In the build-up to the 2016 draft, you are going to hear time and time again about how poor and sparse this year’s crop of tight end prospects are. It’s certainly not the best ever, but don’t let the talk fool you. There’s a star prospect at the top that’s worthy of going on day one, there’s some mid-round talent that can be very solid contributors at the positions, and there are some late round gems that are available that aren’t being talked about enough (including a personal favourite at number 6 on this list). Here’s a look at our Top 10 Tight Ends for the 2016 NFL draft: Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore. An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college). 1. Hunter Henry, Arkansas, Jr. 6ft 5, 250 lbs. 1st Round A highly recruited player out of high school, Henry became an impact player for the Razorbacks early as a freshman, and has increased his production all three seasons prior to declaring for the draft after his junior year. In 2015, the star tight end finished with 51 receptions for 739 yards (at 14.5 yards per catch) and 3 touchdowns. Henry has good height for the position including a well-built frame with room to add additional muscle, and has superb athleticism for his size, looking like a wide receiver running his routes. He is an ideal receiving TE prospect who has everything in his skill set to continue to be at the next level, and should quickly become a frequent and reliable target for his new quarterback. His receiving prowess and natural hands are summed up by the statistic that Henry didn’t have a single drop the entire 2015 season, bringing in every catchable ball throw his way. He has the ability to play inline, in the slot and even out wide if need be. Some analysts have criticised his effectiveness as a blocker, but I don’t see that. He’s not exactly a standout in that area, but is generally reliable to do his job, and should improve as he continues to grow into his frame and as he continues to be coached up. It’s a lot easier to teach a receiving tight end to block, than it is to coach a blocking tight end to catch, so it’s never something to get overly concerned about regardless, especially when you can see the foundations there to improve. A slight area of concern for someone with his size and ability in the pass game is to see relatively little production in the end zone. He should be a matchup nightmare in scoring positions, yet in addition to just three touchdowns his final year, he has just nine over the course of his three seasons in college. Again, he has all the traits to do more in this area going forward, but not ideal numbers considering. Overall though, Henry is a complete enough all-round tight end prospect to be a worthy first rounder. His outstanding ability as a receiver gives him a chance to become one of the more productive tight ends in the league very quickly. It may not be the greatest of tight end classes overall, but it has a potential star at the top of the list. 2. Jerell Adams, South Carolina, Sr. 6ft 5, 247 lbs. 3rd Round His career numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, but then Adams hasn’t exactly been put in a great situation to produce at any point in his career with the Gamecocks. There’s no question though that there is big upside to Adams once he finally finds himself in a situation to succeed and make the most of his obvious talents. Having played multiple spots on both sides of the ball in high school, and considered someone who might be a defender in college, he’s taken some time to develop and learn to play tight end full time. He also found himself limited in his opportunities behind the older, more tenured Rory Anderson for a couple seasons. His chance to finally be number one on the depth chart at tight end for his senior season was squandered for the most part due to a grossly ineffective offense that South Carolina fielded all year with some awful quarterback play throughout from a series of passers tried over the season. All this resulted in a final year with a modest 28 catches for 421 yards (15.0 yards per catch) and 3 touchdowns. His career totalled 66 receptions for 977 yards and seven scores. When he was targeted, his ability as a receiver was clear, utilising his long rangy frame with a large catching radius to his advantage, and his outstanding quickness and fluidity as a runner, moving like a man much smaller. An area he excelled at was forcing missed tackles after the catch, making the most on a limited number of plays. For all his ability to contribute in the pass game, and despite a fairly lean frame (he was noted for his skinny lower body during weigh-ins at the Senior Bowl), Adams is a very talented blocker. Lining up inline, Adams could easily be mistaken for an actual offensive tackle with his technique and natural kick-slide when taking on those duties. He graded out as one of the top blocking tight ends in the country in 2015. Adams is a “traits over production” prospect, who is easy to project having a more effective pro career than he could show in college, with a high ceiling. A further selling point to teams is his high character and high IQ, regularly being awarded on the SEC academic honour roll and other student-athlete awards over his time with the Gamecocks. It seems very unlikely that he will still be on the board by the end of day 2 this coming draft. 