O.J. Howard’s announcement this week that he will attend the Senior Bowl in Mobile was a headline addition for an already solid group of tight ends. Evan Engram, Cole Hikutini and Gerald Everett could all potentially hear their names called on the draft’s second day, while Jeremy Sprinkle appears to be a solid day three option if off-the-field issues don’t bury his draft stock. Here’s a look at each tight end and what they have to prove next week.
O.J. Howard – Alabama – Senior – 6-5 – 242 – 22 (age to begin rookie season)
Analysis: Rarely is the draft’s most athletic tight end also its best blocker, but that might be what we have in Howard. The standout tight end selflessly made his biggest impact at Alabama in the run game, where he blocked at a high level with good technique for years. His production as a receiver is more limited than it should be considering his talent, but Howard made the most of his few opportunities in Alabama’s offense, including playing a starring role for the Crimson Tide in both of the past two national championship games against Clemson.
What he needs to prove: Athleticism and toughness won’t be question marks for Howard, but the ability to run crisp routes and make contested catches in traffic are two aspects of his position we didn’t see much in college. Scouts will be watching during positional drills to see how Howard releases from a two and three-point stance, if his routes break at the appropriate depth and how crisp his footwork is. Will he use that large frame to box out at the catch point over the middle, or go up and pluck a ball over a defender in the air? Howard’s top competition at the position is assumed to be Michigan’s Jake Butt and Miami’s David Njoku, but with the former injured and the latter a redshirt sophomore declaration who is unable to attend the event, this is a big opportunity for the Alabama tight end to establish himself as the consensus top tight end.
Evan Engram – Mississippi – Senior – 6-3 – 227 – 23
Analysis: Engram is a terrific receiving tight end, with the ability to play from a flexed position and run crisp routes like a wide receiver. He’s nuanced at the position, but will suffer some drops and lacks the prototypical size for the position. I think he’s a much better and more heavily-utilized blocker than people realize, but there aren’t many true tight ends playing an in-line role at his size in the NFL.
What he needs to prove: Weigh-ins will be huge for Engram, who I’m sure would love to come in closer to 240. He’s going to have to shake the big wide receiver label during the pre-draft process, so any positives he can show as a blocker will be critical. I’d argue that few offensive players at the Senior Bowl can benefit more from playing next week than Engram, who needs to show scouts that work in the trenches and in traffic as a receiver are areas of the game where he can hold his own.
Michael Roberts – Toledo – Senior – 6-4 – 259 – 23
Analysis: Roberts isn’t going to wow anyone with separation quickness or route-running prowess, but he’s huge and can run, tools that many teams will value in their tight ends. Roberts can box out and play physical at the catch point, leading to a 16-touchdown campaign for Toledo this season. When he establishes leverage and stays under control, Roberts flashes big time blocking ability, but his technique is far too inconsistent to hang your hat on right now.
What he needs to prove: There’s potential in Roberts to be a solid #2 tight end who gets extensive red zone work and becomes an important role player, but he needs to clean up his form as a blocker while working with NFL coaching. Roberts will likely be asked to run a plethora of NFL routes in one-on-one periods during practice, and scouts will be watching to see how he detaches from man coverage and how crisp his footwork and understanding of pattern breaks look like.
Gerald Everett – South Alabama – Senior – 6-3 – 240 – 22
Analysis: Everett had two 500+ yard seasons at South Alabama, showing the rare ability to stretch the field and offer big play capabilities from the tight end position. He’ll be billed as a mismatch receiving threat after spending most of his time in that role with the Jaguars, but there could be potential for Everett to develop into a decent blocker over time.
What he needs to prove: Everett has to show that the advanced level of competition coming from the Sun Belt to the Senior Bowl isn’t overwhelming for him. The week is also bound to test Everett as a blocker, where he struggled at South Alabama despite an aggressive play temperament in the trenches. Coaches and scouts will be able to overlook technical flaws in Everett’s game for raw potential, coachability and competitive toughness, especially considering the big tight end’s natural gifts in the passing game. Everett has been rumored to have packed on muscle at South Alabama, but coming in around his listed weight at the Senior Bowl will be important as well.
Jeremy Sprinkle – Arkansas – RS Senior – 6-4 – 255 – 23
Analysis: Sprinkle was asked to do a lot as a blocker at Arkansas, an area of his game that improved a lot going into his fifth season there. There are still technique and footwork concerns however, and Sprinkle doesn’t move the dial athletically like some of his counterparts in this class. He has strong hands and the ability to pluck passes outside his frame, but the ceiling on Sprinkle looks considerably lower than the tight ends listed above him.
What he needs to prove: Quite frankly, Sprinkle needs to show NFL teams in interviews that he’s not an idiot. The Arkansas tight end was arrested earlier this month for shoplifting from a Belk store – wait for it – during the team’s shopping trip there preceding the Belk Bowl. He literally stole a lengthy list of products from a company that was sponsoring the bowl game his team was playing in, while there with his team! That indiscretion is going to have him off several teams’ boards, so Sprinkle will have to prove himself worthy of a second chance while handling inquisitions about his mistakes flawlessly.
Jonnu Smith – Florida International – Senior – 6-3 – 238 – 22
Analysis: One of the more raw athletic tight ends in the draft, Smith is a flex-Y in the mold of California’s Stephen Anderson last year. He may fight the “big wide receiver” label more than any tight end in the class, especially if his weigh-ins are underwhelming. Smith can stretch the field and defeat man coverage, but he may be listed in the wrong position group.
What he needs to prove: Smith needs to prove he can bang in the trenches and hold his own without getting mauled. His tape shows little to inspire hope in this regard, but even if Smith can display the ability to win in a crowd and be a “my-ball” receiver at the catch point, that will go a long way toward helping NFL teams overlook his inability to play an in-line role at the next level.