NFL Draft Preview: Hockenson, Fant Shine Bright In Strong TE Class

Matt Citak
April 11, 2019 - 8:59 am

The 2019 NFL Draft kicks off less than three weeks from now down in Nashville, Tennessee. Leading up to the start of the first round, I will be breaking down the top prospects at each position, and whether or not the Giants or Jets may have interest.

After taking on the quarterbacks and running backs, we discussed the wide receivers earlier in the week. We now continue with the pass-catchers by taking on the draft’s top tight ends.

Both the Giants and Jets have the top of their tight end depth chart filled already, but both could use some depth.

Despite many Giants fans calling for him to be moved outside to wide receiver, Evan Engram is set to lead Big Blue at tight end. With Odell Beckham Jr. sidelined at the end of last season, Engram stepped up and put on quite a show, reminding Pat Shurmur and Dave Gettleman of the sort of talent he brings to the field when healthy. Behind Engram, New York has veteran tight end Rhett Ellison, known more for his blocking than his receiving skills. However, Ellison could find himself as a cap casualty sometime in the near future, and while third-stringer Scott Simonson has shown flashes of potential, the Giants will likely look to add another TE to the group at some point in the draft. If Big Blue does decide to move Engram outside, then a TE could be targeted sooner rather than later, but otherwise don’t expect one until Day 3.

The Jets spent a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft on Chris Herndon. While the season did not go well for the franchise overall, the young tight end was one of the few bright spots, amassing over 500 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Herndon could use some help in the team’s tight end room though, as Eric Tomlinson, Jordan Leggett and Daniel Brown don’t offer too much in terms of upside. I would bet my bottom dollar that Gang Green spends one of their mid- or late-round picks on a tight end.

This year’s class of tight ends is one of the strongest in years. Even if both local teams pass on the top talent, they could find some fantastic value later in the draft.

Let’s get into it.

T.J. Hockenson, Iowa

There’s not much to dislike about the premier tight end talent in the 2019 NFL Draft. Hockenson has the physical traits and skill set to immediately become one of the league’s top tight ends. Standing in at 6-foot-5, 251-pounds, Hockenson impressed at the combine, running a 4.7 40-yard dash to go with his 37.5-inch vertical jump. His game and toughness should get even better as he continues to fill out his athletic frame.

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end T.J. Hockenson (38) runs with the ball as Mississippi State Bulldogs cornerback Cameron Dantzler (3) defends during the second half in the 2019 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Hockenson caught 49 passes for 760 yards and six touchdowns in 2018, helping him take home the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. His plus athleticism will cause matchup nightmares in coverage for opposing linebackers and safeties. As impressive as his hands are, Hockenson truly shines with his blocking and should quickly develop into a three-down starter.

As much as Shurmur and Adam Gase would love to add Hockenson to their respective teams’ offensive schemes, neither team is likely to spend a first round pick on a tight end.

Noah Fant, Iowa

Hockenson may lead the way with this year’s tight ends, but his Iowa teammate is a close second. Fant is a little smaller than Hockenson, measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 249-pounds, but offers elite athleticism. Fant ran a speedy 4.5 40-yard dash to go with his 39.5-inch vertical jump at the combine, which showed off his abilities that made him a talented, multi-sport athlete who excelled in triple jump, high jump and basketball.

Related: NFL Draft Preview: Ole Miss' Metcalf, Brown Are Cream Of WR Crop

Fant reeled in 39 passes for 519 yards and seven touchdowns last season, one year after tallying 30 receptions for 494 yards and 11 touchdowns. He doesn’t have nearly the same blocking skills as Hockenson, but good luck trying to tackle the young man in open space. Whichever team drafts Fant is going to add a dynamic pass-catching tight end that will wreak havoc on opposing linebackers.

Both Engram and Herndon are pass-catchers first, which makes either New York club an unlikely destination for Fant.

Irv Smith Jr., Alabama

Smith has a chance to be selected towards the end of the first round, which would mean three tight ends get selected within the first 32 picks of the draft. Smith still has a lot for teams to like. One of the factors that sets him apart from the tight ends that follow him on this list is his breakaway speed, which proved difficult for linebackers to handle in man coverage.

Smith is still a somewhat raw prospect with only one season of solid production under his belt. He caught 44 receptions for 710 yards and seven touchdowns for Alabama this past season, proving to be a mismatch weapon time and time again. Smith may not be the top tight end talent in this year’s draft, but considering his upside and the room he still has to grow, the former Crimson Tide tight end should be able to put together a very solid NFL career.

Similar to the two Iowa tight ends, as much as the Giants and Jets would love to add a talent like Smith, neither team will want to spend an early pick on the position.

Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M

Before we go on, I must note that the drop-off in talent from the two Iowa TEs and Smith to Sternberger is pretty significant. While the first three are first-round talents, Sternberger probably won’t get drafted until at least the middle of Day 2. One reason for this is because of his blocking. There is no way to sugarcoat it — Sternberger is a terrible blocker. It doesn’t help him that he only had one season of significant playing time in college.

While his blocking skills are certainly lacking, Sternberger is quite talented as a pass-catcher. He caught 48 passes for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns at Texas A&M last season while showing off his great route-running abilities. Sternberger leaves you wanting more but has enough in his arsenal to make it in the NFL.

