A new mini-series breaking down each positional group heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. Luke Inman has done the dirty work grinding the tape and now gives us a deep dive into some of the top prospects that could be playing for a team near you in 2017.
Plus, a closer look at some of the sleeper names you can find in the late rounds that add value and provide the glue in between the cracks of future NFL rosters.
In today’s pass happy generation, the true meaning of a tight end is lost. While some teams covet a glorified receiver that can be used in the slot, others still look for the traditional in-line tight end that is a blocker first and foremost. This year, however, we get a plethora of both, as well as raw but extraordinary athletes ready to be developed, some small-school studs and former basketball standouts that can dominate in the red zone.
It’s the deepest class of tight ends I’ve ever studied. There, I said it. This group has everything you want, from dominating Pro Bowl talent to blocking wizards to a hybrid of both. Bigger, stronger, faster has been the trend, and it’s on full display this year with the most talented and athletically-gifted tight ends we’ll come across for the next decade plus.
Even after breaking down over 10 different names on this list, I still didn’t mention guys like Oregon’s Pharaoh Brown, Louisville’s Cole Hikutini, and Arkansas’ Jeremy Sprinkle, giving you a small taste of just how truly special this mix of tight ends is.
1. OJ Howard, Alabama – I hope we all can sit back during this pre-draft process and appreciate just how special Howard is as a prospect. A rare blend of enormous size and strength combined with wide receiver-type speed, acceleration and hands. Watching him up close at the Senior Bowl made me speechless, as Howard was too fast for linebackers and too big for cornerbacks in and out of his routes. Not to mention, Howard was one of the best pure pass blockers of any player in attendance, no matter the position.
Howard is truly on another level when dissecting him, looking like a 10-year Pro Bowl veteran with as clean a scouting sheet as you will find. Forget about his average production for the Crimson Tide; when used properly, Howard is a bona fide playmaker at every level of the defense, and in the red zone, where he will enter the league as an instant mismatch.
If a prospect like Eric Ebron can get drafted 10th overall, then OJ Howard can be the number one overall pick. He won’t be, but he’s that much better than the players we’ve seen in the past.
While its ultra-rare to see a tight end drafted inside the top five, this would be the year to throw the history books out the window if you’re the Jacksonville Jaguars or Tennessee Titans, who desperately need weapons for Marcus Mariota. If not, some lucky team like the Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints or New York Jets will be getting a gift under their war room tree.
2. David Njoku, Miami (Fla.) – It’s all about athleticism with Njoku, who shocks linebackers with his blazing quickness not just in his routes but after the reception, helping him lead Miami with 17.2 yards per catch. With top-notch route running and burst in and out of his breaks, Njoku is a quarterback’s best friend at the sticks, giving him a big target to feel confident throwing to in a one-on-one matchup.
Njoku is the total package athletically, giving you more than just a lateral weapon, and can jump through the roof, making him highly dangerous up the seam and in the red zone. He isn’t the most polished blocker yet, making teams view him as a one-dimensional pass-catching tight end, for now. However, that one dimension is one of the best you’ll see over the next few years of prospects.
3. Evan Engram, Ole Miss – Another athletic freak, Engram is a wide receiver playing the tight end position. A two-time captain who started as a freshman, Engram has the pedigree you love as a scout with his consistent dominance in the nation’s toughest conference, the SEC.
He may be just 6-foot-3, but what Engram lacks in size he makes up for with feisty competitiveness. The fastest of the bunch, Engram ran a positional best 4.42 40-yard dash, which is out of this world for a tight end. He is an offensive coordinator’s dream as a constant mismatch on linebackers and has ability to play in the slot and out wide on the boundary.
Engram will give you his all when blocking, but will never be a stud at the next level. I watched him catch everything down in Mobile, both underneath in traffic, and up the seam for big-chunk plays. Use him right while continuing to strengthen his blocking and you could be developing Jordan Reed 2.0.
4. Adam Shaheen, Ashland – The first small-school wonder on the list. You wonder how big Shaheen’s name would be had he been found by scouts during high school. You can’t find guys as big as him (280 pounds) that move like he can. A beast of a man, Shaheen uses his monster frame to crush opposing defenders with power while blocking.
Meanwhile, in the passing game, Shaheen surprises with sudden quickness and a crafty ability to create separation. My favorite part of Shaheen’s game, however, is his power and finesse in the red zone as a former basketball player. Shaheen looks like a power forward posting up in the paint catching alley-oop passes on the regular, breaking his school record with 16 touchdowns.
Bottom line: He’s got a long way to go before becoming a polished tight end, but the size and tools he brings to the table are what coaches and scouts only dream about, resembling the next basketball transfer to succeed in the NFL.
5. Jake Butt, Michigan – Another bowl game casualty, Butt’s career ended on a sour note when he tore his ACL against the Florida State Seminoles. Before that, however, Butt was the best in the business, looking every bit the part of an NFL-caliber tight end with prototypical blend of size and natural pass-catching prowess.
Flip on the tape and you’ll quickly realize Butt was the go-to target inside the Wolverines’ offense any and every time they needed a big play thanks to his consistently strong hands that sucked up everything in his vicinity. He wasn’t able to work out at the combine because of his rehab, so scouts will have to bank on his solid tape and fundamentally sound play.
Take out the injury and Butt is one of the best three tight ends of the group, meaning some team will get a steal of a pick with Butt in Round 3 or later.
