NFL Draft Positional Rankings: Tight End
The tight end position has experienced quite the renaissance in the last decade. As recently as the early to mid 2000s players like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates were alive and well, dominating the league as pass catching tight ends, but they were anomalies. This season we saw Zach Ertz catch 116 passes for nearly 1,200 yards, Travis Kelce catch 103 with over 1,300, George Kittle go over 1,300 yards, and Jared Cook sniff the 1,000 yard mark with just under 900. As recently as 15 seasons ago, we saw only Gonzalez approach 1,000 yards with just over 900, Shannon Sharpe finish with 770, and Todd Heap, the 3rd leading receiver for TEs finish with 693 (good for about half of the totals of Kelce and Kittle this season). Tight ends today have turned into big wide receivers who, if they can block, is simply a mark in the plus column instead of a sought after point in the checklist. With that being said there are still teams who value different things out of the position, and an effective all around TE like Rob Gronkowski continues to prove it’s worth year after year. There are a lot of talented tight ends in this draft, and I expect as many as 7 or 8 to be starters for their respective NFL teams early in their careers.
10) Josh Oliver, San Jose State
There’s no doubt Oliver has the athleticism required to make the jump from the Mountain West to the NFL, but his game will need some refining. He has the hands and body control to make acrobatic catches and the ball skills to make plays in traffic, but he struggles with route running, and doesn’t look to offer much in terms of blocking. If you trust your coaching, Oliver can be a pet project with high upside.
9) Alize Mack, Notre Dame
His natural hands and athleticism allow him to be a beast in contested catch situations, but he’s forced into those situations too often because of poor route running. Mack Doesn’t create separation, but if he can be coached up, he has high upside.
8) Isaac Nauta, Georgia
Comfortable as both an inline blocker and split out in the slot, but doesn’t excel at either. Nauta was a high profile recruit who has a lot of game experience at Georgia, and has flashed some ability in the passing game but hasn’t put it all together. He has solid hands, functional athleticism, and is a plus blocker, and I have little doubt he will find his way into a TE rotation quickly in the NFL.
7) Dax Raymond, Utah State
Dax is a smart player with a tremendous understanding of the position. He’s a former quarterback, something I crave all around the field for my hypothetical football team, and he puts that experience to use with excellent ability against zone coverage. He’s not a great blocker, and he’s not an elite athlete, but he’s a productive receiver with good hands and a good understanding of coverages.
6) Dawson Knox, Ole Miss
Knox is a very complicated evaluation because he projects in the same mold as former Rebel Evan Engram, but he has very limited production. He had a weird role in a weird offense, but showed traits of a productive receiving tight end with smooth athleticism and effective route running at times.
5) Jace Sternburger, Texas A&M
Here’s a guy who many worry might be a “one year wonder” with just one year of real production at A&M, but oh boy what a year it was. No question Sternburger showed the athleticism required at the next level against SEC competition, but he showed more than that with good route running ability, and a physicality and willingness to block even though technique was lacking. It may have just been one year, but his 832 yards and 10 TDs speak for themselves.
Late 2nd-Early 3rd Round
4) Kaden Smith, Stanford
I’ll get the boring part out of the way, he went to Stanford, and he’s a physical run blocker at the point of attack. Okay now the fun part. Smith is a very good athlete with VERY good hands who consistently wins contested catches and was relied on as a safety blanket for two extremely productive years in Palo Alto. Look for Smith to be a long-term starter in the NFL.
Late 2nd-Early 3rd Round
3) Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
Here’s a player who excelled in all areas of Alabama’s offense. He’s one of the best run blockers in the class, he has a very good feel for route running and constantly finds space in both man and zone coverage, he has a high level of functional athleticism for the position, and he has effectively no red flags. Irv will be a top 10 TE in the NFL for the next decade you can write that in stone.
Late 1st Round
2) Noah Fant, Iowa
Depending on who you ask you might find Fant atop the list of TEs in this year’s class, but unfortunately he’s a notch below his Iowa teammate. Now just because he was outshined by one of his own, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have All-Pro capability in his own right. Simply put Fant is one of the most athletic tight ends to come out of the draft in the league’s history, and I expect him to rip apart the combine drills to prove it. Beyond that he’s a natural hands catcher with a variety of routes in his repertoire, and is even a highly functional run blocker. He’s a mismatch nightmare for defensive coordinators from day 1, and will make some quarterback very happy.
Mid 1st round
1) TJ Hockenson, Iowa
As good as Noah Fant is, I think the gap between him and Hockenson is actually quite substantial. As far as position groups are concerned, scouting tight ends is relatively easy, ideally you want a guy who is a functional run blocker, who you can move to different parts of the field, who is smart and fluid in route running, who has natural hands, who you can rely on in the red zone, and ideally, who is athletic enough to make plays. My notes on TJ Hockenson: “Finishes blocks with physicality, ability to get tough reach blocks on an edge to bounce a back outside, good route runner with the feel to find space in a defense, good in and out of his cuts, plus athlete, natural hands, good in contested catches and jump balls, Swiss Army Knife with every tool in the book, Wisconsin tape should be put in the TE Scouting Bible.”