Both the Giants and Jets already have a pass-catching tight end. If either team adds another body to the TE room in the draft, it will likely be someone who is a much better blocker than Sternberger.

Kahale Warring, San Diego State

Warring is still incredibly raw as an NFL prospect. The 6-foot-5, 252-pound tight end out of San Diego State appeared in only 19 games over three seasons, but his physical prowess has left teams excited about his potential. Warring is a former multi-sport athlete, which he shows on the field with his speed, quick feet and ball skills.

Whichever team ends up selecting Warring will have to be patient with him, as his development won’t be a quick endeavor. However, if given the time, the 22-year-old could evolve into a very productive target at the next level. While his blocking technique must improve, Warring has shown the willingness and toughness to block whenever needed.

As great as he would fit in both of their offenses, it’s tough to see the Giants or Jets using a Day 2 pick on a tight end that needs to put in a ton of work to become a better blocker.

Dawson Knox, Ole Miss

Knox did not put up as productive of stats as some of his counterparts on this list. While that is evident by looking at his numbers, no other tight end on this list had to compete for targets with wide receivers as good as D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown. Knox caught only 15 passes for 284 yards last season at Ole Miss, and was unable to find the end zone in 18 career games.

Although he doesn’t have much pass-catching production on his resumé, don’t doubt Knox’s abilities in the passing game. He is lethal in the middle of the field, and is sneaky good at making tacklers miss. More importantly, Knox’s talent lies in his skills as a blocker, as his skills as a run-blocker should make him a productive combo tight end in the NFL.

Knox is the first tight end on this list that I believe the Jets will show a lot of interest in. Gang Green has already brought the Ole Miss TE in for a visit, and if he’s sitting there when the Jets are up on Day 3, this match could very well happen.

Josh Oliver, San Jose State

NFL teams are always on the lookout for tight ends with great pass-catching skills, as they provide offenses the opportunity to create mismatch problems for a defense. Such is the case with Oliver. The tight end out of San Jose State stands in at 6-foot-5 and 249-pounds, and clocked a 4.63 40-yard dash at the combine. Any team that is looking to push the ball downfield would love to deploy a TE like Oliver in their offense.

The senior caught 56 passes for 709 yards and four touchdowns in 2018 while constantly having to deal with coverages targeting him due to his high target count. His run blocking needs a lot of work, which will likely lead to him only seeing the field on passing downs in the early part of his career, but he has the tools to develop into a solid NFL tight end.

Again, the Giants and Jets don’t need another pass-catching tight end that struggles with blocking, so it doesn’t seem likely that Oliver lands in New York.

Foster Moreau, LSU

If you watch the tape on Moreau, you are not going to find yourself impressed with his skills in the passing game. However, Moreau has the physical traits and skills to immediately contribute at the next level as a blocker. The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end from LSU is feisty as a run blocker with solid technique and footwork, and is never hesitant to blast a defender with a powerful hit.

Moreau caught just 52 passes for 629 yards and six touchdowns in 29 games over three seasons, and doesn’t cause the matchup nightmare for linebackers like some of the other guys on this list. But due to his blocking abilities, Moreau projects as a strong Y tight end in the NFL where he will consistently find himself as an in-line blocker.

Moreau fits perfectly with what the Giants and Jets appear to be looking for in a tight end. Beginning with their fourth round picks, don’t be surprised to hear one of the local teams snag the LSU tight end on Day 3. Keep an eye out on the Jets, who have been linked to Moreau in a lot of mock drafts.

Drew Sample, Washington

He doesn’t offer a ton in the passing game, which is why Sample finds himself so low on this list. But if we were going by blocking skills exclusively, Sample would be at the top of the list. After 13 games at Washington last season, Sample was ranked as the No. 1 blocking tight end in all of college football by Pro Football Focus. He also finished with the best drop rate, but that doesn’t mean as much considering he had just 46 receptions in four seasons.

Sample is undoubtedly a big boy at 6-foot-5 and 255-pounds. Despite not tearing opposing defenses up while at Washington, Sample has enough speed and ball skills to become a productive No. 2 TE in the NFL. Additionally, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a TE with a better work demeanor than Sample.

Sample is another perfect fit for both the Giants and Jets. He could slide in as the Y tight end next to Engram or Herndon and immediately contribute in the run game. While I like Moreau a little more for the Jets, I feel that Sample makes more sense for the Giants, as he could replace Rhett Ellison in the offense, thus creating $5 million in cap space for Big Blue next offseason.

Kaden Smith, Stanford

While many believe that he projects more as another Y tight end in the NFL, Smith has the receiving stats to argue otherwise. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end racked up 47 receptions for 635 yards and two touchdowns in only nine games for Stanford last season, showing the ability to catch the ball while getting hit with his great hand strength.

His run-blocking skills are decent, but Smith definitely has some room to improve in that area of his game. He may not possess any elite characteristics, but then again he doesn’t grade out too poorly in any area either. With some development, he could become a solid backup tight end.

If they miss out on Moreau and Sample earlier on Day 3, I think Smith is a realistic target for the Jets. The Giants could be interested too, but I believe Big Blue would much rather take a dynamic blocking tight end.

Matt Citak is a web producer for WFAN. Check him out on Twitter at @MatthewCitak.