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2017 Tight End Draft Class Preview: Butt, Engram, Hodges, Howard, Njoku, Roberts

Date:
February 7, 2017

‘Preview’ scouting reports are when I take a look at a small amount of tape and overall output data we have on a non-QB prospect before the NFL Combine and complete a preview report on what I’m seeing before I do a larger scouting study after the NFL Combine or Pro Days. Our computer scouting models cannot function properly without the NFL Combine and/or Pro Day data, so I’m not committing to these scouting reports being my definitive word on the prospect. Using what we have, I wanted to take a glimpse at some of the bigger names to share what I see initially.

We have gone from a 2016 draft world where Hunter Henry scores five TDs in his final two college seasons (25 games) but is considered far and away the best TE prospect for his draft with no real rival — to me having to limit this TE prospect 2017 preview report to just six tight ends. In 2015, Maxx Williams was the mainstream’s top tight end prospect and the Ravens made him the top TE selected that year…if Williams were in the 2017 draft class he might go undrafted – that’s how deep this tight end group goes. I’m only half kidding about the Williams going undrafted.

Tight end prospect scouting the past few years has been so thin and uninspiring that I wasted a bunch of time looking at converting oversized wide receivers or examining college basketball players who haven’t played football since high school – all to try to come up with interesting tight end prospects for the NFL. This year is different – perhaps we have entered a new era where oversized wide receivers began figuring out they should be converting to tight ends and becoming elite passing game weapons out of the TE slot instead of mediocre weapons outside. Or maybe it’s just a byproduct of so many advanced college passing offenses and that in addition to flooding the NFL with advance, well-groomed, and passing game-experienced QBs and WRs, now we’re getting tight ends with great experience and exposure in an advanced passing game as well. The new era TE prospects probably have more passing game experience just from their high school years than their predecessors from 10+ years ago did in their entire football career – from grade school through the pros. The tight end is not just an extra blocking surface anymore.

The diversity of size, athleticism, and skills from this 2017 TE prospect class is breathtaking. I’ve been studying draft classes in depth for over seven years and studied the ones prior to that from a historical standpoint. I’ve never seen a tight end class like this. Not even close. The 2010 draft class with Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski (and Aaron Hernandez) may be the best class because of two Hall of Fame talents coming from the same draft class in an era where tight ends were very hard to come by. The 2017 group may or may not have similar Hall of Fame talent but they for sure have potential superstars and/or immediate starters for their NFL team – and I don’t mean warm body tight ends that get semi-ignored by their quarterback while transitioning as rookies – I mean tight end talents that hit the ground running, producing right away. Anyone who says rookie tight ends always have an adjustment year is using an antiquated thought process/axiom. This new group of super-tight ends is beyond ready to produce instantly in the NFL. This may be an aberration in 2017…or a sign of things to come.

So deep and so interesting is this class that I left a couple of intriguing names off my initial review list. Eventually, post-NFL Combine, I’ll do full scouting reports on all the TE prospects with possibilities and those that are media myths needing busting, but here I just wanted to introduce and pre-rank the names to watch at the upcoming NFL Combine. Because this group is so deep their speed/agility/real height/hand size, etc. is going to matter greatly. It’s possible any one of the six names I touch on below could’ve been hands-down the #1 rated tight end in the 2015 draft class and probably in the 2016 class…even if they had a slight flaw found in their NFL Combine. Not this year. Now it’s going to be critical to micro-analyze the top TE prospects in order to determine tiers and pecking orders.

Here are the six tight ends I’m most focused on for the upcoming NFL combine. Listed in the order, I would put them in now…prior to deeper study or full analysis of the measurables. So subject to radical change ahead, but for now…

 

OJ Howard, Alabama – OJH is going to be the mainstream top TE prospect and he’s most likely going to be our top guy as well. He’s going to be so adored that it may create a smokescreen that hides/undervalues the other tight end prospects. We did a profile on Howard two years ago, believing he was going to be a superior/elite talent possibility. He’s done nothing to change that status. In fact, he’s only enhanced that by measuring perfectly at the Senior Bowl (6’5.5″/249 with 10.0″ hands) and mostly dominating Senior Bowl week practices. He looks like a 4.5+ runner with grace and agility, plus terrific hands and nice routes and can block. He showed at the Senior Bowl that he can catch the ball in tight windows with defenders draped on him.

Howard is going to be drafted in the top 15 overall by a team with an absolute need for him to start right away. Howard is going to be expected to start and produce year one.

People compare Howard to Greg Olsen, and I can see that. He reminds me more of Kellen Winslow…old San Diego Chargers Kellen Winslow – the Hall of Famer. Howard was probably what teams hoped Kellen Winslow Jr would be, minus all his off-field problems.

