If this year’s class of tight-ends isn’t the best in recent years, it’s definitely the fastest and most explosive one. There are a couple of different type of players at the position – more of the traditional in-line blockers as well as the modern-day move-tight-ends – but those guys overall look more like big receivers every year. With the NFL turning into a matchup-league, a big target in the passing game is of higher value in today’s game. I think there are three potential first rounders among them and another six that could go on day two. This is a strong group and even after my top ten there are some special athletes, that could develop into offensive weapon at the next level.
Once again this list doesn’t consider injuries and off-the-field concerns, those will show up on my big board.
1. O.J. Howard, Alabama:
At 6’6’’, 250 pounds Howard possesses a prototype tight-end body. He’s a smooth route-runner with excellent grip on his hands to catch the ball without any effort and a very fluid athlete who has the long strides to make things happen after the catch as well as using his power to finish plays through defenders. Coming into his final year at Alabama, you can tell he put a lot of focus on becoming a better blocker. Even though he was the number one rated tight-end on most teams’ boards heading into the draft season, he decided to not leave any doubt about that. Howard was clearly the best player at the Senior Bowl, where he said he showed up because he always loves having a chance to compete, before finishing as one of the top performers at almost every event of the combine, including a crazy 4.51 in the 40 at his weight. On the Crimson Tide’s offense the guy was extremely underused, often being limited to underneath routes and as a safety valve, but he was open a lot of times and played a huge role in both their championship games (314 yards and three touchdowns combined), where he finally got to show what he can do stretching the field vertically. To me there’s no doubt O.J. has all the tools to move around on the offense and win, but he has room to grow as far as using head-fakes and adding more shake to his routes goes, to not give away what he’s doing. He didn’t nearly produce as many explosive plays as you’d expect from a player of his caliber, but when a creative offensive coordinator gets his hands on Howard he will become a star at the next level.
2. David Njoku, Miami:
This dude is an athletic freak with elite body control. He is an explosive leaper and looks like a wide receiver running routes, as he made DBs look foolish when lined up in the slot. Njoku shoots out of the tracks off the snap, is explosive out of his breaks and excels at rising up over defenders and high-pointing the ball. The Hurricanes standout is far from being a reliable blocker, but he certainly is powerful enough to become one if he commits more to it and doesn’t let edge defenders stand him up. He knows when to let the ball get into his frame and keep it in his stomach, to not give defenders a chance to knock it out of his hands, even though he’s not as natural a catcher of the football as some other guys listed here. Njoku creates separation on quick-outs and curls where he often pushes off defenders, but he even ran bubble-screens as a tight-end. That’s crazy! He is very hard to bring down in the open field for smaller guys and I have yet to see linebackers be able to run him down. The knocks on him are his limited experience as a redshirt sophomore and the fact he tends to catch rushers as a pass blocker, rather than stepping into them and forcing the contact. Good for him that he won’t be used that way a lot in the league. He’s two inches smaller than Howard and could add some more weight to his frame, but he definitely is not your traditional tight-end. He’s an offensive weapon who will be moved all over the field and be a mismatch for pretty much anybody lining up across from him. The sky’s the limit.
3. Evan Engram, Mississippi:
If Engram would have been available the last two years in the draft, he would have been the first player at the position off the board. He is a matchup nightmare, who looks like the modern-day move-tight-end everybody’s looking for now. He is explosive off the ball, runs like a deer with the ability to make people miss in the open field and he is very sudden at the top of his route. If you looked at the numbers every week of the college season you see he was the most productive TE in the country throughout 2016. When you turn on the tape you see that he had streaks where he took his offense over the entire field and the opposition simply couldn’t stop him. Engram had six games of 95 yards or more in 2016. He reminds me a lot of Jordan Reed coming into the draft, as both those guys dropped too many easy passes due to a lack of concentration, but their hands definitely are no concern. The Ole Miss number one option in the passing game was most effective on drag and seam routes, where he simply ran away from linebackers. He also showed that blazing speed at the combine, where he topped everybody at his position with a 4.42 in the 40. Engram lacks pure strength, but he has the competitiveness to get movement as an in-line blocker, even though he probably won’t be lined up there a lot at the pro-level. Something I think he needs to do a better job at is shielding defenders away from the football, but he has all the abilities in the world to work the entire field.
4. Gerald Everett, South Alabama:
This guy is a receiver in a tight-end’s body. Everett has an enormous catch-radius, is fearless over the middle and bursts down the field, fighting his way through arm tackles. Although he’s “only” 6’3’’ and doesn’t have NFL bulk coming into the draft, he uses every bit of arm length to bring in catches and stays engaged as a blocker throughout plays. He will burn defenses at the next level with his speed down the seams and to run away from defenders on crossing routes. He kind of lifted the South Alabama program, including upset wins over Mississippi State and San Diego State last season, where he showed scouts big-time what he’s capable of. The Jaguars star of the last two seasons lacks awareness for when to sit in between zones and is not as precise a route-runner he’s capable of at this point, but those are things NFL coaches will make him learn and improve on. In my opinion what separates him from some of those other matchup-tight-ends are his willingness to block and the RACability.
