NFL Draft 2017: Ranking the top 5 tight ends

Tight ends have become a key part of any dynamic NFL offense. Which college stars at the position offer the best potential in this year’s NFL Draft?

In today’s NFL, tight ends have become vital cogs on offense as teams place a premium on passing games. No longer is the tight end merely a sixth blocker on the line, though that remains another critical part of the job description.

Ultimately, though, identifying young tight ends that can run effective routes and create coverage mismatches is necessary for every franchise. Nowhere is that more critical than at NFL Draft time.

Sometimes as we evaluate where players stand ahead of the draft, we place too much of a premium on the standout performances of workout warriors who dazzled at the NFL Combine. Sometimes we let a downturn during one’s senior year cloud our memory of how players performed as juniors.

To evaluate the top five tight ends available, we’ve worked to incorporate players’ performances over their final two seasons of college play as well as accounting for Combine performances. Click ahead to see which five tight ends came out on top in the evaluation.

Before you ask, no, Alabama’s OJ Howard was not overlooked as he came up as the sixth-best tight end in this year’s class, according to my evaluation.

Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku (86) dives for the end zone to score a touchdown against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the second half at Camping World Stadium. The Miami Hurricanes defeat the West Virginia Mountaineers 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

5

David Njoku

TE, Miami

Miami surged to a nine-win season in 2016, and David Njoku was a big part of the team’s renaissance. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end from New Jersey tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns among Power Five tight ends last year. He also doubled his productivity in his last season in Coral Gables, hauling in nearly 700 yards.

That he did this all while adjusting to a new offense under Mark Richt shows his versatility and ability to learn quickly.

Njoku also helped himself out by finishing as one of the best all-around performers among tight ends at this year’s NFL Combine. He posted the second-best broad jump distance (133.0 inches) and tied for third in both the three-cone drill and the vertical leap.

While he didn’t post a very fast 40 time, his other displays showcased a gifted athlete who has the physical tools to challenge NFL secondaries. He is still a raw prospect who needs to learn better blocking techniques, but Njoku has all the tools to blossom in the pros.

Sep 3, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; South Alabama Jaguars tight end Gerald Everett (12) runs the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

4

Gerald Everett

TE, South Alabama

While he played at a Group of Five school, Gerald Everett performed at a top level. Though his touchdown rate dropped off in 2016, Everett improved his productivity by more than one-half yard per reception.

Against Mississippi State in last year’s season opener, he posted eight catches for 95 yards and a score. And in wins over Mountain West champ the past two years, Everett has gone off for a combined 13 receptions for 267 yards and two touchdowns.

As a result, the South Alabama star came in just ahead of Njoku and Alabama’s O.J. Howard to rank fourth among Draft-eligible tight ends thanks to multiple standout seasons with the Jaguars.

Everett also acquitted himself well at the Combine, getting up 22 reps in the bench press and finishing tied for third in the vertical leap. He also tied for sixth in the 40-yard dash with a 4.62 finish. At 6-foot-3 and 237 pounds, Everett has the size and skill to become one of the better tight ends in this year’s NFL Draft.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers tight end Jordan Leggett (16) catches a pass against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Ronnie Harrison (15) in the fourth quarter in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

3

Jordan Leggett

TE, Clemson

As Clemson took down Alabama in this year’s College Football Playoff national championship, a key part of the victory was Tigers tight end Jordan Leggett.

Against the Crimson Tide in the past two championship games, Leggett hauled in a dozen combined catches for 173 yards and a touchdown in the 2015 contest. Consistently putting up big numbers against top competition, Leggett has demonstrated an ability to perform when the stakes are highest.

The main knock against Leggett has always been his motivation when the stakes are lower, but all the physical tools are there to succeed. At 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds, Leggett is agile for his size. He had a less-than-impressive showing at the NFL Combine this year, especially since he declined to run the 40 against his peers.

But while Leggett is still somewhat raw as a prospect, his biggest issue has always been motivation rather than talent. There are no South Carolina States to take the day off against in the pros, which means he should be able to find the motivation to match his skills.

Nov 5, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies tight end Bucky Hodges (7) pulls in a pass in front of Duke Blue Devils safety Alonzo Saxton II (21) in the first half of their game at Wallace Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

2

Bucky Hodges

TE, Virginia Tech

Despite playing the position for only three years before entering the NFL Draft, Bucky Hodges has been one of the nation’s most consistent and explosive tight ends the past two years at the FBS level. He averaged a touchdown every seventh reception throughout his three years of college ball, and Hodges is also the only tight end prospect who has posted at least 500 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons.

Where Hodges separates himself from the other tight ends is in leg strength. He placed first at this year’s NFL Combine in both the vertical jump and the broad jump, showcasing his leaping ability in several guises.

At 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Hodges presents a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses when he goes out as a receiver. He is still learning the intricacies of the position, but Hodges has the build and the building blocks to be a potential great at tight end.

Oct 29, 2016; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels tight end Evan Engram (17) scores a touchdown during the first quarter of the game against the Auburn Tigers at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

1

Evan Engram

TE, Ole Miss

The top player among tight ends in this year’s NFL Draft class is the same player that has been heralded since last season. Evan Engram, the Ole Miss star, led the nation at his position in yards per reception.

This year, though his averages dropped, Engram posted nearly 1,000 receiving yards and scored a touchdown on every eighth catch. At 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds, he is somewhat undersized at his position yet still big enough to take advantage of mismatches against linebackers in coverage.

Engram is a polished receiver with strong hands, and he separates himself from the other tight ends as a decent route runner. He has dealt with concentration issues in terms of drops, and when it comes to blocking Engram leaves much to be desired.

But for NFL franchises looking for a tight end that can be moved around the formation to take advantage of favorable coverage, there are no better prospects in this year’s draft than the Rebel.

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