Zach's Draft Corner: Tight Ends/Week Zero Preview
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
It might seem like the 2018 NFL Draft was just yesterday, but in just two short months, college football will once again be underway and fans will be clamoring to find their studs and sleepers of the 2019 draft class. For the next few months, I’m going to give you my names to note for the upcoming season at every position, along with a mini scouting report and where I’d like to see the prospects improve this season if they want to hear their name called early come April. Given in no particular order, these will be the prospects that, at least at the beginning of the season, will be generating the most buzz. Consider this a primer for the upcoming season of Saturdays, and a potential guide for your television if you aren’t sure which game to watch. Previously, I discussed the offensive line. This week, I finish my draft preview with the tight ends, and a preview of actual college football games! Seriously, there will not be a Saturday without college football until January. I am here for this.
Noah Fant - University of Iowa, Junior
Noah Fant is one of my absolute favorite players, at any position, in the upcoming draft class (assuming he declares). Measuring in at 6'4" and 232 pounds, Fant plays in a run-heavy offense at Iowa but still was able to haul in 30 catches for 494 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017. Without a doubt, Fant is the best tight end in this draft class. The first thing to mention is his absolute elite athleticism. At the 2018 NFL Combine, Mike Gesicki of Penn State turned heads with a SPARQ score in the 99.3 percentile of all tight ends when he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, a 4.10-second shuttle, and had a 41.5-inch vertical jump. During a spring workout at Iowa, Fant crushed school records with a 3.95-second shuttle and a 42.1-inch vertical jump. On top of that, in one play against Nebraska in 2017, Fant caught the ball, ran 64 yards with pads on, and leapt into the endzone, all in a matter of about 7.5 seconds. On a per-yard basis, Fant ran almost as fast after catching the ball and with pads on than Gesicki did in gym shorts and coming out of a track stance. Fant’s numbers from a spring workout after his true sophomore season all eclipse tight ends that were known as athletic freaks in past drafts, including Gesicki and David Njoku. Even Vernon Davis, back in 2006 when he was mainly known as being the most freakishly athletic tight end we have ever seen, recorded a 4.17-second shuttle and a 42.0-inch vertical jump. Fant isn’t just elite athletically. He’s special.
So great, he is athletic. Fant is also one of the most developed and technically-sound tight ends as a receiver. Fant already has displayed great hands, exceptional route running technique, special top-end speed and change of direction speed, elite acceleration off the line, and an unrivaled ability to run after the catch. Iowa runs a very pro-style offense. Any route he will run in the NFL, he's already run it at Iowa, and has excelled in it. With his size and length, he also has a great catch radius. He is the ultimate red zone weapon with his leaping ability, size, strength, hands, and route running skills.
Even better, as a tight end in Kirk Ferentz's offense, you don't see the field as a tight end until you prove you can block. Fant consistently displays great technique and strength in run blocking. Even more, look back at his 2016 tape, and you see a true freshman with great pass blocking skills, too. Now, it would be criminal to make Fant block on a pass play, but it’s nice to know that he can do it.
If there is any knock on Fant, it's that he is a little on the lean side right now and could stand to add a little more strength. However, this would present itself only if you asked him to stay in and block on multiple plays in a row. That will be a rare situation in the NFL. It may sound like a stretch, but his ceiling is a Tony Gonzalez-type tight end who, if he is able to add a few pounds of strength and functional muscle, can be a playoff team's best receiver and a strong blocker. He will likely end up more in the Zach Ertz or Travis Kelce tier of tight ends, but that's still a top-5 tight end year in and year out. Fant is by far the most exciting element of Iowa’s offense, and is worth the watch on Saturdays.
Dawson Knox - Ole Miss, Junior
Dawson Knox is the best tight end not named Noah Fant, for now, and is the leader of a group that is all very similar in that they are good receivers and poor blockers. Measuring in at 6'4" and 250 pounds, Knox battled foot injuries in 2017. He was productive in the time he had, coming down with 24 catches for 321 yards, albeit no touchdowns, in eight games of action. What separates Knox from others in this group is that he is highly inexperienced at the tight end position. Knox was actually recruited as a walk-on quarterback at Ole Miss, but transitioned to tight end after the coaches saw how much better Chad Kelly and Shea Patterson were as throwers. It wasn’t until 2017 that he made the full transition to tight end, as he was even discussed as a quarterback after Chad Kelly went down with injury in 2016. This inexperience could serve him well.
Knox checks off every box as a receiver. He has a great combination of size and speed, and has a good suddenness in his routes. His technique as a receiver is beyond what you would expect from a tight end as inexperienced as him, displaying an ability to catch with his hands without dropping passes and to run his route tree excellently. He moves all over the field, but is most comfortable in the slot rather than in-line. Knox can be a vertical threat up the seam or an underneath target in traffic, and excels in both positions.