 

It’s tricky picking who the #2 tight end after Howard should be. There are three different styles of tight end prospects to consider for #2. Each has their own unique, different from the others style…

 

Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech — When I started watching tape on Hodges I wasn’t as excited. He didn’t pop off the screen to me. He was listed at 6’6″…but there’s no way he’s 6’6″. It was a bad start to my preview study. However, the more I watched the more I realized why Hodges could be an argument as the best tight end prospect in this class.

The gift Hodges brings to the table is that he’s a kinda Larry Fitzgerald in a tight end’s body. It’s his hands. It is the way he just adjusts to passes in midflight…he has instincts rare for a wide receiver, much less a tight end. He’s a skilled wide receiver masquerading in a tight end’s body.

Measurables are going to be everything for Hodges. He’s listed as 6’6″, but I’m not sure if he’s even 6’4″. If he comes in above 6’4″ and runs a decent 40-time he’s going to be in the argument as a serious pass-game weapon at tight end. The more under 6’4″ Hodges is or if he runs a 4.8+ 40-time – the more he’ll fade in the draft. Hodges’s gift is going to be working in a high-end passing offense. He’ll be wasted otherwise.

 

Evan Engram, Mississippi — I’ve already mentioned it a ton of times during Senior Bowl week and so has the mainstream… Evan Engram is a Jordan Reed clone. Great hands and above average athleticism for a tight end…and a smaller (for a TE) size at 6’3″/236. The NFL Combine speed-agility measurables will be important towards confirming the parallels.

Because Engram already has some draft momentum coming out of the Senior Bowl week he should be drafted by a team that has every intention of using him as a Jordan Reed-like weapon. It’s his only purpose in the NFL. He is not a traditional tight end.

 

Michael Roberts, Toledo – Coming in at 6’4″/260 with 11.6″ hands and having scored 16 TDs last season gets you on this list. He was the best tight end at the East-West Shrine game week and fit in nicely during the Senior Bowl week. He’s not as athletic or polished as the three names above him here, but that might not be as much of a concern in his case

Roberts so much bigger/thicker than these other tight ends that he’s unlikely to run the same 40-time, etc., as the other top TE prospects — but he doesn’t have to at 260+ pounds. I could see from his two All-Star games that he moves well above average for his size. Considering he uses his size as a weapon to shield off defenders – it makes him an intriguing old-school type of tight end. He’s like a version of Antonio Gates. I’m not saying he is as talented as Gates…just noting the style. If he goes to the NFL Combine and runs a somewhat shocking 40-time he’s going to rocket up draft lists.

Also, note – people are going to ding him for ‘blocking’. He looked fine blocking at the Senior Bowl. I think it is a label someone plastered on him to question his big year at Toledo and others are mimicking it without knowing what they are talking about. He has size-power-footwork to be a great blocking tight end.

 

Jake Butt, Michigan – If Butt would have entered the NFL Draft last year, he probably would’ve gone in the first round because of the lack of quality tight end prospects. The decision to stay in school — it’s going to cost him some money. There are so many talented tight ends in this 2017 class it’s going to drive Butt to the third round at least.

Butt is more out of the classical tight end prospect mode – above average athleticism for a tight end with reliable hands and a willing blocker. A Jason Witten type. Maybe Travis Kelce upside depending on athleticism numbers from the Combine.

Butt picked the wrong year just to be ‘good’ (for his draft status). However, he may be an even better pro because he is sound in every aspect of the game. The question is going to be – what kind of speed/agility he comes in with. If he runs in the 4.7s he’s definitely going top 75-100. If he shockingly runs in the 4.6s then he’s going in the top 30-50 for sure. I suspect he’s more of a 4.8 runner which is going to put him in the middle of the draft because of all the other options this year.

David Njoku, Miami, Florida — I’ve had a hard time wrapping my arms around the brief study I did of Njoku. The best way I would describe him is Eric Ebron-like…and that’s not a compliment for me. I thought Ebron was wildly overrated in his draft class and was a potential NFL bust. He hasn’t fully busted in the pros, but he’s been a massive disappointment.

When I call someone similar to Eric Ebron – it means good size, better than average athleticism at tight end, and bad hands. That’s what I think I see with Njoku. He looks fine/sound on some of his catches, but other times you can see the clunky/bobbly/unnatural hands. Those issues don’t tend to improve in the pros, they only become more pronounced.

However, there’s enough on the surface to get excited about, and I need to do more study on his catching ability. If he’s a plausible receiver in the NFL, he has the size to be a legitimate starter. He would have been a first-round prospect in 2015 because tight end prospects have been hard to come by. Not with this class. And Njoku might’ve been in the discussion for the first round in 2016 – but he may not make the top 100 overall in this year’s class.

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About R.C. Fischer

R.C. Fischer is an NFL Draft analyst for College Football Metrics, and a football projections analyst and writer for Fantasy Football Metrics. 

Learn more about RC and the College Football Metrics system >>