Entering our final week of multiple positions being broken down for the draft, we start with the tight-end spot before transitioning to safety. I did not include fullbacks into this group (like some other pages do), because I simply didn’t have the time to make an adequate list and watch film on guys who played that spot in college, but we have some different body-types, who can fill that type of role, along with true Y’s or move options.
We certainly don’t have a generational prospect like Kyle Pitts in this year’s class or even a Pat Freiermuth, who I personally looked at as worthy of a first-round pick, but there’s several quality contributors that you can pick up – even on day three. That includes plenty of more traditional in-line players, although we have a couple of guys in the top three, who are capable of stressing defenses down the seams.
Here’s my list:
1. Trey McBride, Colorado State
6’3”, 250 pounds; SR
This former three-star recruit has been one of the most productive tight-ends in college football over the last three years and often times the primary option for the Rams offense. Over 16 games between 2019 and ’20, McBride caught 67 passes for 890 yards and eight touchdowns, before having the most productive season of any college TE as a senior, when he hauled in 90 balls for 1121 yards (yet only reached the end-zone once), leading to first-team All-American honors.
In very uncommon fashion for college football, this young man was the focal point of the Rams offense last season, with almost the same total yardage as the top two runners and more than the top two receivers combined. The best indication of that was their win over Toledo last season, when CSU put up 110 total passing yards – McBride accounted for 109 of those. He displays easy acceleration off the line and is a very athletic overall mover, who doesn’t seem to strain as he getting in and out of breaks, being able to sitting down in the chair. You already saw him run a pretty diverse route-tree for the Rams, forcing defenders to open up their hips and changing up gears. He shows an advanced understanding for position on the field and timing of route patterns, where you see him cut off one step on a quick out once and then adds a little shake at the break point when he’s on the backside working into the boundary. He effectively bends off the inside foot on quick out routes and he does a nice job of leaning into defenders and creating separation with subtle push-offs, particularly on deep in-breakers. McBride has plenty of experience being flexed out wide as the X receiver and winning on straight-up slants, curls, digs and other routes. And he displays the ability to vary his releases and cut off one foot just as the defender’s shifted onto his heels. Coming from a run-heavy offense, he’s familiar with a bunch of play-action wrinkles, like peeling him off into the flats after caving in the end-man initially, slipping him through traffic on crossing routes subsequently to aiming at a linebacker and just working into open space on secondary plays so to speak. McBride showcases dependable hands, which measure in North of ten inches. I love the way he freezes the ball with his eyes once it gets there and he seems pretty unbothered by defenders trying to reach around and swipe the ball out of his hands. He smoothly transitions to passes thrown slightly behind him and can snatch it off the top-shelf in contested situations. Altogether, he only dropped three on 94 catchable targets last season. And once the ball is in his hands, there’s no pause before his pads are pointed North, while having the trunky lower body to gain yards through contact.
This kid really latches his hands into the chest of defenders and controls blocks, with the squatty build to transfer power from the ground up. He has the leg-drive to create movement at the point of attack and can torque the pads of defenders to open up a clear lane. You routinely see him collapse the backside and open up cutback lanes for the back. He does a great job of sealing the edge and pinning linebackers inside on horizontally-oriented run plays. Colorado State put him at wing quite a bit to let him fly up to the second level and clear a way to get around to the perimeter. Overall, he works up to space in very controlled fashion and neutralizes his man with a wide base and active feet, as you barely ever see those guys get involved on the tackle. Along with the more sift blocks on split zone and lead-duties on power schemes. McBride was also asked to wrap around and get out to the corner for quarterback keeps and executed some kickouts on counter-bash like plays that you would see from the Baltimore Ravens with Lamar Jackson. Working out of the slot, McBride doesn’t seem to panic when having to close down the distance to safeties in very deep alignment and cover up guys on screen passes his way, by breaking down and landing the hands with great precision. And I think with a more condensed, thick frame, it might open up some work at full- or H-back for him.
On the negative side, I wouldn’t say McBride is overly explosive to just stick his foot in the ground and run away from defenders. A lot of his production came on underneath stuffs, such as shallow crossers and flat routes, where he’d have plenty of green grass in front of him. At 6’3” with a 78-inch wingspan, the catch radius is below-average for the position. And the numbers suggest that he isn’t super dynamic after the catch, with only five missed tackles forced despite his heavy involvement in the offense (on just 5.2 percent of receptions). He’s not going to just make people miss or pull away from guys in the secondary a whole lot. McBride’s lack of length give him some issues as a blocker as well, when edge defenders are able to lock out on him and force him into stalemates at the line, as his pads are pushed back. It may have worked for McBride in college, but he needs to show more urgency to getting his landmarks on pulling/wrap-around action on gap schemes, if he doesn’t want a linebacker dropping the shoulder on him just as he tries to get up into the hole.
While I don’t believe McBride is the same kind of big-play threat as the next two guys are and there’s a couple of guys I’d probably put slightly in front of him in terms of power and aggressiveness as blockers, to me this guy clearly is the best and most complete player of the class. He can line up anywhere in the formation, never seems to whiff on blocks, understands how to set up his routes and catches the ball reliably. At the Senior Bowl, his physicality was on display as a blocker and lowering the pads after the catch. He hauled in an awesome contested catch on day two of team drills, where Kenny Pickett kind of just threw it up there and McBride grabbed it off the defender’s helmet. Even in pass-pro he had a couple really impressive reps. He was voted National TE of the week and finished with an easy touchdown on a leak route in the actual game. Only 18 reps on the bench press was a little disappointing, but a reported 4.56 in the 40 at his pro day is plenty good.
2. Greg Dulcich, UCLA
6’4”, 245 pounds; SR
A former walk-on with the Bruins, Dulcich caught just one pass as a freshman and saw limited action in packages his second season, before breaking out as a junior, catching 26 passes for 517 yards and five touchdowns (just 0.1 yards short of averaging 20 yards a grab). In 2021, he recorded career-highs with 42 catches for 725 yards and five TDs, improving from second- to first-team All-Pac 12.
