Fran Duffy's Combine Preview: Tight End

While the Eagles may have the best one-two punch in the NFL at the tight end position with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, there’s still an opportunity to add more depth through the draft, especially when you consider that this class is full of interesting prospects. There will be intriguing options for teams looking for tight ends every day in this draft, and my guess is more than a couple of draftable prospects will not be selected at all. Here are my thoughts on some of the names you need to know.

Top Pick

This is the player who I feel is at the top of the class coming into the event.

T.J. Hockenson, Iowa

Hockenson first popped up on my radar over the summer. I was studying his teammate Noah Fant, who was previously billed as a potential first-round pick despite not being an every-down player for the Hawkeyes. Instead, it was Hockenson, a 6-5, 250-pound bulldog, who lined up everywhere for Kirk Ferentz and did nothing but compete and outwork the man across from him. Fast forward a few months later, and Hockenson was once again the lead dog on the depth chart for Iowa, and he went on to win the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. An extremely well-rounded player with no real holes in his game, Hockenson should transition very quickly as an early starter for his future NFL team. He may not have Travis Kelce/Rob Gronkowski upside athletically, but he will be a good player for a long time.

Workout Warrior

This is the player who I expect to see perform best in the athletic testing portion of the workout.

Noah Fant, Iowa

Coming into the year, Fant was viewed by many as the top player in the country at the position. This kid is an absolute freak show of an athlete, and he should be one of the best testers in the history of the Combine at the tight end spot. Fant flies out of his stance, is extremely fluid in and out of breaks, and has excellent flashes on film. It should be noted that Fant was never an every-down player or every-week starter for Iowa. There are questions about Fant as a blocker, but there’s no question he can impact all three levels of the field as a pass catcher at the next level. This class isn’t just about Fant though because there are several really impressive athletes. Hockenson will test very well, as will Irv Smith Jr. from Alabama (who I absolutely love on film), Jace Sternberger from Texas A&M, Dawson Knox from Ole Miss, and Alizé Mack from Notre Dame.

Trust The Tape

This is the player who I don’t expect to test off the charts and is a better football player than he is an athlete. With that in mind, don’t drop him down the board with a subpar workout!

Kaden Smith, Stanford

A one-year starter for David Shaw and the Cardinal, Smith has exemplary size at 6-5 and nearly 260 pounds, has strong hands, and is a very reliable blocker at the point of attack. He plays the ball pretty well in the air and has proven to be consistent at the catch point. He even averaged 15 yards per reception over his college career, an outstanding number. Smith isn’t, however, a game-breaking athlete. He’s not going to line up out wide and be viewed as a mismatch player in the NFL. He’s not going to be a real threat with the ball in his hands. I’m perfectly fine with all of that. I think he will be a rock-solid pro.

Stopwatch Shocker

This is the player who I expect to see test better than most in the media believe they will perform based off of current projections.

Josh Oliver, San Jose State

Oliver has pretty good size and length for the position and had a productive career for the Spartans as a three-year starter. I was impressed with his ball skills and hands at the catch point on film. He’s not currently viewed as a plus athlete, but I think he’ll test better than many people think. The senior needs further refinement in other areas of his game – route running and releases off the line, specifically, but this is a big kid with good movement skills who is strong at the catch point. You can win with that.

Will Kill The Drills

This is the player who may or may not be a great athlete, but he will look the best in the position-specific drills after the athletic portion of the workout.

Isaac Nauta, Georgia

Off the hoof, the junior Bulldog won’t impress you. He’s 6-4 and under 250 pounds. He’s not a blazer down the seam, and isn’t super twitchy, but this kid is a football player. Nauta is a solid all-around blocker, is competitive in everything he does, and when I say he catches everything I mean he catches EVERYTHING. By my charts, the junior allowed just one catchable pass to hit the ground this season, and while he was maybe the fifth weapon in a loaded offense, that’s still impressive. Nauta needs to improve as a route runner, and I’m anxious to see how he looks at the Combine after training for the last few weeks, but he should look good in position drills.

Most To Prove

This is the player who has the most to prove away from the field, whether it’s during the interview process, medical examinations, or even the weigh-ins.

