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The 2017 NFL Draft may be the best tight end class ever

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Evaluating the top 15 tight ends in the 2017 NFL draft.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should draft a tight end in the 2017 NFL draft, which may feature the best tight end class in history. And that’s not hyperbole.

I’m not the most fun at dinner parties. It’s not that I don’t enjoy company, it is just that most people have a tendency for hyperbole that causes me to roll my eyes at an inappropriate time.

Sometimes it’s simply a nicety when someone says “Best Steak Ever” to the guy working the grill. Perhaps it’s very good, possibly even great, but is it Bern’s Steakhouse from Tampa great , or Del Campo’s in DC, or McKendrick’s in Atlanta? I’ve eaten at all three and let’s be real: no one working from their grill with supermarket t-bone is coming close.

I’m a lot less forgiving on “worst ever”. Usually you hear this in politics when someone says this President or the last President was the “worst ever”. Really? Warren Harding’s cabinet was taking bribes out in the open, Franklin Pierce was often so drunk, by noon, he couldn’t keep up with his meetings and generally is considered by historians as the person who did more than any other single person to cause the civil war. I suppose I just have a sense of history that makes me allergic to hyperbole.

I’ll tell you what’s not giving me a historical peanut allergy these days: anyone claiming this is the best draft class of tight ends in modern NFL history.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-ESPN The Party Red Carpet Entrances
Once, an undrafted Antonio Gates headlined a tight end draft class
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You can make a clear case that this group, as it appears now, is far and away the best. I went all the way back to 1985 looking at draft results and I don’t see anything that is close. 2003 was excellent and the current bench mark if you count Antonio Gates as part of the class (he went undrafted), with first-round pick Dallas Clark and third-round pick Jason Witten rounding out the class. If you leave Gates out perhaps the title actually belongs to 2006, which featured Vernon Davis, Anthony Fasano, Delanie Walker and a few guys like Leonard Pope who hung around the league for a few years as specialty blockers/special teamers.

Usually what you get in the NFL draft is, at most, one guy everyone agrees is an impact guy, and another 2 or 3 that teams think could be starters along with a bunch of long shots.

That’s simply not the case this year. Not only do you have OJ Howard, the prototypical in-line/Y tight end who excels at blocking at caching, you also have another three solid Y tight ends who could/should be NFL starters, another three move/F tight ends, who primarily work as receivers and in the slot, and another three guys who have the potential to start eventually, plus a host of special teams/backup players.

That’s a heck of a list of guys teams will pencil in as current or future starters after this draft. Even if you assume the typical draft bust rate applies, don’t be shocked in 2020 when 25-35% of the league’s starting tight ends came out of the 2017 draft class.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys
Brate the Great
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

So why should the Tampa Bay Buccaneers care about tight ends? We did just have the emergence of Cameron Brate who led all NFL tight ends with 10 touchdown catches. I suspect we are interested for the same reason that you can love the neighbor’s grilled steak but still desire a trip to Bern’s or any other top notch steakhouse.

Just because we have Brate doesn’t mean we can’t use two tight ends in the same formation. Fielding two tight ends often forces the defense to stay in their base formation, which has significant strategic value. And while Brate is a good receiver, he leaves quite a bit to be desired as a blocker.

In fact, not looking at a tight end early in this draft may actually be franchise malpractice. Brate’s a free agent in a couple years, about the same time we need to cut checks to Jameis Winston, Mike Evans , and others. Apparently on some level Jason Licht is aware of this as he’s been seen kicking the tires on more than one tight end.

So if you are ready for your shopping list here goes:

NFL: Combine
OJ Howard Combine Drills
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Y: In-line do-it-all tight ends

OJ Howard, Alabama

6’6”, 251lbs

Consensus Value: 1st Round. My Value: 1st Round

It’s hard to think of a more “clean” prospect at TE than Howard from any of the recent drafts. He simply checks off everything in terms of athletic ability, production, health, and conduct. You can make a really good argument that he was under-utilized at Alabama under Kiffin and will be better as a pro.