Dulcich packs a bulked-up frame that wouldn’t necessarily suggest it, but man, he eats up a lot of ground with those long strides on benders and streak/seam routes – and he doesn’t need a runway to get up to speed. He blows through the second level and has linebackers or box safeties try to get underneath him constantly, yet if someone does try to sit on him from off-alignment and deliver a punch, he would incorporate a rapid swim move to not get hung up with contact. He was utilized a ton as a vertical target, where he showed good recognition for when he’s cleared the ancillary coverage and should bring his head around. He can legitimately be used on deep over routes, either detached or from in-line position. And Chip Kelly used him to run off coverage or just clear out space for swing routes and stuff like that a lot too. His 18.3 yards per grab is indicative of that big-play ability. Off that kind of stuff, he can quickly sit down over the middle on hooks in the eight-to-ten-yard range with shallow crosser underneath him and shows strong hands to hold onto the ball through hits. Yet, he also doesn’t lose speed when breaking inside at ten plus yards and can run away from safeties sitting at that depth as a robber, as well as get guys leaned the wrong way with his stem and then plant to get outside. Last year, he scored a touchdown against Washington on a wicked stick-nod route. Overall, Dulcich confidently plucks the ball outside his frame and doesn’t have to slow down at all it seems like to secure the catch. He can catch the ball with his finger-tips at the end of his reach for beautiful over-the-shoulder grabs, such as the one he had against Cal.
This young man will pick up big yardage in a hurry with those long strides in YAC situations. He twists and turns through tackles, to maximize what he can get out plays, which manifests itself in an average of exactly seven yards after catch and the same number of missed tackles forced. That’s why he ran quite a few side routes across the formation, to get him the ball in the flats and pick up chunks. Yet, when he catches some kind of crosser underneath on the run, he also displays the awareness for the hang defenders on the opposite side and cuts inside of him. He scored a 75-yard touchdown in the 2021 season-opener against LSU on one of those, where he slipped away from the defense off play-action, made a couple of tacklers miss at the sideline and got the scoring started for the Bruins. Dulcich also does a beautiful job of pushing the edge rusher upfield and spinning around to set up TE screens, where his quick acceleration led to good yardage usually. The UCLA standout has great thickness and muscle throughout his frame. There’s no lack of willingness or lower body strength to make an impact as a blocker. If you put a safety outside of him as the Y, he will create some displacement and open up a lane inside of him. He was asked to show off his mobility from the wing alignment, sifting across for kick-outs, leading up into the hole as an insert blocker or wrap around towards the opposite side. You like his ability to work up to off-ball defenders instantly on like wide zone concepts and creating room by getting movement on safeties or stand-up linebackers leveraged outside. He’s at his best as a blocker when getting out on the move and just covering up bodies on jet sweeps and such as. And he has the short-area burst to at least push scraping backside linebackers off track, who have the advantage on him by alignment.
With that being said, Dulcich gets very tall and his hands end up outside the frame of his defender constantly as a blocker. Routinely he will get his pads popped backwards and edge defenders are able to slip off him. His functional strength doesn’t really add up with his frame. Too often you’ll see him struggle to actually pin linebackers inside on plays out to the perimeter and a pulling lineman has to help out to secure the block. At this point, I’d say he’s more of a liability as an in-blocker at the NFL level. In pass-pro, it’s all about just putting his body in the way, with very little technique and sink in his hips to stay in control. He wasn’t asked to execute a lot of precise breaks and when he was asked to do those on quick-breaking routes, he would round them off quite significantly usually, such as sticks. He needs to learn how to reduce his size more effectively in that regard and use it in other ways, shielding the ball with a defender on his back.
In terms of a pure receiving option at the tight-end spot, I think Dulcich presents the best all-around package. His speed to pull away vertically and across the field, the plucky hands and gain yards after the catch make him somebody who can quickly punish a defense. At the Senior Bowl, his burst to threat vertically and the ability to separate on sharper 90-degree breaks was on display – particularly flexed out wide against linebackers. Now, the blocking is very underwhelming at this point. The leverage points, pad level and just all-around ability to maximize his power in that regard make him a big slot receiver at this stage of his career, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be more in the future. There’s very little in-line guys who can handle all of the blocking assignments year one. So I don’t mind it as much, that my team would have to build up that area of his game still, while he can already help me as a pass-catcher, since I feel like the “will” to is there.
3. Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina
6’4” ½, 240 pounds; SR
Just a two-star recruit in 2018, Likely’s numbers increased every single year with the Chanticeelers. He caught 30 passes for 601 yards and five touchdowns as a junior, As a senior, he basically doubled his receptions and touchdowns, with 922 yards (in three more games) and really burst onto the national scene, while making first-team All-Sun Belt for the second year in a row.
While Likely looks more like an oversized receiver, he certainly doesn’t lack the willingness to bang into bodies in the run game. Routinely you’ll see him blast into contact at high speed and create a knock-back effect on defenders in space. What I appreciate about that aspect of his game is how he keeps those legs churning and the attitude he brings to the table. You see him get out in front and clear the way quite a bit on sweeps, surprising some defenders with the force he can deliver. He urgently works up to the second level and delivers a good bump on defenders at contact. And he has the speed to quickly work up to safeties from 12-15 yard depth out of the slot or as the single to his side and actually deny them the ability to run the alley. Likely puts in some good work as a stalk blocker, cutting off angles and giving ball-carriers room to operate, by taking away the space to leverage the ball. Plus, he showcases the loose hips to transition to another defender as he identifies a bigger threat on the fly. Likely was primarily lined up at wing or H-back for the Chanticleers in run formations, motioned back and forth across the line constantly and being used on a lot of insert and sift blocks as part of that option run game, as well as wrapping around all the way from the backside getting out in front of the pitch-man. Something you see quite a bit is that even when he slips off the first man, he’s looking to engage with somebody else.
