Packer Report leads off its monthlong NFL Draft positional series with the tight ends.
In many ways, “tight end” is an antiquated term.
With so many colleges operating out of a spread offense, the pool of available tight ends has shrunk. As was the case in 2014, when the Green Bay Packers used a third-round pick on Cal receiver Richard Rodgers and had to project him playing tight end, there are few complete tight ends entering the draft each year.
“Anymore, you don’t talk about tight ends,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said at the Scouting Combine. “You’re looking at either a ‘Y’ or an ‘F’. You’re either an in-line guy who usually lacks the skill-set to be a pass catcher but is usually a tougher, overachiever that is physical at the point of attack. Then you have the guy who can flex who is essentially a big wide receiver. So the guy who can do it all, generally, doesn’t exist any more. There are a few guys who can do both but very rarely.”
Here are the true tight ends with ability to do a bit of everything, as projected by Optimum Scouting’s Eric Galko and our conversations with scouts. The in-line and flex tight ends will be up next in this series.
HUNTER HENRY, Arkansas
Position rank: 1.
Height: 6-4 7/8. Weight: 250. 40: 4.68. Vertical: 31.5. Bench: 21.
Notes: Among the tight ends in this year’s draft, Henry ranked third with 51 receptions and second with 739 receiving yards. He caught an impressive 68.0 percent of targeted passes with zero drops, averaged 4.6 yards after the catch and had six plays of at least 25 yards, according to STATS. Oddly, he caught only 3-of-8 passes in the red zone.
Before the Packers signed Jared Cook, Henry was a legit option for the Packers at the end of the first round.
“I’m going to bring a dual-threat tight end that’s going to put his head in there in the run game,” Henry said at the Combine. “I’m going to block. I did that in college consistently. And I’m going to create a mismatch in the passing game.”
Scouting: At the Combine, Henry said he tried to pattern his game after longtime Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. Said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock: “I would call him really solid. He can play in-line, he can play wing. They move him outside and he catches the ball, he runs routes. He competes as a blocker, which is rare coming out of college football. I think Jason Witten, that’s high praise and I’m not ready to go there yet. But I think he’s a heck of a football player.”
In the running game, a scout thought Henry’s blocking tapered off as the season progressed. Like most, he’s better against linebackers on the second level than he is battling defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. Depending on matchups in the the passing game, he can win in the deep game, as evidenced by these numbers from STATS and RealFootball.com: Henry caught 5-of-10 passes thrown at least 21 yards downfield for 193 yards and one touchdown.
“Even though he can line up wide, don’t expect him to pose too many challenges doing that vs. NFL safeties,” said longtime NFL scout Dave-Te Thomas. “He has quick feet and, when he gets a clean release, he gets to the top of his route in a hurry. He shows a good burst and balance out of his cuts, but is not the type that will win too many long-distance foot races. He is more suited for being a big target in the short area, as he has the large hands and big body to secure the ball and shield it from defenders.”
Personally: His father, Mark Henry, played on the offensive line for Arkansas. He had a chance to play in the NFL but decided to become a minister, instead. In high school, Hunter Henry was a spread-offense receiver at 230 pounds.
“I kind of knew going into college that I was going to be a tight end,” he said. “I knew that was going to be the best fit for me. The adjustment in college was really getting the technique down, the blocking game and the running game. I was able to pick that up quick with different footwork because of the basketball background that I have, too. That really helped with my footwork and my technique.”
BEN BRAUNECKER, Harvard
Position rank: 5.
Height: 6-3 3/8. Weight: 250. 40: 4.73. Vertical: 35.5. Bench: 20.
Notes: Braunecker led Harvard with 48 receptions for 850 yards and eight touchdowns during a breakout senior season in which he was named a first-team All-American at the FCS level. He had just one drop. His 17.7-yard average was the best in the draft class and he also led the way with 11 receptions of 25-plus yards and was third with nine red-zone receptions, though the level of competition he faced in the Ivy League can’t be overlooked. His nickname is “Bronk” — which rhymes with “Gronk,” aka Rob Gronkowski. At the Scouting Combine, he finished first among the tight ends with a 6.90-second clocking in the three-cone drill and second with a 35.5-inch vertical.
