We continue our position-by-position preview of the NFL Draft with the tight ends.
The Green Bay Packers are loaded at tight end with free-agent acquisitions Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks joining Richard Rodgers. So, of course, the Packers will tap into this excellent tight end class and draft three of them, right?
Note: Drop rates, yards after catch and deep passing are from ProFootballFocus.com’s Draft Pass. Our statistical rankings are based on the 14 players for which it has data.
O.J. Howard, Alabama (6-5 3/4, 251; 4.51 40; 6.83 3-cone): Howard was an All-American on the field and was one of 10 finalists for the prestigious Senior CLASS Award off the field. As a senior, he caught 45 passes for 595 yards (13.2 average) and three touchdowns, and was one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end. He burst onto the national scene in the 2015 National Championship Game against Clemson, when he caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors. In four seasons, he caught 114 passes for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns. Really, the only team capable of shutting down Howard was the Alabama coaching staff, who chose not to focus the offense on their prolific tight end. As a senior, he averaged only 1.79 yards per pass route (seventh) but made his opportunities count with the best drop rate in our group (4.26 percent) and tying for the fourth-best YAC (7.3). He caught 4-of-9 deep balls. He can also block. He’s the total package — and that’s a rarity in modern tight ends.
David Njoku, Miami, Fla. (6-4, 246; 4.64 40; 6.97 3-cone): Redshirt sophomore. In two seasons, Njoku caught 64 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns. He had a tremendous 2016 with 43 catches, 698 yards (16.2) and eight touchdowns, including scores of 76 and 58 yards vs. Duke. He has the highest ceiling in this draft class. He finished second with 2.34 yards per pass route and by far the best YAC with 11.2-yard average. He caught only 4-of-9 deep passes. About the only dings are blocking — though at least he tries, and that’s half the battle — and ranking ninth in drop rate at 10.42 percent. Njoku is the sixth child of five girls and four boys born to Nigerian parents. How good of an athlete is Njoku? He won the national championship in the boys high jump at the 2014 New Balance Nationals Outdoor, clearing 6 feet, 11 inches.
Evan Engram, Ole Miss (6-3 3/8, 234; 4.42 40; 6.92 3-cone): Engram already was the school’s career leader among tight ends with 97 receptions and 1,394 yards. Then came his senior season of 65 catches for 926 yards (14.2 average) and eight touchdowns to win first-team All-America accolades and the C Spire Conerly Trophy as the top college player in Mississippi. That gave him a four-year total of 162 receptions, 2,320 yards (14.3) and 15 scores. He was first- or second-team all-SEC all four seasons — a first in school history. Engram was one of 10 finalists for the prestigious Senior CLASS Award. Engram led the tight end class with 2.59 yards per pass route. He is sure-handed (fifth-best drop rate of 8.45 percent) and athletic (6.2 YAC and 7-of-13 on deep passes). He’s not a great blocker but that’s the trade-off for a tight end who can outrun most of the wide receivers in this draft.
Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech (6-6, 257; 4.57 40; DNP 3-cone): Junior. For three years, a scout has told us about Hodges as being a potential NFL star. Hodges was a model of consistency during those three seasons. He caught 45 passes for 526 yards (11.7 average) and seven touchdowns as a freshman, 40 passes for 530 yards (13.3) and six touchdowns as a sophomore and 48 passes for 691 yards (14.4) and seven touchdowns as a junior. That gave him a three-year total of 133 catches, 1,747 yards and 20 touchdowns. In 2016, he averaged 1.60 yards per route (eighth) and had a too-high drop rate of 11.1 percent (11th). He earned all-ACC honors all three seasons. Not bad for the school’s four-star quarterback recruit. Hodges mostly played receiver for the Hokies, who took advantage of his athletic ability. From a stylistic standpoint, he’s Jimmy Graham. In other words, if you’re drafting him, it’s not to use him as a blocker. He caught 12-of-22 deep passes — five more receptions and eight more attempts than any tight end in the class. His 11-foot-2 broad jump is the best ever for a tight end.