In the pass game, Likely runs with his chin out in front and dude can run once he’s rolling. You see him get even with the outside receiver after just a couple of steps, who are a good step in front by alignment. He consistently puts safeties on their heels as he pushes vertically towards them and that way he can create room as he breaks towards the post or corner off one step. Thanks to his burst off the ball, he also sets up short out routes and creates separation bending off the inside foot for easy yardage against off-coverage. From tight-alignment, he releases off the line with strong hands to swipe edge defenders by and not delay his stem and he uses those well mid-route to slightly push off or get to the opposite side of the man, plus he already changes up his footwork on the fly effectively to avoid defenders in space. At CCU, you saw Likely really works those intermediate areas of the field and QB Grayson McCall had trust in him, showing great concentration with a defender on his back. He effortlessly catches passes thrown slightly behind him, without having to slow down whatsoever and his focus doesn’t face as he enters traffic, which is backed up by just one single drop on 60 catchable targets last season. Once the reception is secured, he shows the speed to split creases in the defense, he can stop on a dime to slide inside of pursuit defenders, hit little dead-leg moves and he uses his off-arm extremely well to swipe away the reach of defenders and not allow them to grab his jersey. Off the stuff they do in the run game, Likely was tasked with plenty of slide routes and crossers for YAC opportunities, because of how quickly he eats up ground with the ball in his hands. And a couple of times, they would wheel him up the sideline off those and get behind the underneath coverage. Last season, he finished top ten in 20+ yards receptions (seven) and missed tackles forced (ten) at the position. That includes a 99-yard house call against Arkansas State, on a day where he caught eight passes for 232 yards and four(!) TDs altogether.
The want is certainly there, but Likely’s rather narrow frame and lack of girth in his lower body limit his ability to be an asset as an in-line blocker. He routinely has to slightly step back at the point of attack against physical edge-setters and is much better putting hands on people whilst on the move. Even when he was theoretically at Y, it was mostly working up to the second level and trying to get the ball out to the perimeter. You have to question if you ever wanted him truly on the ball for extended stretches. Along with that, Likely isn’t the most precise route-runner necessarily and doesn’t show any more intricate breaks. A lot of production was schemed up for him with run-after-catch plays, where he had plenty of green grass in front of him. Not that it really makes me wonder if he’s actually fast, but a 4.8 in the flat at his pro day makes you scratch your head. What I do question is Likely’s ability to contribute in contested catch situations, as he hauled in just four of the ten opportunities he received, and with arms just below 32 inches long, along with not having the widest frame to negate an angle on the pass, it limits his ability to win at the catch point.
So we’ve had the all-rounder now in Colorado State’s Trey McBride, more of the route-runner and seam threat in UCLA’s Greg Dulcich and we’ll get to a couple of versatile blocker next. Likely is kind of in his own bucket, because I don’t look at him as somebody who will defenders up in man-coverage or blown defenders off the line in the run-game necessarily, but he’s an excellent space blocker, whether it’s out of the slot or climbing up to the back-seven, and he’s a major threat after the catch. To me he’s an H-back/F move option, who can be a very productive player with a creative offensive coordinator. At the Senior Bowl, his urgency off the ball, to stem vertically and force his defender to get on his heels was different to the rest of his group. And then his quickness as a route-runner was pretty impressive as well. So the potential to become somebody who wins without the ball more regularly is clearly ther, which is also indicated by his 2.99 yards per route run (first among draft-eligible TEs).
4. Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State
6’5” ½, 250 pounds; SR
The number two tight-end recruit in 2018, behind only Miami’s Brevin Jordan, Ruckert only appeared in one game as a freshman and caught one pass. Then he didn’t quite crack 300 yards over the following two seasons combined, with how many weapons the Buckeyes had at receiver, but a third of his 27 catches (9) were for touchdowns. As a senior, he put up career-highs with 26 grabs for 309 yards, along with three TDs, making him an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection.
This guy has a rocked-out body and bad intentions in the run game. Ruckert really drives his feet through blocks at the point of attack and opens up the C-gap. He shows the flexibility to attach to off-ball defenders on wide zone runs and sustain contact whilst covering plenty of ground and putting them on the ground on multiple occasions. He’s not somebody people will crash through on zone runs away from him and he was frequently asked to come across the formation and kick out backside edge defenders on split zone runs, where he bangs into the near-shoulder of the man and stymies their pursuit. Ohio State motioned him towards the edge of the tackle and across the line on a large percentage of snaps, to make best use of his blocking prowess, where it was on the sift blocks, pinning edge defenders inside to get the ball out to the perimeter and a bunch of other tasks. The Buckeyes used him as a lead-blocker on power from the backside quite a bit too, where he could dig safeties and linebackers out of the lane, after the guard executed the kickout. From bunch sets and reduced splits, he showed the understanding that he doesn’t have to drive overhang/slot defenders off the ball, but rather just establishes inside position and seals them off effectively. The same is true when being asked to wall off guys in pursuit on like swing screens and tosses when detached from the line, even though he’s more than willing to ear-hole linebacker at full charge. Watching Ruckert’s urgency to go after corners and safeties on wide receiver screens and how he often drove them out to the sideline was really fun to watch. Pro Football Focus credited him with nine big-time blocks in 2021. He was also asked to clear the edge for the quarterback to roll out towards – often after being motioned in – and did so in excellent fashion.
Overall in the pass game, Ruckert is more unproven than lacking capability. He’s one of the few guys who can actually effectively stem his routes from the Y spot, he runs with his pads over his knees and effectively squares his feet to set up 90-degree breaks. Yet, he can also stick his foot in the ground and turn back to the quarterback in one step on hitch routes. He has the strength to not allow zone defenders to bump him of track and shows good awareness for when to work back towards his quarterback and put himself in front of the coverage behind him. Ruckert possesses just over ten-inch hands, which swallow the ball, and he dropped just one of 40 catchable targets last season. He has the frame to sufficiently box out defenders and not allow them to crowd the catch, along with strong paws to gain possession even if somebody swipes at one of his arms. He also does a nice job of neutralizing edge rushers and then still getting out on delayed releases as a reliable check-down target. And then once he’s secured the grab, Ruckert’s size and physical make him a problem to deal with on the move, where he’s looking to bull-doze defenders in his way. Five broken tackles (on 26 receptions) is pretty good on its own, but with this guy it’s more about just powering ahead for a couple of extra yards consistently. That’s why the Buckeyes wanted to get him rumbling off bootlegs, where he would slip into the flats after taking the kick-out block or peeling off the end-man to that side and the quarterback could just dump it off to him. If the ball is completed to one of his teammates, he is looking for work and takes smaller defenders in the secondary off their feet a couple of times every game it seems like.
