Dougherty: A tight end at No. 12? Hockenson would be a big risk

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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In the last 25 NFL drafts, only five tight ends have been selected in the first 12 picks.

They’re hardly a who’s who of the position, either: Kyle Brady (No. 9 in 1995), Rickey Dudley (No. 9 in ’96), Kellen Winslow Jr. (No. 6 in 2004), Vernon Davis (No. 6 in ’06) and Eric Ebron (No. 10 in ’14).

Combined, they have zero first-team All-Pro selections and four Pro Bowl honors. Davis is the only one of the five who’s had a good NFL career. Taking a tight end that high carries big risks.

There’s no questioning that the Green Bay Packers are in the market for a tight end this year. And next week’s draft has at least one Iowa tight end (T.J. Hockenson) who could be in play when general manager Brian Gutekunst’s pick at No. 12 comes up, and just possibly a second (Noah Fant) as well.

But would it be worth Gutekunst using such a high pick at that position when the NFL’s track record is so poor, and in a draft that’s top-heavy on defensive front-seven talent? Could Hockenson really be the best player on the board at No. 12?

I asked three longtime NFL scouts that question this week, and two said no.

“I think 12 is too high for both (Hockenson and Fant),” said a longtime scout with an NFC team. “Anywhere from 21 to 30. Hockenson is intriguing because you see him block his (butt) off. If anybody has an opportunity to go early, it would be him.”

Said another: “I’ve seen some top-10 love for Hockenson, I don’t see that. I see a back end of the first round with him. I see a teens, 20s guy with Fant.”

However, the third scout, who has been grading draft prospects since the early 1990s, disagreed.

“I think Hockenson might be a top-10 player,” he said.

You never know how Gutekunst and his staff will see it as they try to provide coach Matt LaFleur and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine with the best player they can get at pick No. 12, though you can bet the GM has been through all kinds of scenarios.

Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson runs a drill at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis on March 2, 2019.

If a tight end is in play at 12, it’s probably Hockenson, because he’s more complete than a large majority of tight ends coming out of college in recent years. With the spread passing schemes that dominate the college game, many tight ends are just oversized wide receivers.

LaFleur’s new offense is based around the outside zone run, so having a tight end who can block on the edge is a major plus, especially if that tight end is a receiving threat defenses have to honor. If so, when he’s on the field defenses won’t know what’s coming.

“You definitely can see (Hockenson) play in line,” one of the scouts said. “He’s one of those guys that takes his man and drives him into the cheerleaders every time. He’s on his guy, he’s got really good technique, he gets movement. He’s good down the field catching the football, too.”

Hockenson (6-4¾, 251) isn’t a burner but he’s fast enough with a 4.70-second 40, which ranks among the top third of all tight ends who have run at the NFL scouting combine since 1999, according to Mock Draftable. His vertical (37½ inches, 90th percentile), short shuttle (4.18 seconds, 85th percentile) and three-cone drill (7.02 seconds (77th percentile) also suggest he’s a good athlete.

“If you’re looking to send the tight end up the seam, I’m going to go with Fant,” another of the scouts said. “If you want an all-around guy that can catch the ball but you still want him to block a defensive end at the point of attack, then I’m going to go with Hockenson.”

Fant is an elite athlete whose 40 time (4.50 seconds) is almost identical to former Packers tight end Jared Cook (4.49) coming out of college. Fant is a better big-play threat than Hockenson, and that has some scouts thinking he’s the better pro prospect.

However, playing on the same team last season Hockenson had more catches than Fant (49 to 39) and a higher average per catch (15.5 yards to 13.3 yards). Fant did have one more touchdown (seven to six).

“(No. 12) is a little high (for Fant), but you’re adding a weapon to your team,” said the scout who ranked Fant the higher of the two. “It wouldn’t shock me. (But) I’ll be surprised if he’s the best player available at 12.”

If Gutekunst passes on a tight end at No. 12, there’s an outside chance Fant will still be on the board when the Packers pick again at No. 30, though Gil Brandt, who coordinates the NFL scouting combine, said in a conference call Thursday that he thinks both Iowa tight ends could go in the top 15.

Alabama’s Irv Smith probably will be the third tight end off the board, in the late first round or more likely the second. He’s undersized (6-2⅜, 242), so he might appeal less to the Packers as a blocker.

“He’s not going to knock anybody off the ball,” one of the scouts said. “Hockenson is 251, Noah Fant was 249 at the combine. (Smith) is a little bit lighter in the rear, and those guys have the frame to put on another few pounds. I’m not sure about Smith. He’ll get bigger but not like the other two.”

Among the second- to third-round prospects are Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger (6-4, 251) and Mississippi’s Dawson Knox (6-4⅜, 254).

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Sternberger was productive last year (48 catches, 17.3-yard average, 10 touchdowns), runs well enough (4.75 40) and is a willing blocker. He figures to be a second-round pick.

“Might be the best athlete of all these guys as far as a pure receiving tight end,” one of the scouts said. “He’s special, and he’s 251. People look at him like he’s right around 230; this guy’s 251 running around and catching the ball. He’s a pure tight end.

“He does (block), but they don’t really use him in that game. They use him more in the spread offense and getting him into space. He’s going to be running the seams, running the alleys and catching the ball for a long time.”

Knox is a former walk-on and converted quarterback who ran great (4.58) but had only 39 catches as a starter the last two seasons combined in a Mississippi offense that featured two receivers (D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown) who will drafted before him.

“I had him right behind Sternberger,” another of the scouts said. “Solid receiver, good blocker, an all-around utility tight end. Nothing stands out as really special about him. Hard worker. He’s a decent athlete – more than decent, he’s a good athlete.”

There’s no getting around that Gutekunst needs to replenish his tight end position. He needs young legs and fresh talent.

Gutekunst figures to dive into the tight end pool in this draft sooner rather than later. And if Hockenson is on the board at No. 12, the GM will face a big decision that he and his top advisers surely have gone over the last couple weeks.

Is that really the best player he can get that high in the draft?


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