Often overlooked is what he does with the ball after the catch: he’s too shifty for most LB’s and too big for most safeties. He brings just enough speed to stretch the deep middle as well. He also has a nasty disposition at the snap of the ball in the running game. A total package with no red flags.

David Njoku, Miami (FL)

6’4”, 246lbs

Consensus Value: Late 1 Early 2. My Value: 2nd Round

Njoku is young and still growing into his body. He also has had limited reps at the collegiate level. This is all to say he’s still a project. I don’t think the team who drafts Njoku should expect more than some freak athlete plays the first season because he’s clearly still learning the game. Technique wise he’s a mess as a blocker and a route runner. What he brings is real power and big-play ability from a position where only the greats tend to do that.

I’m sure if you’ve watched him you’ve seen the leaping ability, but what is really special about him is his speed at changing direction. No one that big should be allowed to change direction on a dime like that, the laws of physics should file some sort of legal action against him. He gives a good deal of effort on blocking and will overwhelm smaller players but the technique needs a total reboot. Perennial Pro Bowl potential is written all over him, you just have to be sure you can get him there if you are thinking about him in round 1.

Adam Shaheen, Ashland (Division II)

6’6” 278lbs Ashland (DIV II)

Consensus Value: 2-4. My Value : 2-3

The physical traits and intensity are off the chart. Still there is very little you can gain from watching him at the Division II level as he’s throwing guys around not like Gronkowski but like King Kong. He’s got some really soft hands but isn’t as mean of a blocker as one would expect for a guy with his size. That could be a function of most guys simply bouncing off of him.

I suspect the team that drafts him will expect a grade A blocker, get a grade C blocker who can become a grade B, and get a much better receiver than they expected. Just to be clear: he’s a good football player, it’s the transition and where he plays that has me curious.

George Kittle, Iowa

6’4”, 247lbs Iowa

Consensus Value : 3-5 . My Value: 3

Kittle’s a take-your-money-off-the-table player. I see the size limitation in-line and the lack of agility to play outside, but his technique in blocking is picture perfect. What he lacks in size he’ll make up for in technique and a couple years in a pro weight room should add some additional core strength. I also look at the number of teams running zone blocking schemes and the truth of it is his size won’t matter, he just needs to seal at that point rather than dominate.

Kittle is a sneaky receiver as well who does more than his share of damage over the intermediate middle. He’s highly underrated as a pass blocker, his footwork against edge rushers is top-notch. Barring injury, if he’s in the correct scheme he’s a long term starter for some NFL team even if he’s not a primary offensive threat. In any other class he’s at the back of the second round or early third round because starters at the position are hard to find.

Jake Butt, Michigan

6’5”, 246lbs

Consensus Value : 3-5. My Value : 3 (If healthy)

The torn ACL really hurts Butt and couldn’t have happened at a worse time for him. He’s suffered in an otherwise very heavy draft class and I’m not sure where it turns out. My only concern with him is the shortened wing span and how long it takes him to gain the added weight they will want him to at the pro level.

He’s a natural pass catcher and fluid blocker at the point of attack though does struggle in blocking at the second level. At this point he’s a bit of a project because he’s a tweener but if healthy will be ready to contribute early as a redzone pass catcher.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Arkansas vs Virginia Tech
Hodges catches the ball
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

F: Receiving/move tight ends

Evan Engram, Ole Miss

6’3”, 234lbs

Consensus Value: Late 1 Early 2. My Value: 1st Round

I generally find player comparisons inaccurate because everyone is different, but the comparisons to Jordan Reed are not wholly inappropriate in this case. Better than that, Engram doesn’t come with the injury history and he’s a more willing blocker. Don’t get me wrong, the size is too much a limitation for him to overcome as a blocker, but I respect the intensity. Then there is the speed which is legitimate and a real threat every week.