With that being said, Ruckert simply doesn’t have much juice off the line as a route-runner or dynamic ability to hit another gear out of his breaks. There’s so many run-offs and hooks over the middle to set up hie receivers on shallow crossers underneath, which is reflected in his absurdly low 0.79 yards per route run. And that’s not on him with how the Ohio State offense is structured, but with such a highly-touted recruit, you’d like the coaches to make it more of a priority to get him involved in the pass game. Only once did he hit five receptions in a game and he saw just three targets a game even last season (his most productive one), with one catch of 20+ air yards. Once the ball is in his hands, it looks like he’s really straining out there and still linebackers are able to run him down in pursuit. There’s not a lot to criticize about Ruckert as a blocker, but he’s at times a little late to come off combos with the tackle against attacking linebackers and because he’s so aggressive himself, he can be caught with his weight too far out in front and falling off blocks.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a testing profile on Ruckert, because that would have been very interesting to project what kind of potential he has as a receiver. He could only do the bench press (22 reps) at the combine and his pro day. There’s no indication that he will be a dominant pass-catcher at the next level, because there simply wasn’t any nuance or diversity to that part of his game. However, what we do know is that he’s a rock-solid all-around blocker, who can be a major factor in-line in any scheme, that he doesn’t drop the ball usually and that there’s no nonsense after the catch, running straight through defenders in his way. In a run-heavy offense that doesn’t feature the tight-end much down the field, he can be a number one, and he can definitely be a great TE2 for you.
5. Cade Otton, Washington
6’5”, 250 pounds; RS JR
Slightly outside the top-500 overall recruits in 2017, Otton combined for 776 yards and eight touchdowns on 63 grabs through his first three years with the Huskies (23 games), whilst his per-game production increased every season. In 2021 his total of 28 catches for 250 yards and one TD weren’t as impressive – especially his effectiveness – but he did have to play in a very anemic Washington passing “attack” (and missed a couple of weeks).
Washington put Otton at the tip of bunch sets and as the single receiver on the backside at times, but he’s a true Y. The two things that really stand out about him are his accurate hand-placement and non-stop, relentless leg drive as a blocker. He shows the dexterity to contort his upper body and stay attached to defenders and fights hard to not allow guys to crash the C-gap. You see him cave in the end and allow the RB to cut back behind him. On zone-combos, he works well with the tackle to secure the down-man and come off at the right moment, while choosing his angles appropriately away from the play-direction. And Otton can absolutely jack up the end-man at the line of the backside on split zone schemes, as he accelerates into contact. The former Husky also does a great job of pinning D-ends inside on toss plays, but was also pulled out to the perimeter himself quite a bit on those or jet sweeps and routinely took defensive backs for a ride. And overall, he just continues stay engaged with his man and guiding them around the field, allowing ball-carriers to cut behind him. This is one of the few guys at the position, who you can legitimately leave in protection against outside pass-rushers, thanks to operating from a wide base, keeping his hands inside their chest and staying balanced, due to active footwork. You don’t see long-arm maneuvers throw him off kilter a whole lot. He also does a great job of staying engaged with edge defenders on play-action and riding them past the quarterback once they try to get around the corner. Otton had several highly impressive snaps against Michigan’s duo of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo as a blocker – in the run and pass game.
As physical as he is as a blocker, he’s a pretty fluid, big receiver. Otton does a great job of settling in between the hook-defenders on quick spot routes over the middle and shows sufficient awareness for ancillary coverage overall. He has an advanced understanding for the pacing of routes and when to look back at the quarterback, such as clearing the second level and then slowing down to not run into the safety on routes down the seams. You see him widen the corner on in-breakers if there’s nobody lined up outside of him in three-by-one sets. He also reduces his frame well as he works around defenders, to not get hung up with contact. However, at the same time he utilizes lean-ins and subtle push-offs to his advantage routinely. Washington had him run quite a few pivot routes, because of how balanced working back out, after aiming at the linebacker. And he displays a natural feel for adjusting his routes and making himself available as his quarterback is forced to move around. Otton catches the ball confidently with good extension, tracks over either shoulder with easy body-control and quickly pulls it into his stomach. Once the ball is in his hands, he likes to drop the shoulder on defenders and will never go down without a fight. He ran a ton of flat routes – often times after delivering chips – and was always good for quick yardage on those.
With that being said, there are just some physical limitations that will hinder Otton’s potential at the next level – particularly as a pass-catcher. His arms are a quarter of an inch short of 33 (inches) and hands are only 9 ½ inches, giving him a disadvantage against long NFL edge rushers. Technically he’s pretty clean, but he could do a better job of establishing the inside-foot to seal backside edge defenders on zone concepts and not allow them to work across his face. Otton simply isn’t somebody who will stress defenses vertically down the seams and he isn’t very explosive out of his breaks. You see him allow DBs to re-enter the catch window against them after he got a couple of steps on them being held in the flats initially. That lack of vertical prowess reflects in the fact that he only has 23 career catches on passes 10+ yards downfield and he averaged just 4.3 yards after the catch this past season. The fact the Husky coaches had him in pass-pro rather than the pattern in some must-have situations is kind of telling. And the one issue he has in his pass-protection is that the tends to lean forward too much, making him susceptible to push-pull maneuvers.
This is one of those evaluations, where I think you just know what you’re going to get. Otton is a versatile blocker, who is a plus in-line with a multitude of duties, you can trust him to find open spots in zone coverage and he has only dropped six of 97 career catchable targets. To me he is Drew Sample plus – another former Husky and now-Bengal – which may not sound super exciting to people, but a lot of teams would love to have a guy like that as their TE2, either as a versatile piece in a run-heavy offense or somebody who allows you to move your F or H around (depending on the offensive language). To me he’s worth a pick right in that 100-range.
6. Charlie Kolar, Iowa State
6’6” ½, 255 pounds; SR
Outside the top-1000 overall recruits back in 2017, Kolar only caught seven passes as a redshirt freshman, but scored on three of those. He was named a first-team All-Big 12 performer in each of the last three years, catching 161 combined passes for 2044 yards and 20 touchdowns, with career-highs coming as a senior (62 catches-756 yards-six TDs).
