Red Zone

Rating the top tight ends in the 2017 NFL Draft with an eye on Chiefs’ needs

Terez A. Paylor breaks down the top tight ends in the NFL Draft

Two tight ends in this year’s draft have a first-round grade. Check out Terez Paylor's detailed scouting report on those two, plus the rest of the top five and five more to watch at the position.
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Two tight ends in this year’s draft have a first-round grade. Check out Terez Paylor's detailed scouting report on those two, plus the rest of the top five and five more to watch at the position.

Included in measurables are height, weight, age they turn this year (if available) and 40-yard-dash time. Grades and rankings are based on film study (at least six games worth, whenever possible) and proprietary reporting. Quotes are harvested from conference calls, individual interviews and television broadcasts. Grades are intended to convey a general sense of the draftee’s value, and where he might be selected.

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1. O.J. HOWARD, Alabama

Measurables: 6-6, 251, 22, 4.51

Bio: Two-year starter who caught 45 passes for 595 yards (13.2 ypc) and three touchdowns in 14 games in 2016. Declared after a junior season in which he was a John Mackey Award finalist. MVP of the 2016 National Championship Game.

Strengths: Was among the Combine’s top testers at his position in the 40, bench press (22 reps), three-cone drill (6.85), 20-yard shuttle (4.16 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.46 seconds). Showed up to the Senior Bowl and kicked everyone’s butt. Tape checks out, too; well-coached, complete tight end who is among the safest picks in the draft, despite average quarterback play during his career. Has experience as an inline and “move” tight end and has also lined up in the slot. Has soft hands, good burst out of his cuts and the run-after-the-catch ability to turn short throws into chunk yards. Bursts off the line of scrimmage to get into his routes quickly. “He’s got it all,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He’s a matchup nightmare.” Can actually block, too, unlike most tight ends these days. Is quick off the snap and plays with outstanding technique, which allows him to consistently wall off defenders. Quick enough to reach and turn defenders when pulling, too. Has good functional strength as a blocker - above average for a tight end - understands angles and climbs to the second level quickly. Is not nasty but gives good effort and fights to the whistle. Stout enough to put a better up a fight against ends in pass protection that most tight ends.

Weaknesses: Wasn’t asked to run many different routes. Could show more sophistication and tempo as a route runner. Didn’t have as many opportunities as a receiver as he should. “He’s never really had a QB to get him the ball,” one scout said. Doesn’t always sustain his blocks as long as you’d like, as he occasionally falls off blocks on the move. Could stand to add a little more strength; strong defensive ends can skate him some. Not much tape of him making difficult 50/50 catches or winning jump balls. But all this is picking nits. “He not only can survive in the run game, he’s pretty darn good at it,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “I think you’re talking about an elite skill set. You’re talking about someone with high character, toughness. He checks every box.”

Grade: 7.2

Games I watched before grading him: Tennessee 2015, Louisiana State 2015, Clemson 2015, Kent State 2016, Texas A&M 2016, Auburn 2016

2. DAVID NJOKU, Miami (Fla.)

Measurables: 6-4, 246, 20, 4.64

Bio: Part-time starter who caught 43 passes for 698 yards (16.2 ypc) and eight touchdowns in 13 games in 2016. Declared after redshirt sophomore season in which he started only five games.

Strengths: Is young for a prospect but already looks like a full-grown man. Height-weight-speed prospect with an outstanding combination of size, length and athleticism. Boasts an absurd 35 ¼-inch wingspan. Was among his position’s top testers at the Combine in the vertical jump (37 ½ inches), broad jump (133 inches) and three-cone drill (6.97 seconds). Smooth, fluid athlete with good burst off the line who can consistently threaten the seam. Shows burst out of his breaks and switches tempo nicely as a route-runner. Has legit ball skills; can track the ball downfield or on fades, high-point it and win 50/50 matchups. Lined up as an inline blocker and in the slot. Hard runner with good balance who must be wrapped up at all times; was even the primary target on screens and can win after the catch by separating from, or running through, defenders. “Freaky kid that looks like a wide receiver, and you can’t believe that he’s actually as big as he is,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “Catches the ball well, can get vertical.” You’re projecting with him due to his lack of experience but there’s Pro Bowl potential here; Jeremiah has a higher grade on him than he did Eric Ebron in 2014 (10th overall to Detroit). “I think he can do lot of those things, does them at a higher level,” Jeremiah said. “I think he’s got more potential in the blocking front, little bit more want to in that regard. He’s got All-Pro potential. He could be a dominating player at the position.”

