Draft Class Heroes: Dispelling Iowa Tight End Narratives

Photo: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Draft Class Heroes is back! Every Tuesday morning we talk 2019 NFL Draft prospects, including addressing major narratives, offering a few sleepers and listing my quick scouting observations over the past week.

Today we tackle the never-ending false narratives surrounding the Iowa tight ends and their star predecessor, plug a couple of sleepers you should know and dive into my quick-hitting scouting takeaways from players I've been studying over the past week or so.

Draft Class Heroes: Iowa Tight Ends

If you're just tuning into the 2019 NFL Draft conversation, let me tell you about this phenomenon we like to call "Iowa Hawkeye tight ends". Going back to Dallas Clark in 2003, Iowa has been cranking out quality NFL tight ends for years, ranging from elites like Clark and 49ers current star George Kittle to solid contributors like Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers and C.J. Fiedorowicz.

This year, two more tight ends threaten to join the top-tier of Hawkeye pass catchers at the position, as Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson have both declared for the draft as underclassmen. Even if you aren't crazy about one or the other, almost every analyst agrees each player is in the conversation for the top tight end in the draft, which has led to the inevitable comparisons of their game, and of their game to Kittle's coming out of Iowa.

The common perception of all 3 players? Thanks to hindsight analysis, Kittle was an obvious star that should have gone in the top 15-20 picks, not in the fifth round like he did. Hockenson, because he's white and pancakes people, like Kittle did, is the second coming of his predecessor but not quite as fast. Fant is the raw, athletic freak who plays like a big wide receiver, but doesn't have the toughness and physicality to play in-line as a complete tight end like Hockenson. I've even seen Eric Ebron's name tossed out as a comp, and I was dumb enough to buy it until I really dug into Fant's tape.

Now that I have, I'm hear to set the record straight on all these misperceptions.

First, Kittle is a great player already in the NFL, and absolutely should have been drafted in the top 100. Top 50-75 can even be argued. You take a chance on size/speed/athleticism/intangibles like his much earlier than the NFL decided to. It was a poor choice by the league. However, the revisionist B.S. doesn't help us as evaluators either.

You can say Kittle was a risk the NFL would have been wise to take much earlier in the draft than the league did, without saying he was an obvious star. The dude caught 22 passes for 314 yards and four scores in his best college season ever. He caught 48 passes in four years at Iowa. He had one game over 65 yards receiving in his college career, and it came against North Dakota State. That was also his lone 100-yard performance at Iowa. The second most impressive game of his career (statistically) came against North Texas.

Two things were certain about Kittle coming into the NFL: he could run and he could block. That doesn't make you a great football player, but it does make you worth investing in as at least a mid-round pick. The NFL messed up, but acting like he was a certain star when his receiving abilities and route-running were massive question marks out of Iowa is just missing the mark. We can celebrate who Kittle is now and what he has become without acting like this was an inevitable result.

As for Hockenson, he's actually a more consistent blocker than Kittle was in college, with better attention to detail and body control. Both players pancaked people, but Kittle would fall off blocks a lot more and whiff at times too, although the highlight blocks carried his evaluation. Both were awesome college blockers, but Hockenson was the steadier option at Iowa.

Hockenson is also a more polished route runner and a more developed receiver. He topped Kittle's best season in both of his on-field campaigns at Iowa, reeling in 49 catches for 760 yards and six touchdowns this past season. That's more catches in one year than Kittle had in his college career.

Where Hockenson doesn't measure up to Kittle, at least I think, is in raw athleticism. It's way closer than many seem to think, but Kittle ran 4.52, jumped 35 in the vert (38.5 at his pro day) and 11 feet in the broad. Asking any tight end to hit those numbers across the board feels ambitious, but Hockenson is going to be faster than people think.

The one tight end at this year's Combine who might top those numbers? Fant, of course. There are legit expectations for him to run in the 4.4s, which might not be far off from what he shows on tape. The man can really run, with the vertical skill set of a wide receiver in a tight end's body.

The easy narrative for fans to digest about Fant and Hockenson is that Fant is an elite athlete while Hock is an adequate one, but Hock is the far superior blocker while Fant isn't even an option in-line. The tape, however, shows something vastly different on both accounts.

Fant consistently gets after opponents as a blocker, showing good effort and impressive technique. No, he doesn't have the grip strength and finishing ability of Hockenson, but he is a good blocking tight end at the college level. This should be considered an area of strength for him moving forward.

Hockenson may not run quite as fast as Fant, but I don't think he'll be far off. He can really open up his strides and run, covering a ton of ground in a couple post-catch situations on tape this season. His athleticism is one of the reasons I'm so high on him as a top ten overall player in this class.

There are two differences between the two players that really matter however: Hockenson is the better route runner and the better player post-catch. Fant is fast enough to get open on pure athleticism at the college level, but Hockenson is the more polished route runner while still bringing impressive natural traits to the field. He's also the tougher player to bring down after the catch, showing more creativity and strength in the open field.

Three really good prospects, all with very different evaluations and a lot of false narratives attached to them. With that all cleared up, now you know to just link this article to your friends when they start popping off about this trio of Iowa tight ends.

Deep Sleepers

Nick Easley, WR, Iowa

A JUCO transfer who walked on at Iowa only to start the last two seasons, Easley wasn't crazy productive in an Iowa offense that has never really produced big-time talent at receiver, but he consistently caught my eye watching Fant and Hockenson. He ran a 3.77 short shuttle at Iowa, best in program history. That is a BLAZING number.

Easley didn't get any all-star love, so the Combine is unlikely, but his pro day will be one to watch for the 5-11, 205-pound senior.

Yurick Bethune, EDGE, Alabama A&M

It remains to be seen if Bethune will get a Combine invite, but his tape has some impressive flashes after a 9.5-sack, 16.5-TFL senior season at Alabama A&M. He's light for an edge rusher, but may have the ability to put on weight and play 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level. Bethune's flashes of athleticism in space are pretty awesome on tape, but how he tests will go a long way toward determining if he has a future in the NFL or not.

8 Quick Scouting Observations

-Gotta study up Texas A&M center Erik McCoy. He was impressive in Mobile. Quietly one of the big winners.

-Isaac Nauta's scouting report has been filed. He has some really good traits, but I'm worried about his ability to separate from man coverage. At worst, a terrific, versatile no. 2 tight end.

-Two guys that disappointed me in Mobile that also didn't wow me on tape: Juan Thornhill and Amani Oruwariye.

-Chase Winovich has better bend than people think. Just isn't explosive off the ball, which will hurt him as a pure pass rusher. Good player.

-If you think Daniel Jones is a first round-caliber quarterback, we can't be friends.

-Garrett Bradbury has good tape, was really good in Mobile, has reportedly interviewed well and should light up the Combine. Don't be surprised if he goes Round 1.

-Two of the biggest surprises to me in Mobile: Temple running back Ryquell Armstead and USC offensive tackle Chuma Edoga. Both impressed every day in practice and in the game.

-Welcome to the quarterback sweepstakes, Washington. That makes three teams (Miami, Jacksonville) that enter the offseason looking for a starting signal caller for the 2019 season and beyond, with almost every other NFL team certain not to take a quarterback Round 1. If you're looking for wild cards, start with Denver, Cincinnati and the Raiders at the back end of the first.