George Kittle, Iowa (6-3 3/4, 247; 4.52 40; 7.00 3-cone): Kittle caught 48 passes for 737 yards (15.4 average) and 10 touchdowns during his four seasons. In 2016, Kittle caught 22 passes for 314 yards (14.3 average) and four touchdowns. Not surprisingly in the Hawkeyes' balanced, run-first offense, he ranked 11th with 1.42 yards per pass route and caught just 1-of-3 deep passes. His drop rate of 12.0 percent ranked 12th, perhaps due to small hands (9 1/4) that might not make him a consideration for Green Bay. He's a tremendous athlete and excellent blocker, though, so the upside is intriguing. Kittle was born in Madison, Wis. His parents, Bruce and Jan, had to weave through Badgers gameday traffic to get to the hospital. They were pulled over by the police and needed an escort to get to the hospital. He tipped the scales at 10 pounds, 10 ounces. Kittle’s father played on the Hawkeyes’ offensive line and was a captain of Iowa’s 1982 Rose Bowl team. Kittle played alongside cousin Henry Krieger Coble, now a tight end with the Broncos
Jordan Leggett, Clemson (6-5 1/2, 258; 4.71 40; 7.12 3-cone): Leggett was one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end, for his final two seasons. After catching a combined 26 passes as a freshman and sophomore, Leggett caught 40 passes for 525 yards (13.1 average) and eight touchdowns as a junior and 46 catches for 736 yards (16.0) and seven touchdowns as a senior. In the process, he went from “Lazy Leggett” to early-round draft pick. As a senior, he ranked ninth in yards per pass route (1.53) but had the third-best drop rate (6.12 percent) — 10 3/8-inch hands play a role in that — and averaged the third-best YAC (7.4). He needs to be a better blocker.
Jake Butt, Michigan (6-5 1/2, 246; DNP testing due to knee injury): Butt won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end but his great senior season end in a torn ACL in the Orange Bowl. It’s the same knee (right) in which he tore his ACL in February 2013. Not only did he win the Mackey, but he won the Senior CLASS Award as the nation’s top student-athlete, with notable achievements in four areas: classroom, community, character and competition. Butt started 37 games in four seasons, finishing with 138 receptions for 1,646 yards — both tops for a tight end in program history. Butt caught 51 passes for 654 yards (12.8 average) and three touchdowns as a junior and 46 passes for 546 yards (11.9) and four touchdowns as a senior, earning All-American and Big Ten Tight End of the Year honors both times. His 1.99 yards per pass route ranked fourth but he was in the middle of the pack in drop rate (9.8 percent) and YAC (6.4 per catch). He’s an average blocker — missing all of those practice reps as he rehabs the injury isn’t going to help. Had Butt been healthy, he would have challenged Njoku as the second tight end off the board. Now, how soon will a team draft a player, knowing one-fourth of his contract could expire with him being a nonfactor?
Adam Shaheen, Ashland (6-6 1/2, 278; 4.79 40; 7.09 3-cone): Junior. Who in the heck is Adam Shaheen and why is he leaving a Division II program with one year of eligibility remaining? As a junior, he caught 57 passes for 867 yards and a school-record 16 touchdowns — the most scoring catches by a Division II tight end ever. He was a Division II and Academic All-American. In 2015, Shaheen caught 70 passes, which led all NCAA tight ends at all levels, for 803 yards and 10 touchdowns. Shaheen played one year of Division II basketball at Pittsburgh-Johnstown before transferring to Ashland for football. His upside is tremendous but he’s got a lot to learn. That starts with blocking. He couldn’t even dominate Division II competition. But, hey, this is today’s NFL and it’s about creating mismatches in the passing game. Shaheen is a mismatch.
Michael Roberts, Toledo (6-4 3/8, 270; 4.86 40; 7.05 3-cone): Roberts went from no catches as a freshman to four as a sophomore to 21 as a junior to 45 as a senior. In a huge final season, Roberts turned those catches into 533 yards (11.8 average) and 16 touchdowns. (Yes, 16 touchdowns.) Roberts is a big man with huge hands — 11 1/2-inchers that suck up any pass thrown in his area code. Not surprisingly, he had the fourth-best drop rate at 6.25 percent. He’s not much of an athletic threat (3.6 YAC; 4-of-12 on deep passes). For his size, you’d expect to get a good blocker, and Roberts delivers in that phase of the game. He’s an old-school tight end who will be a big asset lined up as a traditional tight end — so long as that team is not expecting a big-play barrage.
Cole Hikutini, Louisville (6-4 1/8, 247; 4.85 40; 7.22 3-cone): Hikutini's 40 and three-cone times put him on the fringes of Thompson's draft history. After catching 19 passes for 348 yards (18.3 average) and three touchdowns upon arriving at Louisville in 2015, Hikutini had a tremendous senior campaign with 50 catches, 668 yards (13.4 average) and eight touchdowns. Hikutini ranked sixth in our list of top prospects in yards per route (1.80) and drop rate (9.09 percent). He caught 3-of-6 deep passes. He is not a good blocker. Sacramento State was the only FCS-level school to offer a scholarship, never mind any offers from an FBS school. He redshirted at Sacramento State in 2012 and scored five touchdowns in 2013. Then he gambled on himself by giving up his scholarship in hopes of landing at a top-tier school as a stepping stone to the NFL. Paying his own way at City College of San Francisco, he caught 40 balls and scored four times to open the eyes of recruiters.
Billy Brown, Shepherd (6-3 3/8, 255; 4.70 40; 7.07 3-cone): Brown was a Division II All-American wide receiver with these staggering stats: 99 receptions for 1,580 yards (16.0 average) and 22 touchdowns. He led Division II in catches and was second in yards and touchdowns. As a junior, he had 89 receptions for 1,492 yards and 10 touchdowns. Brown didn’t have enough core credits to attend a FBS school so he had to play in Division II or at a junior college. To say he’ll be a project is an understatement.
