NFL teams are especially hopeful they can find the next Travis Kelce, George Kittle or Rob Gronkowski in this year’s draft.
The latest list of tight end prospects who can serve as a passport to prosperity in the playoffs isn’t just top-heavy but lengthy, too.
Some analysts are even calling it more promising than the 2017 bumper crop.
“The tight end group is the best I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
Good thing, too, because this year’s wide receiver class isn’t nearly as good as it’s been over the last few seasons
“I have 11 tight ends that I have Top-3-round grades on, which is a ridiculous number,” Jeremiah said. “It’s just a really, really good group.”
One that’s led by Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer and Utah’s Dalton Kincaid — in either order — with Georgia’s Darnell Washington, Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave, Iowa’s Sam LaPorta and South Dakota State’s Tucker Kraft, among others, sure to spur a run on tight ends in the draft.
Six years ago, three tight ends — O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku — were selected in the first round for the first time since 2002 when Jeremy Shockey, Daniel Graham and Jerramy Stevens were all first rounders. In all, there were 14 tight ends drafted in 2017, including eight before the San Francisco 49ers selected George Kittle with the 146th overall pick in Round 5.
That group essentially served as the vanguard of the modern NFL tight end that’s emerged from college football’s trendy spread offenses with receiver-caliber speed and linebacker-eluding separation abilities to go with the classic size advantage and athleticism to conquer cornerbacks and clear rushing lanes.
Mayer and Kincaid are seen as Round 1 locks with Musgrave and Washington considered potential first-round selections.
There’s versatility and variety up and down the list, a sort of specialty shop for teams to find exactly what they need for their playing styles, be it more of a receiving threat working over the middle or a blocking force to drive defenders out of the way.
Mayer is part throwback — he’s good at bulldozing opponents whether the ball’s in his hands or his running back’s — and part new-fashioned, with the best ball skills of this class, said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.
“It’s kind of rare to see those types of guys come out through the college ranks now with everything being more spread and basically just yoked-up wide receivers playing the tight end position,” McShay said. “But Mayer can do both of those things for you.”
Mayer calls himself a better receiver than blocker at this point.
“Look, I can block anybody you need me to block,” he said. “But I feel like my red zone, my third down, I can really go up and get that ball. I can make contested catches and I can really route people up. So, I can have that connection with the quarterback, also.”
Kincaid has the receiving traits scouts love.
“He has explosiveness, he can stretch the field, he can create after the catch, he has outstanding ball skills,” McShay said. “So it won’t surprise me if Kincaid goes before Mayer but those are two guys I see as locks in the first round.”
Kincaid shies away from comparisons to Kelce but he unabashedly asserts, “I think I’m one of the best pass catchers there not only in the tight end position but kind of just in this draft. That’s my biggest strength.”
Washington is an enticing prospect, too.
At nearly 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, he was the biggest of the 18 tight ends who attended the league’s annual scouting combine last month.
Washington had modest numbers in three seasons in Athens: 45 career catches and three touchdowns.
“There’s only one football. You can’t give it to everybody,” said Washington, who played alongside star Brock Bowers the last two seasons. “I just embraced the role of blocking.”
Bowers has 119 catches and 20 touchdown receptions in two years for the back-to-back national champion Bulldogs and is the favorite to headline next year’s class of tight end draft prospects.
“You got to get Brock Bowers six, eight, 10 catches a game,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “So, that kind of limits the amount of opportunities for Darnell. But he certainly showed he could do it. You don’t find many tight ends with his size, his athleticism and his speed.”
Besides, tight end is one position where pro scouts and general managers are willing to overlook middling college statistics or even discount great production on Saturdays.
“It’s just a traits-over-production position,” Jeremiah said. “It goes back to the basketball players with Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham” who played little, if any, college football. “It goes to George Kittle not having a ton of numbers there at Iowa. It’s just can you separate?”
Which is way more important than, say, catching 85 bubble screen passes against quarters coverage, Jeremiah said. “The production doesn’t translate as smoothly at that position to the next level. You’ve got to have those traits.”
And this year’s class sure does.
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