5. Jake Butt, Michigan:
This is another player with prototype measurements (6’6’’, 260 lbs.) and who simply looks like a tight-end. Butt had solid production on a very run-heavy Michigan offense, especially when asked to find room against zone-coverages. He makes adjustments to the throws even in traffic, he is dominant at the highest point as the ball sticks to his hands and he’s really tough over the middle. Moreover, he uses D-line level clubs to release from press and when he has the ball in his hands he packs a mean stiff-arm, that makes defenders bounce off him. The former Wolverine understands how to take advantage of little push-offs to create space and does the subtle things to help himself and the team win. Something he has room to improve on is becoming a more aggressive blocker at the point of attack and I don’t think he possesses the kind elite athleticism the prospects ahead of him do. Either way I think Butt is a much better football player than athlete and if not for tearing his ACL in the Citrus Bowl against Florida State he would be in consideration for the first round.
6. Adam Shaheen, Ashland:
This is a former basketball player, who looked so much faster than defensive backs on tape. Shaheen destroyed the Division II Competition, recording 1670 yards and 26 touchdowns over the last two seasons. He has great hands and knows how to adjust to the ball in the air, consistently winning on contested catches. He is very determined with the ball in his hands and doesn’t really care about chasing defenders, as he kind of looked like Gronk rumbling down the field. The Ashland offensive weapon won with physicality over technique against inferior competition, which will completely change at the pro level. Unfortunately, he didn’t nearly show the kind of power as a blocker you’d expect from a guy of his size (6’6’’, almost 280 pounds). My question is – Can he get off press? He has yet to learn how to use his hands properly and get into his route quickly. Shaheen didn’t get recruited by any big schools, because he went to college to play basketball, but when his dad told him there were no 6’6’’ back-to-the-basket forwards in the NBA he switched sports. That means he is still learning the nuances of the position and will only get better from here on out. Sure, the jump in competition will ask for some major adjustments, but with his monster frame, hands and overall athleticism he could be a nightmare for defenders even at the pro level.
7. George Kittle, Iowa:
Even though Kittle looks more like a tall fullback he has excellent hands and catches the ball away from his body. He uses different gears in his route-running and comes back to the football aggressively. The former Hawkeye made his mark on late releases off the line of scrimmage, but also blew by the defense on wheel-routes. Kittle might be the best overall blocker in the class, as he was asked to do a variety of things for the HawkeyesHawkeyes and showed a nasty demeanor, often displayed by pancakes on smaller guys and the way he always looks for somebody to put a hit on. Although he sometimes shows a lot of lean into his blocks, which could be taken advantage of by NFL defenders by pulling him off, I love the worker-bee mentality and how he lets the opposition feel his presence. Even though he recorded just 42 catches over the last two seasons he had some impressive, athletic plays, including a leap into the endzone from three-and-a-half yards out versus Indiana and a one-handed snag out of the air down the seam versus Maryland. I thought the 4.53 in the 40 at the combine really helped him, giving scouts a different perspective on his ability to stretch the field and I would say 14.4 yards a catch since his junior year isn’t too shabby either, especially when you consider his role on the Iowa offense. I think he provides a lot of versatility and his best days as a receiver are still ahead of him.
8. Jordan Leggett, Clemson:
Often forgotten about when talking about the premiere tight-ends in college football, Leggett is just a good all-around football player. He is a long strider, who can expose holes between underneath and deep coverage on seam routes and averaged 16 yards a catch as a senior. Moreover, he has experience in the slot and as an H-back. He plays tall when the ball is in the air and often times looked like his teammate Mike Williams (who I have as my number one receiver in the draft) bringing in some of those jump-balls. When asked to open up room for his teammates he tries to chip defenders more than getting his hands into their frame and sustaining blocks, not showing much of a nasty streak. Leggett isn’t very explosive out of his breaks and despite his size (6’5’’, almost 260 pounds) he lets defenders redirect him a lot on his routes. Nevertheless, he has a feel for finding room over the top of linebackers and is a natural pass-catcher. He might not be a superb athlete, but he finds ways to make plays.
9. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech:
At almost 6’7’’, 257 pounds Hodges is a huge target that can move around. He uses a gritty style of play and was asked to block the premiere SEC edge rushers like Derek Barnett in the run game at times. With his frame the Hokie tower draws a multitude of flags, as defensive backs find themselves helpless at times. Hodges is very physical with the ball in his hands, dragging defenders on his way for extra yardage. The former dual-threat high school quarterback was rarely used as a traditional in-line blocker, even though he showed the aggressive mindset to get things done from that spot. On the other hand it has helped him to work on his release from press, where he shows the strong hands and balance to get into his routes. He stills needs some polish in his route-running and hand placement as a blocker, but he has surprising agility for his size and shows nice vision as a ball-carrier. Something I didn’t like on tape was the fact he tends to let the ball get into his body instead of stretching out those limbs and snatching it out of the air. Nevertheless, he will only get better with more experience at the position with his freaky combination of size, speed and strength.
10. Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas:
Sprinkle has the looks of an old-school tight-end. He might not be really explosive, but he can be a reliable target over the middle and probably is the most polished run blocker at the position in the draft as a part of Brent Bielema’s offense. He knows how to shield the ball with his body and has shown surprising run-after-catch production. As a senior he reached career-highs in catches at 33 and yards at 389, but was often asked to stay home in protection. The Razorback mainstay for the last four years doesn’t show a lot of pop off the ball into his routes and doesn’t seem to be the most natural catcher of the football, even though he didn’t have any drops on tape. Overall Sprinkle doesn’t provide the explosive traits of the modern players at the position, but if you look for a block-first TE, who can be a safety valve and red-zone target, this is your guy. I think he’s going to stay in the league for 10+ years.
Just missed the cut:
Michael Roberts, Toledo:
Coming in at 270 pounds, Roberts is a nice route-runner with the ability to leave defenders standings, but can also throw off tacklers or simply run them over. He has strong Hulk-sized hands, excellent body control and is a big-time athlete. Over 80% of his catches resulted in first downs and he finished his senior year with 16 touchdowns. Roberts shows too many concentration drops and even though he can create movement at the point of attack as a blocker, he often misses targets in space. At East-West Shrine week he created some buzz and to me looks like he has a lot of areas to his game NFL coaching will improve.
Eric Saubert, Drake:
At 6’5’’, 253 pounds Saubert shows an impressive body physique and is at his best at high-pointing the ball, making him a huge redzone threat. He looked dominant at the East-West Shrine practices and made me go watch some of his tape. It’s questionable how natural his hands are, but with his size and play-making ability he makes for a pretty intriguing prospect. I think he’s more of an athlete than football player with inconsistent hand-eye coordination, but that’s the new NFL and some coaches will be sitting in those draft rooms banging the table and saying they can work with him.
Jonnu Smith, Florida International:
Smith started his collegiate career with a rather smallish body for the position, but really worked on himself in the weight room and is very muscular below the belt. He is dangerous and fights for every yard once he has the ball in his hands. He had a good workout at the combine, especially in the leaping events and shuttles to make up for some lack of size at only 6’3’’. That shows up on the field, as he is explosive off the snap and into his routes. Smith is too much of a body-catcher and had ten drops over the last two years, but he impressed with his pass-blocking in terms of staying in front of his man and keeping his hips low, which he displayed at Senior Bowl practices, not really losing any reps. What stands out to me about him is the competitiveness he plays with.
Cole Hikutini, Louisville:
The tight-end was often overlooked, because the Cardinals’ passing offense was built around challenging defenses vertically to give Lamar Jackson more running room. Hikutini was often motioned around as an H-back and wing and has experience with a variety of blocking schemes, whether he was responsible for down-linemen, linebacker or even safeties. He accelerates quickly and finds early separation, but his end-speed and quick-twitch don’t wow anybody. He doesn’t really drive defenders off the ball, but rather walls them off. To me his natural hands and ball skills, combined with his overall athleticism could make Hikutini one of the bigger steals in the draft.
Billy Brown, Shepherd:
Even though Brown was a receiver in college and like to think of himself as a receiver, he will move inside because of his size (6’4’’, 255 lbs.). With more than 3000 yards and 32 touchdowns over last two seasons in Division 2 (22 in 2016 alone), he really made a name for himself. He doesn’t sink his hips enough coming in and out of breaks and doesn’t create much separation with his agility, which once again brings me back to why he should be more of a move-TE. I think the Shepherd superstar could take on a Aaron Hernandez-type role as an H-back, but with the experience on the outside he can be a mismatch there as well.
Wilcard Prospect: Pharaoh Brown, Oregon:
The 6’6’’ man out of Oregon had to overcome a horrible leg injury at the end of 2014 before redshirting one season and finishing with 426 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. Brown hasn’t had the same quickness since coming back, but he has some intriguing qualities. He’s a long strider who plays above the rim. His play style is fast and physical and he has experience from different spots. When he has the ball in his hands he runs through arm tackles, but he struggles with angles on open-field blocks. The question that will determine his NFL future is: Will he get the explosiveness back he had pre-injury?