Draft Class Heroes: Tight End Class Has Avengers Potential

Photo: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

You know the drill. Tuesday morning means one thing, and one thing only...it's time for the tenth edition of Draft Class Heroes!

You already know about Iowa's Noah Fant, Stanford's Kaden Smith, Michigan's Zach Gentry, Missouri's Albert Ok and UCLA's Caleb Wilson, all underclassmen that could declare for the draft. I've talked at length about how Ole Miss' tight end Dawson Knox deserves to be mentioned with that same group, but he's not the only tight end with top 100 potential flying under the radar.

A potentially elite tight end class, several organizations not giving their young guys a fighting chance and more cooked NFL teams. Let's get into it.

Draft Class Superhero of the Week: Irv Smith, TE, Alabama

Stop me if you've heard this before: highly athletic, versatile tight end prospect from Alabama isn't utilized in the passing game nearly enough. It happened to O.J. Howard, and it happened to Irv Smith - until this season.

Now that Alabama has a quarterback, and has wisely upgraded their offense into a more dynamic aerial attack, Smith's stock is skyrocketing. He's putting up crazy numbers while quickly becoming one of Tua Tagovailoa's favorite targets. On just two receptions against Arkansas, Smith totaled 123 yards and a score, including this crazy catch-and-run that sadly ended in a fumble.

Before that, it was another massive YAC play where Smith caught a simple drag route and outran everyone to the end zone. For a tight end to house call this ball...that's crazy.

Of course, Smith's comparison to O.J. Howard ends at his size, as he's a little smaller for a tight end at 6-foot-3, 243 pounds. Still, Smith has plenty of blocking experience and is very capable in that role, although NFL teams will more than likely see him as a flex option above all else.

Right now, Smith is on pace for a nearly 700-yard regular season and six receiving touchdowns on just 32 catches. He's averaging over 20 yards per catch for a tight end. Crazy stuff. Count on him being a riser if he declares for the draft as a true junior.


1. Kendall Blanton, TE, Missouri

Blanton didn't put up monster numbers this week, and really he hasn't put up much production throughout his career. In his fourth season at Missouri, Blanton has now only caught 33 passes for 395 yards and five touchdowns.

But while he might not put up the numbers of Albert Okwuegbunam, Blanton is still a very versatile weapon in the Tigers' attack. He's a capable move blocker who can reach second level targets, while also providing a legit speed threat down the seam. Blanton is raw and will need to test well to get the interest of NFL teams, but at a well-built 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, there are tools worth developing in his skill set.

2. Jace Sternberger, TE, Texas A&M

What a crazy journey it has been for Sternberger, from redshirting at Kansas to barely seeing the field in 2016 to spending a mildly productive year at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M to College Station in year four of his whirlwind collegiate experience.

I have no idea how Sternberger couldn't get on the field at Kansas yet is now putting up some of the best numbers at his position in the country, but here we are. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound pass catcher has already hauled in 22 catches for 351 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging 16 yards per catch. And it hasn't all come in one game either, as Sternberger has over 50 yards receiving in four of six games this season, and over 40 yards in every contest.

In just a few games this season, Sternberger has shown the speed to win down the seam, the athleticism to be a home run threat after the catch and the ability to make tough contested catches. He also loves to talk trash and will finish plays with physicality. I need to watch him more as a blocker, but safe to say I'm extremely intrigued by his potential as an NFL prospect.

3. Andrew Beck, TE, Texas

Beck is a throwback tight end, lacking in athleticism and explosiveness, but highly proficient as a blocker in the run and pass game. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Beck has the size and power to battle in the trenches, and the demeanor to match. He's nasty to the point where he's almost like having another offensive linemen on the field.

Beck may never be an elite receiving prospect, but he's a reliable option in the passing game and the kind of player that will contribute early due to his blocking ability and pro-ready build. He'll be a forgotten man in this tight end class if a lot of the underclassmen declare, but Beck will be a nice role player for some team on day three.

