NFL Draft Breakdown: Mike Gesicki, Red Zone Weapon


NFL games are often a chess match between coordinators, but player performance transcends the designs people write on the chalkboard. When caught in a key situation, coaches prefer to lean on their proven weapons to win them the game. These X factor players stand out in fantasy football space because they earn those touches in the red zone and on third down when a team needs to have a big play. When you think of Penn State, one name immediately comes to mind: Saquon Barkley. But the Nittany Lions have another situational weapon on their roster: senior tight end Mike Gesicki.

When scouts evaluate skill position players (running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, quarterbacks), they can’t blindly apply a player’s stats to their rankings. Otherwise, quarterbacks like Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan would’ve become household names. High-octane spread offenses and ground-and-pound triple option schemes can produce players with statistics that look better than the rest of the competition, but that’s misleading. A more effective tactic is to look for players who stand out relative to their peers on the same team – taking a market share of touches much greater than the average. And to take it a step further, if you find the players with the greatest market share in key situations (like the red zone), you find the most trusted members of a team.

Past examples of these players who dominated in the red zone include Davante Adams, Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Justin Blackmon, Trent Taylor, John Ross, and Mike Williams. If you stand out in the red zone, then it usually means one of two things: you’re a great route runner who can separate in a small space, or you’ve been gifted with a big body and you know how to succeed with contested catches in a tight window.

You can probably guess which category Gesicki belongs to.

Gesicki has developed into one of those playmakers during his college career. The senior has grown his role in Penn State’s offense each year, and this season he became a go-to receiver in the red zone. Gesicki’s 15 receptions for 129 yards in the red zone were three times the market share of any other receiver in the Nittany Lions’ offense and led the nation among all skill position players. His nine touchdowns ranked third nationally, and every single touchdown Gesicki scored this season was delivered from the red zone.

Obviously, Penn State had a bigger star on their offense in Barkley, who ranked in the top 25 nationally for red zone rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns, but when his team came close to the end zone, James Franklin liked to dial up a pass play to his tight end. Penn State completed 39 passes in the red zone, and 38.5 percent of those (and 47.3 percent of the touchdowns) went to Gesicki.

At six-foot-six and 250 pounds, and a former basketball and volleyball player, Gesicki has the vertical reach to be a day one weapon in the red zone, and he’s a good athlete for a player with his size. While he needs to improve his blocking technique when he enters the pros, it was clear that his coaches had faith in his ability to post up and deliver points for his team. Those qualities will get him drafted in April.