One of the highlights of draft weekend for the Minnesota Vikings was the defiance and wear-it-on-his-sleeve anger of tight end Bucky Hodges. He was upset at being the 13th tight end to come off the board, lasting until the sixth round.
It wasn’t anything Hodges did that brought his stock down into the sixth round. What the NFL may find out over the next couple of years is this may have been the deepest and most talented tight end class in more than a decade – and could rival the best ever.
We knew heading into the draft that this was going to be a draft class overstocked with talent. Given the weaknesses at other key positions that typically have more depth at the top – quarterback and offensive tackle chief among them – a case was being made prior to the start of the draft that tight end could dominate like never before.
In the previous 10 drafts, only six tight ends total had gone in the first round – never more than one in any draft and only two in the previous six years.
In that same span, only three times had four tight ends been drafted in the first two rounds – with four seasons with two and three with just one, including each of the previous two.
In 2017, three tight ends were taken in the first round and two were taken in the second.
The last time more than one tight end was taken in the first round was when two were taken in 2006 – Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis. The last time three tight ends were taken in the first round was in 2002, when Jeremy Shockey, Dan Graham and Jerramy Stevens were selected. The last time five tight ends were taken in the first two round was in 1995 – Kyle Brady and Mark Bruener in the first round and Christian Fauria, Ken Dilger and Kendall Watkins in the second round.
Prior to the draft, Hodges was being told he would likely be a Day 2 draft choice. So were about 10 other guys. In other years with less direct competition at the position, Hodges may well have been a late second- or third-round pick.
Not in 2017.
It has happened before in draft history, where there is a dearth of talent similarly ranked at one position
In 2008, venerable draft wags like Mel Kiper were projecting six or seven wide receivers to go in the first round. When it came time for teams to make their picks, not a single wide receiver was drafted in the opening round – the only time in the modern era that happened.
But a record 10 wide receivers went in the second round – including hits on Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson, misses on Davin Thomas and Limas Sweed and a handful of players who had decent, yet unspectacular NFL careers.
The feeling was that there was enough talent to go around that if a team addressed a need with a cupboard less stocked and went to the well in the second round, there was an unusually large draft class that could be skeletonized eventually, not immediately.
That history speaks volumes to the depth of the 2017 tight end draft class. It provided a once-in-a-generation number of players from the position taken in the first round with two more in the second round, one each in the third and fourth rounds and a modern-era record five in the fifth round – leaving Hodges behind to be scooped up in the sixth.
What makes the 2017 tight end class so impressive is that most of them aren’t being drafted for their dominant blocking prowess. Most of them are players that provide much more benefit well beyond the line of scrimmage rather than on it.
Some people felt sorry for Hodges dropping to the sixth round. Others are glad to hear the fire in his rhetoric that he’s going to make those pay that passed on him a half-dozen times or more and disrespected him. Still others say, given the dearth of talent at the position, a guy with no in-line blocking experience would be ignored in some draft classes, but not 2017.
It’s going to take two or three years to determine if this bold and unusual draft class of tight ends lives up to the talent that is being brought into the NFL at the same time.
What will be more problematic for the NFL? If they’re all busts? Or if more than half of them succeed and make the landscape for free-agent tight ends four years from now become the epicenter of a pay scale earthquake?
Hodges comes to the Vikings with something to prove. So do the five guys who got drafted in the fifth round when they thought they were going earlier. As do the three first-rounders who are all being touted as Pro Bowl candidates.
Sometimes it’s nice to notice the wave before it starts. In the passing world of the NFL, tight ends who can play like giant wide receivers are a growing hybrid position and the Class of 2017 may be the test case – and a sixth-rounder like Hodges could be the guy who tips the scale in the favor of this rare draft class.