During yesterday’s game against Portland State, one of the FX commentators declared Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins the best tight end in the country. Later in the broadcast, both commentators brought it up again. Like anything those in the booth say, it sounded totally reasonable, but in reality, it’s a decently bold opinion that is very much up for debate.
So I’ll take a look at how the various tight ends of college football have done through the first three weeks of the season and see if Austin deserves the title of best in the nation. Of course, other information will have to come in to play as well, including career stats and strength of schedule.
Also, it should be noted that I’m determining who the best pass-catching tight end is. I know that might disappoint some old school football fans, but in today’s game, a tight end that stretches the field and scores touchdowns is significantly more valuable than a talented blocker, and I’m pretty certain that when the FX commentator made his declaration, he was referring to pass catching tight ends. I don’t mean to say blocking isn’t an important skill at the position, and it is definitely something coaches look for, but it is not by any stretch of the imagination the most important skill.
By the way, I apologize for how many times you will read some form of Austin Seferian-Jenkins. It got old typing it as well. His name is too long.
Among all tight ends that have played three game so far this season, Seferian-Jenkins leads them all with 20 receptions. Arkansas’ Chris Gragg is second with 17, and both Dion Sims and Jack Doyle are tied with 16.
Gragg is in the lead with 226 yards, with Blake Jackson of Oklahoma State just behind him at 217. Still, Seferian-Jenkins comes in third with 211. Kaneakua Friel of BYU has 195, and then there is a drop off to Dion Sims’ 165.
This is where things get a little more complicated, as Friel leads the competition with 4 touchdowns, while none of the six players that have caught 3 touchdown passes are in the top five in yards or receptions. Jace Amaro of Texas Tech is sixth in yards with 161, so he is close, but the fact that he has done it in only 11 catches can either be impressive from a big play standpoint or point to the idea that he may not be as central to his team’s offense as Gragg or ASJ.
Breaking Down the Numbers
Of course, all of these numbers were put up against different opponents, and all the passes were thrown by different quarterbacks. It isn’t always fair to compare as if all the stats were compiled in a vacuum. With that in mind, it is still clear to me that the top three tight ends this season, in no particular order, have been Chris Gragg, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Kaneaukua Friel.
Statistically speaking, Friel has pretty much come out of nowhere. His stat-line from 2011: 7 catches for 55 yards and 1 touchdown. This is college, so we aren’t talking about his hall of fame eligibility, but the lack of past performance does mean that there’s a chance the high level of play, or at least the 4 touchdowns, could be a bit of a fluke, at least in that no one can reasonably expect him to finish the season with the 16 scores he is on pace to earn. Considering those four touchdowns are the only way Friel has outplayed Gragg and Seferian-Jenkins, that’s worth some thought.
Chris Gragg has a bit more of a pedigree, with 41 catches for 518 yards and 2 touchdowns in thirteen games last year. He is also beating Austin in receiving yards and touchdowns so far this year, though it is close. Almost half of his yards and both of his touchdowns in 2012 came in a rout of Jacksonville State, and he only had 3 catches for 33 yards in a 52-0 loss to Alabama last week. Not sure it’s really fair to criticize him for not putting up massive stats in that contest though, considering Tyler Wilson, his starting quarterback, did not play.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins doesn’t have the touchdown catches of Friel, but he has caught more passes for more yards. Gragg clearly has a slight edge in the stats this year, but Austin’s stat line in his freshman year, 41 catches for 538 yards and 6 touchdowns, is superior to Gragg’s 2011 year as a junior, the aforementioned 41 catches for 518 yards and 2 touchdowns. That shows that even as a freshman still learning to play at the college level, the Washington sophomore still outplayed Gragg over a full season. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible that Gragg has improved and will continue to outplay Seferian-Jenkins, but I just don’t think it’s likely.
From a physical standpoint, Friel certainly passes the eye test. He is 6’5″ and 250 pounds, ideal size for a pass catching tight end in the NFL. Gragg is a slightly smaller 6’3″ and 236 pounds, but he is still projected to be one of the top tight ends in the 2013 NFL Draft. The thing is, Austin Seferian-Jenkins is undeniably the most physically impressive of the three. He stands 6’6″ (and I remember him sometimes being listed at 6’7″ as a recruit) and weighs 266 pounds. That kind of size isn’t uncommon in NFL tight ends, but it usually indicates a blocker, not a pass catcher that often splits out wide and acts as a straight up receiver. Rob Gronkowski, the most dominant tight end in the NFL, happens to be listed as 6’6″ and 265 pounds, so that’s pretty good company.
The Final Verdict
I believe Austin Seferian-Jenkins truly is the best tight end out of these three players. Friel is still pretty much unknown. Gragg is close, but he is not as physically dominant as Seferian-Jenkins and his 2011 statistics were not quite as impressive. He’s definitely a great player, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds success in the NFL, but by the conclusion of this season, I’m confident he will be outplayed by the Washington sophomore.
So does beating out those two make Austin the best tight end in the country? Well, not necessarily. That would mean forgetting Tyler Eifert, the Notre Dame Senior that had a monster 2011 season (63 catches for 803 yards and 5 touchdowns) and is widely considered to be a second or first round prospect for April’s draft. He did not play in Notre Dame’s Saturday win over Michigan State due to injury, so his 2012 stats don’t stack up to the three players we discussed, but he must be considered. He is 6’6″ and 250 pounds, meaning that he is only marginally smaller than Seferian-Jenkins, and he has put up good numbers against a lot of very good teams.
Eifert was the better player last year, and even with his injury, he probably didn’t suddenly lose his talent in time for this year. He is physically in the same ball park as Seferian-Jenkins. He is thought highly of by scouts, and as a Senior, he has more experience as well. Still, Austin is a monster. So far this season he is fully healthy and has been fairly dominant, even catching 6 balls for 51 yards against LSU, and now that he is one year older, there is every reason to expect that his season stats will take a big step forward from last year, possibly reaching or even eclipsing the numbers from Eifert’s 2011 campaign.
So, after all that analysis, it still pretty much comes down to my opinion.
The Super Final Verdict
I believe that Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the best tight end in the country. He appears to be significantly better than he was last year, when he still played great. He is more comfortable using his body and is avoiding some of the issues he had last year with drops. Perhaps even more important, he is now a focal point of this offense, possibly even more so than wide receiver Kasen Williams. The ball will always be thrown to him, and I have every reason to believe he will surpass both the 803 yards and 5 touchdowns of Eifert.
It’s possible that at the end of the year, I will be proven wrong. Maybe Eifert or Gragg will put up better stats, or Friel will prove his four touchdowns in three games was no fluke. It’s even possible Seferian-Jenkins sustains an injury. But I think by the time January rolls around and the bowl games are over, the final 2012 statistics will prove me right, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be a household name.
Feel free to chime in with your opinion in the comments below, and expect a follow up after the season to see if I came to the right decision.