One of the toughest things to do is to draw accurate conclusions in situations with small samples. It’s never smart to be super confident in those scenarios because short-term variance can lead to big swings-and-misses. That’s why I’m going to be less confident breaking down a lot these tight end prospects. The position simply isn’t utilized often in college football, so trying to draw confident conclusions on 20-40 targets is something I’m trying to avoid.
With that being said, I made sure to use a whole lot of variables to help us distinguish who the serious prospects are. Some of those variables are based on production and efficiency. Others compare their success to their teammates. And some are straight up size, class, and strength of schedule variables. It’s comprehensive enough to get a good feel for now, but the NFL Combine is very important for this position as we try to figure out who is going to be a pass-catching tight end in the NFL.
This time around, I analyzed 20 tight ends and ranked them solely based on their analytical profile as pass catchers. No film. No blocking numbers. Consider this a primer on the position with a lot of outside context needed to properly evaluate.
Lastly, a friendly reminder that “Team Share” data is based on per-game data and not season-long data. I do so to make it easier to compare players who played full seasons and players who missed games. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s better than just using season-long data. The “YPT” and “TD%” in the “Team Share” row are the tight end’s metrics compared to his teammates.
1. T.J. Hockenson - Iowa - Sophomore - 6’5/250
YPT Versus Team: +5.1
TD% Versus Team: +3.0%
Marginal Efficiency: 17.9% (6th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.49 (4th)
Career Stats: 73 - 1,080 - 9
T.J. Hockenson was inside the top-10 in literally every single metric I looked at, and he was in the top-five more times than not. His 11.5 yards per target was 4th among the 20 tight ends in the sample, but Isaac Nauta, Trevon Wesco, and Irv Smith Jr. weren’t used nearly as much as Hockenson. One of my favorite stats to look at is the YPT Versus Team, and Hockenson averaged 5.1 more yards per target than his teammates! Oh, baby! That’s easily the best in the group. Additionally, Hockenson was an above average touchdown scorer, and draft analysts who really study the tape love Hockenson’s blocking ability too. I’m struggling to find any holes in his game, so sign me up for a late first-round pick, please. The George Kittle comparisons seem valid to me, but let’s check in with Rotoworld’s Thor Nystrom and Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Marc Morehouse, who has covered both players:
Hockenson has the much better resume. You could see George had something special. But midfoot sprain his senior year took such a big chunk. Hockenson was closer to plug and play, physically. George took a year or two to get to TE size.
— Marc Morehouse (@marcmorehouse) January 16, 2019
2. Jace Sternberger - Texas A&M - Junior - 6’4/250
YPT Versus Team: +3.9
TD% Versus Team: +8.8%
Marginal Efficiency: 11.2% (11th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.58 (3rd)
Career Stats: 49 - 837 - 10
Jace Sternberger somehow wasn’t good enough to see the field at Kansas (explain this Thor), so Sternberger went to the JUCO-level before heading to Texas A&M in 2018 as a four-star JUCO recruit. As a redshirt junior, Sternberger lit up the SEC despite facing the third toughest strength of schedule. Unlike most tight ends, Sternberger excelled downfield and finished with a ridiculous 17.1 yards per reception average. Sternberger also averaged 3.9 more yards per target than his teammates (2nd), but the craziest part of Sternberger’s profile was his touchdown metrics. Sternberger’s 12.8% touchdown rate was second in the class, and his touchdown rate was 8.8% higher than his teammates. For context, the second biggest difference in the class was Noah Fant’s 5.0%. There’s more risk with drafting Sternberger early because he’s a one-year wonder who may have just ran hot scoring touchdowns, but a great NFL Combine will make me view him as a quality Round 3 pick.
3. Noah Fant - Iowa - Junior - 6’5/241
YPT Versus Team: +1.1
TD% Versus Team: +5.0%
Marginal Efficiency: 3.8% (13th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.29 (6th)
Career Stats: 78 - 1,082 - 19
Noah Fant has produced for two seasons -- that’s something T.J. Hockenson and Jace Sternberger can’t say -- and he’s considered the favorite to be the first tight end off the board during the 2019 NFL Draft. From a yardage standpoint, Fant can’t touch Hockenson (8.1 to 11.5 YPT), but Fant has been a superior touchdown scorer. In 2017, Fant scored touchdowns on 11-of-30 receptions, and he followed that up with a respectable 10.9% touchdown rate (3rd) this season. That TD% becomes more eye-opening when compared to his teammates’ 5.9% average, good for the 2nd largest difference in the class. Overall, it’s hard not to be bullish about Fant’s NFL future, but there’s certainly an argument for Hockenson over Fant as TE1. Both are rightful Day 1 candidates, so that’s not a knock on Fant at all. More of a compliment to be compared to Lord Hock.
