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2017 NFL Draft: Tight end rankings

Ranking the 2017 tight end class.

Auburn v Mississippi Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

In recent years, I’ve committed to the concept of an NFL Draft “target board.” The idea is to narrow my scope down to 100 prospects, grouped into tiers that indicate where I’d look to select them in an actual draft. Instead of ranking every single player I’ve watched and graded, these are prospects I feel most confident in from a tape, measurables, production, and athletic testing standpoint. In the following days leading up to the draft, I’ll post my board position by position, and to help everyone understand the methods behind my madness, I’ll even include some handy charts and stats to give some insight into which players “checked all the boxes,” and which ones made the cut despite falling short in one area or another.

The cells in the accompanying charts are color-coded based (liberally) on NFL scouting combine averages per position:

  • Green = Significantly Above Average
  • Blue = Above Average
  • Yellow = Average
  • Orange = Below Average
  • Red = Significantly Below Average

Below you'll find my tight end targets for 2017

Evan Engram Ole Miss 6’3” 234

  • DOB: 9/2/1994
  • 2016: 65 REC 926 YDS 14.2 AVG 8 TD
  • Career: 162 REC 2320 YDS 14.3 AVG 15 TD in 45 games

All of the arguments about whether Engram is a tight end or a receiver feel like a waste of time. Engram is a tremendous receiver who is at his best as a matchup problem in the slot, and who even has the speed to win on the outside. He doesn't have the size to spend all of his time in line, but Engram is a far better blocker than I've seen some give him credit for. He's a legitimate weapon who should fit with any team, and the best "tight end" in the class.

Grade: 2nd Round

Bucky Hodges Virginia Tech 6’6” 257

  • DOB: 8/8/1995
  • 2016: 48 REC 691 YDS 14.4 AVG 7 TD
  • Career: 133 REC 1747 YDS 13.1 AVG 21 TD in 40 games

As with Engram, some people seem hellbent on Hodges being labeled a receiver, and I really don't care what we call him. He's a 260-pound weapon with the speed to win on jump balls and back shoulder throws along the sidelines, and who's at his best stretching defenses down the seam. Hodges' blocking is the big hangup for most analysts, but he plays with an edge, and I believe he can improve in this area. And frankly, I think the concerns are a little overblown. Just get him the ball.

Grade: 2nd Round

O.J. Howard Alabama 6’6” 251

  • DOB: 11/19/1994
  • 2016: 45 REC 595 YDS 13.2 AVG 3 TD
  • Career: 114 REC 1726 YDS 15.1 AVG 7 TD in 57 games

Howard is a former five-star recruit who emerged as the best blocker in the tight end class. He looks and runs like a future All-Pro, but I have some questions about his production. This is a player being slotted in in the top five-to-15 in mock drafts, but he never finished better than third on the team in receptions, and was basically an afterthought as a red zone target, where Alabama leans heavily on their run game.

Early in his career, I worried about Howard's hands after seeing some easy, wide open bunny shots clang off of him. Over the last two seasons, as he's made strides as a receiver, I can chalk those drops up to focus. Still, I think Howard's ceiling is closer to Martellus Bennett than Gronk, and someone more enthusiastic than I am will draft the 'Bama product before I get a chance.

Grade: 2nd Round

David Njoku Miami 6’4” 246

  • DOB: 7/10/1996
  • 2016: 43 REC 698 YDS 16.2 AVG 8 TD
  • Career: 64 REC 1060 YDS 16.6 AVG 9 TD in 25 games

Njoku has above average agility and a strong lower body, and we can see those traits on display as he does most of his best work after the catch. We've seen him stretch a short, dump-off to the sideline and turn the corner, and drag defenders as he fights for extra yardage. He's clearly an athletic kid, but he falls behind my top three in terms of downfield route-running and speed, and he needs to cut down on his drops. Potential is there with Njoku, but I've tempered my expectations.

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round

Jordan Leggett Clemson 6’5” 258

  • DOB: 1/31/1995
  • 2016: 46 REC 736 YDS 16.0 AVG 7 TD
  • Career: 112 REC 1598 YDS 14.3 AVG 18 TD in 49 games

Leggett really checks every box in terms of height and weight, arm length and hand size, production and athleticism. It's only when his speed and explosiveness are compared to the first four players on this list that he becomes overshadowed. But at times, particularly early in the season, I felt that Leggett was Deshaun Watson's most reliable target. Leggett is an adequate blocker who has lined up in line, in the slot, on the wing and at fullback. He should be a fit for just about any offense.

Grade: 3rd-4th Round

Michael Roberts Toledo 6’4” 270

  • DOB: 5/7/1994
  • 2016: 45 REC 533 YDS 11.8 AVG 16 TD
  • Career: 70 REC 832 YDS 11.9 AVG 22 TD in 39 games

Roberts is a hulking presence at 270 pounds, and I was struck by his smoothness as an athlete. He's not fast or explosive, but he has great feet and the ability to control his body to make tough catches. Aside from Engram I'm not sure there's a better red zone threat in this group. With long arms and massive hands, Roberts is almost impossible to miss. He has room to grow as a blocker, but the effort is there. I view him as a high-end, number two tight end who should find a role early in short yardage situations.

Grade: 4th-5th Round