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.
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
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)
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.
3. Kahale Warring (San Diego State) | 6'5/252
SPARQ percentile: 80.1
Comp: Todd Heap (Lance Zierlein)
Do you remember what you were doing in 2013? Through that year, Warring had never ever played football before. He picked it up in 2014 as a senior in high school. Up until that point, Warring was a sort of prep athletics renaissance man.
He was a water polo goalie. He ran cross country. He swam. He soccered. He averaged 19 points a game playing basketball. He took a writing class and wrote a compelling TV pilot titled “Warring Pees”, a Tolstoy-inspired buddy cop sendup starring he and now-Titans DC Dean Pees. Only one of those sentences was a lie.
Look Warring up on Google. You’ll note that he does not have a Rivals prospect profile for the 2015 cycle, nor a rating on 247Sports. David Montgomery and Josh Jacobs were overlooked in recruiting for the longest time— but at least they were on the radar. Nobody knew who the hell Warring was. But his frame and athletic traits were enough to earn him a walk-on look from San Diego State. He was an uber-uber-uber-raw 6-foot-5, 210-pound athlete. Nothing more.
The Aztecs figured they’d try to make the kid a tight end, or something, and so they instructed him to eat up and get his swoll on during a 2015 redshirt campaign. Warring sporadically played in 2016 (a broken foot ended his season early), but showed enough to earn a scholarship.
SDSU taught the kid to block. Which is really all the Aztecs ask its tight ends to do. The team I describe as the “G5 Wisconsin of the West Coast” (run, run, run) uses tight ends like extra offensive linemen. That was the idea with Warring as well, to turn him into a hammer.
Even diligent #FilmGrinders knew little about Warring entering this season except that he could move out defenders (return to the 2017 Rashaad Penny tape and you’ll see plenty of Warring Easter eggs) and had an intriguing athletic profile.
Warring declared for the NFL Draft after posting 49 receptions over the past two years. Meager receiving production, for sure, but keep in mind the team we’re talking about. Irv Smith, for instance, caught more balls last year — but finished fourth on the high-flying Tide in receptions.
Warring, meanwhile, led the land-locked Aztecs in receptions by nine last year (which is by MARGIN on a team that didn’t even complete 175 passes total last fall). Warring also led SDSU in TD catches in each of the past two years.
On those rare occasions SDSU asked Warring to run routes and catch the ball, he flashed. He gets where he wants to go quickly and smoothly, uses his big frame to effectively to pin you to his back, and takes the elevator to the top floor on jump balls or errant throws (of which SDSU’s QBs provide plenty). Basically, he combines the hands of the water polo goalie he once was with the box-out/elevate combo of the forward that he was once on the basketball court.
There are of course lingering questions with the profile. Warring dropped four balls last year on only 34 catchable targets, giving him an 11.76% drop rate that gives pause. Of course, the sample size is tiny and he’s still learning. Targeted NFL coaching should take care of his route running, which remains understandably rudimentary.
Same goes for blocking. Warring fires himself like a projectile into blocks with a tenacious, if unschooled, approach. He’s willing and able but reliant, at this time, on grit, athleticism and strength more than technical know-how.
Let’s be clear: Warring is no sure thing to succeed. This is a risky profile, absolutely. But we know he excelled at many different sports in high school, we know his combination of traits/work ethic are top-notch, and we know that he suffered from his situation in college while prospects like Irv Smith greatly benefited from their own (if Irv and Kahale had switched teams last year, SDSU would almost assuredly have used Irv as an H-Back lead blocker while Kahale may have finished right behind TJ Hockenson in the Mackie voting).
Warring himself believes he’ll be better in the NFL than he was in college. He believes that he hasn’t come close to his ceiling. I agree. I’m not going to take potshots at a coach as good as SDSU’s Rocky Long, but it’s fair to suggest that Warring’s skillset was wasted on that team.
I think of Warring as the anti-Dawson Knox, who continues to receive love for reasons that are not quantifiable. Unlike Knox, Warring starred at the combine, and unlike Knox, Warring also showed out when given the opportunity.
