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Top-10 2020 NFL Draft TE Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: August 6, 2019, 12:50 am ET

2020 NFL Draft at a glance

Better in 2020: QB, RB, WR, OT, CB, S

Worse in 2020: TE, OG, C, DL, EDGE, LB

 

Top-10 TE

1. Colby Parkinson (Stanford) | 6'6/240

2. Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin) | 6'4/247

3. Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt) | 6'4/255 

4. Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri) | 6'5/255

5. Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic) | 6'4/240

6. Grant Calcaterra (Oklahoma) | 6'4/221

7. Brycen Hopkins (Purdue) | 6'5/245

8. Matt Bushman (BYU) | 6'4/245

9. Hunter Bryant (Washington) | 6'2/224

10. Mitchell Wilcox (South Florida) | 6'4/245

 

Just missed: Cole Kmet (Notre Dame) | (6'5/255), Jared Rice (Fresno State) | 6'4/238

Potential risers: Adam Trautman (Dayton) | 6’5/256, Stephen Sullivan (LSU) | 6'7/231

Needs a leap: Jacob Breeland (Oregon) | 6'4/248

Deep sleeper: Charlie Kolar (Iowa State) | 6'6/252

2020 prospect to monitor: Brevin Jordan (Miami) | 6'3/245


1. Colby Parkinson (Stanford) | 6'6/240

I acknowledge that this is an aggressive, projection-dependent ranking for Parkinson. But the 2020 TE class is sort of like the 2019 RB class – it’s a hollowed-out group with no surefire first-rounder heading into the season. In a Wild West group with a small handful of guys competing to become TE1 in 2020, I’m going to push my preseason chips in on Parkinson.

Parkinson is not a similar player to T.J. Hockenson, and he’s certainly not the same caliber as a prospect. But his situation reminds me of Hockenson’s in 2017 in that Parkinson wasn’t utilized as often as he could have been last year due to circumstance. In Hockenson’s case, Noah Fant’s presence delayed his coming-out party as a receiver. In Parkinson’s, Kaden Smith vacuumed up a ton of targets last year precisely where Parkinson is most dangerous – in the slot.

Smith posted a 47-635-2 line as one one-third of KJ Costello’s downfield jump-ball trio (along with JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Parkinson). And though Smith showed to be a more efficient receiver than Parkinson, hauling in a higher percentage of more targets, Parkinson proved to be a far more dangerous receiver. He averaged 16.7 YPC (Smith averaged 13.5) and scored seven TD (Smith scored two).

And while Parkinson has hauled in only 50.6% of his targets in college, he’s dropped just three balls over 77 total targets. To this point, Stanford has used him as a tertiary receiving option, with many targets coming downfield after Costello had first exhausted his primary options. That usage pattern hasn’t allowed Parkinson to truly strut his stuff yet.

In addition to being a more explosive receiver than Smith, Parkinson naturally has him in the area of athleticism in addition to blocking. Parkinson is a pesky run blocker despite his skinny frame, a rangy skyscraper with good quickness who whitewashes defenders with length and surface area. 

Parkinson received a grand total of zero pass-blocking reps last year. Don’t let that alarm you. He’s so good in the slot as a 6’7 rebounder downfield that even David Shaw would never consider holding him back inline as an extra blocker on a passing down. Parkinson’s special sauce of length, athleticism and downfield skill was superfluous on a team with JJaw and Smith.

With those two off to the NFL (along with 2018 WR2 Trent Irwin and All-American RB Bryce Love), it’ll be Parkinson’s turn to assume go-to receiving duties in 2019. It was a role he was born to play with Costello -- expect to see Costello chucking it up to Parkinson downfield throughout the fall. 

I expect to see a huge spike in targets, I expect to see a huge spike in stats, and I expect to see further advancement as a run blocker. If that happens, Parkinson will earn a ticket into Round 1.


2. Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin) | 6'4/247

I’m planting my flag on Ferguson as this year’s mega-riser at the TE position. A former basketball player, Fergy is likely to test as one of his position’s best athletes at the NFL Combine when he enters the draft. The movement skills are dang-near elite, here.

At The Opening Regional in Chicago the May before he enrolled at Wisconsin, Ferguson finished No. 3 among almost 350 participants across all positions with a SPARQ score of 114.09. That showing included a 4.73-second 40-yard dash and 4.15-second 20-yard shuttle.

Foster Moreau led all TEs with a 4.11 short shuttle at this year’s NFL Combine. T.J. Hockenson – the best TE prospect to enter the NFL in over a decade – finished No. 2 at 4.18. The same day Moreau and Hock tested, four players ran exactly a 4.15 short shuttle: Terry McLaurin, Andy Isabella, Darius Slayton and Gary Jennings. Hockenson ran a 4.70 forty, Jace Sternberger ran a 4.75.

