I love the 2017 tight end class, as most onlookers do. There is a bizarre amount of speed and athleticism atop the stack, which helps to mitigate many of the black marks on their production profiles. Of course, there are also a few guys on the board who were big parts of their offenses in school, too. To sift through all of the moving pieces, let’s take a look at the prominent prospects in the key areas of their respective resumes:
How productive was he? I want to know how dominant he was in school, relative to his teammates and then to his peers. Receivers who took a hefty stake in their college offenses simply project better to do the same on the NFL level. It’s exceptionally rare that a college tight end dominates his passing game like a wideout does, but I like to see solid relative integration into the offense. Generally speaking, for a tight end to project as an NFL pass catcher, I like to see him claim at least 20-22% of his team’s passing yardage over the course of his career. There are exceptions to this, of course, but at TE it’s an extremely strong indicator. The size/athleticism freaks who never played much at school simply don’t project as well at this position than at other, less complex spots. (Backs and wide receivers, for example, don’t derive much of their value from blocking, but it’s roughly 50% of a tight end’s job). And I want to know about his production in two different arenas: throughout his career, and in his final season. I want to see the general shape of his college career, as well as how he progressed/regressed in his make-or-break year.
How well did he score touchdowns? Simply put, most of the NFL-caliber playmakers first made plays in college. I like to see how often a prospect used his gifts to dominate defensive backs and find the end zone – relative, of course, to his teammates. If a tight end prospect catches 8-10 touchdowns, I’m far more impressed if his team only threw 25 or 30, as opposed to a mile-a-minute offense that threw 45.
How explosive is he? A few years ago, Raymond Summerlin devised a metric to measure a prospect’s explosiveness – essentially, how well he runs and jumps for his size. The formula is simple: add a player’s height, weight, vertical jump, and broad jump, then divide out his 40-yard dash time. The result is Adjusted Explosiveness Index, and the NFL returns have been somewhat eye-popping. It’s best used to evaluate wide receiver explosiveness, where there’s more variance, but it’s still a nice measuring stick for tight ends.
Did he generate yardage? Of course, I’m interested in his yardage per reception, as it helps to build a profile. A 70-catch season is made far less impressive if the guy in question only managed 9-10 yards apiece against college defenses.
Here is the data for the (particularly relevant) 2017 class of tight ends:
RkAge Player’s age during Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season
40 40-yard dash
VJ Vertical jump
BJ Broad jump
AEI Adjusted Explosiveness Index
CarMSYd Career market share of receiving yardage
CarMSTD Career market share of receiving touchdowns
FinMSYd Final-season market share of receiving yardage
FinMSTD Final-season market share of receiving touchdowns
My thoughts on the data, and the tight end tiers as I currently see them:
David Njoku, Miami (FL)
Evan Engram, Mississippi
O.J. Howard, Alabama
What an embarrassing riches of athleticism atop this class. An NFL team in search of a size/speed mismatch in the slot has an extensive selection over the first two or three rounds. And somewhat surprisingly, near-consensus top option Howard doesn’t separate from the pack one bit, even in the athletic arena. Yes, his speed score was frighteningly strong; a 4.51 dash by a 251-pound man is a sight to behold. But he struggled elsewhere at the combine, and given his college resume (or lack thereof), it looks at this point like deep speed is all he has working in his favor. His jumps (30.0 vertical, 121 broad) were especially poor and don’t help to paint the picture of a dynamically explosive athlete. They’re not abjectly horrible measurements – Howard is 6’6”, after all, and both Kelvin Benjamin and Hunter Henry posted similar jumps as big men. And despite the jumps, that elite speed keeps Howard’s AEI a whisker above both Njoku and Engram. Still, he doesn’t look like the kind of dominant athlete that can overcome those atrocious college usage rates. And yes, they are truly atrocious, especially when stacked against other recent first-round tight ends:
You see above that Howard is beaten soundly in usage by both Njoku and Engram, who were noticeably bigger parts of their offenses and actually scored touchdowns. But he’s beaten to a pulp by the recent history of the position. Of the nine first-round TEs (and this year’s three first-round options) dating back to 2005, Howard finished definitively last in career yardage share, career touchdown share, and final-year yardage share. Alabama is run-heavy for sure, but so were many of the offenses listed; it’s clearly no excuse for Howard being invisible for most of his career. Perhaps most concerning is his aversion to touchdowns. It’s certainly puzzling that such a size/speed freak was never able to catch four touchdowns in a single college season. An early investment in Howard comes from the hope that he’ll suddenly erupt as a playmaker at age 23, after 4 years of the evidence going mostly the other way.
