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Rookie Roulette - Which TE Should Go First in Rookie Drafts?

Noah Fant, tight end out of Iowa.

T.J. Hockenson, tight end out of Iowa.

Yes, one of these two former Hawkeyes should be the first tight end taken in rookie drafts this year. While there are some other interesting prospects at the position, your decision if you're in need of a tight end in a dynasty league and neither guy has gone off the board yet is between these two. Let's break down the battle between the two and determine which one should be taken first in a rookie draft.

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The Case For Noah Fant

Let's start with Noah Fant, who was taken by the Denver Broncos in the first round.

Fant ends up on a team that looks to be moving on from their other young(ish) tight end, former Michigan Wolverine Jake Butt, whose career has been marred by injuries up until now. Butt's ceiling at this point looks like it's being Fant's backup, so I wouldn't worry too much about how him being on this team could hurt Fant's fantasy value.

So, what can Fant add to this Broncos offense?

Well, for one, Fant's got the speed and leaping ability to be a huge mismatch anywhere on the field. Among tight ends, Fant boasts a 96th percentile 40-yard dash time and a 97th-percentile vertical jump. While he's just 6'4'', Fant's got a pretty good wingspan and makes up for some height disadvantages by being versatile enough to be moved all around the field.

Last year for Iowa, Fant caught 39 passes for 519 yards and seven touchdowns. If you take a look at his tape, you see that he's able to excel as a downfield threat while also being useful over the middle of the field in the short passing game. Being able to use him like a slot receiver at times and as a field-stretching threat at other times will help the Broncos diversify their offensive approach.

Of course, no discussion of Fant is complete without addressing the Broncos quarterback position. He'll start his career with Joe Flacco -- who's earned a reputation as being a good quarterback for tight ends -- under center, but the Broncos also drafted Drew Lock this year, so the expectation is that Lock will take over at some point.

Last year at Missouri, Lock's top two tight ends combined for 65 catches, with the two both being among the Tigers' top five reception leaders. That kind of usage is a good sign that Lock will look to get Fant involved once he takes over the starting role.

The only real quarterback-related worry? Will the Broncos end up throwing the ball enough for Fant's level of involvement to eventually allow him to hit his ceiling? The Broncos made changes to their coaching staff, so looking at last year's results aren't really going to help us here, but offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello has a lot of experience in the NFL and college coaching quarterbacks, so it looks like the Broncos want to be a pass-heavy team. That's another good sign for Fant.


The Case For T.J. Hockenson

But what about Fant's college teammate, T.J. Hockenson, who went earlier in the draft, landing as a top-10 pick for the Detroit Lions?

Hockenson's numbers last year for the Hawkeyes bested Fant's numbers, as he finished with 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns. He also converted his only rushing attempt into a four-yard touchdown.

Hockenson is slower and a little worse of a jumper than his college teammate, but he makes up for that by being a better blocker and a more difficult guy to tackle. That blocking ability can make his transition to the NFL smoother than Fant's, and it makes it easier to keep him on the field in the red zone on rushing downs, where the Lions can use playaction and put Hockenson in a position to score.

Hockenson can do pretty all the things that Fant can before the catch, with Fant's main advantage being his speed in the open field once he has the ball. He's not as likely as Fant to be moved around the formation, but he can still be a versatile weapon in the short and long passing game while working as an in-line tight end.

The Lions should have a more settled quarterback situation with Matthew Stafford, though Stafford's 2018 season was bad enough that rumors emerged that the team might want to move on from him. I don't believe that, and the Hockenson pick suggests to me that the team wanted to get more weapons for their veteran QB to work with.


The Best Of The Rest

This was a very intriguing tight end class.

Irv Smith Jr. went to the Vikings, and while his playing time is blocked by veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, reports are that Minnesota wants him on the field and is lining him up across the formation. This Vikings team has a pair of really good receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but questionable depth beyond that, so Smith has a chance to get good snaps and decent offensive involvement early on.

Jace Sternberger was drafted by the Packers, and while Aaron Rodgers has notoriously used his tight ends sparingly, he's a good route runner with good hands, and once the team moves on from Jimmy Graham (who I can't see being there in 2020), Sternberger will be able to carve out a decent role on this team. I don't see him becoming a top tight end, but he'll be in that tier of guys that you're willing to roll the dice on in fantasy when they have good matchups.

Beyond that, the tight ends come with a lot of question marks. Can Drew Sample be a receiving threat at this level? Will Kahale Warring get snaps in Houston?


So, The Winner Is...?

It's really close for me, but T.J. Hockenson has a situation that I like just a little bit more, and his ability as a blocker means he should be on the field more for the Lions than Fant is for the Broncos, at least early on.

Both guys have all the makings of successful NFL tight ends and fantasy assets, but give Hockenson the slight edge at this point.

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