That was key, Braunecker said, in answering the small-school questions: “One part of it is interviews, showing that, intellectually, I can handle NFL offenses and make a good name for myself with coaches. And the other part is measurables, being able to compare or beat the other guys in the draft class.”
Scouting: Other than Henry, one scout thought Braunecker had the potential to become the best two-way tight end in the draft. “I want to see what he can turn into if he’s focusing on football instead of academics.” Thomas also held Braunecker in high regard. “Braunecker is known for his craftiness, but his change-of-direction and lateral agility allows him to create the separation needed to generate yards after the catch. He showed an effective burst to escape past the second level last year and was very good at finding the holes in the zone and settling underneath. With his big hands and body, he is capable of making the tough catch in traffic. As a blocker, Braunecker has developed enough strength to sustain blocks as an in-line blocker, but on the move he is more effective, as he has a strong concept for taking angles and stalking second-level defenders as a cut blocker. He gives good effort at the line of scrimmage, but when he leads with his head, he can be pulled out of his stance and jerked to the ground. On the edge, he can get out and mirror in space, as he works hard to lock up and sustain. He is better when trying to finesse than overpower when stationed at the line of scrimmage, but he has the balance to stay square with his man.”
Personally: Braunecker majored in molecular biology and hopes to conquer infectious diseases. “You learn a lot about yourself when you’re crushed or pulled apart both ways on the football field and with a pretty hefty academic load,” he said. “One of those things I developed from all that pressure was how to dedicate yourself to a task. I’m using that right now, because I’ve braved the molecular biology storm at Harvard and I’ve still been able to produce on the football field. So I’m confident taking away the academic part can only lead to more success.”
BRYCE WILLIAMS, East Carolina
Position rank: 7.
Height: 6-5 3/4. Weight: 257. 40: 4.94. Vertical: 29.5. Bench: 19.
Notes: Williams walked on at Marshall in 2011 but redshirted. He was listed at just 186 pounds. Seeking an opportunity to play, he transferred to East Carolina, again as a walk-on, but didn’t play in 2012. Williams caught 58 passes for 588 yards and four touchdowns to earn first-team all-conference honors as a senior, with the reception count shattering the program record for a tight end and ranking No. 1 in the draft class. In three seasons, Williams 96 catches for 1,045 yards and 13 scores in his three seasons.
Scouting: “Williams is quick into his route and has the loose hips needed to escape and take the ball up the seam,” Thomas said. “He is best when working across the middle, as he has the flexibility needed to turn, catch the ball, plant and drive and sneak through tight areas on the way to get yardage after the catch. He works hard to get open consistently. As a blocker, he will break down and fight, giving a solid effort blocking in-line, as he knows how to get his hands up quickly to jolt back the defensive ends. He stays after the linebackers blocking up field, maintaining vision on the run.”
Among the tight ends who tested at the Combine, his 40 and vertical were at or near the bottom of the chart. However, out of our top 25 tight ends (minus Montana State’s Beau Sandland and South Carolina State’s Temarrick Hemingway, for whom STATS has incomplete data), Williams ranked second with a 71.6 percent catch rate and 10 red-zone receptions, and seventh with 4.7 yards after the catch per catch. However, only three of our top 25 had more than his three drops.
“Bryce is all right as a receiver and a blocker,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage. “He’s probably a little bit more of a mismatch receiver because of his size and a break-even blocker.”
Said Mayock: "There's no doubt he catches the ball well. He's detached or flexed almost all the time. I had a real problem trying to figure out if he'll block anybody because they rarely ask him to, so that's a question I have about him."
Personally: Williams’ twin brother, Shawn, is a kicker for East Carolina. A cousin, Brooks Williams, played tight end for the Saints, Bears and Patriots in the 1970s.
BEAU SANDLAND, Montana State
Position rank: 8.
Height: 6-4 1/2. Weight: 253. 40: 4.74. Vertical: 35. Bench: 23.
Notes: Don’t discount Sandland just because he played far, far off the beaten path at Montana State. At Pierce College, he was ranked the No. 1 tight end in the junior college ranks. That made him quite a catch at Miami. Sandland caught nine passes for 94 yards and one touchdown in 2013. Not thrilled with his career track and with the kickoff to the 2014 season approaching, Sandland wanted out. “I knew what kind of player I was,” he said at the Scouting Combine. “I knew I just needed to be in the right place with the right opportunity.” After redshirting in 2014, Sandland put up big numbers in 2015 — 37 receptions for 632 yards (17.1 average) and nine touchdowns. He had only two drops during the season, then had an excellent Combine workout. “I was featured a lot in the offense,” he said. “I was able to line up pretty much everywhere offensively besides quarterback and running back.”
