Graphic By: Robert Robinson
Written By: Roy Countryman
As we trudge our way forward in the NFL season and teams are fighting for their playoff lives, others have been eliminated from such contention and are turning their attention to the 2019 draft. We still have a long road and process to play out before the draft comes, including bowl games, the Combine, and pro days, but that will not deter us here at Blitzalytics from continually providing you with a highlight of the top players at each position. Today we are here to take a look at the TE class. In the last 5 draft classes there has been an average of only one TE selected in the first round each year, with two years, 2015 and 2016 not having one. This could be a product of a mindset that no TE had a skillset worthy of a high selection, or the fact that teams feel they can procure talent in the value-based rounds from round two on down. Take a look, and see where I think some of these TE’s should come off the board this year.
1. T.J. Hockenson: Iowa
Weight: 250 lbs.
Career Stats: 22 games
Yards: 1,037 yds.
Average: 14.8 ypc.
Receiving Touchdowns: 9
Rush Touchdowns: 1
T.J. Hockenson came into this season with little fanfare, and quite frankly overshadowed by preseason hype of his teammate, Noah Fant. By the end of the season though, it was Hockensen that was being rewarded with the Mackey Award, and the Ozzie Newsome Award for being the best TE in college football, as well as being named a second team AP All-American. He has had a meteoric rise in the eyes of evaluators over just 22 career games of experience, going from a hard-working redshirt freshman to the security blanket, and go to weapon for his QB as a redshirt sophomore. Coming from the Iowa program, and the NFL style offense they run, there is little doubt that he will be able to transition quickly to the next level, and the responsibilities that will be asked of him
Hockenson is the total package as a TE. He is a tall, long, and burly TE, who can produce high quality plays both as a pass catcher, as well as a blocker. He’s a smooth and coordinated athlete that has a great burst off LOS, and terrific snap anticipation that puts him ahead of the ball game when running his routes. Using strength, lateral agility, and savviness when uncovering coverage, he presents a difficult matchup to try and blanket. Hockenson has strong, and sure hands that he uses to pluck passes away from his frame, and completes a ton of combative catches. Able to separate from defenders after the catch with the combination of his great speed, and lateral agility. Shows the ability to get vertical, and meet the ball at its apex. Has an impressive ability to hurdle defenders that charge downhill too quickly. Equally impressive as his pass catching abilities is his ability to make an impact in the blocking department both as an in-line run blocker who can gain a push, and as a blocker in space where he excels at finding, and planting defenders at the second level. Clutch performer who always seems to come up with the big play in the waning moments
T.J. Hockenson has great functional playing strength to be able to rag doll defenders at the college level, but will need to continually add strength, and especially lower body bulk in an NFL based strength and conditioning program, or else he may not be able to have the same type of dynamic impact as a blocker. Is still somewhat inexperienced in a sense, with only a little over 20 games experience at the college level, and will need to continually work to refine his skill set that is already pretty valuable. Will need to learn how to deal with more explosive pass rushers when he is asked to pass protect. Not an explosive athlete, and more of a sum of the parts kind of player.
Projected Round: 1st
Team Fits: Patriots, Saints, Packers
NFL Comparison: George Kittle
2. Irv Smith Jr.: Alabama
Great escape from a jam to get downfield for a TD!
Weight: 241 lbs.
Career Stats: 24 games
Yards: 838 yds.
Average: 14.4 ypc.
Receiving Touchdowns: 10
Irv Smith Jr. is the son of a former first round pick of the Saints who also played TE. Smith Jr. is a highly skilled combination TE that is physical at the point of attack and is an excellent pass catching threat down the field. He declared for the draft early as a junior after a strong run through the college football playoffs where he made his presence felt mostly as a blocker helping the three headed RB committee put up big time performances even though they fell short against Clemson. He earned second team All-America accolades from the AFCA and was selected to the All-SEC second team by the coaches. He also leaves Tuscaloosa with the single-season touchdown reception mark by a TE with 7 this past year.
Smith Jr. has all the ingredients that you want in a highly successful combination TE. He has great athleticism, size, and physical playing demeanor that shines though not only as a pass catcher, but especially in the run blocking game. He has a firm grasp on what it takes to open up rushing lanes as a drive blocker, a positional blocker, or by using angle blocking. He is a physical mismatch as a pass catcher due to his quickness in and out of his breaks and fluidity in the open field. He has the ability to leave defenders grasping at open air while he sprints for long gains. Strong and reliable hand catcher who consistently showed the ability to pluck passes away from his frame.
Smith Jr. was a powerful run blocker at the college level but will need to continue to add strength so that he can rag doll defenders at the next level the same way he did while at Alabama. As a pass protector he struggled to stay in front of and block pass rushers with a great burst and bend which could lead to his QB seeing pressure from his side of the LOS. Only had one year of great production while at Alabama but that could be more of a product of coming from a program that values a rushing attack more than a vaunted passing offense.
3. Kaden Smith: Stanford
Weight: 252 lbs.
Career Stats: 20 games
Yards: 1,049 yds.
Average: 15.0 ypc.
Receiving Touchdowns: 7
Kaden Smith is a former five-star recruit who lettered multiple times both in basketball, and football as a high schooler. He tore up his left knee as a high school senior, which delayed his start of his playing career at Stanford, leading him to redshirt initially. He was a big-lights player at Stanford, and really shined when his teammates need him the most. He is a big, burly TE, who excels at skying high, and coming down with some highlight reel catches. He really seemed to come into his own when his roommate, and very talented QB, K.J. Costello worked his way into the starting lineup. His peers took notice as well, with him being named to the preseason AP All-American second team, a Mackey Award finalist, and All-PAC 12 second team for the 2018 season. Will be the latest player to add his name to the long line of success stories that have come from the Stanford program.