3. Austin Hooper, Stanford, rSo. 6ft 4, 254 lbs. 3rd Round Just three years removed from high school, Hooper chose to give up two years of remaining eligibility to enter the 2016 draft. His production in just his two playing seasons for the Cardinal has given plenty of good film to judge him on though, including a strong redshirt freshman season that saw him collect 40 catches for 499 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He followed that with a slightly reduced 34 receptions for 438 yards, but this time with 6 TD catches. Hooper isn’t the biggest at just over 6ft 3 1/2, but has a fairly well developed build, and makes up for his modest length by being an impressive athlete with nice quickness, both in terms of straight-line speed and in short area movements. There’s plenty of natural receiving traits in his game, with great hands that included some difficult grabs either away from his body or under tight coverage. Those skills are what will most likely see Hooper selected before the end of day 2 (which ends after round 3 of the draft). There are a number or pro-ready elements to the game that could similarly see him have an impact as a rookie, in much the same way he quickly made an impact as a redshirt freshman. Stanford has a good recent record during the David Shaw era for sending productive tight ends into the NFL. That pipeline will add an extra level of trust to teams in feeling comfortable choosing Hooper. Unsurprisingly, given the team he leaves, Hooper is a typically tough and high effort player, who isn’t scared to take a hit and will fight through attempted tackles to make the most of each reception where he can. It’s always a little bit of a surprise each time a redshirt sophomore chooses to enter the draft early, but it’s become more common, and Hooper certainly gives a needed boost to the group in 2016. It’s quite likely that the small number of legit next-level players at his position played a part in that decision and to take advantage of it. It could work out as planned. 4. Nick Vannett, Ohio State, rSr. 6ft 6, 257 lbs. 3rd-4th Round The pre-draft process was always going to be critical for Vannett. Somewhat similarly to Adams, the Buckeyes’ tight end was criminally under-used by Urban Meyer and the Ohio State offense, as often is the case in the head coaches’ system. He’s done that and then some though, making the most of the Senior Bowl, then the combine to show his skill set goes beyond the limitations of his role in college. Vannett was rarely targeted in the passing game, totalling just 19 receptions in each of the last two seasons. Both in practices during the week in Mobile, and the positional drills in Indy, Vannett showed off his natural hands to snag the ball cleanly out of the air, not just in the comfortable setting of the drills, but also in the game itself at the end of the Senior Bowl week. He has ideal size and power to play inline, and uses his body well when blocking in the run game, an area where he absolutely got plenty of practice with Ohio State. There’s more than just using his big body though, showing intelligence and awareness when directing defenders out of the way, something he has greatly improved during his senior year. There’s an all-round game on offer from Vannett, dependable to stay on the field all three downs. As competent as he’s proven he can be as a receiver, he’s unlikely to ever be a stand out in that area like Hunter Henry is, and so fits the description of a “high floor, low ceiling” type. There’s some similarities to former Iowa tight end and current Texan C.J. Fiedorowicz, who went in the 3rd round a couple years ago, the range that Vannett could be chosen. Fiedorowicz had the same frame, and also seemed under-used in the pass game in college who could be more effective in the NFL, however over two seasons in the pros he has just the 21 catches. If scouts also see a similar comparison, it may lessen the enthusiasm for Vannett before the middle rounds. 5. Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky, rSr. 6ft 6, 249 lbs. 4th Round Higbee originally joined the Hilltoppers as a wide receiver, but has transitioned to tight end, making the move in 2012. The progress since then has been fantastic, and he leaves as one of the most productive receiving tight ends in the nation, with 38 catches, 563 yards and 8 TDs in just 9 games this season. He’s certainly still growing into his frame somewhat, playing his senior year at around 233 lbs, but has been working on adding muscle weight and recently weighed in at just shy of 250 lbs. He can continue to work on developing in order to hold up better at the next level. Though a couple of years into playing at his new position, Higbee was still a backup his junior season in 2014. Injuries gave him an opportunity against Marshall, and he took full advantage of it with a three touchdown performance. From that point on he has been a key playmaker for Western Kentucky. The offense the team runs is very friendly to both quarterback Brandon Doughty and his targets to put up impressive numbers, but even taking that into consideration, the translatable skills Higbee shows should mean a continuation of his effectiveness in the next phase of his career. He uses his long frame well to win jump balls, and his background as a wide receiver is reflected in his reliable hands. For someone who lacked an ideal frame while playing, he knows how to use his body well to position himself in front of linebackers and safeties. He’ll only improve in such circumstances going forward with his added weight. There’s some big upside with Higbee in the right system, and could out-play some of his peers in this class in the coming years. 6. Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt, rSr. 6ft 5, 252 lbs. 5th Round This may not be the strongest class, lacking large numbers of next-level prospects, but there are hidden gems out there. One player who was stuck under-the-radar all year on a very poor team was Scheu. When you look at his size, measurables, athletic ability, prowess as a pass catcher, and combine it all together, it’s clear that there’s an NFL player in the former Commodore. He backed that up and really gave himself a significant boost to his stock at his recent pro day, a performance that is likely to have cemented his place as an eventual draft pick, even if it ends up being in the last few rounds. Scouts came away extremely impressed with his physical ability. On top of measuring in with big 10.5” hands, his frame is sturdy and NFL-ready. His 4.65 second 40-yard dash time would have been second only to Jerell Adams at the combine had he been invited, and second in the strength test bench press with 23 reps. He looked very proficient in his positional field workout as well, catching well throughout. He even did some work as a long-snapper, a task he did for Vandy previously, adding another potential skill that can be utilised. Those hands hold up on film as well. Against a very good Ole Miss defense this season, Scheu made some excellent plays despite the overall lack of quality of those around him. The first play of the game, Scheu flattens his man on a devastating run block that sums up his aggressive style. On his first target in the passing game he turns around only to find the ball behind him, forcing him to make a quick adjustment, reach back and grab the ball out of the ball cleanly from behind him. His next target saw him successfully secure a pass despite being in heavy traffic with two Rebel defenders right on top of him. Three plays that in a lot of ways define the skills on offer to potentially become a solid number 2 or 3 tight end on an NFL roster. There’s some deficiencies for sure. Though athletic, and generally running some of his routes well, he has a tendency to stutter step too much prior to changing direction and making breaks on his routes, that give defenders a chance to recover or to prevent him from generating separation. Overall though there’s a lot to like, and plenty to love with his nasty style as a blocker, both inline and from an H-back position. A real under-valued player in this tight end class. 7. Bryce Williams, East Carolina, rSr. 6ft 6, 257 lbs. 6th Round Few of those listed here can match Williams in terms of pure numbers on the stat sheet for 2015. The Pirates were moving on from the highly-productive Shane Carden at QB, but during his time directing the passing game Williams didn’t see a lot of the targets, with just 20 and 18 receptions in 2013 and 2014 respectively. He and new quarterback Blake Kemp struck up a rapport though this past season, which resulted in a massive leap to 58 catches, 588 yards and 4 touchdowns. Williams undoubtedly has a frame that is difficult to handle over the middle on short and intermediate routes, and that is something that coaches could be excited to attempt to mould over the next few years. There’s plenty work to be done though despite the numbers. His route running is as rough as it gets, significantly lacking in precision. The system sees him often wide open with no defender within 5 yards of him making a large number of catches comfortable. Though Williams looks smooth as a runner, he’s actually moving rather slow, something that was reflected in his extremely disappointing 4.94 dash time at the combine, slower than some offensive and defensive linemen. Combined with his poor route running, he’ll struggle to get separation. There’s questionable strength and how he handles physical defenders. Technique questions extend to his blocking, and is often found struggling for balance. There’s just so much rawness and technical flaws to improve, that he hasn’t shown much progression on over his years in college. The numbers are great, the length is great, but he might always be a project, and not someone I’d take before the last couple rounds. 