4. Caleb Wilson - UCLA - Junior - 6’4/235
YPT Versus Team: +3.8
TD% Versus Team: 1.0%
Marginal Efficiency: 12.9% (9th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.25 (8th)
Career Stats: 114 - 1,675 - 5
Caleb Wilson is undersized, so his poor touchdown metrics aren’t overly surprising. In Wilson’s 24 career games, he has scored five touchdowns despite racking up an impressive 114 receptions. The easy explanation for that is UCLA being bad at football -- Fight On! -- but I think it’s his lack of size more than anything. In the red zone in 2018, Wilson caught 7-of-10 targets (6th highest catch rate in the red zone), but he only scored one touchdown. While that hurts his projection, Wilson is still an above average pass catcher because of his work between the 20s. Wilson finished first in season-long targets, receptions, and yards, as well as leading the class in team share of targets, receptions, and yards. I’m going to be more reliant on #FilmGrinders for Caleb Wilson’s evaluation because I want answers for his lack of touchdowns relative to his yardage output.
5. Irv Smith Jr. - Alabama - Junior - 6’4/241
YPT Versus Team: +0.4
TD% Versus Team: -0.9%
Marginal Efficiency: 11.6% (10th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.75 (1st)
Career Stats: 58 - 838 - 10
(Side note: The target data doesn’t include the National Championship Game, so I estimated six targets since he caught four passes for 43 yards. Please don’t cite this as accurate data because it’s just my educated guess. However, the difference, if any, wouldn’t change our stances on him as a prospect. So let’s move on.)
Irv Smith Jr. was No. 1 in Marginal Explosion and that’s not a surprise to me at all. Smith scored a few really long touchdowns in 2018, including a 68-yarder against Citadel, and he averaged 16.1 yards per catch. I’m curious if Smith can vault himself into Day 1 mix with a good NFL Combine because his metrics all look pretty good -- Smith is one of two tight ends in the sample to finish top-four in YPT and TD% -- and he gets the bonus of playing at Alabama. That bonus was also a curse to his team share data, but the fact that he averaged more yards per target than his Alabama teammates is impressive. I view Smith as a second-rounder, but I’m open to him climbing into the very end of the first round if he tests well at the NFL Combine.
6. Keenen Brown - Texas State - Senior - 6’3/250
YPT Versus Team: +1.6
TD% Versus Team: +2.7%
Marginal Efficiency: 3.9% (12th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.13 (10th)
Career Stats: 51 - 577 - 5
Keenen Brown spells his name incorrectly, but I will forgive his parents for that. As a football player, Brown was a centerpiece of his offense, which is pretty rare for college football -- his team share of receptions, yards, and touchdowns were all top-four in the class. But he wasn’t very efficient (7.9 YPT), largely in part to poor quarterback play. He, at least, was 1.6 yards per target better than his teammates, or else he wouldn’t be in the top-10 here. Overall, Brown looks like your average small-school tight end sleeper, who I’m not going to get too fired up over unless #FilmGrinders start talking him up. There was a time when Brown was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded tight end, so perhaps some buzz begins to generate.
7. Isaac Nauta - Georgia - Junior - 6’4/240
YPT Versus Team: +3.8
TD% Versus Team: -0.9%
Marginal Efficiency: 18.3% (5th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.47 (5th)
Career Stats: 68 - 905 - 8
Isaac Nauta is your classic “not-used-enough, but efficient” tight end prospect. And they are always tough to evaluate. Nauta was only targeted 2.5 times per game at Georgia, but his 86% catch rate and 12.3 yards per target were both second in the class. I’m also impressed that he averaged 3.8 more yards per target than his teammates. Teammates that include NFL prospects Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman Jr., and Terry Godwin. Of course, we are dealing with a pretty small sample here, but there is some evidence that Nauta is a decent pass catcher. Did I mention that he was the only tight end to finish top-5 in both Marginal Efficiency and Marginal Explosion? Now, let’s see what he can do at the NFL Combine before I claim Nauta as a tight end sleeper.
