TEAM NEED: The Minnesota Vikings lost Rhett Ellison in free agency and are likely going to be looking to add another tight end. The fact that the team kicked the tires on Jared Cook and made a very competitive offer indicates that there is a clear interest in adding another playmaking tight end, but after using Day 3 picks on tight ends each of the last two years (MyCole Pruitt, Morgan), the Vikings may need to select one sooner to get someone that can be used reliably in 2017.
POSITION ANALYSIS: This may be one of the strongest tight end classes to hit the draft in years. There are a pair of tight ends that are virtual locks to go in the first round (O.J. Howard and David Njoku), and by the time the second day of the draft is done, there may be as many as eight or nine tight ends that have come off the board. This is a deep class that is loaded with athleticism and players with solid upside potential, which should have a lot of teams taking a long hard look at the position when they’re on the clock.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
O.J. Howard, Alabama, 6-5¾, 251 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who caught 83 passes for 1,197 yards and five touchdowns in that span…Played in a pro-style offense, so he can hit the ground running at the next level…Ideal combination of size, strength and speed…Escapes jams at the line with relative ease and gets up to speed quickly…Is a natural hands catcher who plucks the ball with ease…Didn’t have the kind of production you would expect from a player of his talent, but much of that was by play-call design…Needs to work on his route running because he’s gotten this far essentially on God-given talent, not the need to push himself…Needs to become more efficient on his blocks because he isn’t a consistent finisher, but shows good athleticism there, too…Ran a 4.51 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 30-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: He’s clearly a first-round talent. The only question is how high he will go. He has legitimate top-10 cred, if not top five in the right situation. He showed in the 2015 National Championship Game how dominant he can be. Once he refines his technique, he should be a regular at the Pro Bowl with his talent.
David Njoku, Miami, 6-4, 246 – Third-year sophomore…Started nine of 26 games, catching 64 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns, including eight last season…Originally committed to Rutgers, but pulled out to play at Miami…Was a track athlete in high school and won a national title with a 6-11 high jump…One of nine children…A natural athlete who makes plays downfield and creates mismatches…Has good body control and balance and adjusts to passes extremely well…A big-play threat – more than 17 percent of his career receptions went for 30 yards or more…Good burst off the line and gets into and out of his cuts very quickly to create separation…Will need to add bulk and muscle to hold up as a blocker…Unpolished with just nine career college starts…Has too many concentration drops…Ran a 4.64 40 at the Combine with 21 reps, a 37½-inch vertical jump and a position-best 11-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: An extremely talented athlete who has drawn comparisons to Eric Ebron and Vernon Davis, he has all the gifts to be a big-play receiver. His athleticism will likely get him drafted in the first round, but his lack of experience and the need to improve his technique as a receiver and blocker will require a team to be patient with him.
Evan Engram, Ole Miss, 6-3½, 234 – Fourth-year senior…Started 41 of 45 career games, catching 162 passes for 2,320 yards and 15 touchdowns – all Ole Miss school records…Suffered a high left ankle sprain in 2013 that required surgery…A versatile receiver who lined up all over the field, including at slot receiver and outside the hashes…A durable four-year starter who comes to the NFL with experience…Reads defenses well and consistently finds the soft spots in zone coverage…Is undersized for NFL tight ends and doesn’t have much in the way of future growth potential…Struggles with in-line blocking…Does not win contested one-on-one passes often enough for coaches’ liking…Ran a 4.42 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: An undersized playmaker, he has the skills to be a downfield receiver, but his limitations as a blocker will create problems for some teams, but for those looking for a big-play threat will likely take him off the board in the second round.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech, 6-6, 257 – Fourth-year junior…Started 37 of 40 career games, catching 133 passes for 1,747 yards and 20 touchdowns – all VT school records…His 20 TDs tied the ACC record for tight ends held by Heath Miller…Came to VT as a high school quarterback…Has an elite combination of strength, size and athleticism…A big-play receiver who can create mismatches down the middle of the field…Makes strong cuts to get immediate separation…Does not have great natural hands and will drop too many passes…Was rarely used as an in-line blocker, so he has a lot of learning to do…Struggles to track and adjust on deep passes…Ran a 4.57 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a position-best 39-inch vertical jump and a position-best 11-2 broad jump (an all-time Combine record for tight ends). PROJECTION: The Combine was a blessing and a curse for Hodges, who tested extremely well in the drills that included running and jumping. But he looked very sloppy in position drills that required blocking and route running. His athletic talent should get him off the board by the third round, if not the second, but he has a lot of refining to do.
Gerald Everett, South Alabama, 6-3, 239 – Fourth-year senior who spent his freshman season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and his sophomore year at Alabama-Birmingham before the program shut down…Started 22 of 25 games at SAU, catching 90 passes for 1,292 yards and 12 touchdowns…Didn’t play football until his senior year of high school…A nice blend of speed, body control and cutting ability…Has a second gear and runs effortlessly at top speed deep downfield…Tracks passes extremely well and can make acrobatic catches on poorly-thrown passes…He rarely lined up as a pure tight end and his lack of size and bulk will likely make him a part-time player…Can get very sloppy and will drop passes, some attributed to poor technique and others to having very small hands…Will have to do a lot refinement to his blocking technique…Ran a 4.59 40 at the Combine with 22 reps, a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: A gifted athletic player who will likely come off the board in Day 2, he hasn’t fully developed because he went to three schools in four years. He has rare athleticism, but is likely going to have to be a hybrid TE/H-back type.