Scouting: “Sandland is a fluid open-field runner who is a valid threat to stretch the field or outmuscle defenders to get to the ball in a crowd,” Thomas wrote. “He is the type of runner that needs to be accounted for by the opposing safeties, as the slower linebackers struggle to maintain mirror in his route progression. He shows above-average balance, change-of-direction agility and body control extending for the ball at its high point. He has the hand-eye coordination to look the ball in over his outside shoulder and shows keen vision to locate the soft spots in the zone. While Sandland does not have that explosive second gear to separate, his leg drive allows him to gain yardage after the catch. He won’t run through the defender, but can carry a few opponents to pick up extra yards.” In a draft full of tight ends who can’t block, Sandland has a chance to be one of the better ones.
Personally: Sandland, who chose Montana State because he always wanted to live in Montana, tries to pattern his game after Heath Miller, who recently retired from the Steelers. “I have a great amount of respect for him. He might not be a guy who pops out to a lot of average football fans. A lot of people say Gronk or Jimmy (Graham) but the way he played is something I’d like to pattern my game after. He’s a complete tight end who can contribute in the pass game and the run game.”
RYAN MALLECK, Virginia Tech
Position rank: 16.
Height: 6-4 1/2. Weight: 247. 40: 4.81. Vertical: 34.5. Bench: 18.
Notes: Malleck caught 62 passes for 658 yards (10.6 average) and four touchdowns during his career. Even with standout Bucky Hodges being the primary passing-game target, Malleck’s senior season was his best season. While his 21 receptions weren’t quite a career high, his 289 yards were almost 100 yards better than his previous best. His yards per catch went from 8.1 in 2014 and 13.8 in 2015.
Scouting: Malleck will be a late-round pick because of a lack of elite athletic ability. Still, he’s a quality blocker in the run game — he boasts a 500-pound squat — and a bit of a playmaker in the passing game. Of our top 25 tight ends, he ranked fifth with 5.9 yards after the catch per catch, didn’t have any drops and turned three of his catches into gains of 25-plus yards. He caught an unimpressive 57.1 percent of targeted passes.
Personally: Malleck missed the 2013 season with a torn rotator cuff.
KYLE CARTER, Penn State
Position rank: 20.
Height: 6-3 3/8. Weight: 243. 40: 4.64. Vertical: 35.5.
Notes: Carter might get a look because of what he did early in his career and how he closed his career at pro day. As a freshman with the pre-Christian Hackenberg Nittany Lions, he caught 36 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns to earn Freshman All-American honors. As a senior, he caught just 14 passes for 135 yards and no scores. He caught 56.0 percent of passes with one drop, had one catch of 25-plus yards, averaged 4.1 YAC and caught 1-of-4 in the red zone.
Scouting: “Even though Carter doesn't show a great burst out of his breaks, he can separate from man coverage on short-to-intermediate routes,” Thomas said. “The team needed to move him around better in order to create favorable matchups, as he does have experience lining up in the slot and in the backfield. He gets pushed around at times and needs to get stronger (not a question of toughness). As a blocker, he’s too inconsistent shooting his hands inside and fails to lock onto the defenders' frames.”
Personally: Carter graduated in December 2014 with a degree in kiniesiology.
BEST OF THE REST
Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt (6-4 1/2, 253; 4.75 40, 33 vertical, 23 reps). No. 22 tight end: Scheu caught 28 passes for 231 yards (8.9 average). He dropped four passes — a confounding number because scouts think he has good hands — and had a meager 2.1 YAC per catch. He’s a try-hard blocker.
Mark Weiser, Buffalo (6-5 1/4, 241; 4.80 40, 30 vertical, 18 reps). No. 24 tight end: After catching 29 passes in his first three seasons, Weiser caught 63 passes for 625 yards (9.9 average) and three touchdowns. He’s got great hands but isn’t explosive or a consistently effective blocker.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.