You get the idea.

After a redshirt campaign to start, Ferguson exploded as a rFR, catching 36 balls for 456 yards and four touchdowns in an aerial-allergic offense. Dominator Rating – the percentage of a team's receiving yards and TD a player accounted for – is a far more accurate contextual gauge of usage than counting stats. In that metric, per the Devy Watch, Ferguson finished No. 4 last year behind only Pinckney, Albert Okwuegbunam and Harrison Bryant.

Ferguson’s natural receiving ability reminds me of Sternberger. Guys like this give college defenders fits. Ferguson’s confident routes and fluid movements keep defenders perpetually on their heels, to the point that they sometimes cheat by guessing, biting on fakes.

Like Sternberger, Ferguson plucks the ball out of the air with the casual suddenness of Mr. Miagi catching a mosquito with chopsticks. He’s flammably dangerous from there because he doesn’t have to slow down to make the catch and he can make linebackers miss and run over safeties.

Ferguson follows in the tradition of Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks, and Troy Fumagalli. He very well may end up as the best of the bunch. At a position that’s notoriously slow to develop, Ferguson had the second-highest PFF grade last year among qualifying returning TEs.

That was no fluke. Ferguson introduced himself to the college football world as a well-rounded player who could win in multiple plays and line up all over the formation. He had 303 snaps inline, 230 in the slot, and even 10 out wide.

I want to see three things before Fergy declares: 1) Add 10 pounds of muscle, 2) Improve as a run blocker, 3) Show he can burn defenses deep. All should be attainable, and No. 3 is likely only be a circumstantial concern – Wisconsin targeted Ferguson only four times on balls thrown 20+ yards downfield (you try playing with Alex Hornibrook!). Ferguson hauled in two of those balls for 63 yards and a TD.

Heading into his rSO season, Ferguson has three years of eligibility left. He’ll almost assuredly declare beforehand. If he answers all three questions above by January, he may even be a Round 1 pick in April.


3. Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt) | 6'4/255

Pinkney has a ton going for him. He’s a true inline TE. He’s coming off a 50-770-7 season. He’s got plenty of bulk and he competes as a blocker. And while Parkinson towers over him, Pinkney offers a big strike zone because of his long arms, and he’s got plucky hands.

He undoubtedly has the safest profile of any tight end prospect heading into the season. And yet, even amid this stinky TE class that has been depleted by an unusually-high amount of underclassmen defections into the 2019 draft, I remain slightly suspicious of Pinkney.

A tweener 225-pound three-star WR recruit, Pinkney was a revelation after Vandy’s staff converted him to TE. And while he’s quick and plays without a kill switch at 255 pounds, Pinkney is never going to be an elite blocker.

He simply doesn’t have a tremendous feel for what he’s doing, so when he doesn’t rock his man back on initial movement with force, his feet start disappearing into the grass like quicksand. With continued technical and core strength improvement, he could develop into a league-average blocker – I don’t see more.

As a receiver, the calling cards are quicks, agility, technical acumen, hands and contested catch ability. Pinckney’s a thick kid who boxes out like Dennis Rodman and tends to catch the baby out of a building by coming down with the ball in heavy traffic. But I wonder if some of his receiving ability won’t be lost in translation due to a lack of long speed and burst.

Pinckney tested as an average high school athlete, and though he’s shown advanced fluidity to mask some of these deficiencies, he’s also been slowed down by defenders who are bigger, faster and stronger than he is. He’s not a burner, and he requires a bit of a runway to get to top speed. 

Pinckney hasn’t shown the ability to make modifications to his game in response. When he’s being blanketed in a game by a gifted cover linebacker, say, Pinkney will continue rushing through his routes in an attempt to out-athleticism the guy into submission.

A little nuance to his routes would go a long way, as would an increased understanding of the coverages he’s facing. The NFL can make life really difficult on guys like this until/unless they learn how to outthink their opponents.  

Because of all that, I’m more comfortable betting on a higher-ceiling prospect (like Parkinson or Ferguson) to emerge as TE1 rather than wagering on Pinkney holding his spot. Pinckney is a really good receiver who has been a decent blocker in the SEC. But he’s likely scraping up against his ceiling already, and I don’t think I’d be comfortable investing a R1 pick in the player type if there isn’t further growth to come.


4. Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri) | 6'5/255

Another former receiver, Albert O is a natural ball-catcher who moves well downfield. Especially for a big fella. He’s long, thick and fluid — and is hell to deal with down the seam. He’s got long arms on that 6’5 frame, and his basketball background is apparent when he goes airborne to high-point rebounds.