This guy has been quarterback Brock Purdy’s favorite target in that Cyclone offense over these last three years, especially on third and fourth downs. This past season in particular, he caught less than four passes just once. Kolar really works the middle of the field with hook, stick and slant patterns. He runs a tremendous corner route versus man-coverage, where gives a violent jab step and head-snap to create separation against inside leverage. The ISU standout incorporates little head-fakes and leans as a route-runner, such as stuttering his feet momentarily along with it to indicate the break and sliding inside of safeties in off man-coverage. He shows variety in his step-sequencing to gain leverage, can force contact and disengage from it by leaning in as he pushes the other way. And on deeper crossing routes, he purposefully takes a steeper angle initially, before curving to a flatter path. Kolar is so patient as a route-runner and eventually gets himself open usually. And he displays advanced awareness for soft spots in zone coverages, adjusting his pace to maximize cover-two honey-holes, sitting down between hook-defenders and splitting the distance well between second- and third-level coverage. Kolar is a natural hands-catcher overall who makes excellent body adjustments with the ball in the air, while his 34 ½-inch arms and ten-inch hands allow him to grab passes off the top shelf routinely. He tracks the ball beautifully over either shoulder. When he has a defender on his back or in contested catch situations in general, he displays good concentration and brings the ball in quickly. He doesn’t usually short-arm passes in traffic, even if he has to elevate for it, and you rarely see him let a ball go, even if he feels a big hit coming in. Overall, he dropped only five of 173 catchable targets in his career.
Another big reason why Kolar was such a consistent chain-mover for the Cyclones was his ability to find green grass as his quarterback gets into scramble mode, whether it’s flattening the angle of his routes to match the passer, falling off as his defenders tries to undercut or whatever else is needed. Then he has those strong hands and already is very cognizant of the sideline and getting his feet in bounds. Once Kolar has secured the catch, there’s no nonsense usually, turning upfield and getting across the marker, which he seems to always know where it is. As a blocker, he does well to engage with defenders initially and drive his feet, even if he may not overwhelm anybody. He has plenty of experience working in-line and shows the effort to stay with his man, to give the ball-carrier room to operate, particularly sealing guys on the backside, thanks to good angles. Working up to the second level, he consistently breaks down and puts himself in front of guys. Flexed out wide, he’s very good at making up the space to and getting the chest of cornerbacks. And overall in space, he displays the awareness to ID the biggest threat and sufficiently adjusts his angles to shield them from getting to the ball – particularly in the quick screen game.
However, Kolar does let the ball get into his body too much for my liking, when he could easily extend for it, especially in jump-ball situations, which will allow NFL defenders to swipe it out of his hands. He’s not a very explosive athlete and his lanky build limits the ability to sink his hips and create separation out of his breaks, which is indicated by an FBS-high 18 contested catches at TE spot. He’s not a very physical route-runner, getting hung up with contact at times to defenders with hands-on approaches. Too often he’s slowed down or slightly knocked off track at least. Kolar won’t threaten a defense with deep speed (just one catch of 20+ air yards in ’21) or after the catch (3.7 yards per), where he goes down too easily. And all of his career touchdowns have come in the red-zone, telling you he won’t offer any big plays necessarily. As a blocker, Kolar tries to keep his head out of contact to a negative extent, not being able to bring all his force into contact, and often times he wants to deliver a strike with his hands so bad, that his hands slip off and he completely loses control. And you see guys disengage from him as the ball approaches on several occasions. Overall, I don’t look at him as more of a positional blocker and big slot receiver.
Athletically, Kolar doesn’t nearly present the same profile as those top three guys at the position, but he is a very crafty player with a good feel for space and natural pass-catching skills. Nobody at the position has been more consistent in terms of his receiving abilities, although his blocking is pretty underwhelming. It almost feels sacrilegious to mention his name, but think of a less athletic Travis Kelce, without the after-catch stuff and speed to run by people. I think you’ll have to pair him with a blocking tight-end, but Kolar to me can be the primary receiving option at the position for his future team. His consistency in college was highly impressive, with three straight seasons of PFF grades at 84.9+.
7. Jelani Woods, Virginia
6’7”, 260 pounds; RS SR
A three-star quarterback recruit from a spread offense, who led his school (Cedar Grove) to their first championship in the state of Georgia (defeating Texans QB Davis Mills), Woods used his redshirt year at Oklahoma State to transition to the tight-end position. In 34 career games (28 starts), he caught 31 passes combined for 112 to 129 yards respectively, making honorable mention All-Big 12 in each of them. He transferred ahead of the 2021 season and became a much bigger threat as a receiver, hauling in 44 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns, making him a first-team All-ACC selection.
Woods was primarily a blocking tight-end at OSU, lining up at Y, H- and even fullback, in the role they call “Cowboy Back”. He’s probably at his best sealing backside edge defenders by getting himself in position with his first step, establishing contact with those long arms and forcing guys to go through his 260 pounds. If he’s the single receiver to his side and the cornerback slides inside, he guides them back towards his end-zone to take them out of the action, as they try to chase after the ball. He has plenty of experience (with the Cowboys) lining up in the backfield and being brought across to lead the way on quarterback runs for example. When his hands are latched to the chest of defenders and he can drive his feet, Woods can definitely ride them away from the action. And overall, his length gives him room for error in that area. Woods can bind edge defenders on the backside of split zone schemes by lowering the shoulder on them and taking away their charge, often times making their pads pop straight up. His large frame allows him cover up bodies in space as a slot receiver and overall opening up space for receivers to operate on jet sweeps.
As a receiver, Woods reminds me a lot of Colts tight-end Mo Alie-Cox, in terms of a giant with that gliding speed, long arms and strong hands. Even at Oklahoma State, you see flashes of his ability to streak open down the seams, clearing the second level in a hurry. On dig and shallow post routes, he carries that accelerate well through those cuts, producing a bunch of 15-yard gains in front of the safeties. Woods actually spent 74 percent of pass plays in-line, where he showed the ability to get into his routes with an effective swim-move and he has the physicality to effectively work through contact. With 34-inch arms and a massive 82-inch wingspan, his catch radius is enormous and you see it on balls thrown behind him down the seams, where other would have to elevate, but he can just turn, pluck it and keep running. Yet, if he has to get up for it, he puts some very impressive high-point catches on tape. With his big frame, it’s also tough for defenders to reach around him and knock the ball down, which made him very tough to stop on routes down the seams after widening his defender initially, to create that inside leverage. That’s indicated by his 11 contested catches this past season. Woods actually had the same amount of missed tackles forced (11) and gained 149 yards after contact, because once the ball is in his hands, he becomes a freight train, not slowing down as he approaches awaiting defenders and you see a bunch of people just bounce off him.
