TEAM NEED – One of the challenges Norv Turner gave Rudolph a year ago was to improve his blocking so he could be a three-down tight end, a challenge Rudolph embraced. With Ellison returning as a strong blocker, Pruitt entering his second year as a downfield threat and the free agent signing of Leonhardt, the Vikings may well be set at the position and it may take someone to fall well past where the Vikings have them valued for the team to use a draft pick at this position in 2016.
POSITION ANALYSIS – This is one of the weaker tight end classes in years and arguably the weakest position in this year’s draft. Hunter Henry of Arkansas and Jerell Adams of South Carolina may be the only tight ends selected before Day 3 because, while many teams need a tight end for the ever-changing offenses that are being devised, there just isn’t the quality or depth at the position that scouts and coaches are looking for in the Class of 2016.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Hunter Henry, Arkansas, 6-5, 250 – Third-year junior…Started 30 of 38 career games, catching 116 passes for 1,661 yards and nine TDs…A consensus first-team All-American in 2015 and winner of the John Mackey Award, given annually to college football’s top tight end…An extremely good route runner who adjusts well to poorly thrown passes…Is big and has the type of frame to add more bulk and muscle mass…Doesn’t lose speed into or out of cuts…Is dangerous after the catch in the open field…Is not a good blocker in the run game or the pass game…Does not have ideal burst off the line and needs time to get into his routes…Wasn’t a red zone threat and had limited touchdown production…Did not run or jump at the NFL Scouting Combine by choice and did just 13 reps with 225 pounds.
PROJECTION: Some saw him as a late-first round pick, but his decision not to work out at the Combine and his poor performance in the bench press will likely drop him into the second round. A pure receiving tight end, he will only be on the field in passing situations because of his blocking liability.
Jerell Adams, South Carolina, 6-5¼, 247 – Fourth-year senior who spent a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy…Started just 15 of 47 career games, catching 66 passes for 977 yards and seven touchdowns…Has prototypical height and length for the position…Adept at reading coverages and adjusting his routes…A solid blocker who isn’t dominating but gets the job done consistently…Has the versatility to line up in-line, off-set or split out…Not a natural receiver and allows too many passes to get into his body…Does not have ideal overall strength, especially lower body strength and will need to add bulk and muscle to adapt to the next level…Needs to play more physical at the point of attack…Did not lift at the Combine with a right shoulder injury, but ran a 4.64 40 with A 32½-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player with a lot of upside but will need to be developed in the right system and will need time to add more bulk and polish to his game. He will likely go to a team on Day 2 with an aging tight end he can replace.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Nick Vannett, Ohio State, 6-6, 257 – Fifth-year senior…Started just 15 of 53 career games, catching 55 passes for 585 yards and six TDs…The best blocking tight end in the draft class…Can line up in-line, in the slot or at H-back…Has the strength to power through jams and find a soft spot in the defense…Production is extremely low for a draft prospect…Is not an efficient route runner…Will need time to acclimate to a pro offense because he wasn’t used much in the passing game in college and his assignments were pretty simplistic…Didn’t run at the Combine with a lumbar injury but did 17 reps of 225 pounds with a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A talented player who got lost in the shuffle with all the skill-position talent at OSU, but he comes to the NFL as the best blocker in the group and has upside as a receiver. His best days are still in front of him.
Austin Hooper, Stanford, 6-3¾, 256 – Third-year junior who didn’t play as a freshman, technically renouncing his final two years of eligibility…Started 23 of 27 career games, catching 74 passes for 937 yards and eight TDs…Has very good hands and catches just about every pass thrown to him…Has a strong frame with the ability to grow and musculature and core bulk strength…Has a very good combination of size, strength and athleticism…Rarely played in-line and was consistently lined up in the slot or out wide…Consistently seems to be late to react to the snap and allows defenders to get on him before he can start his route…Does not have ideal speed for pass-catching tight ends…Ran a 4.72 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who isn’t the sum of his parts yet, he will be a project who may have done himself a big favor by staying in college for another year, improving both his overall game and his draft stock.
Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky, 6-5¾, 249 – Fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2012 transitioning from wide receiver to tight end…Started just 13 of 27 career games at tight end over three seasons…Was on his way to a breakout season in 2015 when he had 38 catches for 563 yards and six games before missing five games due to a knee injury that forced him to sit out the Senior Bowl…Is prototype size with the ability to add 10 to 15 more pounds of muscle and bulk…Is as good as any tight end in this year’s class when it comes to gaining yards after the catch and making tacklers miss…A solid blocker who consistently walls off defenders…Injury history is a big concern since he has missed time in each of his last three seasons…Is good at many aspects of his game, but nothing that is dominant…Very limited production prior to 2015…Did not work out at the Combine after getting a medical exclusion for his left knee.
PROJECTION: A player who has some solid upside, but with his injury history and the need to add more bulk strength he likely will be a project that remains on the board into the middle portion of Day 3.