8. Kaden Smith - Stanford - Junior - 6’5/252
YPT Versus Team: +1.8
TD% Versus Team: -4.3%
Marginal Efficiency: 20.4% (4th)
Marginal Explosion: -0.02 (16th)
Career Stats: 70 - 1,049 - 7
Kaden Smith was a very efficient receiver in terms of receptions and yardage, but what the hell happened with the touchdowns? My best explanation is JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who dominated in the red zone and ended up as my No. 1 wide receiver prospect based on his analytical profile. That’s a good enough explanation for me to give Smith a pass in the touchdown department, especially since he scored touchdowns on 5-of-23 receptions last season. It’s just hard to be really good at picking up yards but really bad at scoring touchdowns when you’re a 6-foot-5, 252-pounder. Overall, Smith is a decent third-round prospect, but the NFL Combine can change that in either direction.
9. C.J. Conrad - Kentucky - Senior - 6’5/252
YPT Versus Team: +1.7
TD% Versus Team: +4.0%
Marginal Efficiency: 13.9% (8th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.05 (13th)
Career Stats: 80 - 1,015 - 12
C.J. Conrad doesn’t have the most impressive analytical profile. Conrad was bottom-five in per-game-usage and his 8.6 yards per attempt was 11th in the class. The Marginal Efficiency and Marginal Explosion numbers were also very average. However, Conrad did catch 81% of his 37 targets (3rd), and he managed to score touchdowns on 8% of his targets (7th). There’s some sleeper appeal here, but the NFL Combine is crucial at this position.
10. Zach Gentry - Michigan - Senior - 6’8/262
YPT Versus Team: +3.6
TD% Versus Team: -2.7%
Marginal Efficiency: 20.7% (3th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.27 (7th)
Career Stats: 49 - 817 - 4
Zach Gentry is as big as they come at the position, and he was effective at picking up yards. Gentry’s 11.2 yards per target was fifth in the class and that’s even more impressive when comparing to his teammates, who averaged 7.6 YPT. Gentry also received high marks in Marginal Efficiency and Marginal Explosion. Where Gentry struggled was scoring touchdowns, which is surprising given his huge frame. Gentry had a lower TD% than his teammates, and he’s only scored four touchdowns in 21 career games.
11. Kahale Warring - San Diego State - Junior - 6’6/250
YPT Versus Team: -1.3
TD% Versus Team: +1.1%
Marginal Efficiency: 2.3% (17th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.07 (12th)
Career Stats: 51 - 637 - 8
Kahale Warring would have been near the bottom of this list if not for his high team share marks. However, those marks aren’t because of high production. Instead, it’s because of San Diego State’s run-first offense (117th in pass attempts per game). When looking at his efficiency metrics, there’s not a like to like. Warring was worse than his teammates at picking up yards, and he was average, at best, at scoring touchdowns. Overall, there’s nothing here to be excited about, so he’s going to need a big NFL Combine performance for me to change my mind.
12. Josh Oliver - San Jose State - Senior - 6’5/250
YPT Versus Team: -0.2
TD% Versus Team: -1.3%
Marginal Efficiency: 0.2% (19th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.1 (11th)
Career Stats: 98 - 1,067 - 7
Josh Oliver was heavily used -- that’s a good thing -- but his efficiency metrics were all pretty bad. Oliver tested in the bottom half in YPT, TD%, Catch%, Marginal Efficiency, and Marginal Explosion. The senior tight end also picked up yardage and scored touchdowns at a worse clip than his San Jose State teammates. I feel comfortable moving on unless his NFL Combine tells me to pump the brakes.
13. Tommy Sweeney - Boston College - Senior - 6’5/260
YPT Versus Team: -1.1
TD% Versus Team: -2.0%
Marginal Efficiency: 1.4% (14th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.02 (16th)
Career Stats: 99 - 1,281 - 10
Tommy Sweeney has a lot of career production to partially make up for his poor efficiency numbers. As a senior, Sweeney only averaged 6.7 yards per target when his teammates averaged 7.8 YPT. But it wasn’t just yardage. Sweeney scored touchdowns at a lower clip as well. Throw in his 62% catch rate, and it’s time to keep moving forward to the next prospect.
14. Drew Sample - Washington - Senior - 6’5/251
YPT Versus Team: -1.1
TD% Versus Team: +4%
Marginal Efficiency: 3.5% (14th)
Marginal Explosion: -0.02 (16th)
Career Stats: 46 - 487 - 5
Drew Sample is a one-year wonder if we consider his 2018 a breakout season -- that would be very nice of us. Sample wasn’t very effective picking up yards (7.2 YPT and 1.1 yards worse than his teammates), but he, at least, caught all three of his red zone targets. There’s just not a whole lot of data here to figure out if Sample is good or not, but you’d think he’d be more utilized if he was an NFL-caliber receiving tight end.