8. David Grinnage, North Carolina State, rJr. 6ft 5, 248 lbs. 6th Round A common theme among many in this group is talented players not being used enough. Add Grinnage to that list, who was rotated constantly as part of a group of tight ends the Wolfpack gave snaps to. That might have factored into the decision to leave for the NFL a year early, despite the lack of a prominent role. It could hurt him in the draft too. Delve into his film though (which required skipping through a lot of plays where he was nowhere to be found) and there’s flashes to get excited about. His hands in particular stand out. His two touchdown grabs against North Carolina in the rivalry game to end the season featured one in which he showed firstly great adjustment to the ball then snagging a difficult ball out of the air that plenty of full-time wide receivers would struggle to make. Against Clemson he was barely seen for three quarters, yet came on late to make a number of big plays included an athletic diving grab to secure a ball that should have hit the ground. Despite not being used the majority of that game, he finished with 7 catches, 82 yards and a touchdown, most of which came late. You have to go digging for these little nuggets from Grinnage, as part of his 25 receptions for 290 yards and 3 scores in 2015. But there’s an NFL body, superb hands, a good route runner, solid blocker with some solid technique as a blocker. It’s a projection, it’s based on limited action, but I’ve a feeling he’ll prove to be nice value late on if selected. 9. Beau Sandland, Montana State, rSr. 6ft 4, 253 lbs. 6th Round One prospect who helped himself at the combine was Sandland, a small school prospect who out-performed and looked the part more than many bigger names from more prestigious schools. He’s a bit of an unknown though. After starting out at a junior college for two seasons, he was one of the most sought-after recruits as a JUCO transfer, that saw him join a big-time program with the Miami Hurricanes in 2013. However, despite playing all 13 games, he couldn’t force himself into a productive role, finishing with 9 receptions for 94 yards and 1 touchdown. That ended up being his only season at the top tier of college football, moving closer to home with Montana State. He sat out the 2014 season, learned the offense, before playing one final season of football in 2015, and although at a lower level than the one he failed to make an impact at, had a strong year with 37 receptions, 632 yards and 9 scores. The yards per reception were great, but did involve quite a number of wide open catches, busted coverages that were easy to stroll into the end zone for big yardage, and taking advantage of some very poor defenses at times. His aggression as a blocker is good to see, but he’s only effective if it’s a straight-forward block once hand contact is established. He proved beatable time and again initially after the snap, allowing easy pressures as defenders navigated around him with little resistance. Sandland also has a tendency to play too high as a blocker, losing the leverage battle. As mentioned before though, that can be worked on and coached up. He has a solid build, and is a good athlete. The hands are big and the arms are long. He looks fantastic in eating up yards after the catch, maximising the space in front of him for big gains. He’s ticked off most of the boxes required in the post-season so far, after attending the NFLPA Bowl, then the combine, and looking the part. There’s a lot of unknowns with not just the lower level played at, which plenty prospects in this and every draft often have, but the failed year in Miami will have to be considered. Was it just a bad fit? Or will he struggle to step up again in the pros. One team will likely take a chance and find that out on day 3 of the draft. 10. Ben Braunecker, Harvard, Sr. 6ft 3, 250 lbs. 6th-7th Round Watching film Braunecker instantly stood out. Tuning in to Harvard against Georgetown in the middle of the season, with a bunch of other prospects prioritised to watch, the tight end was quickly added to the list for the remainder of the game, and the number of games watched since. He instantly stands out at that level, something that is certainly preferable for prospects at a lower tier. Cameron Brate was the top tight end for Harvard before Braunecker, and has succeeded in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it looks like there will be two at the position from the academic institute next season. Braunecker makes his living as a receiver, no question. He’s not the tallest, but has been a sensational playmaker in the pass game. He shows excellent concentration, solid hands, and the ability to high point the ball. That led to a great stat line of 48 receptions, 850 yards and 8 touchdowns his senior season (in 10 games; the Ivy League play a smaller schedule than almost all other college teams). He averaged 17.7 yards per catch in 2015, and 17.2 over his whole career. All that said, where he first caught my attention was not catching the ball. It was as a blocker. The height isn’t perfect for NFL prospects but Braunecker knows how to use his build. Well built, he understands leverage, uses superb technique and has a play-to-the-whistle mentality and aggression that sees him constantly excelling as a drive blocker and pancake blocker. It’s a big step up, and I thought he looked a bit nervous at times during drills at the combine, but there’s plenty to like.
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