Jake Butt, Michigan, 6-5½, 246 – Fourth-year senior…A two-year starter who caught 97 passes for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns in that span…Tore his right ACL during winter conditioning following his freshman season…Won the 2016 Mackey Award, given annually to college football’s best tight end…Tore his right ACL again in January playing Florida State in the Orange Bowl…Was used in a variety of roles (in-line, in the slot and split out wide)…Has natural fluidity downfield and is an impressive route runner…Can adjust to the ball in flight and wins contested passes, making him a solid red zone target…With two right ACL injuries and assorted knee issues, some teams will red flag him…Doesn’t have a second gear and will struggle to separate from NFL defenders…Has short arms (32 inches) – the shortest arms and wingspan (77 inches) of any tight end at the Combine…Did not work out at the Combine while recovering from ACL surgery. PROJECTION: A player that does a lot of things well, but not elite, he is a classic Day 2 tight end prospect. However, some teams will greatly devalue him because of his injury issues. If he stays healthy, he could be a good NFL tight end, but his red flags are bright red.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Jordan Leggett, Clemson, 6-5½, 258 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who caught 86 passes for 1,261 yards and 15 touchdowns in 30 games…A two-time Mackey Award finalist…A team captain…Has natural hands and catches passes away from his body and will make the difficult catch…A prototypical tight end in terms of size, length and strength…A matchup nightmare in the red zone…Very inconsistent level of play and was called lazy by coaches and teammates…Despite his size, he struggled as an in-line blocker…Has a thin lower body which will make it difficult for him to improve as an in-line blocker…Did not run at the Combine, but had 18 reps of 225 pounds with a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: A productive pass catcher who can become an offensive threat at the next level, but has gotten by on athletic gifts alone. Doesn’t seem to play with a lot of passion and, while he is likely to go on Day 2, whoever drafts him will have to make sure they can harness his talent and get him to commit to a stronger work ethic.
Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas, 6-5, 252 – Fifth-year senior…Started 20 of 50 career games…In his final two seasons, he caught 60 passes for 769 yards and 10 touchdowns…Created a firestorm at the Belk Bowl when he was given a $450 gift card to the Belk store, but allegedly stole additional items and was suspended for the game…Is a very adept blocker and can dominate defenders with his strong base and long arms…A Swiss Army knife in the Razorbacks offense, lining up in-line, in the slot, as an H-back and a fullback…Has very good size with even more growth potential…Doesn’t have good speed and his role in the NFL will likely be more as a blocker than an elite receiver…Fights the ball into his body when catching passes…Has trouble shedding defenders and doesn’t get much in terms of yards after the catch…Didn’t lift at the Combine because he claimed he had to catch a flight out of Indianapolis, but ran a 4.69 40 with a 29-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: The best blocking tight end of this year’s class, Sprinkle will have value, but his lack of speed and the red flag from his bowl game could push him into the final day of the draft.
Adam Shaheen, Ashland, 6-6½, 278 – Fourth-year senior who spent his freshman season playing basketball at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown…A two-year starter who caught 127 passes for 1,670 yards and 26 touchdowns…A massive player with ideal NFL size for the position – he was the tallest and heaviest tight end at the Combine – and gained 75 pounds since leaving high school…Very good hands and catches just about every catchable pass thrown his way in traffic…Very productive in his two full seasons, especially in the red zone, where he caught most of his 26 touchdowns…Given his size and length, he needs to make a lot of improvements to his blocking technique…Played very marginal competition and rarely went up against NFL-caliber defenders…Had a body fat measurement of 20.3 percent at the Combine…Ran a 4.79 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 32½-inch vertical jump and 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: He is massive and will draw a lot of attention early on Day 3, but will likely have to put a lot of work into becoming an effective pro. He has the potential to be special, but whoever drafts him will need to be patient.
Jonnu Smith, Florida International, 6-2¾, 248 – Fourth-year senior…Started all 43 games of his college career, catching 178 passes for 2,001 yards and 18 touchdowns…Suffered a torn left ACL in 2015 that required surgery…Missed time in 2016 after sustaining severe burns when his girlfriend intentionally poured boiling water on him…A good route runner who looks natural running downfield…A good athlete who posted very impressive all-around workout numbers at the Combine (see below)…A four-year starter who has improved his blocking over that span…Was the shortest of the 20 tight ends who worked out at the Combine and doesn’t has the frame to get much bigger…Isn’t a natural hands catcher and allows too many passes to get into his body…Hasn’t played special teams, which will likely be his first option in the pros…Ran a 4.62 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-7 broad jump. PROJECTION: An undersized playmaker, he’s going to need to go to a team that can carve out a unique niche for him, which could limit the number of interested teams looking for a tight end on Day 3.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Billy Brown, Shepherd, 6-3, 254
Cethan Carter, Nebraska, 6-3¼, 241
Darrell Daniels, Washington, 6-3¼, 247
Cole Hikutini, Louisville, 6-4¼, 247
Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State, 6-5, 244
Colin Jeter, LSU, 6-5¾, 250
George Kittle, Iowa, 6-3¾, 257
Scott Orndoff, Pitt, 6-5, 253
Hayden Plinke, UTEP, 6-4¼, 264
Michael Roberts, Toledo, 6-4½, 270
Eric Saubert, Drake, 6-4¾, 253