If you are looking for a talented crop of draft-eligible tight ends within in a single conference, you won’t find it in the ACC. From top to bottom, there is minimal NFL appeal although Tommy Sweeney and Ravian Pierce have a chance to ascend as seniors.
Let’s examine my top five draft-eligible ACC tight ends entering the 2018 season.
1. Tommy Sweeney, Senior, Boston College (6'5, 255)
While his production was modest, Sweeney did lead the Eagles in receptions (36), receiving yards (512) and touchdowns (4) in 2017 in BC’s run-heavy scheme. In a conference devoid of draft-eligible tight end talent, Sweeney has a chance at finding an NFL career.
Sweeney did lead BC in receiving last year but his best ability is blocking. Whether it’s in-line, flexed or as a lead blocker into a gap, Sweeney finds success. Sweeney does well to fit his hands, stay square and work his body positioning to seal running lanes.
As a receiver, Sweeney has soft and reliable hands but he doesn’t project as anything more than a check down option in the NFL. Sweeney lacks the athletic ability to separating against man coverage and his feet look weighted as he attacks coverage. His movements are elongated and he lacks fluidity in and out of breaks. And despite having soft hands, Sweeney doesn’t have good enough ball skills to be a factor in contested situations.
Sweeney has a modest skill set but his ability to win in a versatile capacity as a blocker could lead to a chance as a No. 3 tight end in the NFL.
2. Ravian Pierce, Senior, Syracuse (6'3, 237)
Syracuse’s spread, volume passing game features a significant amount of targets to its wide receivers but Pierce offered a potent change-of-pace option for the Orange and deserves and more expansive role in his senior season.
Pierce is a fluid mover with enough mobility to challenge the seam and separate from man coverage. He illustrates soft hands and sound ball tracking skills to secure over-the-shoulder throws. He isn’t a big-bodied, physical catch point winner but can get loose in the secondary and find space as a receiver.
While doesn’t have the look or build of an in-line blocking tight end, Syracuse uses him in that capacity and he gives an honest effort. Pierce doesn’t project as a guy that is going to exchange power in the trenches in the NFL, his ability to win as a move blocker flexed wide or in the backfield is an asset.
Pierce has modest production to date in college but he deserves more chances to make plays and that could come in 2018.
3. Daniel Helm, Senior, Duke (6'4, 255)
A Tennessee transfer, Helm is an effective player for Duke where he is used in a variety of roles. While his receiving production isn’t going to turn any heads, Helm has been reliable when called upon.
While he’s often called up to stay in and block, Helm does work hard to sell his route breaks and create separation against man coverage. With that said, he lacks the fluidity and quickness in and out of his breaks to truly take advantage of his desire to be a route salesman. Helm does showcase soft hands when given the opportunity to snag it out of the air.
Most of Helm’s production does come as a blocker where he’s proven able to win flexed in the slot, out of the backfield or in-line. He does well to stay balanced, locate his hands and works to keep his body square to his opponent. While he isn’t a dominant blocker, he is committed and gets his work done.
Overall, Helm offers a modest skill set but his versatility and baseline ability in all areas may lead to an NFL opportunity.
4. Brandon Fritts, Senior, North Carolina (6'4, 250)
Throwing to tight ends was an afterthought for the Tarheels’ offense in 2017 so Fritts 25 catches for 177 yards and four touchdowns doesn't turn any heads. But with that said, Fritts was a valuable piece of the offense because of his expanded usage as a utility blocker.
Fritts was tasked with lining up in the slot or in an h-back role and was a critical piece in UNCs blocking schemes. Whether it’s as an extra pass protector or hitting a key block in space, Fritts did well to fulfill his assignments. He excels at taking advantage of blocking angles and positioning his frame to seal pursuit. Fritts showcases good functional strength and a commitment to fitting his hands as a blocker.
As a receiver, Fritts mostly leaks into space or sits in zones where he showcases reliable hands and the ability to position his frame at the catch point. It’s critical Fritts’ chances to get drafted next spring that UNC features him more in the passing game. As it stands, grasping his skill set as a route runner and receiver is incomplete.
Whether it’s injuries, graduation or the NFL, the UNC offense lacked any sort of continuity in 2017. As the scheme develops with a new nucleus, an expanded role for Fritts could lead to him being a draft pick should he deliver on his flashes.
5. Evan Butts, Senior, Virginia (6'4, 250)
Used in a variety of ways as blocker in his junior year, Butts put together the best season of his career. While he wasn’t often used in the passing game, Butts did haul in 32 receptions for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
Butts is a versatile blocker that has the ability to function flexed in the slot, out of the backfield or in-line and be effective. While he isn’t a dominant blocker, Butts is a technician that does well to take advantage of blocking angles and position his frame to fulfill his assignments. He is most successful when tasked with hitting blocks on the second level or on the perimeter in space. With that said, adding strength and becoming more committed to fitting his hands is important for him to show as a senior.
In the passing game, most of Butts opportunities came leaking into space and sitting between zones. Butts knows how to adjust and snap off his routes to find space to sit down in and showcases reliable hands. He is competitive after the catch to work for additional yards but isn’t the type of dynamic athlete that is going to rip off big gains or separate down the field.
Butts’ overall skill set is modest but he his versatility and baseline ability offers some appeal. If he is able to land a greater role in the passing game and take advantage, Butts has a chance to get an NFL opportunity.
Others to Keep an Eye on:
Milan Richard, Clemson
Micky Crum, Louisville
Chris Cunningham, Virginia Tech
Jake Freudenthal, Wake Forest