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T.J. Hockenson
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Evaluations

NFL Draft TE Rankings

by Thor Nystrom

In the capsules below, you'll note two tables. The first is a statistical snapshot courtesy of my colleague Hayden Winks. The second is the spider web of each prospect's test results from the NFL Combine, courtesy of MockDraftable. SPARQ composite scores provided by Zach Whitman.

This is the third installment of my NFL Draft deep-dive scouting series, following quarterbacks and running backs. Next up: receivers!

 


1. T.J. Hockenson (Iowa) | 6’5/251

SPARQ percentile: 87.9
Comp: A better-blocking Rob Gronkowski minus an inch, 10 pounds, and 5% of the receiving profile


 

hockenson combine graph

I want to tell you a story. But for the skimmers, I don’t want to bury the lede. TJ Hockenson is a monster. He’s a tour-de-force blocker who in 2018 shoved past Noah Fant on Iowa’s receiving pecking order to also emerge as the nation’s best receiving tight end. Hock was a First-Team All-American who won the Mackey and Ozzie Newsome awards. He was the nation’s best tight end by margin.

Back to that in a minute. First, the story.

In 2011, the New England Patriots went 13-3 and averaged 32.1 ppg, losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. The Pats couldn’t run a lick — the leading rusher was former Indiana and Ole Miss try-hard banger BenJarvus Green-Ellis — but had an utterly dominant passing attack despite the absence of a classic NFL WR1 on the roster.

Instead, the attack featured a generational slot (Wes Welker), a generational Y-TE (Gronk) and a stud F-TE (Aaron Hernandez, who turned out to be a Joker on the field and The Joker off it). Gronk and Hernandez caught 169 balls combined that year for 2,237 yards and 24 TD.

The Patriots' TE coach was a newcomer named Brian Ferentz. After a brief two-year NFL playing career following his time at Iowa, where he played under his father Kirk, Brian Ferentz spent three years under Bill Belichick, the first as a scouting assistant, the second (2010) as an assistant TE coach, and the third (2011) as the TE coach proper.

After the 2011 campaign, Ferentz, an up-and-coming NFL assistant, left the league to accept an objectively worse position, that of Iowa’s OL coach. Nepotism runs rampant in the coaching profession. Consider this a kickback the other way: The Hawkeyes were only able to bring back the rising-star alumnus because Brian’s dad, Kirk, was Iowa’s longtime head coach.

Brian coached OL for five years before Kirk promoted him to offensive coordinator in 2017. And it was at that time that Brian must have pinched himself: His Big 10 roster had a raw version of the Gronk/Hernandez TE combo he’d coached at his only NFL stop!

Iowa’s 2017 passing game was straightforward: Go to slot WR Nick Easley (Welker, as it were) with the high-percentage looks, and go to Joker TE Fant (Hernandez) when you were fishing for big plays or touchdowns. Hockenson (Gronk) was an ace blocking specialist sporadically utilized in the passing game.

Ferentz leveraged Fant into a red zone assassin, motioning the sleek athlete around to incite pre-snap mayhem on the other side of the ball. In 2017, Fant scored 11 TD on only 30 receptions. Meanwhile, Hockenson finished behind forgettable RB Akrum Wadley and already-forgotten WR Matt Vandenberg to finish fifth on the team in receptions.

Like everyone else, I ranked Fant as TE1 in my “too-early” 2019 NFL Draft rankings last May. Hockenson checked in further down that list. Then a strange thing happened. From the very start of the 2018 season, it was Hockenson -- and not Fant -- who was Iowa’s featured receiver. All of a sudden, Hockenson was the more polished receiver, the more reliable receiver, the more dangerous receiver. And, of course, Hock remained a merciless blocker on par with Greg Gabriel on Twitter.

As an Iowa alum who doesn't miss a Hawkeyes game, I had a front row seat to the metamorphosis. From the start of Big 10 play on, Hockenson was the best Iowa player I’ve seen during my almost-decade as a fan.

The Ferentz’s managed to turn Hock into Gronk — or as close a version as they could with the time they had. In 2018, they used Hockenson as a play-in, play-out trump-card weapon. Hock lined up inline. He lined up at fullback. He motioned around and did H-back stuff. He lined up outside and in the slot. Wherever the Ferentz’s figured he’d do the most damage on a given play, that’s where Hockenson was.