Dawson Knox, Ole Miss

Knox may be the least-productive skill-position player that I’ve ever really, really liked on film. A two-year starter for the Rebels, Knox caught just 39 passes in three years and never reached the end zone, which is silly to think about considering the fact that Ole Miss was a heavy passing team. At 6-4, 260 pounds, the junior has pretty good size, is an impressive athlete, and has intriguing upside because he lined up all over the field and was used in every way imaginable as a blocker and pass catcher. The traits are there, but the production was not, so teams will be looking to get to the bottom of why.

Most Productive College Player

This is the player who produced at the highest level, either in his final year in college or throughout his entire career.

Caleb Wilson, UCLA

No college tight end at the Combine has more career catches than Wilson, an undersized junior who declared for the draft quickly after the season ended. With 141 career receptions at an impressive 14.7 yards per catch, the former high school quarterback appears to be on the upswing. He did miss a large chunk of the 2017 season due to injury, but that makes his production even more impressive. The transfer from USC will need a strong workout to put himself in the Day 2 discussion.

Best Pro Comparison

Comparing draft prospects to NFL players is tough, but here’s a player with the easiest picture to paint when looking at their NFL future through my eyes.

Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M

A one-year starter for Jimbo Fisher this year at A&M, Sternberger stands at 6-4, 250 pounds and is an impressive athlete for the position. An easy mover who gets in and out of breaks with ease, I especially enjoyed studying him on vertical routes. The junior, who transferred from Kansas with a stop at a junior college in between, reminded me a lot of Zach Ertz while running some of his double moves, including a corner-post route that Ertz has nearly perfected during his time in the NFL. Is Sternberger to the level of Ertz right now? Of course not. But stylistically they’re similar. Sternberger will have questions about his blocking, like Ertz did, coming out of college. Physically, they’re almost identical, and I think his upside matches.

Best Story

Let’s face it, all of these players have great stories to tell, but which guy has taken the most unbelievable journey to get to this point in their career? Here’s the one that has caught my eyes (and ears) the most.

Jalen Hurd, Baylor

Most people have Hurd listed as a wide receiver, including the folks at National Football Scouting who put together the Combine. Some analysts have him listed as a running back. I think he may be best suited at tight end. Listed at the Senior Bowl at just under 6-5 and 227 pounds, Hurd was garnering comparisons to Adrian Peterson early in his career as a freshman at Tennessee. When he left the Volunteers in 2016, he was the second-leading ball carrier in the history of their storied program. Hurd transferred to Baylor, sat out a year, and moved to slot receiver this year for head coach Matt Rhule. Hurd has shown that he can play running back north of 240 pounds and can put on more weight. I wonder if Hurd could transition to a Trey Burton-esque role in the NFL. Regardless of what position he plays, his winding journey is certainly an interesting plot to follow.

Small-School Standout

This is the player who comes from a lower level of competition (outside of the Power 5 conferences) but still has a very bright future in the NFL.

Keenen Brown, Texas State

Brown could have gone back for a sixth year of eligibility, but he decided to come out instead. A transfer from Oklahoma State, he’ll look to push himself into the mid-to-late rounds with a good athletic performance. At 6-3, 250 pounds, Brown’s upside has been questioned and he hasn’t been super productive throughout his college career (just 57 catches for under 12 yards per reception), but he’s a fine player in his own right.

Mr. Average

We get to read all about the measurements for all these players over the next few weeks ... but wouldn’t it be nice to have some context? What is considered a "good" 40-yard dash time for any given position? What about arm length? The broad jump? Here’s what the average player drafted has looked like over the last decade (by my records).

Tight Ends
Height 6-4 1/2"
Weight 252 pounds
Hand Size 10 inches
Arm Length 33 1/8 inches
Wingspan 80 inches
Unofficial 40 Time 4.69 seconds
Official 40 Time 4.76 seconds
10-Yard Split 1.64 seconds
3-Cone Drill 7.10 seconds
Short Shuttle 4.38 seconds
Broad Jump 117 inches
Vertical Jump 33.5 inches

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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