Despite playing in a far, far less conducive offense for the pass (Ole Miss ranked No. 5 in the country in passing yards per game last season, SDSU ranked No. 101), Warring still put up better stats than Knox both last season (31-372-3 to 15-284-0) and throughout their respective collegiate career (51-637-8 to 39-605-0).
Warring is a Magic Eye prospect. Some people look at him and don’t see much of anything. For others, like myself, the closer they look, the more they like. NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call that he’s “limitless in terms of his athleticism” — his traits are basically the pills Bradley Cooper took in LIMITLESS. If Warring can learn to channel that power, look out.
4. Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M) | 6’4/251
SPARQ percentile: 933.6
Comp: Jacob Tamme (Lance Zierlein)
As a Kansas alum and diehard Jayhawk football fan (yes, we exist!), it broke my heart to watch Sternberger go nuclear on the SEC last season. Sternberger signed with KU out of high school, caught only one ball over two years (he redshirted as a true freshman in 2015), and then skipped down to the JUCO ranks in 2017.
There, he established himself as TE1 among the 2018 JUCO class. A must-have recruiting target for Jimbo Fisher after arriving at Texas A&M, Sternberger signed with the Aggies and went off in his only season in College Station, earning All-American honors while posting a 48-832-10 line. The Aggies had a ton of young receiving talent — Kevin Sumlin, if nothing else, recruits that position as well as anyone — but sophomore QB Kellen Mond relied most heavily on the veteran newbie.
Like Warring, Sternberger has a crazy backstory. As a sophomore in high school, Sternberger was a 5-foot-9 quarterback who wore black-rimmed glasses. I picture him as a red-haired Michael 'Squints' Palledorous from THE SANDLOT. And just like how Squints’ encounter with Wendy Peffercorn changed everything, Sternberger’s brush with kismet occurred when his arm strength was zapped by a shoulder injury, followed by a big growth spurt and a permanent move to tight end.
Tight end is notoriously one of the slowest-developing positions in football. For Sternberger to go from a guy who had one FBS catch through his first three years in college to one of the nation’s most dangerous receiving TEs in the SEC in one calendar year struck me as less of a flash-in-the-pan phenomena and more of a flashing red sign that he has serious untapped NFL ability.
Sternberger is a natural receiver, near the top of the class in the areas of route running and seamlessly converting from a receiver to a runner after the catch. And my gosh did that impress me. Sternberger is very, very difficult to contain one-on-one.
He’s such a clever and fluid route runner — one of those guys who moves faster and quicker on the field than he tests. He creates separation, he plucks the ball clean away from his body on the move, he wins in contested situations, he offers a large catch radius, he doesn’t waste motion turning upfield, and he’s dangerous after the catch due to a combination of fluidity, vision and I’m-not-going-down tenacity.
The eval isn’t all roses. Sternberger only tested as a 33rd-percentile athlete. He plays more athletic than that, but he’s no Noah Fant; Sternberger feels NFL average to me. He's an inline guy, but an inline guy who isn’t much of a blocker. He’s a tough kid who tries hard, but Sternberger lacks muscle and pop.
As with receiving, Sternberger is a finesse blocker — technique and effort help him win against non-power guys via positioning and leverage. A power run team probably shouldn’t prioritize him, but a team that throws more and motions the tight end around the formation should be able to extract a little value out of Sternberger in this area. As with Warring, Sternberger is a relative newcomer to the position (and also to his big frame). Perhaps NFL coaching could coax a little more value out of him in this department.
All-in-all, I see an ascending prospect whose further ahead of the developmental curve than he has any business being. If Sternberger falls to Round 3, some lucky team may get a long-term starter on the cheap — if they’re willing to be a little patient early on.
5. Irv Smith (Alabama) | 6’2/242
If you think TE5 is harsh, let me do you one better: I very nearly grouped Irv in with the fullback/H-back group below. But while I think he may in short order be heading for a utility jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none role, Irv offers tools that a smart staff could weaponize.