Bucky Hodges, West Virginia

6’6”, 257lbs

Consensus Value: 2-4. My Value : Late 1 Early 2

Sometimes coaching changes don’t work out in a player’s favor, and that was the case for Hodges this past season who spent more time at WR than TE. As a former high school QB, this guy is an absolute zone buster and has the speed and leaping ability to attack the deep middle. He’s a persistent receiving threat who gives effort as a blocker.

The difficulty is that he has technique issues right now with both route running and blocking especially. He’s a project player, but so was Jimmy Graham and he presents some of the same mismatch issues in the passing game. That’s simply too hard for me to overlook and I’m not going to fault a guy for doing what was asked of him at the collegiate level.

Jordan Leggett, Clemson

6’5”, 258lbs

Consensus Value: . My Value : 5-6

Obviously I’m in the minority here but everytime I go back and watch more of him I find more things I didn’t like. He should be a better route runner but isn’t. He should be a better blocker but isn’t. Some of his issues could well be scheme and being used to Watson breaking containment but for a player with his physical gifts and natural pass catching ability he should be a monster. He’s a contributor but he just doesn’t seem to have that extra gear to take over games. I’d say let someone else be the hero on drafting him, he’s got really good talent and not enough on the field.

Gerald Everett, South Alabama

6’3”, 239lbs

Consensus Value:3-4. My Value: 4

Everett is pretty maddening. He’s got top notch physical skills, but he’s always looking to make the home run play on a reception. He wants to catch in stride and run afterwards even if he compromises his first duty, which is to catch the pass. That’s the only really troubling part of his game. I can understand why he wants to run after catch because he looks like a running back in the secondary, but he’s got to clean up that part of his game if he wants to be anything more than a situational player.

Blocking effort is pretty good, he’s much better in space picking up linebackers and safeties than he is on the line, but that’s to be expected given his dimensions. Lots of potential with Everett, but he figures more as a boom or bust type than a solid contributor.

The Rest

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Florida International
Jonnu Smith if only he could catch
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonnu Smith, 6’3”, 248lbs, FIU – I love everything about his game except his hands. He caught 42 passes last season but really should have gotten credit for 84 on the stat sheet because he double clutches just about every reception (and that’s not counting the ones he dropped). If he was a more natural pass catcher he should be challenging for the 2nd round here but he’s not. Buy him a JUGS machine and see what you get out of it.

Jeremy Sprinkle, 6’5”, 252lbs, Arkansas – Classic backup TE for the NFL. Doesn’t block well enough at the second level and doesn’t threaten the defense but if you have an injury does well enough at the point of attack and on short routes to keep you moving.

Pharoh Brown, 6’6”, 255lbs, Oregon – I don’t expect him to be drafted at any point before round 6 or 7; injury history is one thing (and it’s a horrific leg injury) but the off-field incidents (domestic violence and fighting) make him a huge liability. Talent and production wise he’s up there in round two territory, but red flags abound.

Eric Saubert, 6’5”, 253lbs, Drake (FCS) – Used as a total joker, being the best athlete on the field and even taking flanker screens at times. The question is how he’ll adjust when the skill level catches up with him, because right now he’s really sloppy.

Darrell Daniels, 6’3”, 247lbs, Washington – Another gifted athlete who can’t put it together. Route running is atrocious and he needs serious weight room time. He’s a project at this point.

Scott Orndoff, 6’5”, 253lbs, Pittsburgh – Going to play in the NFL. Not a starter, but he’s a really good blocker with good movement and bad hands. Lots of hustle and intensity though, clearly has a home as a rookie on special teams.

Michael Roberts, 6’4”, 270lbs, Toledo – He’s a really good receiving TE right now but he won’t get any separation at the pro level. His blocking needs serious refinement. He’s fine in a man scheme but in space he’s horrific and that may not be correctable.

Billy Brown, 6’3”, 254lbs , Shepherd (Division II) – Converting from WR to TE at this point. Route running is smooth especially for a man of his size, but lots of work to do. Draft and stash type because he’s got the physical tools but you’ll have to teach him the TE position from scratch.