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2019 NFL Draft Class Preview - Tight Ends


Continuing on with this NFL Draft class preview, today, we'll take a look at the tight end position. Recently, we looked at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions.

If your team is in need of a high-upside tight end, this is the draft class for you. There are still questions about which player will be the first taken, but there's depth unlike most seasons.

The order shown is based on the rankings at NFL Draft Scout.

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Methodology

For tight ends, the NFL combine is a fairly large part of the evaluation process. The forty, bench press, vertical jump, and broad jump have been found as potential indicators for future NFL success. But since we're still missing that portion of the evaluation, we'll take a look at each player similar to a WR with a great emphasis put on size, touchdowns, and final season production.

 

T.J. Hockenson, Iowa

Height: 6' 4''
Weight: 250 lbs
Final Season Age: 21.5

Hockenson isn't the name that most casual fans would have expected to see at the top of this list, but his 2018 made a big impact on scouts. He entered college as a three-star high school prospect ranked as the 66th TE in the class of 2016. But don't let the ranking fool you, Hockenson was clearly a talent out of the state of Iowa. He was named elite All-State first team as a senior after he had already been named first-team all-state as a sophomore and junior.  He finished his senior year with 85 catches for 1,219 yards and 17 TD.

T.J. Hockenson G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TDs Dominator
2017 10 24 320 13.3 3 0.13 0.11 0.12
2018 13 49 760 15.5 6 0.26 0.22 0.24
Career 73 1080 14.8 9 0.20 0.17 0.18

Hockenson's career production isn't overly impressive which is somewhat expected. But his final season's improvement is noteworthy. As part of an Iowa offense that consistently featured two TEs on the field, Hockenson became a reliable option for his QB leading the team in receiving yards and finishing second in receptions. Of note, Hockenson essentially doubled his production across the board and it shows with his jump in market share.

What separates Hockenson for scouts isn't entirely shown in statistical production.  The staff at The Draft Network ranks Hockenson as either the top or second TE prospect in the class. What stood out to Kyle Crabbs during his film study was his versatility. He noted his weakness as deep speed, but in his conclusion he stated, "The challenge for Hockenson’s tape? Listing a weakness. Hockenson is comfortable in any number of roles, giving comfort that he’ll be fine in WCO or vertical passing offenses alike. He’s a scheme transcendent prospect." Scheme transcendent is high praise which is why he should be an exciting option for fantasy. Hockenson is projecting as a first round pick that could go as high as top ten. He should be one of the first two TEs off the board in rookie drafts and should be considered as early as the last three picks of round one.

 

Irv Smith Jr., Alabama

Height: 6' 3''
Weight: 241 lbs
Final Season Age: 20.4

As part of a versatile Alabama offense, it can be difficult to stand out, even for a strong prospect. Smith was a three-star prospect out of the state of Louisiana.  He ranked as the 22nd TE in the class of 2016 and the 528th prospect overall. As a senior, he caught 31 passes for 558 yards and four touchdowns. He the son of former New Orleans Saint, Irv Smith.

Irv Smith Jr. G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TDs Dominator
2017 9 14 128 9.1 3 0.05 0.11 0.08
2018 15 44 710 16.1 7 0.15 0.13 0.14
Career 58 838 14.4 10 0.11 0.13 0.12

The uptick in overall passing offense was clearly helpful for Smith's production. With 30 more receptions in 2018 compared to his 2017 campaign, Smith became the fourth-most productive receiver for Alabama. Smith's market share of yards isn't super impressive in either of his two seasons, but with four above-average WRs around him, that's not overly surprising. The positive is that he managed to turn his limited usage into yards with a 16.1 average per catch and that he made himself a viable option near the end zone.

The biggest positive for Smith is his youth. At 20.5, he's the youngest TE in this group and one of the youngest prospects in the class regardless of position. The Draft Network unanimously ranked Smith as the third TE in this class. Smith's route running and blocking were identified as his biggest strengths and his weakness was found to be his contested catches. John Ledyard concluded about Smith, "Smith may never be a top 2-3 tight end in the NFL, but he’s fully capable of being among the best in the next tier." Being a strong blocker won't translate to fantasy, but it could earn him early playing time which is key for eventual fantasy success. Smith should probably be taken as the third TE at the end of the second round.

 

Noah Fant, Iowa

Height: 6' 4''
Weight: 241 lbs
Final Season Age: 21.1

Fant entered the year as the most well-known TE prospect in the class and despite Hockenson emerging as a viable option, Fant remains a top TE prospect. Fant was a three-star prospect who ranked as the 31st athlete, nationally, and the top overall prospect in the state of Nebraska in 2016.  In high school, Fant played both TE and defensive end and earned all-state and All-Metro honors, in some capacity, each of his final three seasons. He holds his school record for single-season and career receptions and touchdowns.

