McGinn on NFL draft: WRs, TEs | Tight ends stand out

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Alabama's O.J. Howard is by far the top-ranked tight end in a strong NFL draft class for the position.

Third in position-by-position series previewing the 2017 NFL draft.

GREEN BAY - What makes the NFL draft the three-day televised event it has become is the hope it engenders for all 32 teams and their fans.

So let’s think big at tight end, which in the analysis of some personnel people noses out running back as the best position on offense.

“The numbers are unusual,” an executive in personnel for an NFC team said. “Normally there’s two, maybe three guys. This year, there’s probably eight or nine.”

History tells us that not all of them will succeed. Injuries likely will ruin the careers of one or two, and perhaps one or two others won’t perform anywhere close to expectations.

But be optimistic. Taken as a whole, those eight or nine players have the talent to leave a lasting impact on the league, especially as rules changes make it even easier to pass.

Scouts love comparables. So do we.

If things break right and the group goes bust-free, some of the most apt comparisons between these players and established standouts could play out.

“People see different things,” the NFC scout said. “That’s what makes the draft fun.”

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Nine of the prospects garnered more than one vote in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel poll of 16 scouts asking them to rank the best tight ends on a 1-to-5 basis. A first-place vote was worth five points, a second-place was worth four and so on.

O.J. Howard, with 14 first-place votes and two seconds, easily led with 78 points. David Njoku was next with one first and 54 points, and Evan Engram was third with one first and 43 points.

Following, in order, were Gerald Everett, 20 points; Jake Butt, 17; Jordan Leggett, 10 ½; Bucky Hodges, 7 ½; Adam Shaheen, seven; Jonnu Smith, two, and Cole Hikutini, one.

In the last 12 drafts only nine tight ends were selected in the first round, and the only year with more than one was 2006 (Vernon Davis, Marcedes Lewis). It certainly wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility for Howard, Njoku and Engram to be first-round picks next week.

“Every once in a while you get a guy like Vernon Davis,” an AFC personnel man said. “Howard and Njoku are impressive physically and they can catch and (block). Difference-makers.

“The last couple years there’s been like eight, nine draftable tight ends, if that. If you took one you felt like you stretched. I could see eight or nine in the first four rounds this year. Guys that can start.”

Voted to the Pro Bowl in 2016 were Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed and Delanie Walker.

Olsen, a first-round pick in 2007, was 6 feet, 6 inches, 255 pounds, ran a 4.53-second 40, posted a vertical jump of 37½ inches and a broad jump of 9-11. Let’s match him up with Howard: 6-5½, 251, 4.56, 30, 10-1.

“He’s as talented as Greg Olsen,” an AFC personnel man said. “He doesn’t have near the instincts Greg had. I think O.J. will be a star but I think it’s going to take a little time.”

Njoku (6-4, 245, 4.65, 37½, 11-1) could be paired with Kelce (6-5, 257, 4.63, 35, 10-4), whose 13 collegiate starts are on par with Njoku’s nine.

Reed (6-2½, 235, 4.71, no jumps) has been compared to Everett (6-3, 240, 4.59, 37½, 10-6).

“The way the game has evolved, some of these guys are just big wide receivers,” another AFC scout said.

The prospect best fitting that description would be Engram (6-3½, 235, 4.39, 36, 10-5). He’s probably never going to work from in-line; it’s why he received a third-place in the wide receiver poll.

Scouts mentioned three large NFL wide receivers as the best comparables for Engram. They were Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229, estimated 4.43, no jumps), Marques Colston (6-4½, 224, 4.53, 37, 10-3) and Devin Funchess (6-4, 232, 4.54, 38½, 10-2).

“Engram isn’t as quick-footed as Colston but he does have outstanding receiving potential and skills,” said an NFC executive. “He’ll never be a point-of-attack guy.”

Walker (6-1, 240, 4.52, 36½, 9-10) entered the league as a sixth-round wide receiver from Division II Central Missouri State in 2006. One scout compared him to Smith (6-2½, 247, 4.63, 38, 10-7), another undersized player from a relatively small school (Florida International).

“Or maybe he’s Charles Clay,” he said, referring to the Bills' leading receiver.

Both Hodges (6-6, 253, 4.55, 39, 11-2) and Leggett (6-5½, 259, 4.75, 33, 9-11) have drawn comparisons to Jimmy Graham (6-6½, 262, 4.53, 38½, 10-0), a third-round choice in 2010 and another towering, speedy, flex receiver.

Butt is rehabilitating from a torn ACL suffered in the Sugar Bowl, the second time he has done it on his right knee. Former Steeler Heath Miller comes to mind partially because Miller was unable to run a 40 (sports hernia) before the Steelers took him with the 30th pick in 2005.

An estimated time of 4.75 would seem appropriate for both Butt (6-5½, 249, no jumps) and Miller (6-5, 255, no jumps).

“Butt is not quite as good as Heath Miller coming out,” said an AFC personnel man. “But, as a healthy player, he’s a similar all-around guy.”

That leaves Shaheen (6-6½, 278, 4.81, 32½, 10-1), a massive tight end from Division II Ashland (Ohio).

Jason Witten (6-5½, 256, 4.67, 32½, 9-5), a third-round selection in 2003, has been the gold standard in that department for years. An NFC executive said Martellus Bennett (6-6, 259, 4.72, 34, 9-10) currently rated as the premier “Y” tight end, so let’s really shoot high and line them up with the big rookie.

“Love Shaheen,” said an AFC scout. “Two years from now he’s got a chance to be like Jason Witten. I think he’s going second round.”

Meanwhile, the situation isn’t as rosy at wide receiver. There’s a horde of attractive players in the third- to sixth-round range, but few scouts are thrilled with the players leading the pack.

Corey Davis won the Journal Sentinel poll with 65½ points (5½ firsts), followed closely by Mike Williams (58½, 4½ firsts) and John Ross (51½, six firsts).

Following, in order, were Zay Jones, 15 points; JuJu Smith-Schuster, 12; Cooper Kupp and Curtis Samuel, seven; Josh Reynolds, five; Amara Darboh and Carlos Henderson, four; Evan Engram, three; Dede Westbrook, 2½; K.D. Cannon, two, and Chris Godwin, ArDarius Stewart and Ryan Switzer, one.

“It’s the worst wide receiver draft at the top I’ve seen in a long time,” said an NFC executive.

COMING NEXT: Quarterbacks

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