In part because of that skill, Okwuegbunam has been a red zone killer in the SEC. In only 18 career games, he’s caught 17 TD (along with 72 catches and 881 yards). Albert O may not be Noah Fant’s equal as an athlete, but he’s better in traffic and in contested situations. 

But Okwuegbunam isn’t a perfect prospect, despite the awesome statistical profile in the SEC and the prototypical size. His weaknesses won’t be exploited in college, but they may well in the NFL. He’s a poor route runner, in part because he labors to change directions. Okwuegbunam telegraphs where he’s going not because of inexperience, but because athletic limitations force him to round off routes instead of snapping.

Because of that, he isn’t able to create a ton of separation from gifted athletes. Go back to his 2017 tape and check out the amount of times he was wide open or close to it on his 11 TDs. Josh Heupel’s scheme helped him, as did working with Drew Lock. It’ll be interesting to see if Albert O can prevent a statistical regression now that he’s playing with Kelly Bryant, a limited thrower.

And despite his size and speed, Okwuegbunam isn’t a big threat after the catch. Again, the issue comes down to a lack of agility and burst. When he has the ball in his hands and hasn’t already scored a TD, Albert O’s first preference is to sprint untouched into the end zone, his second is to run you over or stick his hand in your facemask.

He’s a straight-line athlete whose statistical explosiveness is dependent on scheme. His yards per catch dropped from 14.3 with Heupel in 2017 to 10.8 with Derek Dooley in 2018, and he averaged only 4.6 yards after the catch.

The jury remains very much out on Okwuegbunam’s blocking. He graded out well in 2017 in Heupel’s system, but regressed significantly last year in Dooley’s system (which has more pro concepts). A majority of his snaps both years came inline, and his run-blocking opportunities were similar. In a nutshell: He’s big and he competes, but Okwuegbunam doesn’t have a great concept of leverage or technique, and he struggles to shuffle with his man to keep the ball behind his numbers.

Once again, this is an area in which he can skate by while in college, but NFL defenders are less forgiving. Pop and want-to can only stretch so far against superior athletes who know exactly what Okwuegbunam wants to do.

At the end of the day, that’s where the questions lie. We know who Okwuegbunam is. And it’s possible he’s already right around his ceiling. He may have returned to Missouri for another year because he preferred to duck Hockenson and Fant’s class and get another year of development while joining a poor 2020 TE class. On the surface, that math makes sense.

But what if Okwuegbunam is a player with a glass-ceiling whose game was greatly aided by Missouri’s offensive machinations and Drew Lock’s preference to fire the ball high to the big fella around the goal line? What if his play falls off a bit with Bryant behind center?

What if Okwuegbunam re-injures his shoulder after missing five games last year with a broken scapula? Not for nothing: Mizzou went 4-1 without Albert O and averaged 39.75 points per game in wins over Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas. The only loss was to Oklahoma State in the bowl game... and Mizzou scored 33 in that one.

This fall, I’ll be trying to ascertain if Okwuegbunam is Fant with less athleticism and more receiving skill and blocking utility, or Alizé Mack with shoulder woes substituted for the concussions. He’s a high-variance prospect who could make good on Round 1 talk if he takes a developmental step forward in 2019 and dispels agility concerns at the NFL Combine (I’m dubious), or drop like Mack if injuries and inconsistencies crop up in 2019.


5. Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic) | 6'4/240

Criminally underrated at this time, Bryant has legitimately been one of college football’s best tight ends for the past two seasons. He followed up a strong sophomore campaign in 2017 (32-408-5) with first-team All-CUSA honors and a 45-662-4 line last fall.

The former two-star recruit has been overlooked or dismissed because of his lack of pedigree, his level of competition, his perceived struggles blocking, and his small-ish frame for a TE.

I question all that. Bryant had 87 catches the past two years and dropped only one ball over 103 targets. Last season, 10.0 of his 15.0 YPC average came after the catch. And he didn’t fumble a ball in either 2017 or 2018.

And sure, FAU plays in Conference USA. But if we’re going to mention that, we should also mention that the Owls have had mediocre QB play the past two years (under 3,000 yards passing each time, combined 14/15 TD/INT rate in 2018).

In addition, Bryant’s blocking is underrated. As is the case with his receiving, he doesn’t always jump off the screen in this area, but he consistently executes his assignments.  Check out the highlight below. Does Bryant appear to be dominant? No – and yet the result was an impressive multi-level block.

In sum, Bryant was PFF's top-ranked tight end last year among returning FBS tight ends. Sleep on him at your own risk. Just know that Jim Nagy isn’t.

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!