to be in the mix for their TE job.  MSyards: 12.6, MStouchdowns: 22.2 Dominator Rating: 17.4 

6) Hunter Henry, Arkansas, 2013, Age 19.07
If you’re looking for candidates from the college ranks to be “the next Gronk” this name should be top of your list. In his 10 appearances for a lousy Arkansas pass offense, Henry caught 28 passes for 409 yards and four TDs en route to a 25.3 dominator rating. Setting the tone for a big 2014, he caught five balls for 41 yards and two TDs as the 3-8 Razorbacks nearly pulled the upset of highly ranked LSU.  MSyards: 23.9, MStouchdowns: 26.7, Dominator Rating: 25.3

5) Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette, 2010, Age 20.59
Playing in only 10 games, Green caught TDs in seven of them, including the season opener at Georgia. Equally remarkable is that fact that, on a team that averaged 250 pass yards per game, Green went over 85 receiving yards on seven occasions. Over the final 23 games of his college career, he caught TDs in 13 of them, highlighted by a 2011 streak of three consecutive multi-TD games. Green is one of the most promising young TEs in the NFL. MSyards: 33.7, MStouchdowns: 50.0, Dominator Rating: 41.9

4) Maxx Williams, Minnesota, 2013, Age 19.72
Still in college, Williams was a beast during his redshirt freshman campaign. He caught a TD in his first career game on his way to five for the season. Overall his stat line was 25-417-5. More than just a lumbering red zone threat, Williams saw eight of his catches go for 20-plus yards. He’s one of the best, but most unheralded, TEs in college football right now.  MSyards: 24.3, MStouchdowns: 45.5, Dominator Rating: 34.9

3) Jonnu Smith, Florida International, 2013, Age 18.36
Truth be told, Jonnu is the reason why this list is at 31; he was a late addition after I went back and inserted data for the 2013 underclassmen.  As an 18-year old H-back/TE, Smith was FIU’s leading receiver last season catching 39 passes for 388 yards and two TDs for the 1-11 Panthers. Still growing into his position, Smith has put on nearly 30 pounds since arriving at college and will be a small-school name to monitor over the next few years.  MSyards: 22.7, MStouchdowns: 25.0, Dominator Rating: 23.8

2) Cody Slate, Marshall, 2006, Age 19.38
In his debut season for the Herd, Slate was the team’s leading pass catcher, nearly doubling up his nearest teammate in yards and TDs. Playing in 11 games, he caught TDs in five of them, including one multi-TD performance. For the year, he caught 43-684-6 en route to a dominator rating of 36.4. In his senior season, 2009, Slate tore his ACL and then went undrafted in 2010. He has been on several NFL rosters, but never caught a pass in the NFL.  MSyards: 32.7, MStouchdowns: 40.0, Dominator Rating: 36.4

1) Rob Gronkowski, Arizona, 2008, Age 19.72
Leading Arizona to its first bowl game in 10 years, Gronk was utterly dominant during his sophomore campaign. Despite playing in only 10 games, he managed a stat line of 47-672-10 en route to an otherworldly 48 dominator rating. Of the nine conference games he played, he caught TDs in seven of them, including consecutive multi-TD games to open the season. Back surgery caused him to miss the entire 2009 college season, but he still was the 42nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Needless to say, when healthy, he is one of the most dominant players in football.  MSyards: 29.3, MStouchdowns: 66.7, Dominator Rating: 48.0

What does it all mean?

I think this is a valuable exercise, but I acknowledge that there are some issues.  First, guys with virtually no college football experience (Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, etc) won’t show up in this list, so it’s no help there. Then, there’s the fact that a number of these guys are tweener H-back/TE types who probably aren’t big enough or athletic enough for the NFL, but have plenty of utility in their college offense. Finally, there’s the issue of having a high market share in a miserable college offense, which I think is deceptive. That said, I think this is useful when you look at guys like Hernandez, Bennett, Gresham, Green, and Gronkowski who have all been high draft picks and/or had solid careers. They seem to have a combination of good age, market share, and raw stats. What excites me most about this exercise is the ability to score current college players (specifically Hunter Henry and Devin Funchess) as they progress through their career and compare them against historical TEs. Through this exciting new paradigm, you can expect RotoViz to continue to push the envelope with prospect evaluation and the early identification of premier talents.


Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a coach at RotoAcademy.  Continue this conversation with him on Twitter or Google+.