Best Jump-Ball Pass Catcher
Adam Shaheen, Ashland
With his monster frame and basketball background, Shaheen is a menace in the red zone that is impossible for smaller cornerbacks and defenders to cover on fade routes and jump-ball situations. While the opposing defenders Shaheen faced at Ashland were child’s play compared to what he’ll face in the NFL, his raw size and natural knack for aggressively attacking the ball at its highest point should transfer well to the next level.
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
With his 65 catches, no tight end averaged more receptions per game that Engram. Sometimes the numbers can’t lie ,though, so when I went down to the Senior Bowl I wanted to see first hand if the hype was real.
Engram exceeded my expectations, making tough grabs in tight spaces as well as up the seam into the second and third level look routine. Engram has proved since his freshman year that his game is no fluke, beating the best SEC talent the country has to offer as well as top-notch Senior Bowl defenders like Tre White, Justin Evans and Tyus Bowser.
Best Threat After the Catch
David Njoku, Miami (Fla.)
When you average almost 18 yards per catch, most of the real damage happens with the ball in your hands. Njoku was a nightmare in the open field for a tight end with great acceleration and lateral explosion using the entire field to rip off big-chunk plays.
Offensive coordinators will get their money’s worth out of Njoku by moving him all over the formations, creating mismatches and letting him do his damage after the catch. Njoku is going to be fun to watch when hooked up with an accurate quarterback that knows how to hit him in stride and on the move over the middle of the field.
George Kittle, Iowa
They don’t make them like Kittle anymore, who’s one of the most prototypical “H” backs of this entire class. He won’t dominate at any one trait in the NFL but instead offers the most rounded skill set of all his peers.
With solid technique, strength and athleticism, Kittle has the tools to step onto a roster Year 1 and contribute. Unlike most of the tight ends here that win with raw athleticism, Kittle is already refined and polished coming from a pro style attack as an in-line tight end who you can put in the backfield.
Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech
This guy’s combine numbers were off the charts, showing off one of the most athletic performances we’ve seen since Vernon Davis. Hodges measured in at monstrous 6-7 with 10 ⅛” hands, turning a lot of heads right then and there.
What Hodges did next was outstanding, running a 4.57 40, posting a 39-inch vertical and a 134-inch broad jump, also looking smooth during pass-catching drills. Keeping in mind Hodges is this athletic while standing so tall makes you wonder how dangerous he can be in the NFL.
Five Day-Three Sleepers
Gerald Everett, South Alabama
You gotta love the way Everett plays the game with passion and emotion, looking fearless over the middle of the field where he picks apart defenses with his long arms (33”). Those long arms helped cover up his rounded-out routes down at the Senior Bowl. However, this former basketball standout is still learning the position.
Some lucky coach will get a great basket of ability in Everett with acceleration off the line of scrimmage, instinctive running ability after the catch and knack for making the clutch play late in games. He’ll need a lot of work in his route-running while adjusting to faster defenders in the NFL, but fix that, and you’ve got yourself a serious weapon late in the draft.
Jordan Leggett, Clemson
Talent and God-given ability has never been the question with Leggett, who had just two drops over his last two collegiate seasons on top of an NFL-ready frame (10 ⅜” hands!).
Leggett didn’t put it together consistently, though, and got people wondering how much effort he was giving during each game, something you never want to question when using an early pick. Keep him focused and motivated and Leggett’s big-boy size and iron-clad hands will be an instant boost to the roster.
Jonnu Smith, FIU
What started as a nightmarish story is back on track to have a happy ending. Smith’s football career was in serious jeopardy when his pregnant girlfriend threw boiling hot water on his head, forcing him to miss his entire season while recovering.
Back and fully healthy, though, Smith was ultra-productive before the incident, becoming his conference’s top tight end. While he needs refinement in his route-running and will drop one ball a game, Smith is loaded with explosive tools and is a major weapon in the open field, creating his own production after the catch.
Eric Saubert, Drake
He’s the sexy, small-school favorite from the national media as Saubert possess great length and size with massive 33 ½” arms and 10 ⅜” hands. That combination is lethal, specifically in the red zone where Saubert toys with defenders, creating separation that’s unfair (17 TDs last two seasons).
At 6-5, 253 pounds, Saubert put up an impressive 22 bench reps and showed that same impressive strength on tape when blocking in the run game. Saubert is a natural pass catcher that puts up the “wow” grab and has more wiggle in the open field than you’d expect for a big man, too. While he was a highlight reel in a small program, how long will it take Saubert to adjust to the pro game where everyone is stronger, longer and quicker?
Sometimes, the leap is too big for small-school players as the gap in talent is too overwhelming. Saying that, I’d love to take a shot on Saubert early on Day 3 and let him develop at his own pace while he soaks up the nuances of the NFL.
Michael Roberts, Toledo
This guy jumped off the tape when watching running back Kareem Hunt with his huge frame that towered over opponents and ability to smoothly glide all over the field. Roberts was a first down machine and dominated in the red zone, posting a gaudy 16 touchdowns last year alone.
Like most of these guys, Roberts was able to flex out in the slot as well as out wide, creating mismatches for him and his teammates. At 6-4 and a whopping 270 pounds, you can imagine just how thick Roberts is built, making him an above-average blocker, too, something that will help him stick on a roster in Year 1 as he crafts his route-running.