Despite having a ton of experience as an in-line blocker, Woods doesn’t showcase the football IQ in that regard to quickly execute his assignments. Too often when the picture isn’t clear because he might have to engage with a down-lineman, he’s slow to get off the line and put himself in front of linebackers. He gets run past routinely by the ball-carrier before he can put hands on a defender and looks around for bodies in space rather than just targeting somebody to attach to. Against smaller defenders in space, his hands tend to land outside their frame and he tends to grab. Looking at him as a receiver, the obvious question to ask here first is why Oklahoma State didn’t make it more of a priority to feature an athletic talent like him in that regard. And why I would say the Cowboy coaches should have allowed him to grow in that area, there’s certainly saw rawness to his game in that regard. It’s more build-up speed with him, his breaks are far more rounded than square and he tends to draft quite a bit in his routes. And he’s not the most natural pass-catcher, letting the ball get into his body, not always having his hand positioned properly before it gets there and putting several double-catches on tape.
The meteoric rise of Jelani Woods was really kicked off by his historic combine performance, where at 253 pounds, he ran a 4.61 in the 40 (second-best among TEs) and led the group with 24 reps on the bench press despite his long arms, before he put up elite numbers in the jumps and close to it in the agility drills at the UVA pro day. However, a moment that stood out to me in Indy was when he when he slipped on a simple dig route and I just think if he’s forced to execute precise breaks, he doesn’t have great balance and body control necessarily. His size and length made him a very attractive target for those West QB at the East-West Shrine Bowl though. To me he is hyper-athletic project, who has the potential to be the best tight-end of this class, but he’s pretty far from it at this point. And he will be a 24-year-old rookie.
8. Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin
6’5”, 245 pounds; SR
A top-500 overall recruit in 2017, through his 47 career games (shortened Big Ten season in 2020), Ferguson combined for 145 catches worth 1618 yards and 13 touchdowns, with very consistent production on a yearly basis. He was the second-highest graded tight-end already in 2018 by Pro Football Focus and finished as a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2021, catching a career-high 46 passes for 450 yards and three TDs.
Ferguson brings a strong, filled-out frame to the table. He really gets into it as a blocker, holding D-ends to stalemates and physically winning those matchups with defenders at his size or below in space. He has plenty of experience overall with his hand in the ground, executing seal blocks and kick-outs. He consistently lands his hands under the pads of D-ends on angular blocks and raises those up. And what I really like about him as a blocker in space is that he gets chest-to-chest with those defenders and keeps his feet moving. Ferguson packs some thump at contact, when you see him flatten linebackers from the side, who blitz the gap, and he’s seemingly not even yet ready to initiate contact. The Badgers motioned him into the backfield as a fullback basically and showed good acceleration into lead-blocks on iso-runs. He also works well through combos with the tackle up to the inside linebacker and creates a nice cave-in for the back to operate behind. And in general, hem displays the grip strength and ability to re-catch by balance after being knocked sideways momentarily and sustain his block. He has improved his run-blocking and overall grade by Pro Football Focus in each of the last three years.
At least equally as impressive, Ferguson has been able to produce as a receiver throughout his career despite being in a very underwhelming passing offense throughout. The Badgers targeted him a lot on stick and hook routes for quick yardage from a tight or wing alignment, along with some corner routes to back off the safety. And then they would work in-between the hashes a bunch, with crossers at different depths and dig routes. Ferguson presents himself as a target over the middle once he’s entered a throwing window, by settling down and displaying his hands to the quarterbacks. You see the awareness to adjust his routes to create an angle for the ball to arrive later into plays routinely. The times he was targeted downfield, he shows no problem tracking the ball over either shoulder and can also pluck it over the heads of defenders. He shows no fear of extending for the ball in crowded areas and has made a bunch of tough catches, with a hit incoming just as he got his hands on the pass. Then he shows some shiftiness and power after the catch, especially if guys try to come in too hot. And with his feel for open space and size, he can contribute in red zone. He scored three touchdowns in the 2020 season-opener versus Illinois. Ferguson has showcased the ability to stay square to defenders coming off the edge with active feet on some pass-pro reps and delivers effective chips before releasing out – a lot of times into the flats as a reliable checkdown option.
With that being said, Ferguson rarely catches the ball at full extension, often times under-handing throws to his chest and if he has to reach up for it suddenly, it can slip through his hands at times. He doesn’t show the quick-twitch or flexibility to react accordingly to passes that are slightly off target. The stats only show ten career drops, because he has large paws, but the process is a bit flawed. At Wisconsin, he benefitted from rarely being matched against space players in the pattern. He’s not somebody who will really scare a defense with running past guys vertically and his breaks are pretty rounded. Ferguson isn’t very elusive and has to do a better job of reducing his frame to avoid getting hung up with defenders in his routes. He won’t blow you away with great speed and super athletic moves in the open field. As a blocker, he gets too far out in front of his toes at times and aggressive upfield defenders in the C-gap have knocked him to the turf on several occasions.
Other than his height, all the other physical measurables for Ferguson are below-average, along with a mediocre 4.81 in the 40 and just 15 reps on the bench press being put up at the combine. So he’s not somebody who NFL defenses will be worried about producing big plays at a regular basis, but he’s a more than adequate in-line blocker and a reliable pass-catcher in the underneath areas. At the Senior Bowl game, he ran some nice routes and made stuff happen after the catch, scoring a touchdown off a misdirection crosser on a bootleg. He may not present the athletic upside for teams to look at him as a starter, but for a team looking for a prototypical Y, he can be on the field as long as you don’t get to very long downs.
9. James Mitchell, Virginia Tech
6’4”, 250 pounds; JR
A top-500 overall recruit as a wide receiver in 2018, Mitchell caught 47 passes for 804 yards and 11 touchdowns through his first two years with the Hokies following a redshirt year. He was named a team captain ahead of the 2021 seasons, but unfortunately didn’t even play two full games (5-42-1), before being lost for the year with a torn ACL.
