One of the more common requests I get on Twitter is people asking me to compare the top prospect at a position in the current class to several from the few previous classes. As an evaluator, this is something I consistently think through as well, checking myself on grades and what I want to change in my evaluations moving from one year to the next, from one prospect to the next.
After comparing Nick Bosa to recent top edge defender prospects, it’s time to turn our attention to the two consensus top tight ends in a loaded class, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. How do they compare to top tight end prospects in recent seasons? Let’s take a look.
In case you haven’t heard, there has been a dearth of quality tight end prospects in the past five draft classes, ever since the epic group that graced our draft boards in 2013.
2013 TE class:
When healthy, all top 10, maybe top 8 tight ends in the NFL. Insane.
Class also had Dion Sims, Levine Toilolo and Luke Willison. Mychal Rivera had 2 solid years.
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) February 7, 2019
From the past five classes, I decided to pull only the best of the best: O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku and George Kittle. Eric Ebron and Hayden Hurst were both first round picks, but I didn’t scout Ebron and Hurst is, well, a fourth round-caliber player in my mind.
In terms of physical tools, one might think of Fant as the cream of the crop and Hockenson not far behind, but in this group, good luck.
Howard is one of the greatest specimens in the NFL, standing 6-foot-6, 251 pounds with almost 34-inch arms while being ridiculously jacked. Njoku isn’t far behind, at 6-foot-4, almost 250 with over 35-inch arms. Both tight ends are specimens, while Kittle and Engram didn’t have the same length or bulk.
Obviously an unknown for Fant and Hockenson still, but I expect the former to be elite and the latter to be very good at the Combine. Can they top the four freaks from the 2017 class though?
Howard ran 4.51 with elite agility drill results. Kittle ran 4.52 and jumped 35 inches. Njoku ran 4.64 and jumped out of the gym with his broad and vertical. Engram was the smallest of the bunch, but he ran 4.42 (!!!), jumped 37.5 inches and had ridiculous agility results.
All four of the tight ends that have gone before Iowa’s current duo were unbelievable athletes, but there are some that believe Fant runs in the 4.4s. Hockenson might end up testing the worst of this group and still being extremely athletic for a tight end, that’s how ridiculous the rest are. After the Combine, we’ll know exactly how they stack up.
Fant: 30 games, 78 catches, 1,082 yards, 19 TDs, 13.9 avg.
Hockenson: 23 games, 73 catches, 1,080 yards, 9 TDs, 14.8 avg.
Engram: 41 games, 162 catches, 2,320 yards, 15 TDs, 14.3 avg.
Howard: 46 games, 114 catches, 1,726 yards, 7 TDs, 15.1 avg.
Njoku: 22 games, 64 catches, 1,060 yards, 9 TDs, 16.6 avg.
Kittle: 25 games, 48 catches, 737 yards, 10 TDs, 15.4 avg.
Fant did the most damage in the red zone, Njoku was the most explosive/big play threat and Engram was the most consistently productive. Hockenson and Howard easily check the box in this area, while Kittle was one of the most under-utilized quality prospects in recent memory. Coincidentally, he is currently probably the best player on this list.
Hockenson and Engram were easily the most accomplished route runners of the group coming out of college, with both showing an impressive ability to utilize nuance and footwork out of their route breaks to separate. Engram’s elite athleticism helped him explode away from man coverage as a vertical threat and underneath receiver, while Hockenson relies both on his substantial natural gifts and the ability to vary stride length to lull defenders to sleep.
Fant is somewhere in between those two and the more raw projects coming out of the draft, as neither Howard nor Njoku were particularly adept route runners, and Kittle had very little clue what he was doing since he was rarely utilized as a receiver.
Ball Skills/Contested Catch
Want the real shocker? I value this trait a ton for tight ends and none of the big four were elite in this area. All for different reasons though (and none were particularly weak either). Howard and Kittle were hardly ever forced to make difficult catches outside their frame, and certainly didn’t do it with enough consistency to claim it as a calling card. Kittle just wasn’t targeted, while Howard was schemed open for a lot of his production.
Engram had flashes of high-point/contested catch ability, but I did think if there was one area that could give him trouble at the next level it was contested catches. I think he’s actually fared well in those spots in the NFL, but he is a smaller tight end so there will be some matchups that come a little bit tougher for him in that way. Njoku’s flashes were elite in this area, but consistency was what was lacking, like the rest of his collegiate game.
Nobody is catching Engram in a race, but second place is going to be super close between Fant, Kittle and Howard. I think Fant will test similarly to his two predecessors, but on tape he is one of the most explosive vertical threats I’ve ever scouted at the position. He can toast corners. It’s scary.
Njoku and Hockenson are both fast tight ends who just happen to be grouped with the elite of the elite here. Speed is a major strength for every pass-catcher on this list.
Only one player on this list was a bad blocker coming out of college, and it probably isn’t either of the players you’d guess. David Njoku needed major work in this area as a prospect and still isn’t very good at it in the NFL. Engram and Fant both were labeled as bad blockers by many analysts, but were much better on tape than their reputation suggested. As big wide receiver types, they suffered from some of the assumed stereotypes that come with that type of player.
Now don’t get me wrong, Engram certainly isn’t making his hay as an in-line blocker, but both he and Fant are capable options in that area. Neither can hold a candle to Howard, Kittle and Hockenson in this area however, as all three were impressive collegiate blockers in different ways.
Howard was assignment sound and technical, with very little flare for the dramatic. Kittle would swing and miss three times if it meant he could pancake you on the fourth rep, while Hockenson was just all-around dominant as a blocker, combining the technique with the big finishes.
Njoku’s revenge! All of these tight ends could run after the catch, but Njoku made people miss, showing legitimate elusiveness and post-catch strength to break tackles. Engram impressed in this area as well, while Howard was rarely put in position to make a lot happen post-catch, as like 50 percent (an exaggeration) of his collegiate receiving yards came in CFB playoff games against Clemson teams that never covered him.
Kittle was tough and slippery post-catch in the few opportunities he got, while Hockenson probably showed the most creativity of the Iowa guys. Fant has the speed, but that’s about it for him with the ball in his hands.
This is where things get really difficult. Remember, the rankings above have been based purely on where they were as prospects, not taking into account the growth they’ve undergone since then. So while Kittle is probably the best player of the group at this point in time, he was easily the worst as a prospect. His development in San Francisco has been remarkable.
Hockenson and Engram are the most pro-ready of the group, but Howard and Njoku had the ability to be playmakers at a truly elite level. As prospects, I’d probably rank them: Howard, Njoku, Engram, Hockenson, Fant, Kittle, but in terms of how I see them ending up in the NFL, all likely top 10 tight ends in 2-3 years with the old guard of Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jared Cook nearing the end: