Tight end is one of the strongest positions in the 2017 NFL draft. There’s good first-round talent with players like O.J. Howard of Alabama and David Njoku of Miami and good Day 2 targets with players like Evan Engram of Ole Miss and Bucky Hodges of Virginia Tech.
The class also features two stellar small-school players in Ashland’s Adam Shaheen and South Alabama’s Gerald Everett. Then there’s Jake Butt of Michigan, who would be near the top of the rankings had he not tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl.
The class is deep and talented and could feature potentially eight top 100 picks. That would be the most since 2006 when nine tight ends went in the top 100.
1. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Good luck finding holes in Howard’s game. The Alabama product is the draft’s best tight end since Eric Ebron in 2014, and he should be able to produce more than the Lions’ fourth-year player did early in his career. The biggest negative about Howard is his lack of use in the Alabama offense. That’s more of an indictment on former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin than Howard, though.
In four seasons, Howard caught 114 passes for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns. Howard is a really good athlete for a 6’5 tight end, and he gets up to speed quickly in his routes. He’s an easy mover and can change direction without missing a beat.
Howard is a natural receiver and will extend his arms to pull the ball in outside of his frame. After the catch, he has good straight line speed to run away from tacklers and is strong enough to shake them free. As a blocker, Howard is adequate. Although he could work on finishing his blocks better, he can drive defenders backward when he engages.
2. David Njoku, TE, Miami
If teams are looking for a new version of Jimmy Graham, they’ll find it in Njoku. The Miami product is one of the draft’s top athletes with a nice combination of speed, agility, and unreal leaping ability. He’s the type of tight end who can open up the whole field because he can use his speed to work deep routes and his athleticism to be creative and get open underneath. At Miami, he averaged 16.6 yards per catch as a part-time starter for two seasons, catching 64 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns.
Njoku has good body control to adjust to bad passes and will pull in the ball from outside his frame. After the catch, he’s unique for a tight end. He has the speed to run away from defenders and can make them miss in the open field. It would help Njoku’s game if he got stronger and more aggressive as a blocker.
3. Evan Engram, TE, Mississippi
Some teams will view Engram as a wide receiver, while others will utilize him at tight end. At Ole Miss, Engram was used a lot out of the slot where he utilized his footwork and quickness to get open. He could have come out after the 2015 season and been at worst an early Day 3 pick. Instead he returned to Ole Miss and had 65 receptions for 926 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior. Now he’s boosted himself into being a top 64 pick.
Engram is a good route runner because he has flexibility and balance running his routes. Against the zone, he can easily find the hole and is a reliable catcher. He ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and generally plays up to that speed on the field but doesn’t offer much more than effort as a blocker.
4. Adam Shaheen, TE, Ashland
You have to be a pretty good player to leave a small school as a tight end and be considered a top 100 pick. Shaheen started just two seasons at Ashland but put together a career line of 129 receptions for 1,755 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Unlike many current tight end prospects, Shaheen is comfortable playing in-line with his hand in the ground. At 6’6 and 275 pounds, teams will love his size and athleticism combination. A basketball player in high school and college, Shaheen has the athleticism required for the position and will go up and grab passes with ease. After the catch, Shaheen won’t make a lot of people miss, but he’s more than willing to run them over. He’ll need to tighten up his routes to create more separation as a pro. If he does that, he could be a Pro Bowl tight end in the right system.
5. Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech
Hodges is another tight end who has some positional ambiguity. Virginia Tech often lined him up outside or in the slot but also used him out of the backfield. There, his size and athleticism could be put to use. A former quarterback, Hodges had a solid career at Tech with 133 receptions for 1,747 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Hodges is used best when he can rely on his size (6’6, 257 pounds) to body defensive backs and make contested catches. He’s really good at outjumping defenders and could be an asset in the red zone. Hodges doesn’t offer much as a blocker, and his route running needs to be snugged up. He also had some drop issues at times. However, his size and athletic profile makes him a good developmental piece.
6. Jordan Leggett, TE, Clemson
Leggett has easy speed and gets up to top gear in a hurry to close a defensive back’s cushion. Leggett has good speed for a tight end, and he knows how to use it to get open. He showed good hands as Deshaun Watson’s safety blanket at Clemson and the ability to adjust to bad passes. It would help Leggett if he can get meaner as a blocker and play with more aggression. If he does that, he could become a No. 1 tight end for a team.
7. Gerald Everett, TE, South Alabama
From a community college to a soon-to-be defunct UAB team for a season and finally to South Alabama, Everett took a unique path to becoming an NFL prospect. Everett is yet another tight end who is most comfortable split out where he can utilize his size and athleticism. Everett has good speed to open up the field and can run away from some defenders after the catch. Thanks to his athleticism, Everett is capable of making circus catches in the open field. He doesn’t have the best hands and will have concentration lapses that lead to dropped balls. He’s not much as a blocker right now.
8. Jake Butt, TE, Michigan
Had he not tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl at the end of the season, Butt would be potentially the second or third tight end in these rankings. He had to sit out the combine and Senior Bowl while a player like Howard dominated both events. Because of his knee injury Butt may not make an immediate impact in 2017. When he’s healthy, though, he’s a classic big body tight end. He runs crisp and precise routes, uses his size to his advantage on contested catches, and has enough athletic ability to be an asset in space. He gives good effort as a blocker and should improve in this area if he can get stronger.
Best of the rest:
9. Michael Roberts, TE, Toledo
10. Jeremy Sprinkle, TE, Arkansas
11. Eric Saubert, TE, Drake
12. George Kittle, TE, Iowa
13. Cole Hikutini, TE, Louisville
14. Jonnu Smith, TE, Florida International
15. Cethan Carter, TE, Nebraska
16. Pharaoh Brown, TE, Oregon
17. Blake Jarwin, TE, Oklahoma State
18. Scott Orndoff, TE, Pittsburgh