A former four-star recruit, Smith rarely played as a true freshman in 2016 and managed a pedestrian 14-128-3 receiving line as a sophomore on Alabama’s championship team in 2017. Smith’s stock spiked this past campaign as he broke out with a 44-710-7 line during Alabama’s march to their title-game guillotining at the hands of Clemson.
The Crimson Tide were always on national television, giving Smith, listed at 6’4/241, a big stage to make his NFL Draft case. He was an integral part of the Crimson Tide’s explosive passing offense, finishing fourth on the team in receptions. He doubled as a versatile blocker. On several draft boards during the regular season, he was rated as TE2. He remains a nearly-consensus top-3 TE around the industry.
As you can tell, that’s too rich for my blood.
I see a 6-foot-2 tight end who tested in the 32nd percentile as an athlete, and I wonder if I’m seeing an NFL tweener who benefited from one of the great tight end situations this side of Mark Andrews in the past five classes. I see a guy who most often won as a blocker in college when he wasn’t lined up next to an offensive tackle, and I wonder if asking him to be an NFL inline blocker against power edge rushers is a bridge too far.
The lack of athleticism Smith displayed at the NFL Combine wasn't necessarily a surprise, as Smith struggled to consistently gain separation on his own in college. But often finding himself in one-on-one situations against inferior defenders with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jalen Waddle and either Damien Harris or Josh Jacobs also running routes and Tua Tagovailoa a threat to run, Smith proved to be a highly-reliable outlet receiver.
The situation flattered Irv greatly. His lack of athleticism shows on routes, where his heavy feet deprive him the ability to make quick cuts or put defenders in a blender. Irv is at his best when he gets a head of steam running north-to-south. He ran the third-fastest time of any tight end at the NFL Combine, trailing only freak athlete Noah Fant and jumbo slot Caleb Wilson.
Smith’s agility tests and jumps (measuring explosion) were poor, confirming that the lack of separation and rounded routes we saw last year weren’t a result of a lack of technique from inexperience. Irv also isn’t much of a threat after the catch — unless he’s wide open and has a runway of open field in front of him, a scenario that allows him the extra beat he needs to convert from receiver to runner and the space to build up to his top-end speed.
Smith also isn’t the smoothest receiver, allowing the ball into his frame to lose another split-second he could use to mitigate his lack of foot speed. If Irv isn’t wide open, and if he can’t break the first tackle if he isn’t, the play is about to be whistled dead (to be fair: Smith is a fighter with the ball in his hands and isn’t getting taken down by an arm tackle).
As a blocker, Irv acquitted himself best last season when used as a lead-blocker fullback or when Alabama would shift him around as an H-back. I question whether Smith has the size and play strength to rely on as an inline blocker. And if that’s off the table, you’ve got yourself a 6-foot-2 H-back with below-average athleticism and average hands.
Team fit is more important for Irv than most others on this list. A smart staff will get creative with him, using Irv as a fullback when a lead blocker is required and shifting him around the formation to send him down the seam or manufacture touches that could give him the runway he needs to build up to top speed.
An unimaginative staff will try to shove a square peg into a round hole and find that Irv doesn’t have the skillset to excel in a traditional NFL tight end role. I’ve seen the Delanie Walker comp. I'm gonna drop the "Erroneous!" Vince Vaughn GIF on that. Walker ran a 4.49, Irv a 4.63. Walker had a 36.5 vertical, four inches more than Irv. And Irv’s athletic profile is predicated on straight-line speed — he’s less flattered elsewhere. I seem to be on an island in questioning the viability of Irv’s game in the NFL. So be it. I’d let another team pick him and try to figure it out.
6. Drew Sample (Washington) | 6'5/255
The Washington football program instills a “construction worker on the Space Needle” kind of attitude and that’s Sample. Coaches are going to bang the table for him in April. He’s a first-in, last-out hard-working kid who wants it.
Sample is a very, very good blocker. In that area of the game, he’s NFL-ready. In fact, Sample easily finished No. 1 in PFF’s run-blocking grades last year among draft-eligible TEs (even over my dude TJ Hockenson). In the run game, he locks onto speed guys like a Nile Crocodile and won’t let go. Power edges have given him a few more issues, but that’s a bit nitpicky.
