The tight end is still valuable and productive around NFL offences. For a select few teams–namely the Cowboys, Chargers, and Colts–the position is one of their most effective receiving options.

Over the last five years, eight tight ends have finished with 1,000 or more receiving yards, and at least one tight end has been selected in the first round of the draft for the past 11 years. With the emergence of Dustin Keller this year in New York and the Patriots’ two-headed tight end threat, the former trend isn’t likely to slow any time soon. But the latter almost certainly will.

Facing a board thin at the position, the chances of a team investing an early pick in a tight end appear extremely slim. The highest rated tight end for this year’s draft is Notre Dame’s Kyle Rudolph, and many mock drafts peg him as an early second-round selection.

ESPN’s Todd McShay forecasts the Cardinals using their 38th overall pick on Rudolph, whose 2010 season ended early because of a hamstring injury. The injury also kept Rudolph away from the Scouting Combine, meaning his chances of sneaking into the first round will heavily rely on his performance during Notre Dame’s Pro Day on April 7. Wisconsin’s Lance Kendricks is another likely second round candidate; ditto for Arkansas’ DJ Williams.

Over the past decade, 14 tight ends have been called to the stage by Roger Goodell in the first round, a streak that will likely end this year. As Dolphins tight ends coach Dan Campbell told Len Pasquarelli of CBSSports.com, the lack of a tight end in the first round this year isn’t solely a reflection on the talent available. Instead, it’s a result of teams knowing that they have the option to wait and still get good value in the later rounds.

“You’d like to get a guy in the first round if he’s got that kind of grade, but the history is that you can still get good tight ends a little later,” said Campbell.

But just how valuable are these coveted first round tight ends? There’s a chart for that.

Player Draft Year Selected Receptions Receiving yards Touchdowns Pro Bowls
Jermaine Gresham 2010 21 52 471 4 0
Brandon Pettigrew 2009 20 101 1,068 6 0
Dustin Keller 2008 30 148 1,744 10 0
Greg Olsen 2007 31 194 1,981 20 0
Marcedes Lewis 2006 28 181 2,224 17 1
Vernon Davis 2006 6 237 3,011 29 1
Heath Miller 2005 30 286 3,233 29 1
Benjamin Watson 2004 32 235 2,865 23 0
Kellen Winslow II 2004 6 362 4,073 21 2
Dallas Clark 2003 24 393 4,535 44 1
Jerramy Stevens 2002 28 202 2,217 22 0
Daniel Graham 2002 21 222 2,465 24 0
Jeremy Shockey 2002 14 510 5,688 33 4
Todd Heap 2001 31 467 5,492 41 2

Over the last 10 years tight ends deemed worthy enough for a first round selection have appeared in a combined 12 Pro Bowls. Shockey, who has struggled with injuries and recently signed with the Panthers, accounts for four of those.

Shockey was part of a deep 2002 tight end draft that also saw Stevens and Graham selected in the first round. Stevens has had only three seasons with 300 or more receiving yards, while Graham was recently released by the Broncos.

Graham began the Patriots’ longstanding quest to fill their hole at tight end, a journey that seems to have finally ended after the selection of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last spring. Only two years after taking Graham, the Patriots selected Watson before the two eventually left through free agency. When they opted to go with Graham in 2002 the Patriots passed on Ed Reed, who would have plugged an equally large hole in the New England secondary.

The most glaring observation from the list of first round tight ends is their position primarily at the end of the draft. Only three players were selected lower than the 20th overall pick, with two–Vernon Davis and Kellen Winslow–taken sixth overall.

Both Davis and Winslow have easily been worthy of the selection. Davis has 1,879 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns over just the past two seasons. And when he’s healthy and not riding motorcycles, Winslow has also been consistently productive, averaging at least 11 yards per catch throughout his six-year career.

So, what does all of this mean? It means exactly what Campbell said.

With sufficient talent at the position available in the later rounds, the price has to be worth the return in the tight end game. The likes of Rudolph, Williams, and Kendricks may flirt with the line separating the first and second round, but at this point their projected value doesn’t stack up to the precedent set over the past 10 years.