Villains of the Week: Dysfunctional NFL Organizations

An NFL organization is made up of several branches of power that can only be at their best when working in unison together. If scouts and general managers don't understand the strengths, weaknesses and schematic preferences of their coaching staff, the chances of their personnel acquisitions aligning with the team's best interests are slim.

In the same breadth, if coaches are so arrogant and impatient as to not entertain the idea of developing a prospect who wasn't "their guy", even in the face of obvious talent, they aren't long for the NFL.

In Oakland and Arizona, we have the latest glimpse at this extensive level of dysfunction at work. The Cardinals are reportedly ready to move on from linebacker Haason Reddick five games into his sophomore season, while the Raiders have benched Karl Joseph and now Gareon Conley, citing mental mistakes for both players.

Let's start with Oakland. Joseph has been a regular starter for two seasons now, and even though it is very fair to say that he hasn't lived up to expectations, at times he was the only competent starter in Oakland's secondary. Benching him for a declining Reggie Nelson screams Paul Guenther playing "his guy".

Not a dissimilar situation for Conley. After missing almost all of his rookie season due to injury, Conley has flashed several times this season, but was benched on Sunday after just 13 snaps. He was replaced by Daryl Worley, fresh off suspension, who has been a disaster throughout his career, but was brought over by Jon Gruden and Guenther this offseason.

You can't bench a first round player less than five games into his first real season because of a couple of mental errors. What did you expect? What player doesn't make those kind of mistakes early in their career? It's a ridiculous standard that is only going to make things worse in the locker room when players start to realize what is really going on.

Gruden has made one thing abundantly clear during his short time in Oakland: he's going to play his guys, whether it makes the team better or not. Whether it makes players better or not. It's about his ego, and building the Raiders exactly the way he wants it. Good luck with that.

Things aren't much better in Arizona, where head coach Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy have somehow been a bigger mess than Gruden five weeks into the season. But general manager Steve Keim may bear the lion's share of the blame for the Reddick situation, and here's why.

If you are a GM, you cannot draft a player to move him to a new position, especially the most cerebral spot on the defense, and expect that transition to happen immediately. You really can't expect it to happen quickly when you move him back to his old position (edge defender) during his rookie season because of injuries suffered there. It was dumb when Arizona did it then, and it really looks dumb now.

Sure, Reddick is probably struggling to master the mental aspects of an extremely mental position that he didn't get enough reps at as a rookie and now hasn't received a chance to learn and grow on the field in that role. This isn't a case of lacking talent, that I could understand. This is Keim either failing to understand that Reddick would need time and coaching, or coaches failing to give him the opportunity his draft position should have been granted.

You can't spend a high-value pick on a raw player with outstanding upside without a plan for their growth and a commitment to their long-term development, or you'll be a bad franchise. Currently, the Arizona Cardinals are a bad franchise.

Vanquished Adversaries

Last week we buried Arizona, San Francisco, Buffalo, Indianapolis and both New York teams to bring the season death toll to six. This week, we add one more to the list, the Oakland Raiders.

I've already detailed the Raiders dysfunction, but getting walloped by the Chargers to fall to 1-4 was the final nail in the coffin. This organization is bad, and I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel either.

I want to put Atlanta in this group at 1-4, but I still think they've got a card or two left to play, and they should win their next two games to head into the bye at 3-4, with a winnable slate afterwards. Don't bury them just yet.

In the lair this week...

  • Jabari Zuniga's scouting report will be finalized tomorrow, and I'm also going to try to get reports up on Sternberger, Blanton, Elgton Jenkins and a few others.
  • I'm going to start putting together my October prediction for the Senior Bowl roster, although it likely won't emerge in article form for awhile, depending on how much time I get to spend on it tomorrow.
  • A new consensus big board for TDN is coming in the next week. I'll be putting that together throughout much of this week.
  • We promised a Mock Draft Machine and Build Your Own Big Board for draft season when we launched, and I'm thrilled to say those feature pieces are truly going to be better than I could have even imagined. We don't have an exact launch date yet, but as soon as we do we'll let you know. You can count on them being ready for draft season, and taking up the vast majority of your time each day! Exciting times at TDN!

Written By:

Jon Ledyard

Former Senior NFL Draft Analyst