Deep class of tight ends offers enticing options for Matt LaFleur's Packers offense
INDIANAPOLIS – Noah Fant had a simple question for defensive coordinators when facing a team with two dynamic, three-down tight ends: “In that scenario, who are you going to flex out to put on me, or any player for that matter?”
Fant, one of a pair of Iowa tight ends with a chance to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft, experienced that firsthand playing alongside T.J. Hockenson. It may come with some frustrations over snap counts and targets, but ultimately it creates mismatches few teams in the NFL can correct.
“It’s not just me. We have a lot of versatile tight ends in this class,” Fant said Friday during his interview session at the NFL scouting combine. “Put a corner out there, he might be too small. Put a strong safety, he might be too slow. Put a linebacker, he might be too slow. It’s one of those things where if you get the right matchup, it could be pretty special.”
In a talented and deep class of tight ends, Hockenson is considered the most well-rounded of the group — but also with potential to grow into a dominant force. Fant is not far behind.
While Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said this week that he looks for veteran Jimmy Graham to be productive in 2019, the Packers could be looking into bringing a rookie (or rookies) into the fold come late April. And new head coach Matt LaFleur isn’t afraid to run out multiple tight end sets.
“If you broke us down when you saw our two tight ends out there, we had the versatility with Luke Stocker with how we used him,” LaFleur said of last season as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. “He could be on the ball or he could be used in the backfield, which I thought was a great advantage for us as an offense because now a defense doesn't know, are you going to be in two-back or are you going to be in one-back?”
Prototypically sized at 6 feet, 4 inches and 250 pounds, Hockenson runs the 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds. While not the biggest or the fastest of all the draft-eligible tight ends, Hockenson has already established himself as a strong in-line blocker in an outside zone scheme, athletic enough to be split wide and versatile enough to be put in the backfield.
“Being a versatile tight end is obviously special, especially now, being able to be flexed out, being able to be in a three-point (stance), being able to do all if it is something that I pride myself to be able to do,” Hockenson said. “It’s something I’m going to continue to be able to do and continue to try and get better at that. I feel my best football is yet to come.”
In other words: He’s the model of what kind of player the Packers are looking for as they look to restock their tight end room in 2019.
Along with Graham, the only other tight ends under contract are Evan Baylis and Robert Tonyan.
Tonyan, an undrafted free agent out of Indiana State signed to the practice squad in 2017, saw the field for 67 offensive snaps last season and caught four balls for 77 yards and a touchdown. And though the 24-year-old hasn’t gotten a playbook yet, he’s getting a head start on 2019 by training with San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowler George Kittle, who caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five scores in a similar offense.
Tonyan, a converted college wide receiver, weighed in at 237 pounds last year and needs to continue to work on his blocking — a non-negotiable part of the position for LaFleur.
“That’s definitely something we look for and we’re going to demand from that position,” LaFleur said this week. “No doubt about it.”
Veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis wants to play in 2019 and he has interest in returning to Green Bay; however, he won’t be a priority at the onset of free agency. If the Packers choose to examine the free-agency market at the position, there could be interest in Baltimore tight end Nick Boyle (6-4, 270), who is coming off back-to-back 37-catch seasons for the Ravens.
Boyle was a fifth-round pick out of Delaware in 2015 and is no doubt known very well by Packers director of football operations Milt Hendrickson, who was in the Ravens' personnel department for the last 14 seasons.
Gutekunst and LaFleur will have plenty of options to pore over in free agency and this draft class, which includes other prospects such as Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. (6-3, 241), Stanford’s Kaden Smith (6-4, 252), UCLA’s Caleb Wilson (6-4, 235), San Jose State’s Josh Oliver (6-5, 250) and Washington’s Drew Sample (6-4, 251).
“There’s some great tight ends,” Hockenson said. “This is a great tight end class. There’s some great people in this class. To be evaluated as one of the top guys, that means a lot, but again, no one knows what’s going to happen, no one knows what’s going to come from between now and draft day.”
With three selections in the top 50 (six in the first four rounds) and plenty of cap room, the Packers no doubt can find a quality addition to the room that suits LaFleur’s needs over the next two months.