The question becomes: What, outside of blocking, can Sample offer at the next level?
Staying in his PFF profile, Sample finished No. 1 in the 2019 TE class with a 0.00% drop rate — he caught all 25 catchable targets he saw last year. But to be fair: He finished lowest among the top TEs in the class in yards per route run, confirming what we saw on the field: Sample is a very reliable outlet receiver who Washington didn’t ask more of. At the next level, he will have the benefit of finally cutting free the leg chain which kept him attached to Jake Browning at Washington.
There’s reason to believe that Sample could have a little more development to go as a receiver. We know he’s got soft hands, and he tested better than expected at the NFL Scouting Combine, one of seven tight end prospects to test over the 50th percentile on SPARQ.
We didn’t get to see as much of that athleticism at Washington, but Sample had over 96.5% athletic similarities to Todd Heap and Travis Kelce, per Mock Draftable. There were a bunch of bums on that list, too, but the point is that Sample has enough athletic traits to improve as a receiver. Heck, he tested a little better than Josh Oliver, a pure receiving tight end who checks in just below him on this list.
He never created any separation in college, and he never looked very natural on routes — but then again, Washington asked him to run less than a yard per route, and never let him do anything fun. How the hell are you going to separate from a linebacker behind the line of scrimmage?
Sample needs a lot of work as a receiver, specifically in terms of nuance and route-running, but, like Dissly, may immediately show more chops than we thought he had, freed like Andy Dufresne from Browning’s ducks and Chris Peterson’s BLOCK-FOR-MYLES-AND-EAT-YOUR-WHEATIES mandate.
I’m bullish on Sample’s profile. At worst, you’ve got yourself a blocking ace off the bench. At best, you may find a reliable inline starter at a discount. Sample may have gotten something of a developmental short stick at Washington, where he had to fight for playing time with Hunter Bryant (an exciting receiving TE who will touch down in the NFL in one of the next two classes) and Will Dissly (who proved to be a better receiver for the Seahawks than expected right out of the gate before his injury last year, including a 100-yard game in his NFL debut).
7. Josh Oliver (San Jose State) | 6'5/249
Were it not for a twist of fate in Oliver’s first year on campus, he may well have never played tight end. San Jose State initially intended to bulk this lanky high school receiver into an edge rusher. But injuries decimated the already-thin tight end depth chart, forcing an emergency position shift.
It wasn’t an immediate success story. Over his first three years playing, Oliver posted a combined 42-358-3 line. He surpassed those catch and TD marks and almost doubled the yardage total in 2018 alone, bursting onto the scene as an intriguing NFL prospect.
He’s a paper cut player. He averaged less than 11.0 YPC in college (Sternberger averaged 17.3 YPC in the SEC last year with inferior athleticism) and isn’t a home run threat down the seam. But Oliver is a reliable chain mover who creates space on routes by cleverly manipulating defensive backs with altered tempo and chop-chop feet.
In 2018, 67.9% of his catches (38 of 56) resulted in either a first down or a TD. And that was with opposing defenses keying in on him and shading coverage his way, particularly on money downs — Oliver’s supporting cast on last year’s 1-11 SJSU squad was abominable. Oliver, of course, led the team in catches. He also finished with nearly 200 more receiving yards than the team’s leading rusher’s rushing yards.
Right now, Oliver is an F-TE or a big slot only. As a blocker, he’s kind of a mess. He has very little idea what he’s doing, and he isn't yet strong enough to make much headway even if he did. He very well might improve in this area with more coaching — Oliver’s dedication is raved about — but you aren’t drafting Oliver with an inline profile in mind. If he gets there down the line, aces. But you’re bringing him in to be a reliable grinder in the intermediate area who’ll hang in there and take a monster shot to move the chains.
8. Alizé Mack (Notre Dame) | 6’4/249
I wish I knew how to quit Alize.
