The John Mackey Award, presented annually to the nation’s top tight end, is one of the better indicators of future success on Sundays when compared to all of college football’s end-of-the-season awards. Since it was first presented in 2000, thirteen of its alumni have played in the NFL and three (Daniel Graham, Dallas Clark, Heath Miller) have won six Super Bowls.
All tight ends that meet the selection committee’s criteria are eligible, but save for Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert in 2012, nobody outside the Big Ten, Pacific 12, SEC, and ACC has won the award.
Nobody has ever won the award without meeting the following minimum thresholds:
- 450 receiving yards
- 36 receptions
- 37.5 receiving yards per game
- 10.1 yards per catch
- Three receptions per game
- 11 games played
No player has won the award without being named to the preseason watch list, either, and nearly all of the winners were finalists or semi-finalists the year before they won.
It’s also important to note that the best player in terms of raw numbers don’t always win.
Ebron, the Detroit Lions 2014 first-round draft pick, led North Carolina in catches and receiving yards, whereas Seferian-Jenkins was third in receptions and fourth in receiving yards. Being held out of the Independence Bowl because of “academic reasons,” likely didn’t help Ebron’s chances, but as mentioned earlier, it’s uncertain how much weight the category has on the voting system in general.
The best tight end in the FBS a season ago in terms of raw numbers was Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, who had 98 catches, 1,240 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, yet didn’t make it past the semifinals.
So what does the award really take into heavy consideration? Continuity.
There are clearly anomalies such as Clemson’s Dwayne Allen—who caught 17 more balls for 225 more receiving yards and 7 more touchdowns than any season prior, but Seferian-Jenkins and Eifert had very extensive resumes entering their winning seasons, much more furnished than those they were matched up against in the finals for the award.
Entering the 2013 season, Seferian-Jenkins had 110 career catches (77 more than O’Leary, 60 more than Ebron), 1390 receiving yards (974 more than O’Leary, 558 more than Ebron), and 13 touchdowns (nine more than O’Leary, eight more than Ebron). Even monster seasons by Ebron and O’Leary—arguably statistically better ones than Seferian-Jenkins’s—couldn’t flip the script.
Seferian-Jenkins actually posted more impressive numbers the year prior to him winning: 33 more catches, 402 more receiving yards in 2012. Those numbers in catches (69) and receiving yards (852) were both higher than Tyler Eifert’s (who won) numbers that season (50 catches, 685 yards), but Eifert had averaged 45 catches, 577.5 yards and 3.5 touchdowns for two seasons before he won the award.
Entering the 2012 season, Eifert had 90 career catches (43 more than Ertz, 49 more than Seferian-Jenkins), 1155 receiving yards (619 more than Ertz, 619 more than Seferian-Jenkins) and seven touchdowns (two less than Ertz, one more than Seferian-Jenkins).
As last year showed, team success can be ruled out, too. O’Leary was a critical part of Florida State’s passing attack, accounting for 8 percent of the team’s total receiving yardage as a tight end, on a team with first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and 2014 preseason all-American Rashad Greene. The Seminoles ran the table last season and won a national championship; Washington went 9-4 and won the Fight Hunger Bowl. When Matt Spaeth won the award in 2006, the Minnesota Golden Gophers went 6-7.
Outside of sacks allowed, there’s no way to quantify the impact of a tight end’s blocking ability, at least not in an operational way. Even if they did, Washington was hardly a great blocking team a year ago when Seferian-Jenkins won the award, ranking No. 102 in the country in sacks allowed.
If we focus in on solid numbers and a track record of above average play on the field, O’Leary should win this year’s John Mackey Award handedly. He already held the school record for touchdowns in a career at his position (11) prior to the start of this season and was a semifinalist a season ago for the award. ESPN’s Mel Kiper has him begged as the top tight end in the 2015 draft class, which should keep alive the award’s streak of producing successful players on Sundays.
Numbers after Week 2 during winning campaign:
Considering what a horrid start to year Dallas Clark had in 2002, it’s safe to say success in Week 1 or two isn’t critical to a player’s chances. But O’Leary is ahead of pace, and will likely match the numbers he needs to hit to win the award.
O’Leary is currently 17th among FBS tight ends in receptions this season, and while those numbers might not be captivating, if he posts 36 receptions, and 450 receiving yards he’ll be given the 2014 John Mackey Award.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal’s The Daily Fix, Chicago Tribune’s RedEye Chicago, Rivals, Bleacher Report, Denver Post Sports, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio, the ESPN TrueHoop Network, Swish Analytics and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).