Thin TE draft class has early-round options

Ryan Wood
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South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams' draft stock has been on the rise.

First in a 10-part NFL draft preview series.

When Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson signed Jared Cook earlier this month, he bought himself another year in his search for a long-term option at tight end.

It has been a fruitless pursuit since Oct. 20, 2013, the day Jermichael Finley’s career ended because of a neck injury against the Cleveland Browns. Thompson drafted Richard Rodgers in the third round of his next draft. He spent a sixth-round pick on Kennard Backman last spring.

The search for Finley’s replacement continues.

Before this month, tight end seemed to be a real possibility as the Packers’ potential first-round target — even if drafting a tight end with the 27th overall pick would have been a stretch. There is no elite tight end prospect in the 2016 draft, though Arkansas’ Hunter Henry could sneak into the late first round.

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Henry would be the ideal choice for any team drafting a tight end with a first-round pick. The 2015 John Mackey Award winner led SEC tight ends with 51 catches for 739 yards as a junior last season. Henry did not run the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, but a reported 4.68-second, 40-yard dash at Arkansas’ pro day won’t hurt his first-round chances.

Senior Bowl president Phil Savage saw Henry up close over the past three seasons. Savage, a former Cleveland Browns general manager and nine-year Baltimore Ravens executive, is a color commentator for Alabama football games with the Alabama Crimson Tide Sports Network. He has watched Henry each of the past three years and studied his film from other games.

“He gives you sort of a (Dallas Cowboys tight end) Jason Witten-type feel when you watch him,” Savage said, heaping lofty praise on the 2016 draft’s consensus top tight end prospect. “Witten ended up going in the third round, but we had first-round grades on Witten when I was at the Ravens. I don’t know that Hunter is as explosive as Witten was at that particular time.

“I think he’s a player that whoever takes him is going to be in need of a tight end, and I suspect he’ll get on the field right away.”

Witten ran a 4.65-second, 40-yard dash before the draft, so Henry’s speed might not be far behind the future Hall of Fame tight end. Still, there are warts that could knock him into the second round.

While Henry could become a better blocker than most college tight end prospects, it isn’t a refined part of his game. He also doesn’t have overwhelming athleticism.

But if the Packers want the best tight end in the 2016 draft, they would have to select Henry in the first round. Henry isn’t expected to be available when the Packers draft No. 57 overall in the second round.

“I think because of the nature of the tight end class this year,” Savage said, ”I would be surprised if he made it out of the top 50. I think he’ll go in the top 50. I think he’ll be good. He’s very competitive. He’s a good player, very solid. I don’t know how flashy he is, but he’s a good player.”

With Cook and Rodgers on the roster, it’s no longer necessary for the Packers to draft a tight end with the 27th overall pick. Cook and Rodgers are not a perfect complement at the position — neither excels at blocking — but they have different strengths and should present two viable receiving targets. The Packers have more urgent needs elsewhere, specifically on defense.

If tight end has slipped down the list of Packers draft needs, the position remains a long-term concern. Cook’s contract expires after 2016, and Rodgers is midway through his four-year rookie deal. Behind them, the position’s depth is virtually nonexistent. So while the Packers are unlikely to draft a first-round tight end, they very well could target the position as early as the second.

Ohio State tight end Nick Varrett is projected as a third-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

Several draft analysts have forecast a shallow tight end field this year. After the first four prospects, there is a severe decline. There also is debate over which is the draft’s second-best tight end, though South Carolina’s Jerell Adams, Stanford’s Austin Hooper and Ohio State’s Nick Vannett are unanimously in the mix.

Adams might have a slight edge after February’s combine. His stock has been inconsistent, but an impressive workout in Indianapolis helped solidify his standing. Of the eight tight ends who ran the 40-yard dash in Indy, Adams’ 4.64 seconds were the fastest.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said Adams “helped himself a lot” at the combine. After Indianapolis, McShay said, he moved Adams up to No. 2 on his positional board.

McShay said Adams’ film was also strong. Adams didn’t have much production as a senior with South Carolina’s struggling offense — 28 catches, 421 yards, three touchdowns — but McShay said Adams might be the most improved tight end in the draft.

“Of all the tight ends in this class,” McShay said, “he’s the best at separating from man-to-man coverage. The reason he’s able to do it, first of all the speed which he confirmed at 4.64. At 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds, he ran the fastest time of all the tight ends. And then also the subtle head fakes, and the crispness of his routes, and how sharp he is getting out of his breaks – none of these other guys are as good. Hunter Henry is the closest, but I think Jerell Adams might have the highest ceiling of all the tight ends in this class.”

It might take a while for Adams to reach that ceiling.

Adams attended the Senior Bowl in January. Savage said he was impressed with Adams’ natural ability, but he was also raw. He described Adams as a “get in the way” type of blocker, capable but underdeveloped. Adams’ specialty is using speed to stretch the field vertically, something the Packers sorely need long term.

Savage, familiar with the SEC, excused Adams’ lack of production last season as being “under-utilized” at South Carolina. He believes Adams has significant upside, but whichever team drafts him will have to be patient with his development.

“To me, he’s an ideal developmental candidate,” Savage said, “but because of his natural ability he’s going to be drafted higher than that. So the expectation is going to be that he’ll be required to give more as a rookie. We’ll see if he can do that.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

Rising stock: South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams has climbed draft boards since his impressive workout in Indianapolis, showing his speed, size and ability to be a field-stretching tight end.

Falling stock: Ohio State Nick Vannett chose not to run his 40-yard dash at the combine, and there was good reason after posting a disappointing 4.89-second time at pro day.

Sleeper: Coming from Tight End U, Austin Hooper has a chance to be next in an impressive line of Stanford tight ends who have transitioned to the NFL.

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