No one knows where Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam stands on his pending decision on whether to declare for the NFL Draft or return to school, but his mind probably took a couple of turns this week.
On Monday, the 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore found out that his position coach, Joe Jon Finley, was leaving the program for the same job at Texas A&M. Finley turned Okwuegbunam into a 2017 all-Southeastern Conference second-teamer as a freshman.
The following day, Okwuegbunam learned former Clemson signal-caller Kelly Bryant plans to enroll at MU and lead the Tigers’ offense next season.
After suffering what Barry Odom classified as a “bruised shoulder against Florida, Okwuegbunam missed Missouri’s last three games of the regular season. Odom has said Okwuegbunam’s status is week-to-week but he was seen on Missouri’s sideline in a sling for the Tigers’ game against Arkansas, making his status for the Liberty Bowl unknown.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
While Okwuegbunam’s has been sidelined, his NFL Draft stock has fluctuated depending on the mock draft. The depth of the tight end position in the draft could ultimately force his decision one way or the other.
Despite missing three games, Okwuegbunam was still a finalist for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson won the award on Thursday. For the season, Okwuegbunam has career-highs in receptions and receiving yards with 43 and 466 respectively, and six touchdowns, off his 11-touchdown season in 2017.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay listed Okwuegbunam as his No. 32 overall draft prospect, but that was before the injury. Okwuegbunam runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, which is elite speed for a tight end. He was a major end zone threat as a redshirt freshman, when he caught 11 TDs while serving almost exclusively as an end zone threat. Some scouts thought Okwuegbunam had an underwhelming 2018 season because he mostly just offered more of the same while playing in first-year offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s pro-style offense.
“I really didn’t think he got better at all this season, which is kind of disappointing,” said Jon Ledyard, a draft analyst for Draft Network LLC. “You look at his production this season almost all of it came in that Memphis game, when they blew three coverages and he scored three times. There’s not a lot of production after the catch. I don’t think he’s going to stretch the field. They love those play-action passes down the seam but it only works when no one guards him. Of his 17 touchdowns I bet half of them are completely uncovered.”
Ledyard was referring to Missouri’s famous play-action play, which Dooley kept in the playbook after taking over for Josh Heupel, who left to coach Central Florida. In the play, Okwuegbunam takes off down the seam behind the offensive line and is usually found wide open after the middle linebacker is forced to guess if the MU tight end is a blocker or pass-catcher.
So the knock on Okwuegbunam is similar to draft evaluators’ criticisms of senior wideout Emanuel Hall, who was told by the NFL Draft advisory board last year that Heupel’s air-raid spread offense only showed his ability to run a post route.
But Okwuegbunam has shown the ability to make tough catches and shake tackles, which there’s always a market for in the NFL.
“He has a projectable body,” said Dane Brugler, a draft analyst for The Athletic. “He does a really nice job transitioning from pass-catcher to ball-handler. He makes contested catches. He gives good effort as a blocker. He’s physical over the middle of the field. He does a little bit of everything fairly well. He’s not great at anything.”
This is considered to be a draft with plenty of talented tight ends. Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. and Iowa tight end Noah Fant, a fellow Mackey Award finalist, lead a loaded junior class of tight ends. Both rank ahead of Okwuegbunam on most respectable draft boards. Okwuegbunam’s stock could drop even more if players such as Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney of Vanderbilt and Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger declare for the draft.
“This tight end class really depended on the juniors,” Brugler said. “Right now he’s eighth in my underclassmen tight ends. If the first seven come out then it’s going to be crowded. I think he’s in the third-round, fourth-round range right now. I don’t think he’s a top-50 pick.”
In Missouri’s game at Alabama, Okwuegbunam made an impressive catch in double coverage early in the first quarter and also had two touchdowns against Wyoming that were tough given the coverage.
Okwuegbunam hasn’t commented on his NFL Draft status throughout the season, but Finley told The Star in October that he and his former star player had some discussions during fall camp about Okwuegbunam leaving school early.
“I told him if you take care of your business that will all take care of itself,” Finley said.
With the addition of Bryant, a dual-threat quarterback, and the return of top tailbacks Damarea Crockett, Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie, it’s possible that Dooley tweaks the offense to favor the run. But that wouldn’t mean there’s no place for Okwuegbunam in 2019. A knock on him has been that his blocking needs work, more like teammate Kendall Blanton’s, who has landed on draft boards because of his blocking. Scoring some touchdowns without play-action would go a long way, too.
While Okwuegbunam could still have a successful NFL career if he decides to leave, a return to school could see him drafted much higher, especially if he discards the one-trick pony mantra like Hall did.
“The size is there,” Ledyard said. “There’s a lot there to be so much more.”