It’s true that production metrics don’t tell the entire tale of a prospect, and that athletic gems are found all over the draft. But historically speaking, at tight end, their athletic profiles don’t just make them studs in the face of near-invisible college careers. Howard looks to me like an NFL Round 2 stab, and a guy I probably won’t consider much in the first round of a rookie draft.
No, if I’m paying up for a rookie tight end, it’ll be for Njoku – a similarly gifted talent who managed to produce in school. His raw numbers weren’t much better than Howard’s, but he commanded an appreciably higher share of his offense. He also caught touchdowns at a strong rate – 18.6% as a junior, a tremendous rate – which Howard struggled to do over 4 years. In Njoku, we have a studly AEI and statistical evidence to back it up. He’s also younger than Howard, and it speaks volumes to me that he rose to prominence so much faster in school. He capped off his only big-time season in style, too, catching 7 scores over his final 6 games and averaging 15.3 yards a catch over that span.
The wild card here is Engram, who could throw a wrench into the whole tight end landscape. He doesn’t really profile a slam-dunk first-round TE – more on that in a moment – but he might be an objectively better prospect than Njoku or Howard anyway. He also tested freakishly at the combine, and neither of those two could even sniff Engram’s college production; he was a prominent cog in Ole Miss’ offense and the team’s leading receiver as a senior. He’s the only one of the trio to post two seasons of 600+ yards, and one of his was a 900-burger. In fact, no major TE prospect in this class even approaches his final-year offensive shares. There’s a reason for that, though, and I doubt it’s because he’s just that much better than Njoku and Howard. Much of it stems from the fact that he’s not much of a TE at all. Engram plays exclusively from the slot As a result, we can’t project him to be much of a two-way dominator; he’ll be a receiver in the NFL and that’s that. And while he looks and tests pretty well for a wideout, it doesn’t look like he does so on a first-round level. A few of us FBGs recently discussed the TE spot, and Devin Knotts voiced his concerns about Engram as a receiving threat:
Devin brings up some good points. Engram is indeed small for a tight end, and any team that wants to utilize him traditionally will likely hit a wall at some point. He seems most likely to pan out if he’s indeed utilized in Delanie Walker fashion – as a slot mismatch at 6’3”, 234 pounds, and 4.41. That’s a shock to the system for an NFL that’s more used to little guys running those slot routes. And as a collegian, Engram parlayed that role into a solid career and a truly awesome senior season.
All told, I like Engram a decent bit more than Howard. And on any given day, I might like him more than Njoku. Ordering these three is a maddening mess; their fantasy values can’t be gauged until they’re Luckily, I think at least two (and ideally all three) will fall into the 20s and beyond, landing on good teams with passing games in need of their talents. That should show us relatively quickly what assets they project to be going forward.
Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech
Gerald Everett, South Alabama
Jake Butt, Michigan
Compare Hodges’ production to O.J. Howard’s. Then compare their combine measurements. Hodges has a lot of fans – our Jason Wood is among them – as he, not Howard, is actually the chief athletic freak of this class. His AEI was the best by far, thanks mostly to posting the cohort’s best vertical and broad jumps. That all manifested, too – Hodges never scored fewer than seven touchdowns in a season, and his production stakes climbed in every year of school. The hybrid threw in 21 rushes over his 3 seasons; the Hokies simply made it a point to work his talents into the offense. He’s raw, and more receiver than tight end, but in a play-early landing spot he’ll arguably boast more value (and perhaps more upside) than the top tier. Expect a serious learning curve, but pragmatically speaking, his numbers don’t show any less preparedness than Howard’s or Njoku’s.
When looking at market shares, Everett is downright sexy, and I think he’ll fly up a lot of pundit boards this month. He didn’t burn down the combine, but he’s a similar prospect to Engram in many ways. He similarly dominated his own offense in his final year, and he slightly outdid Engram leading up to 2016. Over his two full seasons, Everett posted the class’ best share of team touchdowns and was just a whisker out of first place in yardage. Yes, he played at South Alabama, but as a senior he posted big games against Sun Belt powerhouses Arkansas State (5-125) and Troy (3-49-1) – as well as a gem against the SEC’s Mississippi State (8-95-1).
