Okay, before we get all up in a tizzy: Noah Fant is really, really good at football.
While he doesn't get the volume you'd expect of a Round 1 player (we'll get to that), the more recognized of the Iowa tight ends has elite receiving ability at the position. He has record-breaking athleticism in the program and it shows up on the field in his routes and ability after the catch; he tracks the ball well and has a catch radius the size of Texas. As a true junior, he's a bit more likely to declare than T.J. Hockenson -- and I'm not actually sure that Hockenson is better.
But I think Iowa knows how they feel about it: in 2017, Hockenson (redshirt freshman) averaged 51.5 snaps/game, while Fant averaged less: 38.5. And again, in a huge game against Northwestern last week, I was surprised to see Iowa and QB Nate Stanley feed Hock: 7 receptions, 89 yards to Noah Fant's 1 reception...that went for zero yards.
We're in a really interesting spot now with Hockenson and Fant. Their starting QB, Nate Stanley, may declare as a junior; and Fant likely doesn't want to continue playing TE2 snaps when he's getting a strong grade from the draft advisory board. Even Hockenson, only a redshirt sophomore, has had good production off of 20+ "starts" at a program known for ripping out elite tight end talent.
It's an outside shot, but it's still a good one: both Fant and Hockenson could declare for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Which will force us to choose: who is the better Iowa tight end?
Now, we can't actually rely on programs knowing what to do. Even if Hockenson should be getting more snaps over Fant because he is the better player, under no circumstances in the universe should Noah Fant have one catch for zero yards in a critical match-up. Those skewed stat lines don't adequately represent the similarities in talent between Hock and Fant; and even those snap count stats lie to you a bit.
Hock is comfortably a better blocker than Fant, so he sees the field more in the running game. But how many targets to they garner per route run? How many routes do they actually run per game? Iowa could be using Fant more frequently as a receiver than Hockenson, and the available stats wouldn't bear it out.
What I can tell you is this: Hock looks the part; even more so than Fant. Fant has that sleek, stretch TE build that makes him blend in with bigger wide receivers because he has so much length to his limbs. We have him listed at 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, while the Iowa staff at the Northwestern game on Saturday listed Fant at 6-foot-5, 241. I think he's playing sub-240 for sure.
Iowa puts Hockenson at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, as compared to our 6-foot-5, 243. Man, I think Hockenson may be out near that 250. I got an up close look at his build, and he's got broad shoulders, wide hips, and tree trunks for legs. If he's not 250 now, I think he can get up there by adding more mass to his midsection.
So they fill different molds, simply from a body perspective; but from a role perspective, Iowa still tries to use Fant more as a blocker than they should. That's where Hockenson shines and thrives, while Fant projects best as a slot/H-back player who wins with mobility, not phone booth power.
With a thicker frame, Hockenson's explosiveness in his lower body to generate power and create initial displacement is more than enough to succeed as a blocker. But he also has that intangible Iowa grit that always bleeds through the black and gold, and that "want-to" leads to plays like this: taking a defensive end and creating a traffic jam by driving him all the way to the sticks.
Remember why people starting falling in love with George Kittle, another Iowa TE in the 2016 Draft class? If you don't, Joe just wrote up a piece on Kittle's pre-Draft process and what we can learn from it. A lot of it had to do with Kittle's willingness to do dirty work in the running game; to finish. It seemed indicative of a love for all aspects of the game; a signal that Kittle was a hard worker who could continue to improve as a player.
Joe also makes the point that Kittle, with stellar athletic testing to pair with a perceived strong work ethic, should have been considered a high-ceiling prospect no matter where you valued him (his production wasn't great and his routes were unrefined). This idea also applies to Hock, who clearly has some stellar athleticism.
Watch all the way through the clip; get to the final camera angle. Look at how smooth and snappy Hockenson is in his routes, and how effortlessly he hits that hurdle. Hock has hurdled a couple guys now, with surprising bounce for a 250-pound dude.
Against Northwestern, Hockenson received every type of target you'd like to see. He had leverage routes in between zones that requires good spacing/timing and a willingness to get hit; he had downfield opportunities that required concentration and long speed; and he had high-point and contested looks as well, which illustrate an area that Hockenson dominates. With his frame, grip strength, and athletic ability, he should rightfully be fed jump balls in the red zone.
The most important takeaway here: Hockenson is also very, very good. Stupid good. How-did-one-team-get-both-of-these-dudes?!-good. I can list five tight ends of the top of my head that could potentially push for a first-round grade, now that Hockenson has come onto the scene: Irv Smith Jr., Albert Okwuegbunam, Kaden Smith, Fant, and Hock. Parsing out exactly who beats out who is conditional on athletic testing and the breadth of film we have yet to be exposed to.
That being said...Hock looks something different, man. For a young player who just recently added that mass, he moves so well and seems to have natural instincts for every facet of the position: attacking the ball in the air; inviting and controlling contact as a blocker; leveraging his explosiveness against slower linebackers. It didn't take long for me to fall for Hockenson on Saturday, and I think he may have the highest ceiling in this tight end group.