The NFL offense is a passing league, but that’s not just for glory-hound wide receivers or even pass catching backs. As the intermediate passing game becomes more important, expect more teams to look to the tight end for production through the air. Jon Ledyard assesses the potential tight ends for the 2017 NFL Draft class in Part 1 of this two part series.
The list below is the first 15 tight ends on my watch list of 30 as we head towards the 2017 NFL Draft. The names are in no particular order and do not represent a ranking of the prospects. If you see a few big names missing, I’ve likely saved them for Part 2 of these rankings, which will be released shortly.
Evan Engram, Mississippi – Senior
Analysts will be up in arms about Engram’s lack of size (6′ 3″, 227 pounds) and will attach the “big receiver” label to him, but the Ole Miss playmaker is a solid blocker who doesn’t shy away from in-line responsibilities. He is not dominant in the run game, but how many college tight ends are when entering the draft? Engram is already advanced in his overall route-running and ability to create after the catch – traits that will be coveted by NFL teams next spring. His aggressive playing style, strong hands, and ability to consistently get open at all levels of the field should make him one of the top targets in Mississippi’s passing attack this season.
O.J. Howard, Alabama – Senior
Howard offers rare speed and agility for the tight end position and has plenty of experience as a blocker from his time in the Crimson Tide offense. The big tight end isn’t powerful or nasty enough to be especially effective in a primary blocking role, but Howard makes his presence felt as a pass catcher – something Clemson learned the hard way in the national championship game. He fits the mold of Eric Ebron and Jimmy Graham, athletic playmakers who needed to improve as route runners and blockers, but both of whom had the physical gifts to post dominant production at the next level. The question remains, though: Will Alabama alter their offense to utilize Howard’s gifts more consistently?
Jordan Leggett, Clemson – Senior
Leggett’s size and movement skills are enticing for the position, but scouts will really covet his strong hands and ability to finish tough catches in traffic. The main question he needs to answer is: Is he explosive enough out of his route breaks to create separation at the NFL level? With Deshaun Watson at the helm of Clemson’s offense, Leggett should have the opportunity to improve on his junior numbers of 40 catches for 525 yards and eight touchdowns, elevating his draft stock in the process. Like most of these guys, blocking remains a question mark.
Darrell Daniels, Washington – Senior
Daniels moved from wide receiver to tight end in 2013, but the switch didn’t exactly do wonders for his production. The big pass catcher looks the part at a rangy 6-4, 240 pounds, but moves methodically and struggles to create much separation in his route stems. Seldom-targeted in Washington’s offense (30 catches past two seasons combined), Daniels is asked to block frequently, but lacks not only the explosiveness to cut quicker defenders off at the line of scrimmage, and also the power to generate movement in the run game.
Trent “Buck” Cowan, Idaho – Senior
The Vandals have not had a player drafted since 2012, but currently boast two of the nation’s more productive tight ends heading into the 2016 season. Cowan is built more like an H-back at 6-3, 224, but was 4th in the nation amongst his position group last season with 624 yards on 48 catches. His lack of size and strength is a significant issue, however, and I don’t think Cowan is impressive enough as an athlete to make up for his physical deficiencies.
Deon Watson, Idaho – Redshirt Senior
Two Idaho tight end prospects? Watson is utilized more like a wide receiver with his wide splits and backside isolations, but you’ll occasionally find the rangy tight end in-line as well. At 6′ 4″, 222 pounds, Watson is your typical small-school, slight-of-frame tweener at the position, but cranked out 42 catches for 551 yards and seven touchdowns last season. If he can raise some eyebrows with his pre-draft workouts, Watson has a chance to be a late round selection next spring.
Jake Butt, Michigan – Senior
It was a surprise when Butt shunned a weak tight end class to return to Michigan, but the Wolverine playmaker will garner plenty of attention this season as NFL scouts decide whether he deserves first round hype. Butt is a strong athlete with the ability to go up and battle for contested catches in the air, but his detailed routes are what truly set him apart. Where Butt leaves much to be desired is in his blocking, not from an effort standpoint, but from a technical perspective. I trust he’ll improve in this area, but scouts will be paying close attention to how Butt handles himself in the trenches this season.
Johnny Mundt, Oregon – Senior
Mundt is a high-character prospect who plays with toughness despite his lack of desirable girth. He leads with a shoulder when blocking to throw a heavier blow, but Mundt will get eaten alive by NFL defenders if he doesn’t learn to use his hands more effectively when engaging opponents at the line of scrimmage. Only seven catches over the past 26 games is disappointing, but Mundt appears to have the measurables to get attention if he can post some production in 2016 at Oregon. But will he be buried behind Pharaoh Brown and Evan Baylis on the depth chart?
Evan Baylis, Oregon – RS Senior
The production hasn’t always been there for Baylis (16-229-1 last season), but the 6′ 6″, 250-pound tight end has the desired build and length for the position. Baylis isn’t an explosive athlete by any means, but he is a solid blocker who is capable of being a steady #2 or #3 tight end who can do the little things right in the NFL.
Pharaoh Brown, Oregon – RS Senior
A broken leg during the 2014 season left Brown facing possible amputation and an end to his football career, but the once-tantalizing prospect has miraculously recovered and returned to the field for spring practices after sitting out the 2015 campaign. If Brown can stay injury free and once again conjure up visions of the prospect he once was, there will be plenty of teams interested in the 6′ 6″, 250-pound pass catcher next spring. So the only question is: Can he eat enough glass and pack on enough muscle to play an in-line role as a blocker?
Jarred Gipson, Nevada – Senior
Gipson is a 6′ 1″, 240-pound H-back-type who played a heavy role as an in-line blocker for Nevada, but may not have the size or strength to handle battles at the line of scrimmage in the NFL. He’s a reliable underneath receiver who is physical enough to post up over the middle, but will have to make his mark on special teams at the next level.
Wyatt Houston, Utah State – Senior
Utah State has been churning out NFL prospects of late, but most have come on the defensive side of the ball. Houston is the first athlete in his high school’s history to accept a D-I scholarship in any sport, and with good reason, as the 6′ 5″, 255-pound tight end has had some impressive moments during his three years at Utah State. Houston is a sharp route runner with strong hands and an impressive catch radius, and while he may only be an average overall athlete, he shows a knack for getting open efficiently, especially against zone coverages. If we’re selecting long-shot sleepers that could work their way into the draft’s third day, I’ll nab Houston.
Billy Freeman, San Jose State – RS Senior
Billy Freeman isn’t exactly a household name, but the Spartans tight end is coming off a career season in which he caught 48 passes for 586 yards and six touchdowns. The stocky tight end is physical and aggressive, but a lack of ideal size and athleticism should significantly lower his draft stock.
Taylor McNamara, USC – RS Senior
McNamara has had a largely uneventful college career, but the Oklahoma transfer will have the opportunity to start this season for USC. He is technically sound and relentless in his approach as a blocker, but there probably isn’t enough skill or upside for McNamara to be anything more than a camp body at the next level.
Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State – RS Senior
Jarwin is tough and scrappy as a blocker, but doesn’t pack much of a punch in his long-legged frame. He could see an increase in targets this season, but Jarwin has a lot to prove with just 22 career receptions and relatively unimpressive athletic tools.
Follow Jon on Twitter @LedyardNFLDraft. Check out his article on impact running backs from the 2016 Draft Class.