Weaknesses: Inexperienced; only has nine career starts. Must stay focused; has too many focus drops when he’s open. In-line run blocking needs work; has a bit of an awkward crouch with his hand in the dirt, one more reminiscent of a fullback. Needs to be faster off the snap when run blocking; also needs to get stronger and do a better job driving his feet. There’s reasons to be encouraged, however; he has the frame to be a good blocker one day and shows some understanding of angles. Also showed increased effort/nastiness in the bowl game against West Virginia. “What I like is if you watch enough of his tape, he gets after some people in the run game,” Mayock said. “He’s not really a good run-blocker yet. But the key is he gets after it. And as long as you get after it and you have a willingness to do it, you can be taught. So I’m bullish on Njoku.”

Grade: 7.0

Games I watched before grading him: Appalachian State 2016, North Carolina 2016, Notre Dame 2016, Pittsburgh 2016, Virginia 2016, West Virginia 2016

Star beat writer Terez Paylor predicts that the Kansas City Chiefs will draft Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley in the first round.

3. EVAN ENGRAM, Mississippi

Measurables: 6-3, 234, 22, 4.42

Bio: Four-year starter who caught 65 passes for 926 yards (14.2 ypc) and eight touchdowns in 11 games in 2016. Missed one game with a hamstring injury.

Strengths: Team captain in 2015 and 2016. Among the top testers at his position in the 40, vertical jump (36 inches), three-cone (6.92 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.23). Lined up as a fullback, slot receiver and “move” tight end. Super-athletic, fluid receiver with terrific burst out of his breaks. Shows some tempo and craftiness as a route-runner; he can repeatedly beat linebackers and safeties. Gets up on linebackers quickly after the snap. Can track it and consistently win 1-on-1 jump ball situations. Reliable stick target who is a problem for defenses after the catch; is shifty and can outrun defensive backs. Shows the ability to win contested jump balls. Super competitive and isn’t afraid to work the middle. “Really good receiving tight end you can do a lot of different things with,” one scout said. Really gives effort as a blocker and works to get position. Also shows some promise as a chop blocker and will willingly stick his helmet in someone’s chest.

Weaknesses: Won’t be for everybody; lack of heft might limit him to a “move” tight end role in the NFL. Didn’t do much inline blocking. Currently lacks the strength and mass to regularly sustain as a blocker in the pros and needs to keep working on his understanding of angles, as he sometimes struggles to adequately square up blockers in space. “Blocking is not his deal,” a scout said. Has the occasional focus drop.

Grade: 6.7

Games I watched before grading him: Oklahoma State 2015, Florida State 2016, Georgia 2016, Memphis 2016, Auburn 2016, Texas A&M 2016

4. BUCKY HODGES, Virginia Tech

Measurables: 6-6, 257, 21, 4.57

Bio: Three-year starter who caught 48 passes for 691 yards (14.4 ypc) and seven touchdowns in 14 games in 2016. Declared after redshirt junior season.

Strengths: Among the top testers at his position in the 40, vertical (39 inches), broad jump (134 inches) and 60-yard shuttle (12.08 seconds). Mainly split out wide with a little work in the slot and as a “move” tight end. Is big and fast enough to do all of that; even took some handoffs on jet sweeps. Can threaten the seam with his plus athleticism; flashes good burst out of his breaks and can work effectively underneath against linebackers. Adjusts well to low-thrown balls and can win alley-oop jump balls with good hand usage. “He has nice size, hands, can play above the rim,” NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks said. Occasional target on screens who was athletic enough to hurt defenses. Fired off the snap and had some pop in his hands in the rare instances he lined up as an inline blocker. Wasn’t nasty but generally gave good effort.

Weaknesses: Doesn’t quite play to his size; depending the team he goes to, will need to prove he can be physical playing closer to the middle of the field. “I do believe he’s going to have to transition from being an outside player to a guy that can get it done in the slot,” Brooks said. Might not be a natural tracker of the deep ball, as he misjudges, bobbles or drops more throws he has to run under than he should. Also needs to refine his route-running and vary his tempo to help create separation at the next level against safeties and corners. “You worry about his ability to separate and handle some of the physicality and contact that can come from dealing with linebackers as he’s trying to get open,” Brooks said. Former quarterback whose blocking, overall, needs work. Didn’t stalk and punish much smaller corners as he should have given his size advantage as a receiver at Virginia Tech, and will need to improve his strength and technique to get the job done inside against pros.

