Compiling a list of the top five overall tight ends in college football can often be hard enough, but to do it by conference? Now there is an unenviable task. Out of the entire Draft Network staff, I was the lucky one, as the SEC probably offers four of the top 8-10 tight ends in the country right now, including one that I believe has first round potential.
1. Dawson Knox, Junior, Ole Miss
I've written a ton about Dawson Knox already, so I won't belabor my points here. All the physical and athletic tools are in place for him to emerge as a potential first rounder this season, as is an Ole Miss offense that should get him the ball plenty from the slot.
Yes, his blocking needs work, but last year was Knox's first on the field for Ole Miss as a tight end, after he converted from quarterback as a walk-on. The progress he's already made as a hands catcher and as a route runner is exceptional.
The fact that he wasn't first, second or third team preseason All-SEC is an egregious oversight that voters will regret by season's end. He's the best tight end in the conference, and it isn't close.
2. Albert Okwuegbunam, RS Sophomore, Missouri
Big, long and fast enough to threaten down the seam, Albert O (I ain't spellin' that crap) has the size and ball skills that NFL teams love in their tight end prospects. Strong hands and impressive high-point abilities highlight Ok's skill set, but the youngster still has a long way to go to be a finished product on the field.
I'm not as bothered by Ok's average blocking, sloppy route-running and uncontested releases in Missouri's offense. Those things can be taught. My biggest concern is his overall athleticism, especially when it comes to sinking his hips and exploding to change directions. Ok is at his best on a linear path, but ask him to make defenders miss in space or separate from man coverage, and things get sticky fast.
Ok is a prospect with top 100 potential, but how much he progresses this season will go a long way toward determining if he should declare early or not. From everything we've heard of Derek Dooley's offense, he should be a featured player in Missouri's scheme.
3. Isaac Nauta, Junior, Georgia
Speaking of tight ends with top 100 potential, Nauta may be another one that fits the bill. His freshman year at Georgia was eye-popping, as he burst onto the scene with 29 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns.
That production couldn't be sustained the following year however, when Nauta missed a handful of games and managed just nine grabs for 114 yards and two scores. There is no denying his vertical capabilities as a rare tight end with speed, but the rest of his athletic profile remains in question.
Most of Nauta's receptions have come by finding holes against zone coverage, not in a contested catch capacity. There aren't many instances of him detaching from man coverage either, but his routes showed promise, and his tree is more developed than some of the other tight ends on this list.
Nauta has a lot of promise as a blocker, especially in a move capacity. He's able to get out on the edge and latch onto targets while on the move, showing good body control and athleticism. Nauta is not a people mover up front, but he won't be overwhelmed either. He can handle his business in the trenches to a degree that no other tight end in this top five can match, except for Conrad.
4. C.J. Conrad, Senior, Kentucky
Conrad isn't a top 100 prospect, but a team looking for a capable no. 2 or 3 tight end could be very pleased adding him on day three. A limited athlete with average movement skills, Conrad has made a living on manufactured targets in the underneath passing game, coupled with the occasional free seam run off of play action. You won't see many high-degree of difficulty grabs from Conrad, but he's reliable enough to not kill your passing attack when he's on the field.
Where Conrad stands out is as an in-line blocker, handling his business on down blocks and base blocks, and even latching onto second level targets with good technique. Conrad is not over-powering, but he understands leverage, hand placement and positioning as a blocker, which should allow him to help an NFL team early in his career.
5. Irv Smith, Junior, Alabama
Smith will either be one of the biggest risers of the season, or continue to toil in obscurity in an Alabama offense that rarely utilizes the tight end in the passing game. He's not as big or talented as O.J. Howard, but Smith is still 6-foot-3, 243 pounds and probably runs in the 4.6s. Athleticism won't be an issue for the junior, but getting targets to prove his prowess as a receiver will be.
Smith is adept at finding holes in zone coverage, and has shown pretty reliable hands in his few opportunities. His best game as a receiver was against Tennessee, where he found holes in the zone defense three times for 60 yards and a score. His next best game was a 25-yard performance vs LSU, the only other time he went over 15 yards in a game last season.
His route tree is simple, his releases are a beat slow and his ability to adjust to off-target balls or make contested catches is virtually unknown. Smith is used heavily as a blocker, but he is only average in that capacity, and certainly doesn't possess Howard's level of polish or upside in that regard. The raw talent is there for Smith to become an impact player, but if he doesn't develop further this season, it'll be highly unlikely that he declares early for the draft.
Also add to watch list: Foster Moreau, LSU. Charlie Woerner, Georgia. Jamal Pettigrew, LSU. Cheyenne O'Grady, Arkansas.