Ben Braunecker, Harvard, 6-3½, 250 – Third-year junior…Was a three-year starter but didn’t break out until 2015, when he caught 48 passes for 850 yards and eight touchdowns…Has very good hands and projects at both tight end and H-back…Has a nice combination of size, speed and length for the position…Doesn’t react to the bullets flying around him over the middle and has good concentration…Played against inferior competition, so there will be some questions about his ability as a blocker…Is a little raw in terms of route running…Will likely have to add some bulk…Ran a 4.73 40 at the Combine with 20 reps, a 35½-inch vertical jump and 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Perhaps no tight end helped his own cause more at the Combine than he did, putting on an athletic display that stood out, but the jump from the Ivy League to the pros is always big and there will be some teams that rate him much lower than we have him ranked.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Bryce Williams, East Carolina, 6-5¾, 257 – A fifth-year senior who was a walk-on at Marshall in 2011 and sat out the 2012 season after transferring to ECU…Didn’t become a full-time starter until 2015, when he caught 58 passes for 588 yards and four touchdowns…A strong red zone threat – 13 of his 98 career receptions were touchdowns…Has good hands and consistently keeps the ball away from his body and plucks the ball with ease…Is a smooth route-runner who has a good feel for soft spots in the defense…Does not have ideal strength needed to be a full-time tight end…Doesn’t make the spectacular catch and especially struggles on passes that are thrown low…Doesn’t have great speed and struggles to get away from defenders when they close in…Ran a sloth-like 4.96 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 29½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who can be a situational pass-catching tight end with the potential to develop into something more, he will be a late-round project that will be given time to improve and show he belongs.
David Morgan, Texas-San Antonio, 6-4¼, 262 – Fourth-year senior…Didn’t become a full-time starter until 2015, when he caught 45 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns…As a senior, was the first player is UTSA history to get some All-America notice…Has a good combination of size, strength and power…Spent his first three seasons primarily as a blocking tight end, so he has shown he can be well-rounded as both a receiver and blocker…Latches onto defenders when asked to block and is a good drive blocker in run situations…Didn’t play against elite competition, so his jump will come with a big learning curve…Takes too long to pick up speed…Is not a deep downfield threat…Wowed the scouts at the Combine with his upper body strength, blowing away the other tight ends with 29 reps of 225 pounds, along with a 5.02 40, a 30-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who has proved himself to be a country strong blocker with some receiving upside, but his lack of speed will hurt his draft stock. However, once he gets on a roster, he may be hard to cut because of his strong work ethic.
Devon Cajuste, Stanford, 6-3¾, 234 – Fourth-year senior who played wide receiver in college but projects as a H-back/TE hybrid in the NFL…Was never a full-time starter but finished his career with 90 receptions for 1,589 yards (a 17.7-yard average) and 14 touchdowns in 32 career games…A red zone matchup nightmare because of his big frame and long arms…Has good speed and consistently gets separation when making his cuts…Helped his stock a lot with a strong week at the East-West Shrine Game…Is undersized for a tight end and a team may have to create a role for him because he doesn’t fit the mold of a classic wide receiver or tight end in the NFL…Struggles to get a clean release when blocked at the line…Has good quickness off the line but doesn’t have sustained speed…Worked out with wide receivers at the Combine, running a 4.62 40 with 12 reps on the bench, a 36-inch vertical jump and 10-3 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A ’tweener type that doesn’t fit as a pure wide receiver or tight end, he has the ability and tenacity to give a coach everything he has, but a team will have to have a game plan in mind for him because he will have to be a niche role player at the next level.
Henry Krieger-Coble, Iowa, 6-4, 250 – Fifth-year senior…Caught just seven passes in his first three seasons but became a starter in 2015, catching 35 passes for 405 yards and one touchdown…Is very tough and isn’t afraid to lock up defenders or catch passes over the middle…Has very good upper body strength and has the kind of body that can add bulk to be a dominant blocking TE at the next level in the right system…A team player who will play any role asked of him, from blocking to playing special teams…He doesn’t have a second gear and is easily caught downfield…Isn’t an elite athlete in any area in terms of size, length or speed…Needs to work on blocking technique because he falls off blocks too often…Didn’t get invited to the Combine.
PROJECTION: A player with decent intangibles who loves the game and plays with passion. That should be enough to get him drafted late and maybe give him a year to develop while being a core special teams player, but he will always have to fight for his NFL life.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Kyle Carter, Penn State, 6-3, 238
Kivon Cartwright, Colorado State, 6-3, 240
Thomas Duarte, UCLA, 6-2¼, 231
David Grinnage, North Carolina State, 6-5¼, 248
Darion Griswold, Arkansas State, 6-3½, 253
Glenn Gronkowski, Kansas State, 6-2, 238
Ryan Malleck, Virginia Tech, 6-4½, 247
Jake McGee, Florida, 6-4½, 250
Beau Sandland, Montana State, 6-4½, 253