Typically, when the time comes for NFL teams to build through the draft, tight ends tend to be low-end commodities on the priority spectrum.
Over the past 20 drafts, exactly 20 of them have been picked in the first round — with none going in the top five. Since 2011, only two (Tyler Eifert in 2013 and Eric Ebron in 2014) have heard their names called in Round 1.
Yet this might finally be the year there’s a run on tight ends to kick off the draft. Former Alabama star O.J. Howard and David Njoku of Miami (Fla.) are widely perceived as virtual first-round locks. The wild card is Mississippi’s Evan Engram, whose unique skill set might provide just enough intrigue to make this the first draft in 15 years to have a Round 1 trifecta at the position.
“Vegas has the prop bets out this year. I’d be willing to bet if it was two and a half (tight ends in the first round), I would take the over — and I’d bet a lot of money,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay told USA TODAY Sports. “I think Evan Engram will very likely be drafted (in Round 1).
“It really is an impressive group, and I think there are probably eight, nine, maybe up to 10 tight ends that could go in the first three rounds.”
Howard, an excellent receiver who’s also the best blocker among this year’s top prospects, could be selected in the top 10. Njoku isn’t as refined yet but has tremendous athleticism and considerable upside at just 20 years of age.
And then there’s Engram. At 6-3, 234 pounds, many would argue he’s an oversized receiver, and his 4.42 time over 40 yards only feeds that notion. In addition to his speed, he also showcased Velcro hands at the scouting combine and could project as the kind of match-up nightmare that’s in vogue at the pro level.
And with so many NFL teams favoring double-tight sets, demand might just outstrip even this year’s impressive supply.
“To me, tight end is the deepest class on the offensive side of the football this year, and I don’t ever recall that in my nearly 20 years of analyzing the draft,” CBS analyst Rob Rang told USA TODAY Sports.
“This tight end class really is a Baskin-Robbins kind of pick your flavor. Everything’s available.”
As a receiver, Howard is a real weapon. He is naturally an extremely athletic and fast tight end who can get downfield quickly. Howard often burned man coverage and is very adept at finding the soft spot in zone coverage. He also has a big frame to box out safeties and the leaping ability with body control to make catches over defenders. Linebackers have little chance of covering Howard in man coverage; only elite NFL linebackers with great speed could cover Howard. He should be a tremendous middle-seam tight end who produces big plays for his offense.
Here’s how one Southeast area scout broke down Howard: “He’s as close to a complete tight end over the last few that have come out. He’s a better blocker online than Eric Ebron and Tyler Eifert were coming out. Not as good of a route runner as either of them coming out, but I attribute most of that to how he was used. [Howard] looked pretty good at Senior Bowl since his game was able to expand a bit more in that system last week. Howard is probably faster than Eifert, and they have comparable hands. The Greg Olsen comparisons hold merit, but Howard is a much better blocker than Olsen coming out of Miami.”
Howard could be a mismatch weapon in the NFL in the passing game while also being a quality blocker to be a three-down starter. Howard has upside and could be a dynamic NFL tight end. Howard has top-20 potential in the 2017 NFL Draft.
7/30/16: In 2015, Howard totaled 38 catches for 602 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came in the National Championship win over Clemson; that was a monstrous performance to help the Crimson Tide win that game.
For the NFL, Howard has mismatch potential as a receiving target, but Alabama doesn’t give him enough opportunities. Sources say that Howard can be a sloppy route-runner and needs to improve his blocking, but he is an intriguing athlete who could be dynamic receiving tight end.
Howard notched 17 receptions for 260 yards in 2014. The talented tight end was very under-utilized. As he proved at USC with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Lane Kiffin settles on one receiver and struggles to call plays for anyone else regardless of their talent or mismatch potential. Howard’s production went up in 2015 partially due to Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon being in the NFL.
Howard flashed big-time potential in 2013. The freshman hauled in 14 passes for 269 yards (19.2 average) with two touchdowns. Howard is fast, has the frame to add size and is a dangerous receiving weapon. He was just scratching the surface of his potential in 2013.