15. Foster Moreau - LSU - Senior - 6’6/256
YPT Versus Team: +1.5
TD% Versus Team: +2.5%
Marginal Efficiency: 23.5% (2nd)
Marginal Explosion: -0.11 (20th)
Career Stats: 52 - 629 - 6
We just went on a stretch of tight ends with bad efficiency numbers, but Foster Moreau will change that. The senior wasn’t flashy by any means, but Foster’s 9.1 YPT is at least average and higher than his teammates. The same thing can be said about his TD%. Moreau is a plus-blocker according to the #FilmGrinders as well, so he makes more sense on the surface than a lot of these other tight end prospects as a Day 3 pick.
16. Trevon Wesco - West Virginia - Senior - 6’6/274
YPT Versus Team: +2.9
TD% Versus Team: -5.7%
Marginal Efficiency: 33.8% (1st)
Marginal Explosion: 0.18 (9th)
Career Stats: 28 - 373 - 2
Trevon Wesco is our leader in Marginal Efficiency, has great YPT numbers, and caught 87% of his intended targets. That’s not so bad, but it’s important to remember the offense he was playing in. Will Grier was making a lot of players look good in 2018, and Wesco never really emerged. My biggest hesitancy is the lack of touchdowns. Grier threw 37 touchdowns this season, and Wesco only caught one of them. Do you really think a legit NFL tight end prospect would do that?
17. Dax Raymond - Utah State - Junior - 6’5/250
YPT Versus Team: +0.2
TD% Versus Team: -2.3%
Marginal Efficiency: 15.5% (7th)
Marginal Explosion: -0.02 (16th)
Career Stats: 72 - 873 - 3
Dax Raymond has a lot of pink and red on his snapshot, which was disappointing to see since I’ve heard good things from #FilmGrinders. Raymond also gets knocked for playing outside the Power 5, but I’m not counting him out just yet because of the high praise by some respected draft analysts. I will, however, be jumping off-board if his NFL Combine scores are weak because he showed nothing here.
18. Alizé Mack - Notre Dame - Senior - 6’5/247
YPT Versus Team: -1.4
TD% Versus Team: +0.0%
Marginal Efficiency: 2.9% (16th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.01 (15th)
Career Stats: 68 - 716 - 4
Alizé Mack was a bigger part of the offense than a lot of these tight end prospects, but he was not very efficient. Mack’s 6.8 yards per target is 17th out of 20, and it’s even worse considering his teammates averaged 8.2 YPT. Mack also didn’t score a touchdown on any of his nine red zone targets. His Marginal Efficiency and Marginal Explosion paint a very similar picture too. I’m ready to move on.
19. Dawson Knox - Ole Miss - Junior - 6’4/257
YPT Versus Team: +1.2
TD% Versus Team: -5%
Marginal Efficiency: 3.3% (15th)
Marginal Explosion: 0.6 (2nd)
Career Stats: 39 - 605 - 0
Alert! This ranking is way too low! Dawson Knox deserves to be ranked way higher than this. He’s a perfect example of small sample bad variance. Knox averaged a respectable 10.5 yards per target (7th) and that was 1.2 yards better than his teammates. It’s very important to remember who is teammates are too. We are talking about D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, and DaMarkus Lodge, who are well respected in this 2019 NFL Draft. The reason why he’s ranked so low is his lack of touchdowns. And by lack of touchdowns, I mean 0 career touchdowns in 18 games. Is this just running cold over a pretty small sample? Or is it something else? I need some explanations from #DraftGrinders for this, but I’ll take their word that Knox showed flashes of receiving ability because that came through in the data (Marginal Explosion was 2nd).
20. Kendall Blanton - Missouri - Senior - 6’6/265
YPT Versus Team: -3.4
TD% Versus Team: -0.9%
Marginal Efficiency: -4.7% (20th)
Marginal Explosion: -0.08 (19th)
Career Stats: 44 - 476 - 6
Kendall Blanton was horrendous all across the board, but he’s receiving solid reviews at the East-West Shrine Game. A lot of that is based on his impressive build, but then why wasn’t it translating to production at Missouri? I mean, are we really going to get serious about a player with a 4.9 YPT average? That’s with a Day 1 quarterback throwing him passes, and that’s 3.4 yards per target worse than his teammates (btw we stan for his teammate Emanuel Hall).