As good as he is a receiver, he is not a great blocker. He has shown the potential to be a dominant blocker, with his size and strength allowing him to tie up defensive linemen in the times he does get his technique right. He has a ways to go, but he has the potential. If Fant is a first-round lock, then Dawson is Knox-ing on the door of making it two first-round tight ends, if he can prove to be a competent blocker.
Kaden Smith - Stanford University, Junior
As opposed to Knox, the 6'5", 253-pound Kaden Smith was recruited out of high school as a tight end. Having the size-speed-strength combination you want in a modern tight end, Smith broke out in 2018 with 23 catches for 414 yards and five touchdowns. However, Smith is still very raw in most aspects of his game.
Smith is fast and can accelerate off the line, but has issues with his change of direction and fluidity in his routes. He's powerful in his blocks, but doesn't have great blocking technique or awareness to maintain the blocks for very long. Smith has good hands, but cannot come down with the ball through contact. He needs to be refined, but the tools are there.
On a more general note, tight ends, especially ones like Smith, generally get by in their early career by being bigger, stronger, and faster than anyone who could be defending him. How many high school players are able to defend a guy who is 6'5" and over 233 pounds (Smith’s measurements his senior year of high school)? This can lead to technique being developed later than it should be. Whether it is a lack of coaching, a lack of desire to learn the technique, or simply the inability to learn the technique, something has made it so Smith has relied on his physical traits over any sort of sound football technique. If it is a lack of coaching, then he could be a sleeper taken in the middle rounds of the draft. If it is a lack of desire or an inability to learn, then he could be out of the league after his rookie contract.
Caleb Wilson - University of California, Los Angeles, Junior
Wilson is a 6'5", 225-pound tight end from UCLA who was easily the most productive receiver of any of these tight ends in 2017. Wilson came down with 38 catches for 490 yards and 1 touchdown in 2017, but did so in only five games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Expanded out to a full season, that equates to 99 catches for 1,274 yards. There’s no doubt that Wilson is a strong receiver.
Wilson has very strong hands as a receiver, and is different from other “receiving” tight ends in this class in that he's a true technician. He shows good route running skills and technique in his blocking, but doesn’t have the speed or strength to excel in either area. He has good acceleration, but the top end speed is not great. Caleb Wilson is kind of a tweener right now, in that he's not strong enough to be a true tight end, but he's not fast enough to be a wide receiver. Given his technical skills in blocking, he's better off trying to add strength in order to become an every-down tight end in the NFL. Further, he’s very lean right now, and must add strength to be able to take on defensive linemen as a blocker. His proportions could also lead to injuries, and needs strength to withstand the hits he'll see at the next level. He’s already been susceptible to injuries in college, and he doesn’t want that to carry over into the NFL.
Albert Okwuegbunam - University of Missouri, Redshirt Sophomore
Okwuegbunam may be the most extreme example of a receiving tight end in this class who can’t block. Coming in at an absolutely imposing 6'6" and 260 pounds, he is surprisingly soft for such a mammoth player. As a redshirt freshman with a potential first round quarterback leading the way, Okwuegbunam hauled in 29 catches for 415 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017. Okwuegbunam is a great big target as a red zone threat, but also has the elite top-end speed and quickness to be one of the most dangerous playmakers in this draft.
As alluded to previously, his downside is with his blocking. He's bad. Like really bad. He will need to be taught how to block entirely, and there's no guarantee how much of that will take because it is an issue with his mindset. In an interview with the Kansas City Star, Missouri’s running backs coach Cornell Ford mentioned a basketball game he witnessed Okwuegbunam play in, and said that “He was going up against really munchkins, and they were pushing him around.” Ford further said “He always saw himself as a wide receiver, [and] I always told him he was going to be a tight end.”
Okwuegbunam has the potential to be a Jimmy Graham-esque weapon in the NFL. That includes taking into account that he will be a net negative in the run game, but taking him off the field is a dead giveaway that you will most likely be running the ball. He's a hindrance to an offense that likes to disguise their looks, but his potential as a receiver might overshadow that.
Brandon Fritts - University of North Carolina, Senior
We have finally come to the point of this article where we get to discuss the blockers! The 6'4", 250-pound Fritts is one of the few tight ends in this class who is a better blocker than receiver at this point in his career, catching only 25 passes for 177 yards and four touchdowns in 2017. However, you should not dismiss Fritts’s ability as a passer, but merely recognize that he is not used much as a receiver.
Instead, North Carolina lined him up all over the field, and Fritts was a valuable extra blocker in UNC's running game in all areas. He's still a decent receiver, but isn't really used in the passing game. He has shown good hands in his limited usage, and his adequate speed means that he has the potential to improve as a receiver. Fritts has been limited thus far to finding open spaces and getting into them, either leaking off a block or battling zone coverage, but his knowledge of zones and spacing is impressive. He's my dark horse candidate to really see a big bump in his draft stock if he can show the nation his worth as a receiver, which is mainly dependent on UNC having more consistency and overall offensive success in 2018.