Mitchell first made me look up his name when I watched film of Khalil Herbert and ACC defenders a year ago. He works with controlled steps blocking down on edge-defenders with a flat back and his inside hand latched onto the near shoulder-pad, while keeping his feet moving. The former Hokie does a nice job of keeping his body in front of defenders on the front-side of wide zone runs and allowing the back to keep pressing that way. And on the backside of a lot of lateral schemes, he stays balanced from a wide base with his feet mostly parallel to not allow him to crash or run down the back around the edge. Yet he can also take over down-linemen on scoop-blocks or give a helping hand and progress. Mitchell easily pins linebackers on the inside when the ball goes out to the perimeter or cuts sealing safeties on the backside, who walked up into the box against two-tight sets, thanks to taking the according angles to cut off their path. And he shows a feel for when to come off combos or just get a piece of somebody, to give the ball-carrier room to operate. Overall, he’s light on his feet to climb up to the second level and doesn’t typically get knocked back on contact against inside backers. Mitchell is one of the best stalk-blockers on screen passes, thanks to his athletic lower half and active feet, plus once his hands are inside the frame of DBs, they usually stay there. That’s why Virginia Tech put him in stacks and bunches out wide quite a bit and had that little slip screen as their backside alert in the run game.
The VT tight-end displays good burst off the line and pretty elusive with working around contact, as he’s running crossing routes and avoids getting bumped or slide past flowing linebackers off play-action. He doesn’t get low into his breaks really, but he has a way of stopping his momentum by keeping his center of gravity underneath himself and being light on his feet. Virginia had him wheel up the sideline off motions, plus then they had him snap those off for hitches. Mitchell is so good at tracking the ball, when it comes in over his head, but also to work back towards underthrown passes and then the concentrate to haul them in with a defender all over him. All-around he shows excellent concentration to bring in catches, with defenders contesting or even deflecting it at times. And he does not short-arm the ball if he sees the safety barrel down on him and has made some grabs with a big-time hit coming in. He shows the flexibility and sticky hands to pluck the ball from below his knees without having to come to a full stop and the strong fingertips to hold onto over-the-head catches just at the end of his reach. Altogether, he only dropped three of 55 catchable targets in his career. Mitchell smoothly turns upfield, can stop quickly to slide inside of pursuit defenders, but he also is happy to drop the shoulder and run through guys in open space. And Mitchell is outstanding at turning into a blocker as he sees the ball completed underneath or the quarterback decides to take off, knowing where the closest defender is and squaring that guy up, actually driving through contact
With that in mind, Mitchell is not an overpowering blocker at the point of attack, to widen the C-gap. On the backside, physical edge defenders can ride him down the line at times at plug the cutback lanes, while closer to the action opponents are able to squeeze him into the lane at times. In the pass game, there’s too much a back-step when trying to release from tight/wing alignments, delaying him in the stem of his routes. He doesn’t have that extra burst to separate down the field against defenders in trail position. And there’s a lack of speed to pull away from the pursuit of the secondary. The one legitimate defense he faced over these last two year – Clemson – held him to three receptions for just 11 yards. And I’d say he has a pretty average athletic profile in general. Plus, of course he’s coming off that knee surgery, which won’t help with his top-end speed.
While moving around a bit like a basketball player out in the pattern – going back his time on the court in high school – Mitchell also shows the willingness and physicality to be a quality asset blocking in-line. He may not impress with his natural speed or power, but he’s a crafty player, who brings the right effort all-around. The torn ACL will push him down boards and I would feel a bit better about his evaluation if I had testing numbers on him, but I believe Mitchell can be a productive receiver at all three levels and if you utilize his ability to block on the move, he can help you open up the playbook, particularly as an H-back who can motion around the formation.
T.-10. Cole Turner, Nevada
6’6” ½, 245 pounds; SR
A three-star WR recruit at under 200 pounds in 2018, Turner put on weight for his final two seasons and was very productive at the tight-end spot. Over that stretch, he caught 111 passes for 1282 yards and 19 touchdowns, making first- and second-team All-Mountain West respectively.
Looking at his role with the Wolfpack, Turner was basically big slot/move tight-end. His burst from five to 15 yards is excellent and he caught a bunch of deep in-breakers and benders, along with hitches/hooks over the middle. Can snap off curls on the outside pretty effectively, often paired with pushing off on the corner. And he shows signs of being able to defeat press-coverage – primarily when flexed out wide – with a quick one-two at the line and swiping down the hands of the defender. Turner displays an advanced understanding for pacing his routes and setting up defenders. Against MIKE linebackers in Tampa-2, he can measure his speed when approaching them and then hitting another gear to create separation on that guy and split the safeties- And you see that at times against safeties, where he slightly raises and sells the break, before getting behind them. He does a nice job of slowing himself down as he enters the cover-two honey-hole and overall settles in nicely against zone coverages and finding a soft spot, between the second and third level, while floating deeper if there’s somebody crowding the window underneath. Addressing the football, Turner is a natural hands catcher, who shows great concentration and toughness hauling in passes over the middle. And he shields the ball with his back and hauls in passes thrown behind him on multiple occasions, at times with a defender delivering a hit just after, where he’s still able to hang onto the ball. He beautifully pirouette’s around to the back-shoulder down the sideline and reaching behind the helmet of trailing linebackers down the middle. Nevada split him out wide a lot and they even threw him some goal-line fades. Against Fresno State in 2020 Carson Strong put it up there for him three times – two resulted in touchdowns and the other earned a flag for pass interference. Overall, he hauled in 17 contested catches this past season (tied for second-most among draft-eligible TEs). And he does a great job of recognizing when his quarterback gets on the run and breaking out to the sideline for a clean throw, whilst showing the awareness to tip-toe in bounds.