Smith is a clutch performing, rugged TE, who displays a lot of traits that will endear him quickly to a QB at the next level. He uses his strength, length, catching radius, jumping ability, and savviness to be able to come down with a ton of big-time plays. He is a consistent force on combative catches, and is blessed with a natural set of strong, vice-like hands. Can contribute in the running game as well, and can gain a push, and dominate smaller defenders at the second, and third levels of the defense. He is hard to bring down after the catch when he has a head of steam, and will drag defenders with him. Smart, and willing to grind until he gets better at his craft, and comes from a system that lends itself to getting TE’s prepared for the next level with NFL style concepts.
Smith is a long-strider who gets to top speed quickly, but simply does not possess elite deep speed. He is at his best getting through his breaks and getting north/south rather than trying to make plays laterally, because he is not very fluid in space. He has some history of injuries, and more background work will need done to make sure it will not impede him at the next level.
Projected Round: 2nd-3rd
Team Fits: Bengals, Broncos, Jets
NFL Comparison: Tyler Eifert
4. Caleb Wilson: UCLA
Weight: 235 lbs.
Career Stats: 24 games
Yards: 1,675 yds.
Average: 14.7 ypc.
Receiving Touchdowns: 5
Caleb Wilson is an early entrant to the 2019 NFL Draft, that has bloodlines in the NFL coaching ranks, as his father is the defensive line coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and was drafted player himself back in 1992. He possesses a well-rounded skill set from the TE position, and is a highly intelligent player that enhances his skill set. Was a walk on at USC where his father was a coach at the time, and then transferred to UCLA. Received a host of accolades for his play on the field, and in 2018 he was named second-team All-American by the Sporting News and CBS Sports, and was an AP First-Team All-Pac-12 selection as well. Not only does he have a presence on the field, but is a standout academic performer as well, and was the winner of the Ed “Coach K” Kezirian Award, which is given for balance of outstanding athletics and academic achievement.
Smith is a former high school QB, who has intelligence and feel beyond his years as a pass catcher. He has good speed to get downfield, but it is his very good lateral agility that gives him separation in the intermediate to short areas of the field. He is a gritty runner after the catch, and will put his head down and try and run through would be defenders. Shows a prowess for blocking, and uses great understanding of blocking dynamics as well as technique allows him to be able to make an impact in that facet of the game. He possesses one of the surest set of hands in this draft class, and rarely drops a ball, as well as a knack for getting open, and will work his way back to his QB, which will make him a quick ascending player when he gets to the next level as a QB’s security blanket.
Wilson's biggest weakness is a lack of bulk and NFL caliber-strength. He possesses wiry strength, and can dominate second or third level defenders that are of similar bulk, but he will struggle to make the same impact in the run game as he has in college if he does not gain more strength and bulk. Struggled to block quick, and explosive pass rushers at the college level, when asked to pass protect in college, so he will need to learn new techniques at the NFL coaching level to help suppress that. Simply does not possess elite long speed to stretch the seam vertically on a consistent basis, but rather he is better as a short to intermediate weapon, that will move the chains, and be a security blanket for his QB.
Projected Round: 2nd-4th
Team Fits: Lions, Eagles, Broncos
NFL Comparison: Trey Burton
5. Noah Fant- Iowa
Weight: 241 lbs.
Career Stats: 30 games
Yards: 1,082 yds.
Average: 13.9 ypc.
Receiving Touchdowns: 19
Noah Fant was riding a hype wave coming into the 2018 college season, and he wasn't able to capitalize on it. He eventually lost out on playing time to a better, and more versatile redshirt sophomore that has a chance to go early in this year's draft as well. He still has a bright future though, and a ton of franchises would like to take him with a draft pick, based purely upon his receiving prowess and athleticism. If you are a team that already has blocking TE's in place, he could be the final piece of the puzzle as a red zone threat, and matchup nightmare. Received accolades for his pass catching ability in 2018 with a First Team All-Big Ten selection, and a Third-Team All-American selection by the Associated Press.
Fant is an outrageously talented, and athletic pass-catching TE, that looks more like a bulked up WR. He possesses a huge catching radius, and outstanding jumping ability, which lends itself to being able to high-point passes downfield, as well as being a mismatch nightmare in the red zone. Ran routes out of a college system, very similar to an NFL offense, and is used to taking NFL caliber coaching. Uses his short area quickness, lateral agility, and excellent deep speed to be able pick up chunk yardage after the catch. Has the basis down on what it takes to succeed in the run blocking game, and with his build he should be able to make an impact in that facet, but will need a fire lit under him to do so.
Fant lacks the lower body bulk, and the fire to want to succeed in the run blocking department. He looks at times like he isn't playing with maximum effort especially in the run department. Lacks a burst off the LOS, and seems to always being coming off the snap a second later than everyone else. What highlights that weakness is his inability to shed jams at the LOS, which throws off the timing in his routes, and with his QB. For having as much size as he does, he should bulldoze over defenders, but he usually takes the more finesse route, and tries to outrun or out juke defenders.
Projected Round: 3rd-5th
Team Fits: Saints, Bills, Cardinals
NFL Comparison: Bucky Hodges