Cethan Carter, Nebraska (6-3 1/4, 241; 4.68 40; DNP 3-cone): Carter started 35 games in four seasons and was an honorable-mention on the all-Big Ten team as a junior and senior. He caught 59 passes for 744 yards (13.9 average) and four touchdowns during his four seasons. As a senior, he tallied 19 catches for 190 yards and one score. Of the 14 tight ends with which PFF has data, he ranked last in yards per pass route (1.00) and drop rate (an awful 29.6 percent).
Potentially off the board
Of Thompson’s tight end draft picks, the slowest 40 was 4.87 seconds and the slowest three-cone drill was 7.29 seconds.
Gerald Everett, South Alabama (6-3, 239; 4.62 40; 6.99 3-cone): Kennard Backman had the smallest hands of any tight end drafted by Thompson at 9 3/8 inches, so Everett's hand size (8 1/2 inches) might take him off the board. Everett had two big seasons for USA — 41 catches for 575 yards (14.0 average) and eight touchdowns as a junior and 49 catches for 717 yards (14.6) and four touchdowns as a senior. That included catching eight passes for 95 yards and the game-winning touchdown in an upset of Mississippi State. Among our top prospects, he ranked third with 2.31 yards per pass route, seventh with a 9.26 percent drop rate and second with an average of 9.1 YAC. He was a poor blocker in college but he’s packed on about a dozen pounds since the Senior Bowl, so that might help. Speaking of Backman, Everett started his career with Backman at Alabama-Birmingham. When UAB shuttered its football program after the 2014 season, Everett landed at USA.
Jonnu Smith, Florida International (6-2 5/8, 248; 4.62 40; 7.43 3-cone): The three-cone time and hand size (9 1/4 inches) could keep him off Green Bay’s board. With 42 catches for 506 yards (12.0 average) and four touchdowns as a senior, Smith finished his career with 178 grabs, 2,001 yards (11.2 average) and 18 touchdowns. Smith caught at least one pass in all 43 career games. In 2014, he led all college tight ends with 61 receptions. In 2015, he was limited to eight games by a torn ACL. In 2016, he had a big game against Indiana (eight catches, 83 yards) and scored the winning touchdown against Charlotte. Of the 14 tight ends in which PFF kept data, Smith ranked 12th in yards per pass route (1.41) and 13th in drop rate (16.00 percent). He would have had a bigger season had his pregnant girlfriend not dumped boiling water on him in November.
Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas (6-4 7/8, 252; 4.69 40; 7.10 3-cone): Sprinkle caught 33 passes for 380 yards (11.5 average) and four touchdowns on the senior, running his career total to 71 catches for 921 yards (13.0 average) and 11 touchdowns — the most receiving touchdowns ever for an Arkansas tight end. He ranked 13th with 1.17 yards per pass route but second in drop rate at 5.71 percent. He caught 3-of-8 deep passes and averaged 5.4 YAC. He’s a surprisingly bad blocker, considering the run-first scheme at Arkansas. Sprinkle’s career ended in embarrassing fashion when he was suspended from the Belk Bowl for attempting to shoplift from a Belk store. And that’s after Belk gave every player from Arkansas and Virginia Tech $450 to spend.
Eric Saubert, Drake (6-4 3/4, 253; 4.69 40; 7.34 3-cone): Saubert was a four-year all-conference selection. As a senior, he caught 56 passes for 776 yards (13.9 average) and 10 touchdowns to earn FCS All-American honors. In four seasons, he caught 190 passes for 2,253 yards (11.9 average) and 21 touchdowns. He played in the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl. PFF does not have stats for this small-school prospect.
Pharaoh Brown, Oregon (6-5 5/8, 255; 4.83 40; 7.24 3-cone): Brown caught 70 passes for 1,011 yards (14.4 average) and 13 touchdowns in four seasons. That includes 33 catches for 426 yards and five touchdowns as a senior, when he was named first-team all-conference. Brown has big-play ability, with long gains of 66 and 72 yards the past two years. He caught 2-of-3 passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield and averaged an impressive 7.3 YAC, but his drop rate of 10.8 percent ranked 10th. In 2014, he sustained a knee injury so severe that amputation was considered a possibility. Brown was involved in three acts of violence during his time at Oregon but never faced discipline, and was suspended for his role in an on-campus snowball fight.
The bottom line
Howard is the best tight end prospect in years. Njoku has the most upside of any tight end in memory. The depth is superb, at least compared to past drafts, when you would have had better luck finding Noah’s Ark than a capable tight end. Eight or nine could go in the first three rounds. Thompson can ignore this group, though, and focus on defense, guard and running back.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.