Grade: 6.6

Games I watched before grading him: North Carolina 2015, Tennessee 2016, Boston College 2016, Syracuse 2016, Pittsburgh 2016, Notre Dame 2016


Measurables: 6-5, 258, 22, 4.76

Bio: Three-year starter who caught 46 passes for 736 yards (16.0) and seven touchdowns in 15 games in 2016. John Mackey Award finalist.

Strengths: Among his position’s top testers in the 20-yard shuttle (4.33 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (12.06) at the Combine. Lined up primarily in the slot with some action as a “move” tight end. Trusted option for star quarterback Deshaun Watson. Big, rangy target with ball skills; gives up his body to make the tough catch and can haul it in away from his frame. Can box out smaller defenders on short passes and has a good feed for finding open spaces. Good route runner with strong, consistent hands who could emerge as a solid third-down option in the NFL. Dials it up and competes as a runner after the catch. Gets after it as a lead blocker on screens. Shows improved effort as a run blocker in 2016. Showed a flair for the moment the last two years by hauling in two huge fourth-quarter catches in Clemson’s epic showdowns against Alabama in the last two National Championship Games.

Weaknesses: Skipped the 40 at the combine and only ran a 4.76 at his pro day. Unsudden off the line of scrimmage and needs time to build up speed. Only decent burst out of his breaks and might struggle to out-athlete linebackers in the pros. Didn’t do a ton of inline blocking. Needs to be more consistent with his effort and technique on those blocks, and when he’s leading through the hole, as well, as he absorbs blows rather than delivering them. Needs to also add strength and do a better job of timing up blocks in space.

Grade: 6.5

Games I watched before grading him: Florida State 2015, South Carolina 2015, Alabama 2015, Florida State 2016, Virginia Tech 2016, Alabama 2016


Jake Butt, Michigan; Gerald Everett, South Alabama; George Kittle, Iowa; Adam Shaheen, Ashland; Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas.


7.5-7.1: Top 10 pick

7.0: picks 11-20

6.9: 21-32

6.8: Top half of the second round

6.7: Bottom half of the second

6.6: Top half of the third

6.5: Bottom half of the third

6.4: Fourth round pick

6.3: Fifth-round pick

6.2: Sixth-round pick

6.1: Seventh-round pick

6.0: Priority free agent

5.9: Non-prospect


What the draft analysts say: “At tight end you have a lot of playmakers,” NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks said. “You have a handful of traditional ‘Y’ tight ends, but these mismatch guys, guys that would normally play the ‘H’ or the ‘F’ position, guys that are kind of like those jumbo wide receivers, will have the opportunity to play in the league and create mismatches, much like (Washington’s) Jordan Reed has been able to do.”

Chiefs’ need at this position: Medium. The Chiefs already have one of the game’s premier tight ends in two-time Pro Bowler Travis Kelce, so there’s no need for a starter here, even though Kelce could miss organized team activities as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. No. 2 tight end Demetrius Harris needs to cut down on the dropped balls and continue to refine his blocking, but he had a few nice moments last season, is only 25 years old and should continue to get better, provided his offseason arrest for allegedly possessing marijuana during a traffic stop doesn’t hurt his internal standing with the club. A pair of youngsters, James O’Shaughnessy and Ross Travis, are big and athletic but have yet to put it all together. The Chiefs also took a low-risk flier on former Dallas second-rounder Gavin Escobar, who hasn’t done much in four seasons but has some receiving ability and has been stuck behind star Jason Witten. In all, there’s room for the Chiefs to upgrade at the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, especially if they can find a prospect in the draft who offers more in terms of blocking to go along with reliable hands.

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RB: Chiefs could draft big-play threat from loaded crop of running backs | rankings

FB: Chiefs try Lindenwood’s Connor Harris at fullback during local pro day | rankings

WR: Story | rankings, to come

TE: Mizzou’s Sean Culkin eager to prove he can do more in the pros | rankings

OL: Story | rankings, to come

DL: Story | rankings, to come

EDGE: Story | rankings, to come

ILB: Story | rankings, to come

CB: Story | rankings, to come

S: Story | rankings, to come

The Terez A. Paylor All-Juice Team: 2017 (to come) | 2016 | 2015