Meet Your Historic 2017 Tight End Class

With a historic early-round draft class, the tight end position received a much-needed bulking up this offseason. So who are the new tight ends, and what can we expect from them this year and beyond?

This might sound disrespectful, but we’re not exactly living through a golden age of tight ends right now. Outside of one obviously elite player (Gronkowski) and a few arguably-elite (Kelce, Olsen, Reed), there’s a slack handful of good players and a whole lotta dross. Dross that, because of that paucity, is scooping up big paychecks. Vance McDonald got nearly $20m over 3 years and might get cut before the season starts. Coby Fleener is getting $36m over 5 to stink it up in New Orleans.

Teams haven’t really committed to searching for the next Tony Gonzalez via the draft. The only two first-round picks between 2012 and 2016 were Tyler Eifert and Eric Ebron. Both are useful players, but none are stars. And the early rounds have produced their fair share of busts, too. How much impact have Michael Egnew, Troy Niklas and Jace Amaro had?

This year, now. This year looks different. It could be me getting swept up in preseason hype, but this looks like a neat crop of rookie tight ends. Teams seem to think so too. Looking at how tight ends have been drafted recently produces this:

2017 – 13 drafted, 6 in the first three rounds, three in the 1st.
2016 – 9 drafted, 3 in the first three rounds, none in the 1st.
2015 – 18 drafted, 4 in the first three rounds, none in the 1st.
2014 – 10 drafted, 6 in the first three rounds, one in the 1st.
2013 – 16 drafted, 6 in the first three rounds, one in the 1st.
2012 – 11 drafted, 3 in the first three rounds, none in the 1st.

So, no more tight ends drafted than recent averages, but they’re going earlier. The last time two tight ends went in round 1 were Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis in 2006. The last time three went? Jeremy Shockey, Daniel Graham and Jerramy Stevens in 2002. Enough of the background though, let’s meet the meat.

 

The Do-Everything Tight End: O.J. Howard

Tight ends you can rely on to catch passes and to block defenders are rare. They’re two pretty diverse skillsets! One requires athleticism, speed, good hands and agility. One requires determination, strength, mass, toughness. Finding any player who excels in all those areas is pretty rare. Yet that’s what O.J. Howard is hyped as.

I ‘scouted’ Howard for this very site, and got almost indecently excited watching his tape. Howard produced only modest numbers at Alabama, which might be a red flag. Then you watch the tape and you see a wide-open Howard just never being targeted. Then you see him in space, make space, make defenders miss. He’s a game-breaker who’s going to be a nightmare for linebackers to cover.

Vasha Hunt/vhunt@al.com

I think he’ll get a lot of usage early in Tampa, too. Why? Like I said, he can block. He’s not refined, but he’s tough and he’s willing to stand his ground. When you watch him execute a block and think “yeah, that shows promise”, that’s good for a college tight end. When you look at the rusher he’s blocked and realise it’s Myles Garrett, that’s better.

Cameron Brate, #1 on the Bucs depth chart, isn’t bad. He’ll keep the role early – tight ends always take time to adjust. But expect Howard to eventually assume that top role, as often setting off down the seam for 30-yard gains as driving a rusher wide beyond the quarterback.

 

The Passing Game Mismatches: Evan Engram; David Njoku

People talk about the ‘modern-day’ tight end as being someone who gallops like a gazelle and blocks like one too. It’s an over-simplification, and implying the ‘old-school’ tight end is but a bulldozer with hands is equally unfair.

That said, tight ends are expected to fulfil their skill-position functions more than ever. Late in the first round, the Giants and Browns picked up Engram and Njoku, who should do just that. Of the two, I prefer Njoku. Njoku has an incredible leap and generally fantastic power in his legs. He’s a converted wide receiver who has a knack for finding space, toughness to fight off tight coverage and can toe-tap in the end zone with the finest of them. Engram is a lightning-quick weapon who is going to be beating linebackers to the ball with ease.

David Njoku (Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports)

The lack of blocking ability might limit both these two early. If a tight end can’t block, a defense will treat him just like a receiver and scheme for that. Simply, if you know if a player will receive or block, you can choose a more specialist player to pit against him. If you’re unsure, you have to hedge your bets. This is where being a ‘mismatch’ comes in. If you gamble on a tight end blocking and he runs a route, he may go up against an outside linebacker, to his advantage. If you gamble on him playing receiver, he’ll end up as a big dude bulldozing a defensive back. So that versatility is important.

Engram, in New York, has Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Brandon Marshall to fight for targets. Njoku has less obvious competition, but a more unstable quarterback situation. Njoku’s blocking is slightly better, and he won’t have to do it so much with the Browns’ strong O-Line. The Giants probably need a tight end to block more to make up for their lamentable tackles. I’d say these situations are advantage Njoku in terms of consistent performance.

 

The Small-School Superstars: Gerald Everett; Adam Shaheen; Jonnu Smith

It’s odd that the day 2 tight ends came from smaller schools, but here we are. The Rams’ Gerald Everett (South Alabama) and Titans’ Jonnu Smith (Florida International) at least have mid-major experience. Adam Shaheen (Ashland) has only played against D-II opposition.

Of these three, Everett and Smith fit the more “explosive” mould whereas Shaheen tested more like an all-rounder. Everett is your incredibly common converted basketballer (Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas). He can run, leap, catch, block a bit. Smith is your prolific college producer – in FIU records he’s 5th in receiving yards, and  3rd in touchdowns. Though this is FIU, whose most (only?) notable receiving alum is T.Y. Hilton. Smith’s situation is much better, with Delanie Walker to learn behind, a system that values tight ends, and an emerging star quarterback in Marcus Mariota. Everett has a weak receiver corps to challenge him for targets, but he has Jared Goff throwing them.

Jonnu Smith (Al Diaz/ Miami Herald)

Shaheen is an interesting one, and probably the riskiest. Sure, he looked like Gronkowski on tape, but that’s D-II! The thing with Gronk is, though he’s not the quickest or most explosive tight end, he is for his size. Chicago drafted Shaheen in the hope that he’s someone freaking HUGE who can run reasonably well, catch, and get open. I’m not worried about Shaheen’s blocking – he’s built well enough that it should come with time. But D-II tape looks so far from NFL standard, it’s not so easy to see how that translates. If Shaheen isn’t explosive or powerful enough to generate separation or mismatch with bigger linebackers, he’s going to have a career of very modest receiving stats. He’ll get games, as a likely good blocker, but he’ll have a long way to go.

 

Any Others?

Keep an eye out for George Kittle, drafted as a superior blocking tight end, but the 49ers like his receiving chops. Both Jake Butt and Bucky Hodges slipped to day 3 because of injuries they carried. To compare to other prospects, Butt looks like a poor man’s OJ Howard; Hodges a poor man’s Evan Engram.

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