Tommy Sweeney - Boston College, Senior
The opposite of many tight ends in this class, the 6'5", 255-pound Sweeney might be the best pure blocking tight end in this class, but has very limited upside as a receiver despite his 36 catches for 512 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2017. The issue is that, although he won't drop the open ball, he won't maintain the catch through contact, and his athletic profile makes it tough for him to get open to begin with. His lack of speed makes it rare that he gets open in man coverage, and his lack of ability to catch the ball in traffic limits his ability to work the middle of the field in zone coverage. Ultimately, Sweeney will be limited to goal line situations and early-down work in the NFL, where he can block for the run and maybe catch a pass or two if he can leak into some open space. This still has value, but not for someone looking for an every down, star tight end.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER - Mitchell Wilcox - University of South Florida, Junior
USF has had a lot of weapons over the past few years, and the 6'4", 245-pound Wilcox was stuck down the depth chart, limiting his overall stats. However, he has flashed the big play ability to show that he could be a true stud if he's given more opportunities. In 2016, he averaged 23.2 yards per reception, but only had 12 catches. Ultimately, everything Wilcox has done, he's showed in flashes. When he's on the field as a blocker, he's strong at the point of attack and a willing and able blocker. When he's on the field as a receiver, he can be a great weapon in all levels of the field. In 2018, I want to see Wilcox show this ability on a more consistent basis with more time on the field.
I think of Wilcox as the tight end version of Robert Landers, the defensive tackle from Ohio State. If he can keep up the production with a larger workload, he could be a monster. If the additional playing time reduces his effectiveness and keeps him from reaching his peak on any given play, then his upside will be limited. Many of USF’s weapons have moved on from the team, leaving Wilcox with every opportunity to carve out a major role for the Bulls. My eyes will be watching to see if he can take advantage of the situation.
Week 0 Previews
We’ve arrived! This Saturday (August 25), four games involving FBS teams will be played in what they call "Week 0", as the four games include zero Power Five teams. Further, only two of the games are on regular television. Luckily for us, these two televised games are the only ones with any real draft implications. Here is your viewing guide for Saturday night if you have the desire to watch meaningful football games that actually count for the regular season!
7:30 PM Eastern Time (4:30 Pacific) - Hawaii at Colorado State, CBS Sports Network
Hawaii has a young team, but my small school sleeper, linebacker Jahlani Tavai (#31), is the unquestioned leader of the Hawaii defense and potentially a Day 2 pick next April. With no other games on TV when this game kicks off, it will be a great opportunity to see of Tavai can start his 2018 campaign as dominantly as he ended 2017.
Colorado State is mostly devoid of talent after a few stars left the program for the 2018 NFL Draft, but they do have some intriguing Day 3 prospects. Linebackers Josh Watson (#55) and Tre Thomas (#52) are a formidable duo in the middle of Colorado State’s defense, and offensive tackle Ben Knox (#78) anchors a line with his prototypical size and length (6’6”, 310 pounds). A good start to the season for any of these three players could really improve their stock.
10:00 PM Eastern Time (7:00 Pacific) - Wyoming at New Mexico State
Although Wyoming was a story because of Josh Allen last year, the true standouts were all on Wyoming’s 9th-ranked nationally scoring defense. Wyoming returns many of these players, leaving you with plenty of prospects to watch. Leading the way are safeties Andrew Wingard (#28 and with long golden locks) and Marcus Epps (#6). Defensive end Carl Granderson (#91) is also an intriguing prospect with the potential to go as high as the second round next year. One of the most intriguing positions for Wyoming is their interior DL rotation. Youhanna Ghaifan (#93), Sidney Malauulu (#96), Conner Cain (#87), Ravontae Holt (#98), and Javaree Jackson (#86) are all draft eligible and have a good amount of playing experience, but the rotation is up in the air. All five of these guys will be going hard every snap in an attempt to get more play time and improve their draft stock, so that will be a fun internal competition to watch.
Are you ready for the “Damn, I’m old” note of the week? Though he is a true freshman this year and it’s unsure what his role will be, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, Jr. (#17) signed with Wyoming last year. You might remember his father, former Notre Dame and NFL deep threat extraordinaire Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Sr., and his 9-year career with the Raiders, Panthers, and Cowboys from 1993-2001.
New Mexico State doesn’t have much going for them, but do have a couple of good Day 3 prospects. Safety Ron Laforce (#23) and OLB Terrill Hanks (#2) are solid pieces on an otherwise unspectacular Aggie team, but it doesn’t matter. Meaningful football is back, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be watching.
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