Butt looks like a mid-round selection in the NFL draft, but he’d slot higher if not for a severe knee injury in his bowl game. His Michigan career was stout: after sharing a low-volume passing game with Devin Funchess (and others) for two years, Butt became a prominent cog as a junior and posted market shares of 21.2% and 21.5% to close his career. Scouts haven’t been positive about his blocking, but he shows plus size (6’5” and 246) and was a four-star recruit. Assuming his knee checks out, he looks like a Round 2 prospect available at a discount.
Adam Shaheen, Ashland
Jonnu Smith, Florida International
Shaheen is the volume king of this class; we would care more if he’d played a team better than Grand Valley State. The production is eye-popping, though – over his final 2 years he averaged 64 catches and 13 touchdowns. The former basketball player is a mountain of a man at 6’6” and 279, and while that’s a hideous 40 time, the jump numbers are solid.
Smith is beloved by scouts – he’s versatile and consistent, and he caught 35+ passes in all 4 years of school. That will always draw a Delanie Walker comparison, and it’s nice to see that Smith was a big part of Florida International’s offense his entire career. He doesn’t look like much as an athlete, but projects as a mid-round target for just about anyone.
Jordan Leggett, Clemson
Leggett scored impressively in school (18 on just 112 catches), but that’s to be expected at Clemson; he only cracked 20% of team touchdowns once. He’sbig,but didn’t run or jump well at the combine. He has experience and blocking on his side, though, a combination that often boosts draft stock and opportunity.
Simply put, no measure tells us more about a quarterback prospect’s fantasy outlook than playing time. It’s widely known just what an uphill climb mid- and late-round QBs face for NFL relevance.
Quarterbacks from the top 18 picks of Round 1 have started 68% of their teams’ games, and they average more than twice the touchdowns as the next tier. There are always chic sleepers in play, but the reality is that, if he’s not taken early in Round 1, he carries very little historical indication of a high-level starter.
As a result, draft status will ultimately determine the order we should rank these guys. We don’t have that data yet, but we (generally) know enough to isolate the likely franchise picks from the pet projects who won’t be drafted in the first three rounds.
All told, I’m looking into these factors:
How old is he? Simply put, how old will he be entering the NFL? Perhaps more importantly, how old was he when he took the reins of his college offense and broke out as a pro prospect? Generally speaking, as with most positions, a younger breakout age is a stronger indication of a prodigious talent and/or quick study. I’m generally wary of quarterbacks who didn’t start until age 22, or had to build gradually to success.
How big/athletic is he? The prototype size of a quarterback is less important than it used to be. Smaller signal-callers with serious skill, like Drew Brees, are able to systemize better, and dual-threat types like Russell Wilson make up for their middling size with mobility. Still, it’s always worth noting for a number of reasons. Size can speak to durability, arm power, and an overall athletic profile. So, while I’ll no longer strike a prospect for sub-optimal size, I’m still looking much harder at guys who meet or beat the overwhelming NFL size curve.
How hard does he throw? This is a relatively new aspect to consider, and quite frankly, it’s far from a perfect metric. At this point, we measure velocity very simply: by miles per hour of a typical throw, as measured at the NFL Combine or at a pro day. Again, there’s much more to the puzzles of arm strength and release time than this. But it’s a nice starting point, if nothing else, and it’s shown a decent degree of correlation to NFL success since its first tracking in 2008.
How productive/efficient was he? And how was he used in college? You don’t need me to clue you in on why we want our prospects to boast productivity and efficiency at the most crucial position in sports. Many wonder what we can really glean from college stats, which are often wildly inflated/deflated by college scheme and fail to match up proportionately to typical NFL stats. But there’s a stronger correlation than you might think. The great Shawn Siegele has studied QB predictiveness quite a bit, and he recently found that current NFL starters averaged roughly 8.7 adjusted yards per attempt in their final college seasons. AYA is a simple equation: AYA = (pass yards + 20 * pass TD – 45 * interceptions) / pass attempts. As you can see, it leverages yardage, touchdowns, and interceptions on a per-pass basis to show us how efficient the passer was across the board. And it’s been especially helpful in identifying quarterback studs and busts, if a bit hazy in between.
