Deep TE draft class matches up with one of Jaguars' biggest needs

T.J. Hockenson caught a combined nine touchdown passes in his last two seasons at Iowa. Jesse Johnson/USA Today Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars likely will select a tight end at some point in the NFL draft.

The key question: When?

Will it be with their first pick (currently seventh overall), when they could nab Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson? Trade back late into the first round to nab Noah Fant, another Hawkeyes standout? Or with one of their two third-round picks?

Maybe the Jaguars will wait even longer while general manager Dave Caldwell and executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin address needs at other positions.

Regardless of which path the Jaguars choose, they’re in a good spot in 2019: It’s one of the rare times when they have a major need at a position that is regarded as one of the deepest in the draft. It gives them an opportunity to land the kind of impact tight end they’ve rarely had in franchise history.

“You look at some of the best teams in the league and the tight ends that they’ve had,” Caldwell told reporters at the NFL combine. “My time in Atlanta, we always had a good tight end. My time in Indianapolis [they always had a good tight end]. It’s probably the quarterback’s best friend, especially to have a guy that can make plays in that role.

“For us, we’re a run-oriented team and I think it’d be a key factor for us to have a guy that can make plays.”

The Jaguars haven’t had that kind of player on their roster often. In fact, only three tight ends in Jaguars history have caught 48 or more passes in a single season: Pete Mitchell (1996), Kyle Brady (2000) and Marcedes Lewis (2010 and 2012). Mitchell, Brady and Lewis are also the only tight ends in franchise history to surpass 50 catches in a season.

That equates to three catches per game over a 16-game season. Even for a run-oriented team, that isn’t asking for too much, especially since the Jaguars haven’t exactly had dynamic wide receivers since Jimmy Smith retired after the 2005 season. They’ve had only two receivers record 1,000-yard seasons since then (Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in 2015) and had only one player with 70 or more catches in a season (Robinson in 2015-16).

This came during an era in the NFL when tight ends have become major factors -- and in some cases the focal point -- in the passing game. In every season since 2007, there have been at least 11 tight ends who had 50 or more catches in a season, including a high of 20 tight ends in 2016. There were 12 last season, but it included Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz, whose 116 catches ranked second overall in the NFL.

The list includes some of the best to play the position: Ertz, Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis and Antonio Gates. But it also includes Jacob Tamme, Fred Davis, Tim Wright and Charles Clay, among others. Solid players, but not stars.

Considering the depth of the 2019 class of tight ends, there likely will be future stars and solid tight ends available at various points over the three days of the draft. Since Jaguars tight ends had the second-fewest receptions in the NFL in the past two seasons (102, seven ahead of Miami), they desperately need one.

“It’s one of the better ones [class of tight ends] I’ve seen in recent history, so I think you can get one through the whole draft that’ll come in, make your team and contribute for you,” Caldwell said.