Noah Fant G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TDs Dominator
2016 6 9 70 7.8 1 0.04 0.06 0.05
2017 12 30 494 16.5 11 0.20 0.41 0.30
2018 12 39 519 13.3 7 0.18 0.26 0.22
Career 78 1083 13.9 19 0.15 0.27 0.21

Of this group of TEs, Fant is the only one with multiple seasons over a 0.2 dominator and the biggest reason for that is his TD production during his final two seasons. Despite Hockenson leading the team in yards and receptions, Fant led the Hawkeyes in TDs and he still finished second in yards despite having the third most receptions. His 2017 campaign was a bit more dominant as he finished with more than double the next closest receiver.

Fant established himself as a top redzone option during his 2017 campaign while playing on a low volume offense. The Draft Network ranks him as either the first or second TE in the class. Through film study, they found his run after catch ability to be his biggest strength while noting his power at the point of attack to be a weakness. Kyle Crabbs wrapped up his profile by saying "Noah Fant has the physical skills and receiving chops to be the next big thing at the TE position in the NFL. The league has never been friendlier to flex targets and Fant runs like a receiver and leaps like a basketball pro." With Fant's upside as a touchdown scorer, there's a good chance he'll be the top TE off the board in rookie drafts and should be considered at the back end of the first.

 

Kaden Smith, Stanford

Height: 6'4''
Weight: 252 lbs
Final Season Age: 21.7

Had he not played alongside the TD machine, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, there's a decent chance that Smith's production would be significantly better. Smith was a four-star prospect in the class of 2016 and ranked as the second best TE in the class and 38th overall prospect.

Kaden Smith G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TDs Dominator
2017 11 23 414 18 5 0.16 0.22 0.19
2018 9 47 635 13.5 2 0.18 0.07 0.12
Career 70 1049 15 7 0.17 0.13 0.15

Smith lacks TD production. There's no denying that, but with 40 percent of TDs going to one player, there's some excuse that can be given. Smith's yardage production is strong for the TE position. His 18 percent MS led to him being third in yards for Stanford and, even with only two scores, he was tied for third in receiving TDs. His 15 yards per catch is strong for the TE position and while it doesn't indicate a strong likelihood for field stretching, it shows that he's capable for more than just short yardage routes.

Smith's frame provides some expectation that his TD ceiling will improve in the NFL which would greatly improve his fantasy value. The Draft Network's staff ranking ranged from fifth to ninth best TE in the class. Kyle Crabbs found his vertical receiving to be his best asset and his power at the point of attack to be his worst. He concluded, "Smith has skills and promise but shouldn’t be tasked to play a large percentage of snaps until he fleshes out his game." With the question marks about his development needs, Smith should probably be avoided until late round three.

 

Caleb Wilson, UCLA

Height: 6' 4''
Weight: 235 lbs
Final Season Age: 22.5

UCLA was mostly a dumpster fire of a team in 2018, but Wilson's production can be classified as a bright spot. Wilson played QB and TE in high school and was rated as a three-star pro-style QB. As a senior, he threw for 610 yards while also accounting for 310 receiving yards. Adding to his athletic versatility, Wilson also play basketball in high school.

Caleb Wilson G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TDs Dominator
2016 8 16 220 13.8 0 0.06 0.00 0.03
2017 5 38 490 12.9 1 0.11 0.03 0.07
2018 11 60 965 16.1 4 0.34 0.31 0.32
Career 114 1675 14.7 5 0.15 0.08 0.11

With 34 percent share of the team's yards, it's clear that Wilson was the primary target on the offense. However, this wasn't solely due to the coaching change. Wilson actually produced at a slower rate than he had the previous season, but he improved his yards per catch and became a viable option near the goal line. Ideally, Wilson would have scored more than five times over his three-year career, but his 14.7 yards per catch and heavy usage during his final season help alleviate some concerns.

Being a TE on a bad team doesn't typically lead to the great production that Wilson managed. Only one staff member, Ben Solak, at The Draft Network ranked Wilson within their top-10 for TEs. In his film study, he found Wilson's hands and ability to catch through contact to be strengths but noted that he's not overly big or quick.  Kyle Crabbs concluded that "Caleb Wilson is a low ceiling prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft, given some shaky hands and a less than ideal set of athletic tools." With that all in mind, Wilson is a last-round option in most leagues barring an unexpectedly strong NFL combine.

 

A Few Other Names to Know

Josh Oliver (San Jose State) is the sixth-ranked TE by NFL Draft Scout. He finished his 2018 campaign with 709 yards and four TD.

Alize Mack (Notre Dame) finished fourth on the team in receiving yards but made big strides during his final season.

Isaac Nauta (Georgia) isn't lauded as much as his teammates, but in many critical situations, Nauta was the intended target. He accounted for 430 yards and three TDs.

Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M) may have been the best receiving TE in all of college football, this season. After transferring for junior college, he amassed 832 yards and ten TDs.

Dax Raymond (Utah State) finished his career with two seasons over 300 receiving yards.

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