The NFL sorely needs an elite tight end class. After the incredible 2013 class that produced Travis Kelce, Tyler Eifert, Jordan Reed, and Zach Ertz, all top-10 dynasty TEs, the ensuing three years have left dynasty owners afraid to pick TEs in rookie drafts.
The 2014 draft brought us the promising-yet-frustrating Eric Ebron, the nothing-but-frustrating Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and the nothing-but-nothing Jace Amaro. Richard Rodgers and C.J. Fiedorowicz have shown flashes but may have reached their mid-range TE2 ceilings.
2015 produced a grand total of zero usable tight ends. ZERO. We shouldn’t completely write off Clive Walford and Maxx Willians yet, but they might be the only ones with a chance. It’s no wonder Travis May’s rule of thumb is to avoid TEs in the 1st round. Nick O’Leary, Blake Bell, Tyler Kroft, and Jeff Heuerman have all disappointed in the league.
The previous two classes scared most dynasty owners away from Hunter Henry early last year, but I’m betting those owners regret picking Will Fuller and Leonte Carroo instead of him now. The skepticism is understandable, though, and the 2016 tight end group was weak as a whole. Austin Hooper, Tyler Higbee, and Jerell Adams are names to keep an eye on moving forward.
That’s it for the history lesson. Over the last 3 years combined, owners have been rewarded with just 2 dynasty TE1s (Ebron, Henry) after 4 were drafted in 2013 alone.
We’ve reached the light at the “tight end” of the tunnel, if you will. The 2017 class is the best the NFL has seen in 4 years, and may actually be a little deeper than that mythical ’13 group. Looking back 5 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see 6-7 NFL starters from this class alone, including 3-4 elite fantasy assets. There’s hope.
If you’ve read my running back and wide receiver editions of this article, you know that I like to evaluate players as NFL prospects before considering their dynasty potential. Finding a consistent role in the NFL is the easiest path to fantasy success, so our job is to identify traits that NFL evaluators are looking for. This group of tight ends is composed of very diverse skill sets, but I will attempt to break down the prospects according to their primary dominant characteristic.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I have, and I’d love to hear any feedback you have for me. You can reach me on Twitter @FF_Trev with any questions or comments.
O.J. Howard, Alabama (TE1)
O.J. Howard is the most complete tight end in this loaded draft, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Howard was not utilized as frequently in the Alabama passing game as scouts would have liked, but he demonstrated strong hands and route running ability in limited opportunity. The Clemson Tigers can tell you about Howard’s big-play potential if you have questions about that, too.
In his most productive receiving game of the 2016 season (8-69-1 against Texas A&M), however, his most impressive plays had nothing to do with receiving. Alabama had so much faith in Howard’s run-blocking chops that they lined him up on the left side to set the edge against presumed #1 pick DE Myles Garrett on multiple occasions. Not only did he hold his own against Garrett here, but he took Garrett out of the play altogether and created a hole for Bo Scarbrough to burst through for a 15-yard gain:
OJ Howard is a lock to be drafted in the 1st round of the NFL Draft, and could end up as a top-10 pick on a TE-needy team. Despite the depth of this class overall, and despite analysts warning you to resist reaching for TEs, you have to start considering OJ Howard around the turn of the 1st/2nd rounds in rookie drafts.
Jake Butt, Michigan (TE6)
Jake Butt tore his ACL in Michigan’s Orange Bowl loss to Florida State, and has become potentially the most underrated tight end in this class because of it. The consensus 1st Team All-American also won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end, but has been largely forgotten about by the dynasty community due the injury and a lack of elite athleticism. Don’t follow the crowd here. Butt is the same height (6’6″) as Travis Kelce, the same weight (250 lbs) as Zach Ertz, and is exactly the same size (6’6″, 250 lbs.) as both O.J. Howard and Tyler Eifert.
Butt is the Wayne Gallman of tight ends. Jack of all trades, master of none. His best trait, however, is his strength and willingness to block when he’s not involved in the passing game. Butt is a blue collar-type player at the position, and his leadership and work ethic have previously been compared to Jason Witten’s. Formerly projected as a 2nd round pick in the NFL Draft before the ACL tear, Jake Butt will be sporting a massive chip on his shoulder when he hears his name called at the start of Day 3.
Despite the depth of this class, there is actually a real shortage of high quality blocking tight ends. As I will explain in more detail later, the strength of this TE class is on the receiving end of the spectrum, and Butt is one of the few well-rounded prospects. Butt will fill a major need for an NFL offense, and if he’s still on the board in the 5th round of your dynasty rookie draft, pull the trigger without hesitation.
Evan Engram, Ole Miss (TE2)
When I watch Evan Engram, I see Jordan Reed. The SEC’s leading receiver this season accumulated 65 receptions, 926 yards, and 8 touchdowns, and is without question the best receiving tight end among all incoming rookies. A smooth and savvy route runner with a good catch radius and solid hands, Engram possesses all of the tools to be an elite fantasy tight end with huge PPR and red zone potential.