Njoku has upside to develop into a receiving threat in the NFL with the size and strength to be a blocker. At the combine, he put together a good workout that met expectations.
Everett started out his career at UAB and played one season where he caught 17 passes for 292 yards and a touchdown. After UAB ended its football program, Everett transferred to South Alabama.
Engram is a fast receiver who is a good route-runner. He isn’t a big blocker for the NFL though, but he fights hard as a blocker and is able to contribute some. Engram had an impressive Senior Bowl to help his draft stock. He further helped himself with a tremendous combine where he had a much faster than expected 40 and was superb in the field drills. Some teams feel that Engram is more of a big wide receiver rather than a tight end. He stands a good shot of being drafted on Day 2.
7/30/16: Engram had somewhat of a down year in 2015, but he played better late in the regular season. He had 38 receptions for 464 yards and two touchdowns. His blocking looked better at times, especially in the game against Auburn.
Engram isn’t a drive blocker, but he is a good blocker in space and very good at cutting defenders. The Rebel is a fast receiver who is a threat in the middle of the field. As a prospect, he is a similar tight end to Jordan Reed and Aaron Hernandez.
2014 was an even better season for Engram than his freshman year. The sophomore caught 38 passes for 662 yards with two touchdowns in 2014. Engram was a dangerous receiving threat who carved up Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State. He needs to add weight for the next level and get better as a blocker.
Engram had a breakout 2013 season that led to him being named an All-SEC Second-Team selection by numerous media outlets. While other members of Ole Miss’ superb 2013 recruiting class received more attention, Engram really played well in his debut for the Rebels. The true freshman caught 21 passes for 268 yards with three touchdowns.
Shaheen caught 57 passes for 867 yards with 16 touchdowns in 2016. The previous season, he had 70 receptions for 803 yards and 10 touchdowns. Some team sources even compared Shaheen to Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
7/30/16: Butt contributed as a freshman (20-235-2) and sophomore (21-211-2), but took his game to another level under head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2015. Butt had 51 receptions for 654 yards with three touchdowns in 2015. He is a good receiver down the seam and uses his size to his advantage.
Butt looks very good as a receiver in Harbaugh’s pro-style offense. As a blocker, Butt has potential, too. He was better in pass protection than run blocking last year. His technique isn’t bad, but he could stand to get stronger and pack more of a punch in the ground game.
7/30/16: Leggett was a good contributor for the Tigers’ point-machine offense in 2015. He totaled 40 receptions for 525 yards and eight touchdowns. It was a breakout year for the junior as he didn’t produce close to that as a sophomore (14-161-1) or freshman (12-176-2). Leggett also chipped in as a blocker. He has the capacity to rise as a senior.
7/30/16: In 2015, Hodges had 40 receptions for 530 yards and six scores. Sources said that Hodges should go back to school and develop before going pro. That was the same recommendation in the report that the NFL Draft Advisory gave Hodges, and he wisely listened.
Hodges was a redshirt freshman sensation for the Hokies in 2014, producing the best season ever for receiving production by a freshman tight end at Virginia Tech. For the year, he hauled in 45 catches for 526 yards and six touchdowns. During his redshirt season in 2013, Hodges split time at tight end and quarterback.
Smith made nationwide news in 2016 by suffering a serious injury off the field. His pregnant girlfriend poured boiling water on him after arguing about him not spending enough time with her. The senior missed a game due to the incident, but returned to the field.
Smith totaled 42 receptions for 506 yards with four touchdowns in 2016. He had quality production as a junior (36-397-4), sophomore (61-710-8) and freshman (39-388-2). Smith is a quick, athletic receiving tight end who has the potential to be a mismatch weapon. Some sources have Smith grading out as a third- or fourth-round pick for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Roberts made 45 receptions for 533 yards with 16 touchdowns in 2016. As a junior, he had 21 catches for 234 yards with four scores.
7/30/16: Hunter Henry received the attention in 2015, but Sprinkle had a very underrated season, catching 27 passes for 389 yards with six touchdowns while also contributing to the Razorbacks’ potent rushing offense. Sprinkle played a lot in two-tight end sets for Arkansas. He could rise with more opportunities as a senior.