Sometimes that meant bulldozing a poor defensive end into the third level after lining up inline. Sometimes that meant motioning into the backfield to ensure a successful seal block. Sometimes that meant lining up as the lead-blocking fullback when a hole needed to be opened by sending Hock into the scrum like a stick of dynamite into the side of a mountain.

Hock is such a good blocker because he’s an exceedingly clever country strong technician with swift feet. Also, he's mean and stubborn. He wants to bury you, and he doesn't quit until the whistle blows. You’ll see plays where he drives a defensive end 10 yards downfield and wipes out a safety (see below). You’ll see standard pancakes when the defender doesn't have the balance necessary to get driven that far back.

But you’ll also see a ton of non-highlight blocks, where Hock takes his man out of the play with minimal effort by using brain and not brawn. He’ll allow the defender to make the first move, and then, like a counterpuncher in MMA, Hock will simply use the poor fool’s momentum against him, calmly sliding him out of the play like a glass of water across an empty countertop.

A top-notch athlete, Hock runs gorgeous routes that manipulate defenders for space. He offers a big catch radius for his quarterback, almost never drops a ball, and is absolute hell to deal with after the catch. Hock isn’t just athletic, and he isn’t just powerful and resolute with the ball in his hands — he’s also a crafty son of a gun. If you get a chance to check out his tape, watch out for his patented hurdles of silly defensive backs who think they can take him down by chopping out his ankles. 

Hock’s aggregate receiving numbers helped him win every award a collegiate tight end can win in 2018. His advanced numbers, per PFF, also wow: Among the top tight ends in the class, Hock finished No. 3 in yards run per route (behind Caleb Wilson and Irv Smith, and ahead of Noah Fant), and, despite the increased difficulty, he dropped only one catchable target last year (2.00% drop rate).

If I’m associated with anything this #DraftSZN, it’s my undying love for TJ Hockenson. That started early in the fall. Reader, I promise you, I didn’t expect it. I was already in a thing with Fant. I wasn’t looking for another TE1. But in October, I could no longer deny what my eyes were seeing. I created the #TE1TJH hashtag you may feel free to use.

Hock is a top-10 overall prospect. I’ve heard plenty of arguments on Twitter about why you don’t draft a TE tin the top-10. Those arguments often cite Eric Ebron. Coming out of UNC, Ebron wasn’t in Hockenson’s class as a prospect. As a pure receiver, sure, maybe. But what makes Hock special is the elite blocking and plus-plus versatility on top of that.

He adds value on every single play, like an elite pitch-framing catcher who also rakes. You break arbitrary slot rules for transcendent talents. How high does Gronk go if you redraft the 2010 class? How high does Travis Kelce go if you redraft the 2013 class? If you think Hockenson can turn into that caliber of player, you can't hesitate to pull the trigger.

I believe Hockenson is the best tight end prospect to enter the NFL Draft since Vernon Davis. I’d be comfortable taking Hock anywhere outside the top-five and slotted him to the Jaguars in my first mock draft in February.


2. Noah Fant (Iowa) | 6’4/249

SPARQ percentile: 98.4
Comp: A smaller Jimmy Graham coming out of Miami (Mark Lindquist)


 

noah fant combine graph

 

Yes, Fant is a freak athlete, one of the best to enter the NFL at the tight end position in the last decade. But I should state outright that while TJ Hockenson blew my socks off last season, my exposure to Iowa left a consistent aftertaste of disappointment with regards to Fant.

Instead of building off the flashes of brilliance we saw in 2017, he more or less repeated the performance. Fant was usurped by Hock as Iowa’s go-to receiver and posted a 39-519-7 receiving line. He finished with nine more catches, 25 more yards, and four fewer TD than he did the year prior.

To be fair, if Fant had taken over for Mark Andrews in the slot of Oklahoma’s high-octane offense instead of vying for targets with #TE1TJH, he would have threatened 1,000 receiving yards. But that’s an alternate reality. In this one, Fant was the second-best tight end on his team, and he ceded the mantle in broad daylight in 2018, on the field.

This point is important enough to repeat, Fant was not the best receiving tight end on his college team last year. Once again, we saw flashes. But once again, this guy with a transcendent size/athleticism combination disappeared for long stretches. And that’s concerning.

Iowa leveraged Fant’s athleticism advantages in the red zone. Outside of that, it was up to Fant to prove to Nate Stanley that he was his moneymaker at receiver. In 2017, he made that argument. In 2018, he stagnated as Hockenson went into #GodMode.

