This series will go position by position to look at the tiers of where NFL draft prospects stack up to each other. Rankings are great for discussion, but so many factors such as coaching, scheme fit, and usage will affect who will actually have more NFL success. Every player in each tier could easily be the top player in the tier based on these factors. Any prospect not discussed unfortunately did not have enough adequate tape to have a full evaluation. For this edition, we will look at tight ends.
2017 NFL Draft: Tight End Tiers
1. O.J. Howard, Alabama
Howard is quite possibly the safest tight end prospect of the past decade. What makes him so safe is that at his floor, he can be one of the premier blocking tight ends in the NFL. There is no denying his blocking ability. He is technically sound, understands his assignments, and can block out of the slot, in line, and when pulling across the line. His upside is tremendously high because of his athletic profile. Howard is an extremely smooth moving player, and while he was not used much in the passing game, it can almost be assumed that in a more pass happy offense he can thrive. His route running ability will be questioned, but he can dominate both with the ball in his hands and in the running game, which makes him a premier option.
2. David Njoku, Miami
Howard has the lower floor, but it can easily be argued that Njoku has the higher ceiling. Njoku is a former wide receiver and track star, and it shows when he has the ball in his hands. He has the vision to use the whole field, combined with size and leaping ability to evade tacklers in open space. Like Howard, he is not a refined route runner, but good luck bringing him down with the ball in his hands. He is not as refined as Howard as a blocker, but is willing in that area. With some refinement, the sky is the limit for the athletic freak from Miami.
3. Evan Engram, Ole Miss
In most years, Engram is the tight end that everyone’s eyes are on. He is a tremendous receiving tight end and is the better route runner than both tier one players. He spent most of his time at Ole Miss lined up on the outside and in the slot. Unfortunately, he was hardly used as an in-line blocker, and the question can be asked how proficient, or willing he will be to help in that area. He almost could be looked at as a huge slot option and major red zone threat. The upside of his size and ability to block makes him a great tight end prospect in this great class.
4. Jake Butt, Michigan
This, of course, is considering that Butt may miss his first NFL season and recover fully from an ACL injury he suffered in his last collegiate game. Without factoring that in much, he is clearly belonging in the top four of the tight end class. Butt is a steady blocker and is just a notch below Howard in the area. In the receiving game, he is very refined and understands his role and limitations. He is a zone killer and chain mover. Butt is able to find soft spots and move the sticks. Butt is not as sexy as the top three, and his injury issues will push him down boards, but as an old-school tight end, Butt is the classic example.
5. Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
Sprinkle is a great combination prospect. He has long arms, making him a red zone threat, and is exceptional as an in-line blocker. He has lined up at fullback, in line, and in the slot to become a blocking threat, and while his route running is not refined, he can do damage as a chip blocker who can extend to the flats. Sprinkle’s biggest question mark is off the field, where he had a fiasco of stealing extra products when given a shopping spree at his team’s bowl game in 2016.
6. George Kittle, Iowa
Kittle is right up there with O.J. Howard in terms of blocking. He is not as refined, but Kittle blocks like a madman seeking revenge on the defense. Kittle is a pancake blocker and can be seen driving the defender from the hash mark to the sideline. He has great straight line speed and burst, but has little to no route work to speak of. He is essentially the poor mans O.J. Howard, which is a mighty intriguing option.
7. Adam Shaheen, Ashland
Adam Shaheen came out of nowhere but is climbing up draft boards. The 6’6” 278-pound small school stud started his career as a basketball player at Pittsburgh-Johnstown, a branch campus of Pitt. However, he dreamed of playing football so he transferred to Ashland and immediately destroyed the competition. His hands are questionable, and his game acumen is not quite there. However, with time and coaching, the sky is the limit considering his outrageous size and athletic profile.
8. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech
Hodges shares a similar style of play to Evan Engram. He is a receiver first and spent most of his time at Virginia Tech out wide and in the slot. However, he is less refined than Engram, not only as a pass catcher but as a blocker. When it comes to contested catches, there is a lot to be desired. Engram is also a better blocker and showed more versatility coming out of the backfield and in line. Hodges truly is a wide receiver in a tight end’s body and it will be interesting to see how he can transition to his role.
9. Gerald Everett, South Alabama
Everett is essentially the small school version of Hodges. Everett hardly lined up in line, and his best play came from the slot as a red zone target. However, while he is better at contested catches than Hodges, Hodges is a better route runner. Everett has a limited route tree, and without blocking prowess to chip and free himself in the flats, a red zone threat may be his best bet. Still, the upside is there that he can learn the nuances of the position and grow.
10. Eric Saubert, Drake
Saubert is a great athlete and possesses great playing strength, size, and speed. However, most of his game is unrefined. Drops are a big issue for him as well and takes him out of the tiers that Shaheen, Everett, and other small school options are in. Still, his game can be worked on and with better coaching, a lot can be brought out him, especially as a blocker.
11. Jonnu Smith, Florida International
Smith is another very raw small school prospect. He is lean, and like Everett hardly saw any in line action. However, Everett is a much better receiver, and it can be seen in how Everett catches away from his body while Smith typically does not. He is a raw route runner, and with his lack of weight may not see the field early in his career. However, he has great length, and an outstanding athletic profile to justify drafting him as a red zone target.
12. Jordan Leggett, Clemson
When Leggett is at his best, he deserves to be up a tier or two. However, his best only seemed to show in limited moments. He is big with long arms and an ability to make moves and create after the catch. However, he showed major inconsistencies and at times checked himself out of games. He even called himself a “lazy blocker.” Acknowledging is the first step, but being proactive has to be next for him to reach his ceiling.
13. Cole Hikutini, Louisville
Hikutini is a poor man’s Jake Butt. He has sudden quickness and breaks in and out of his routes and is a zone beater who can make those breaks to find soft spots and sit down for first downs. He was Lamar Jackson’s favorite safety blanket, and while he is nowhere near as good as a blocker as Butt, he can be looked at as a chain mover with upside.
14. Michael Roberts, Toledo
Roberts is a low floor, depth option at tight end. He is a willing blocker and has great size and length. However, in an unbelievable tight end class, his lack of elite athleticism sticks out like a sore thumb. Still, he has strong hands and should be able to find a job as a special teams player or second tight end in the NFL.
15. Pharaoh Brown, Oregon
Brown is a pretty big risk-reward bet to make. In 2014, he suffered an awful leg injury that nearly ended his career. However, it only ended his 2015 campaign. His 2016 showed a slower, less athletic version of himself, though. Add in some bad off-field issues, and he is a shot in the dark to recover and maintain any sort of NFL career. However, he has great size and strength, and if he can regain health and stay out of trouble, a potential starter lurks in the late rounds.
16. Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M
Seals-Jones was a wide receiver for his entire college career. However, he sits at 243 pounds and is extremely slow and rather unathletic at the position. He has great hands and a strong catch radius, but has never lined up in line and is a complete project that might be worth taking a flier on in the seventh round.