Turner instantly transitions upfield after catching hook routes and other underneath stuff. Then he can quickly eat up ground when he can stride it out and is good at giving defenders a little wiggle, to force them to freeze their feet momentarily. When having defenders in his face as a slot receiver, he consistently lands his hands inside their chest and keep them away from the action on inside runs. He was asked to block inside linebackers from a detached number three alignment in trips, where the defender clearly had a positional advantage, but Turner was able to at least ride them further that way and allow the back to cut behind them. And he’s very good at stalk-blocking with the ball going out to the perimeter, particularly in the quick screen game, getting in front of DBs in controlled fashion, keeping his elbows in tight as he establishes contact and his feet moving, to stay in control. Yet, if he has a longer runway, he typically clears a lane as well for one of his teammates to cut underneath. I thought at the Senior Bowl, Turner also showed some power as an in-line blocker, even though he wasn’t asked to do that a lot in college. And along with that, you saw some nice awareness for defenders around him on longer-developing routes.
On the negative side, while you like the ability to pace his routes, Turner tends to get rather choppy with his steps and I’m just sure if his approach will fly the same way in the NFL. When he has to accelerate those, he tends to round off his breaks. His testing number were fairly average and he only had a 27-inch vertical jump. You see that in contested catch situations on the sideline, where Turner tends to underhand the ball, instead of meeting it with the diamond, as receiver coaches teach it. And then of course, Turner is almost completely unproven as a prototypical tight-end. He only spent 74 snaps in-line on passing snaps and he was rarely asked to contribute as a blocker from that spot. The few times we did see it, he got rocked back by linebackers when working up to them usually. He doesn’t have much shock in his hands and because of his lanky build, he struggles to sink and roll his hips through contact to create displacement. I wouldn’t expect much in that regard (at least early on) going from the Mountain West to the NFL.
I believe with Turner, you’re looking at a slippery, clever route-runner, who may need to become a little more efficient in that regard, but he can get open from anywhere across the formation and then catches the ball exceptionally well in crowded areas typically. His understanding of coverages and how to make subtle adjustments on the fly, combined with the toughness to hold onto the ball through big hits really stood out to me. I think the willingness as a blocker is there to use him as an H-back to some degree, but he’ll be at his best detached from the line. There’s certainly a difference in overall talent, but Turner could be a slightly lesser version of Mike Gesicki in the right system.
T.-10. Chigoziem Okonkwo, Maryland
6’2”, 240 pounds; SR
A three-star recruit out of high school, Okonkwo more than doubled his receptions, yards and touchdowns through his three years with the Terrapins (missed 2020 with a medical issue). His final season, he caught 52 passes for 447 yards and five touchdowns, making honorable mention All-Big Ten for the second time.
Okonkwo is starting to get on the national radar to some degree once he ran a combined-best 4.52 in the 40 for a tight-end. That directly translates when you watch his burst off the snap to clear the second level almost instantly when working downfield. He has some wiggle to him off the line from the Y-alignment and can take linebackers vertically in a hurry when left in man-coverage, while reducing the near-shoulder to zone defenders in order to not have to slow down, while being pretty sudden with jumping inside of guys who have him leveraged one way. Then he’s dynamic with the way he’s able to hammer his feet into the turf and break outside on deeper in- or out-routes. And once the ball is in his hands, this guy hits another gear and he becomes a very tough tackle, because he has the burst to pull away from pursuit, he can land well-placed stiff-arms to push people or run right through them, with the strong lower body to shrug them off. Maryland used him on some leak routes into the flats after sifting underneath the formation or on delayed releases and he would just rumble downhill like a mad man. They put the ball into his hands on shovel passes, a couple of tight-end screens after acting like he was in protection initially and some other ways.
The first thing that was apparent to me about Okonkwo as a blocker is that he does a great job of sealing backside edge defenders with a rapid first step to establish his position, and against wider alignments, he can actually accelerate into contact and open up the C-gap for a nice cutback lane. However, you can legitimately put him at the point of attack on wide zone concepts and he’ll pin the end inside, in order to allow the back to get out to the perimeter, as well as pick up late blitzers off the edge and riding them further outside to create a lane underneath. And Maryland certainly made use of his mobility as a blocker, whether it was leading up in the hole off pull up the B-gap from H-back alignments and actually delivering some pop on linebackers or cutting the backside edge defender on split zone, where he actually put guys like Michigan All-American Aidan Hutchinson on the ground. Despite certainly not being built like your typical in-line blocker, Okonwko was actually asked to stay in protection, where his agility to counter speed off the edge made him a valuable contributor. Going back to the Terrapins’ matchup with the Wolverines, he had some good snaps against David Ojabo, who couldn’t quite beat him around the corner. And they used him to pull defenders out of the box on those leak-out fakes, to open up space inside in the run game.
However, I don’t look at Okonkwo as somebody who will be a valuable in-line blocker for extended stretches at the pro level. He simply has too much of a narrow build and when physical edge defenders lined up to his outside shoulder are able to just lock out on him, there isn’t much movement being created at the point of attack. As a receiver, he doesn’t yet have an advanced understanding for route pacing and showing the awareness to not run himself into coverage. And overall, his role in the passing was very simplistic, putting the ball in his hands on routes out to the flats, sending him down the seams and some crossing routes sprinkled in, along with sitting down in the middle off those. I don’t think I saw a single route on tape with multiple breaks. Addressing the football can be a bit of an issue when the ball is put right on his chest (especially when just coming out of his break) or slightly behind him and overall he tends to let it get into his chest, which resulted in five drops last season.
While the great 40-time will certainly push him up the board, when I watched Okonkwo during East-West Shrine practices, I wrote down that he could be a sleeper in this tight-end class, thanks to the athletic skill-set and YAC ability, that also seem to flash to some degree on every tape you put on. Now, you’re looking at a very specific skill-set in my opinion. I don’t want him playing much on the ball and having to create movement on guys that are just a few inches away from him, but rather as a wing and H-back, who is utilized as a move-blocker and run-after-catch specialist. Going through the film, he just reminds me so much of now-Patriot Jonnu Smith, who had quite a similar role at FIU and had a couple of very productive seasons with the Titans. I believe he would be an excellent addition to a team that is looking for their move option in the mold of Kyle Juszczyk. He’s not the same kind of blocker obviously and there’s just very few players with that kind diversity, but the willingness to open up room for his teammates and fulfill a multitude of assignments for his team is certainly there.
The next names up:
Grant Calcaterra (Oklahoma), Daniel Bellinger (San Diego State) & Jalen Wydermyer (Texas A&M)