A former all-world tight end recruit developed at one of the nation’s top high school programs (Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas) who tested as a 99.69% athlete at NIKE’s SPARQ Combine, Mack showed flashes while working in as a true freshman in 2015. He looked poised to become one of the best tight ends in the history of Notre Dame football.
But Mack’s career has hit several snags since then, from a one-season academic suspension in 2016 to a pair of concussions that limited his field time and may have hindered his effectiveness once back. You may think of him as the Jarrett Stidham of the tight end class, with Mack’s academic suspension acting as Stidham’s transfer year.
The past two summers, I predicted breakout campaigns for Mack in my work with college fantasy football rankings. He disappointed both times, disappointed throughout his career at Notre Dame. And yet I still can’t entirely dismiss him as an NFL prospect.
And that’s because Mack is arguably the most natural pure receiver in this class when he’s on. He’s capable of making catches that no other TE coming out can make, casual one-handed grabs of balls that have no business being caught, or getting off the ground to snatch errant throws like a center fielder stealing a home run. On some plays, you’d grade Mack’s hands as A++.
On others, they’re an F. For a natural receiver with soft hands, Mack drops too many balls. Is that from a lack of concentration? Yeah, probably. Could some of it have to do with the concussions he dealt with in college? I think that’s plausible — we often see baseball players struggle with hand-eye coordination when returning from head injuries and football players aren’t immune to the same issue.
And while Mack is a strong athlete and a fluid mover sprinting down the seam, he’s got no nuance with the ball in his hands. In college, I thought that might be attributed to his eyes being bigger than his stomach — that Mack was always looking to take it to the house and wasted precious split-seconds after the catch looking for daylight, as though he were more Percy Harvin than OJ Howard.
Turns out he probably just lacks foot quickness: Mack finished behind blocking-TE Drew Sample in the 10-yard split, short shuttle, and three-cone drills at the combine. This can be seen on his routes as well: Mack looks much better stretching the field vertically than he does running a 10-yard out.
And all of that is a big issue, because Mack has no interest in blocking. A former ballyhooed recruit whose skills have been gushed over for years going back to his prep days, I imagine Mack’s always viewed himself as a Tony Gonzalez type. Mack wants the glory. He wants to wow you. He wants to dent the scoreboard and draw roars from the crowd.
He’s not interested in dirty work in the shadows. Mack doesn’t want to play inline. He doesn’t see himself as a tight end. He wants to be in the slot. Let me give you a spoiler alert: That isn’t changing.
I question Mack’s desire, I question his durability, and I’m here to tell you that he’s a bona fide one-trick pony. But I’ve never questioned his ability — that one trick of his is the kind of thing that could help a championship team if he finds the right circumstance. I’m rolling the dice mid-Day 3. But even as a guy still holding onto his Alize Island passport, I can’t go any higher than that.
9. Foster Moreau (LSU) | 6'4/253
As Kaden Smith or Isaac Nauta were torpedoing their NFL Draft stock with painful NFL Combine showings, the Island of Foster Moreau drifted inland and burst out of the sea like a Kraken. He posted top-five position performances in the 40-yard dash, the bench press, the vertical jump, and the broad jump.
His masterstroke came in the 20-yard shuttle, where he led all tight ends with a 4.11-second run. Simply stunning results. It’s not that Moreau was considered to have no athletic ability while at LSU. More that he wasn’t really considered at all. He acquitted himself well enough as a pass catcher when called upon, but like Warring and Sample, that didn’t happen often on a conservative, run-happy attack.
So what is the Island of Foster Moreau actually? A freak athlete who was caught in a bad collegiate situation? Or a mediocre football player who LSU used correctly by limiting usage? The reality is probably somewhere in the middle
Moreau’s combination of athletic traits and #motor shine as a blocker. Moreau wants to cave in your chest.
But for as much conviction as Moreau puts into his blocking assignments, there is less confidence when he’s asked to run routes. Linebackers tend to stick to Moreau despite his athletic profile. Again: Is that from a lack of development, or a byproduct of LSU’s conservative offense or mediocre quarterback play? Or is the jury already more or less in on the Island of Foster Moreau as a blocking specialist who could chip in on special teams?