But Fant’s skillset remains exceptional. He’s a tall pogo-stick type athlete who looks like a thick dunking shooting guard on the field. All that makes sense, as Fant has a track and basketball background. John Wall entered the NBA as a 6’4/198 mega athlete. Fant has 50 pounds on him, and posted a vertical jump in Indy of 39.5 inches, a half-inch higher than Wall’s max. Other NBA stars who Fant out-leaped: James Harden, Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook. Oh, Fant also has 4.5 speed.

And yet, Fant hasn’t yet become what we wanted him to become as a receiver. And there’s a chance he never does — there’s a chance that he never sniffs his shorter-Jimmy Graham upside.

Consider this: In Fant’s three seasons at Iowa, he never once caught 40 balls. In Bucky Hodges’ three seasons at Virginia Tech, Hodges never caught fewer than 40 balls. Hodges also scored two more TD than Fant in college. Fant tested in the 98th percentile at 6’4/249. Hodges tested in the 94th percentile at 6’6/257. Hodges still hasn’t made his first NFL reception!

After watching three years of Fant at Iowa, I’m not as convinced that he’ll become an NFL star as others, and I also think he has a higher risk profile than many others do. As a receiver, it concerns me that his flashes almost always come when he has space to work with. And that’s why he would have destroyed worlds in Oklahoma’s wide-open, pass-happy system.

It’s also why he disappeared for stretches in Iowa’s conservative offense: Hawkeyes QB Nate Stanley didn’t trust Fant to make plays in heavy traffic, unless he could fling a ball high in the red zone and make it a who-can-get-higher-competition, which Fant never loses.

But Fant’s lack of play strength comes into play whenever a defender can get hands on him. Fant can get jarred off his route path, which never happens with Hockenson. And while Hockenson will take a shot to make a catch and deliver a shot for extra yards, Fant is unwilling to do the former and unable to do the latter. He goes down on first contact.

Fant doesn't excel in true contested situations and he can get a case of the dropsies when he thinks he’s about to get blasted. Fant’s 9.30% drop rate last year only ranked higher than the uber-raw Kahale Warring and jump-ball rebounder Kaden Smith on my list of top-10 TEs.

The issue is not Fant’s hands. Fant is the kind of receiver who can catch a ball one foot off the ground or nine-plus feet off the ground. There aren’t many players in the NFL who can say the same. You aren’t able to do that with oven mitts. Fant’s mind is free in space, and it’s cluttered in chaos — he’s gotta work to become more productive with defenders in his personal space. There's a chance he simply doesn't have it in him. And if that's the case, he becomes the Drew Lock of the TE class.

But when Fant has space to work with, he’s going to eat you alive. And — unlike Hodges, for instance — Fant can manufacture it early in the route by hitting the NAS button off the snap. This is when he’s flammable, the times when Fant gets a few steps on his man immediately and is operating from an advantage for the remainder of the play. If you can quickly get the ball anywhere within his jumbo catch radius, he’s going to secure it. And if he secures it with open field ahead of him, good luck.

But if Fant doesn’t gain separation immediately, and if you don’t give it to him by messing up, he has more trouble. Fant’s route-running needs work, as does his awareness of coverages and how he can leverage his athletic trump cards to take advantage of the looks he’s seeing.

When Iowa threw, Hockenson typically started inline as Fant lined up in the slot, outside, or hidden via H-back machinations that the Ferentz’s must have stayed up until 3 am every night giggling about. I’d suggest Fant begin his NFL career in the slot or moving around the formation. As a blocker, Fant knows what he’s doing and competes, but I don't think he'll have a ton of success blocking inline at the next level. At least not early.

He’ll at least act as an impediment, beating you to the spot with his athleticism, getting his hands on you, and using technique and foot quickness from there. But he’s simply not a physical player, and play strength is lacking. Fant can seal certain guys off and act as a pesky speed bump for others, but he will get tossed aside by war daddies.

Fant’s receiving chops are very real. He’s not a finished product, not by a long shot. But he was a red zone killer at Iowa even during stretches where he otherwise wasn't making an impact. He should be a goal line weapon from Jump Street. Improvements in play strength, route running, concentration in traffic and overall tenacity are what stand between him and multiple Pro Bowls.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!