Did he run a lot in school? If so, how productive was he? This one is straightforward: was he a dual threat in college? And if so, did he churn out helpful (or even dynamic) yardage production when he ran? This can help to separate for us the explosive college runners from the also-rans, so to speak, and prepare us for the level of dynamism they might project to going forward.
Here is the data for the (particularly relevant) 2017 class of quarterbacks:
RkAge Player’s age during Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season
40 40-yard dash
3cone Three-cone drill
Hand Hand length, in inches
AvVel Timed throwing velocity, averaged between throws to the left and to the right
FinAt/Gm Final-season attempts per game
CarAYA Career adjusted yards per attempt
FinAYA Final-season adjusted yards per attempt
CarCm Career completion percentage
FinCm Final-year completion percentage
FiIn% Final-year interception percentage
FiRYd/Gm Final-year rushing yards per game
FiRTD/Gm Final-year rushing touchdowns per game
My thoughts on the data, and the quarterback tiers as I currently see them:
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
These are two relatively similar prospects. They boast virtually the same build and athletic profile, and they posted similar efficiency in school. To me, both look worthy of cornerstone draft status among the top 20 picks – due mostly to the position they play – but I prefer Mahomes fairly definitively. He’s two years younger, which is a big deal in and of itself. But he also threw more than twice as many college passes as Trubisky; honestly, his workload for a 21-year-old is objectively impressive. His play ascended over the course of his career, and it was nice to see him hit his peak as a junior. Mahomes takes some flak due to Texas Tech’s stat-maximizing offense, but Mahomes doesn’t look like an over-inflated performer. He’s not a Kliff Kingsbury type; those guys tend to come smaller than optimal and carry pop-gun arm strength, and Mahomes doesn’t fit that mold. He’s sturdy and athletic, and his velocity (55 mph), while not necessarily elite, was the strongest at this year’s combine. My biggest concern is durability – Mahomes has been dinged quite a bit over the past two years. But he’s a productive guy who has the tools of a franchise quarterback, and we’re more sure of his current development level than we are of Trubisky.
That’s no major slight to Trubisky, who looked great as a first-year starter in 2016. His career 67.0% completion rate is downright sexy; it was the best among these measured prospects, and it dwarfed that of Tar Heel predecessor Marquise Williams. He generated solid yardage while avoiding interceptions, which is awesome. It’s just that, while his 2016 was especially efficient, it wasn’t enough to convince me he’s that much less of a project. It was Trubisky’s only college season with more than 78 attempts, and it came at age 22 – older than you’d like to see a college passer seize the starting job and break out.
There are peripheral concerns with Trubisky, as well, such as his arm strength. Unlike Patrick Mahomes, Trubisky didn’t set the world (or anything) ablaze when the radar gun was testing his throws. Dating back to 2008, 119 quarterback prospects have had their velocity tested, and Trubisky’s mark came out a discouraging 101st. That could be white noise coming from a measure we still don’t quite know how to use, but there are at least incidental connections there. Of those 119 prospects, 16 have gone on to start 10 or more NFL games, and that cohort averaged a velocity of 55.6 – far above Trubisky’s poor 50.5 speed. (Only one of those 16, Tyrod Taylor, measured relatively closely to 50.5, in fact.)
All in all, Trubisky does indeed boast some NFL skills. But he’s also more of a project than many think, and considering his age, the upside potential might not be what we’d like to see from the top quarterback selected. Trubisky will almost certainly be that, but I’m not convinced he should be. To me, he looks more like a dice roll in the late teens or 20s of the NFL Draft.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson is commonly seen as a Round 1 wild card, with riser capability based on his (occasional) college rushing prowess. All told, though, when compared to the other rushing dynamos to come off the NFL board since 2000, he comes up short across the board. It’s short-sighted to merely identify Watson as a running quarterback and match him to the studliest of them:
It’s also troubling just how much Watson’s rushing production fell, in every capacity, in his final year. Now, it’s mostly incidental that he falls so closely in line with two colossal busts, Manziel and Tebow. Those two carried extenuating circumstances – Manziel was a personal mess, while Tebow was the worst passer I’ve ever seen. Still, the common thread is that neither was able to make his school-productive running games overwhelm his NFL-awful passing. Watson is probably a better passer than either – but are we sure? If so, by how much? Both Manziel and Tebow, after all, posted elite AYA numbers in school, while Watson’s was barely pedestrian. He was also fairly turnover-prone, which isn’t the end of the world but a ding nonetheless. Then, he followed things up with a pre-draft velocity testing that was the worst of all 119 quarterbacks measured since 2008.