Engram may have the highest fantasy ceiling as a “move” TE, but he is not without question marks. Notably, at 6’3″ 227 lbs. Engram is not big or strong enough to block at a high level in the NFL. I won’t beat around the bush: he is a bad blocker. The NFL team that selects Engram will need to come to terms with that reality, and avoid forcing him into a role that he is ill-suited for. The Redskins deployed a 2-TE formation the last 2 seasons more than anyone in the league (except the Patriots) for that very reason. Reed serves essentially as a big slot receiver while Derek Carrier/Niles Paul/Vernon Davis do the dirty work in the trenches. Engram should be utilized in a similar role.
David Njoku is making a strong push to unseat Engram as the TE2 in this class, but I’m not quite ready to make that move. The Combine results and NFL landing spots could sway me, but in the right system Engram has more fantasy upside than anyone.
Jordan Leggett, Clemson (TE5)
In an offense loaded with NFL talent in Mike Williams, Deshaun Watson, Artavis Scott, and Wayne Gallman, the big-bodied Jordan Leggett proved to be a very reliable threat over the middle of the field. Leggett’s most appealing and translatable characteristics are his incredibly soft hands and run-after-catch ability. He combined for 86 receptions, 1,055 yards, and 15 touchdowns over the last 2 seasons, and it’s easy to envision a role for him as an intermediate weapon at the next level.
Despite his 6’5″, 255 lb. frame, Leggett doesn’t appear to have the necessary strength to be a proficient blocker at this point in his development. Defenders seem to shed his blocks too easily, a problem that ideally could be remedied by added muscle and improved technique. He also doesn’t demonstrate crisp route running, but uses his vertical speed to gain separation at the top of his routes.
He has several holes in his game at this point, but could find success as a receiving tight end right out of the gate. After all, receiving will always be the most direct route to fantasy points. He just needs to convince an NFL team that his one strength outweighs his weaknesses.
Gerald Everett, South Alabama (TE7)
There is admittedly very little film available of Gerald Everett at this point in the process, and the mystery man might be benefitting from the lack of critique. DraftBreakdown offers a whopping 1 game on Everett, and it’s from 2015. If selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, he will be the first player in the history of the University of South Alabama to be drafted.
Let’s start with what we know. Everett played 1 season at UAB before transferring to South Alabama to finish his college career. Before college, he played only 1 season of high school football, adding to the intrigue that he could still be learning the game and has room for significant improvement. He stands 6’4″, 240 lbs., small for an NFL tight end, which makes you wonder about his future in the blocking game.
But boy does this guy look dynamic. He plays with speed and toughness, and will be a mismatch nightmare in the open field for linebackers and safeties. In a Senior Bowl interview, Everett confirmed that he can bench press 400 lbs., further suggesting that the Combine will improve his draft status. He compared himself to Jordan Reed in the same interview, and looks to have the most similar skill set to Evan Engram in this class. He’s a very well-spoken and confident individual that could impress evaluators throughout the draft process. There’s a lot to like here.
David Njoku, Miami (TE3)
The darling of the NFL Draft and dynasty communities over the last month or so, David Njoku’s stock has risen more than almost any incoming rookie’s since the end of the season. He is the premier athlete of this tight end class, and is expected to absolutely blow up the Combine. Njoku is a former national high jump champion, clearing 6 feet and 11 inches during his senior year of high school to win 1st place.
By this point, most analysts and dynasty owners have moved Njoku past Evan Engram in their rankings, and I get it. Njoku’s athleticism is superior to that of any TE currently in the NFL, and the sky is the limit if for him if he puts it all together. For me, that still doesn’t negate his inferior route running and pass-catching ability. Neither Njoku nor Engram are skilled blockers, but I believe that Engram is more ready to contribute in the box score for fantasy teams.
I rank Njoku below Engram with the knowledge that he will outperform Engram at the Combine, so their results on that stage are unlikely to move the needle much at all for me. It is close enough, however, that a significantly better NFL landing spot for Njoku could make the difference. Stay tuned.
Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech (TE4)
It feels like the top 3 tight ends (Howard, Engram, Njoku, in some order) have separated from the pack, but I hope you’ve seen that there are quality consolation prizes to be had if you miss out on them. Bucky Hodges is my favorite of those prizes. A fluid athlete with perhaps the best high-point ability in this class, Hodges projects as a dangerous red zone asset in the NFL. He entered Virginia Tech as a tight end, but transitioned to receiver and spent most of his career out wide for the Hokies. There is speculation that his best role in the NFL could be at wide receiver, but I believe he’d be best utilized as a move-TE. (which is a common theme of this rookie class)
If an NFL team falls in love with his skill set and commits to his development, he could become a very valuable chess piece to move all over the formation. If you want a glimpse of Hodges’ red zone potential, watch the Virginia Tech-Pittsburgh game. I counted an incredible 9 times in which Jerod Evans floated a jump ball to Hodges in a 1-on-1 situation. He caught 4 of the jump balls and drew a long pass interference penalty on a 5th, displaying strong hands and the ability to finish catches through contact.
After having completed 3 rookie mock drafts so far with The Fantasy Authority, I’ve noticed that I value Hodges considerably higher than the consensus does (and likely what the ADP data will reflect). I’ve been able to grab him in the middle of the 4th round consistently, allowing me to load up on RBs and WRs in the first 3 rounds. If you aren’t convinced that the top 3 TEs are worth their steep prices, wait a few rounds and take Bucky Hodges when the dust settles.