Honestly, I don’t have a clue. And I’m not going to pretend to. But if eight tight ends listed above him come off the board in April, I’m rolling the dice in the sixth round.
10. Kaden Smith (Stanford) | 6'5/255
SPARQ percentile: 8.8
Comp: CJ Fiedorowicz (AJ Schulte)
You already know that Smith lost a ton of money by running a 4.91-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis and turning in a sub-10th percentile athletic profile. Words like “disqualifying” were thrown around in the aftermath. Once considered a Day 2 pick — heck, some even saw a first-rounder last May — Smith is no longer a lock to be picked.
Smith’s game isn’t about speed, it’s about physicality, not only as a blocker, but also as a receiver. You see that for sure at the catch point, where he uses his body well and fights for the ball, but also on routes, where you aren’t going to dislodge him off his route. Get the ball within snatching distance of Smith and he’s going to pluck it.
In college, he had a knack for arm wrestling defenders for catches while suspended in the air. Stanford used him heavily in the slot — he finished No. 1 in the class in slot receptions — and also downfield in Stanford’s jump-ball offense, also topping the class in receptions on balls thrown 20-plus yards downfield. But here’s the issue: Smith almost assuredly doesn’t have the athleticism to consistently win from the slot in the NFL. To hang, he has to become a different kind of player.
Which brings us to blocking, of course. Smith is a willing blocker, but remains sloppy and, in general, lacking in both power and consistency. He doesn’t have much of a choice but to work doggedly to improve in this area, specifically in the technical aspects, because he’s never going to have TJ Hockenson or Drew Sample’s inline pop.
Smith’s one-trick pony act of hauling in tough passes isn’t going to cut it in the NFL, where he’ll be a sub-mediocre athlete. I wanted to rank Smith lower. But heck, somebody had to be TE10. And it wasn’t going to be a guy like Dawson Knox, whose hype is entirely a byproduct of anonymous quotes and unverified testing from multiple years ago.
1. Trevon Wesco (West Virginia) | 6'3/267
SPARQ percentile: 34.9
Comp: Jim Kleinsasser (Jordan Pinto)
Wesco isn’t much of an athlete, and his calling card of blocking isn’t very sexy, but he’ll hang around the NFL for a while. At 6-foot-3, 267 pounds, Wesco is a big, strong dude -- he led all prospects in the combine tight ends group with 24 bench press reps.
And while he’s a plus as both a run and pass blocker, Wesco needs to keep working on that area of his game. He can sometimes be a little too wild in trying to get into it. The idea of the impatient running back not allowing his blocks to set up sometimes plays out in reverse with Wesco, when he becomes so eager to engage that he plays himself and whiffs, which can lead to the running back behind him getting tattooed.
This can also happen when he is kept in to block for the passer. An earlier engagement than necessary, a little lunge, and then suddenly Wesco is watching TCU DE L.J. Collier smash Will Grier. In those moments when Wesco is able to let the game flow to him, his willingness to engage and stay engaged as a blocker is a beautiful thing.
Wesco offers a little as a receiver, too, but don’t go overboard. As a safety valve in West Virginia’s bombs-away offense, he could leak out into an open flat. We rarely saw him run traditional routes and we never saw him have to fight for the ball in traffic.
But when he gets the ball, he’ll fight for yards. He was No. 2 among FBS tight ends in missed tackles forced last season, behind Texas State’s Keenan Brown. Wesco’s attitude and relative polish in blocking make him a borderline draftable H-back for a team that could use an all-purpose blocker who won’t embarrass himself as a receiver.
2. Alec Ingold (Wisconsin) | 6'1/242
3. Winston Dimel (UTEP) | 6'0/233
*Did not receive invitation to NFL Scouting Combine
4. Andrew Beck (Texas) | 6'3/255
*Did not receive invitation to NFL Scouting Combine
5. George Aston (Pitt) | 6'0/252
*Did not receive invitation to NFL Scouting Combine