I don’t want to draw wild parallels, but if Watson is indeed entering the NFL as an inferior prospect to Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow, then his pre-draft buzz is just violent noise. The bottom line is that, while Watson’s 2015 was a truly special college season, there’s little on paper that suggests he’s a first-round pick. I prefer Mahomes and Trubisky by a mile; frankly speaking, Watson will need to be overdrafted (by a team that needs him to start quickly) to present any real fantasy value to me.
Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh
DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
Kizer strikes me as little more than noise. Aside from his age and his solid build, my model just hates him, and it’s easy to see why. He wasn’t productive at Notre Dame, with mediocre-to-poor efficiency in relation to his peers. I know his offense wasn’t exactly designed to compile stats, but Kizer didn’t help his cause down the 2016 stretch, when he posted stinkers against Stanford, Virginia Tech, and USC (a combined 6.09 AYA as Notre Dame lost all 3 games). He carries the reputation of a dual threat, but even that’s misplaced – Kizer didn’t top 525 yards or 3.9 per rush in either of his college seasons. My skepticism only grew when I saw his subpar 3-cone time, which was poorer than many of the class’ lead-footed pocket passers and by far the worst in my group. Maybe I’m being too harsh on Kizer, who is indeed young and built well. He just falls so short in so many categories, and I doubt his profile as a beastly Cam Newton clone, considering his poor measurables and rushing production. He looks to me like a mid-round project, at best.
To that end, I prefer Peterman as the fourth passer off the NFL board. He wasn’t talked about much prior to 2016, but his senior year was a doozy. An AYA over 10 is something to behold, and Peterman nailed it last year. He showed his mettle late in the season against Miami (287 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) and in a stunning win over Clemson (308 yards, 5 TDs, no picks), displaying big-play dynamism and efficiency. The big knocks are velocity and athleticism, both of which were exceptionally poor when compared to his peers. Peterman is markedly slower and softer-throwing than I’d like to see from a guy with an average build. But we’re also looking for college risers with experience, and Peterman developed into a mega-efficient passer as a senior. If an NFL team swoons and selects him in the second round, take notice – he, not Kizer or Deshaun Watson, may be the safest bet to excel from there.
Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech
Evans comes across as an arbitrage play on Kizer. He’s a similar size/athleticism guy, with a little less experience but markedly better efficiency. He’s exceptionally raw after only one quarterback season, but that season was indeed a doozy, boasting school records for passing yardage (3,552) and all-purpose touchdowns (41). He’s a project, but looks like a worthwhile (and discounted) one. Assuming his draft expectation holds, teams in search of either a low-cost spark plug or a dynamic backup would be wise to ignore Kizer, a likely second-round pick, and look Evans’ way instead 2-4 rounds later.
Brad Kaaya, Miami (FL)
Davis Webb, California
Kaaya draws a lot of love for his pro-style experience (three full years as Miami’s starter) and accuracy. His numbers stayed consistent throughout his career, and his interception rate dropped in all three seasons. He doesn’t project as an NFL starter, but he carries a decent makeup of a long-term NFL backup, which is what teams in his likely range (Rounds 4-7) are generally seeking.
Webb opened his career at TexasTech,but left after losing the starting gig to Patrick Mahomes. He remained a high-volume guy at California (620 attempts in 2016), but never developed into much of a dynamo. He paled in comparison to predecessor Jared Goff and produced, by far, the least of this group on a per-attempt basis. Scouts love his height, but he’s looked so raw and low-impact that he may not even deserve a draft pick. Still, there has been talk of Webb sneaking into the early rounds, so at least pay attention to his landing spot. Even a bad prospect outshines a sexy one if he’s drafted onto a quarterback wasteland that asks him to start early.