The NFL draft season is officially upon us, but we’ve been in serious information-gathering mode for months now. Our Joe Dolan and Tom Brolley watch tons of college football each fall, and they've studied plenty of tape – we’ve included plenty of links for you to watch these prospects too. But we also lean heavily on our friends and sources around the league who not only watch more college football than we do, but they also closely scrutinize these pending rookies’ college tape.
While we’re a fantasy site and these players’ worth in our world won’t be clear until after the draft, we still like to stack these guys against each other based almost entirely on talent and their potential as they transition to the pros. We also break the players up into tiers in an effort to offer more insight into how they project to the NFL and the fantasy world.
Once the draft takes place on April 27-29, then it will be a lot easier to rank the rookies for the 2017 season – and we will in early May. We’ll also reset our long-term outlooks and re-rank the players for keeper and dynasty leagues.
1. O.J. Howard
The Crimson Tide criminally underused Howard as a receiver the last two years, but we’ve still seen enough of him to believe he can be cornerstone in a good passing game. He blew away most scouts away at the Senior Bowl by looking like a man among boys, which likely solidified his status as a first-round pick. He also shined the brightest in the last two national championship games. When they needed him the most in two shootouts against Clemson, Howard posted 5/208/2 receiving in 2015 and 4/106/1 in 2016. Those were the only two games in which he eclipsed 100+ receiving yards, and he ended his career with just 114/1726/7 in four seasons. He came to Alabama as a five-star recruit, and he played and started right away as a freshman for the best and deepest program in the NCAA. Top RB prospect Leonard Fournette ran an impressive 4.51 40-time at 6’1”, 240 pounds. Howard ran the same time despite checking in 11 pounds heavier and 5 inches taller. He also posted the best times at the position in the 3-cone drill (6.85 seconds), 20-yard (4.16), and 60-yard shuttle runs (11.46). According to mockdraftable.com, Howard ranks in the top 15% at the position in height, 40-yard dash, broad jump, 3-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle. The right OC could use him as a mismatch nightmare at 6’6”, 251 pounds, with long arms and big hands. He also has the frame to get even bigger once he gets into a NFL weight room. That’s bad news for defenders because he’s already a good blocker, which he needed to be in Alabama’s run-heavy offense. He accelerates like a receiver and is more of a speed guy than a power guy at this point. He will be a nightmare for linebackers to cover because of his speed and quickness, and defensive backs will struggle against him because of his size. Heck, he can run away from defensive backs too. Howard creates separation as a route runner and has good hands to be a dominant receiver for the position. We see a little bit of Greg Olsen because of the way he moves and his ability to lineup all over the field. The fact that he underperformed at Alabama is a little worrisome, and there are concerns that he could be passive or lacks passion for the game. Most teams will see a player who was just underutilized by Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban and a player who’s not a finished product, which is a bit of a rarity for Alabama prospects. Howard projects to be a much better pro than college player, and he could thrive in a more pass-heavy system. Like many rookie TE prospects, it won’t be easy for Howard to make an immediate fantasy impact, but he certainly has a high ceiling for the future with all of his athletic tools.
2. David Njoku
Njoku is the most intriguing TE prospect in this year’s draft because he’s incredibly raw and a freakish athlete. In high school, Njoku played wide receiver and was a national high jump champion with a 6’11” leap. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch and scored on 18.6% of his receptions (8 of 43) last year at Miami. Njoku needs plenty of polish as he comes to the league with just 9 career starts under his belt as a redshirt sophomore. In 2016, he worked in a TE committee and posted 43/698/8. He checked in with freaky long arms at 35¼”, and he measured out at at 6’4”, 246 pounds with 10” hands. It was no surprise that he killed the jumps with a 37½” vertical and a 11’1” broad jump. According to mockdraftable.com, Njoku ranks in the top 10% at the position in arm length, broad jump, and vertical jump. It’s no surprise that Njoku can go up and get the ball in jump-ball situations with his leaping ability. He’s also pretty graceful in the air, with good body control to come down with contested catches. He is a scary deep threat because of his vertical speed and his ability to track passes downfield. Njoku is quick out of his breaks and can quickly eat up yards after the catch, and he can be used all over the formation. He does have pretty strong hands but does have some drops on tape. Njoku won’t be confused for a developed blocker at this point, but he’s competitive at the point of attack and held his own despite a lack of experience. He needs refinement throughout his game, and he’ll look to fill out his body to become a better blocker. He was at least asked to block plenty in Mark Richt’s offense last season, so he has some experience coming into the league. Njoku could easily develop into a better pro once he gets a little more playing experience, and he has arguably more upside than top TE prospect O.J. Howard. He reminds us a bit of Eric Ebron coming out of North Carolina in 2014 because of their incredibly high ceilings and their rises up draft boards before the draft. Njoku is everything that any team would want in terms of athleticism for the position, and he should be able to make an immediate impact as a receiver. He’ll need to make progress as a blocker to be a three-down TE as a rookie, but he has the potential for stardom is certainly there.
3. Evan Engram
O.J. Howard and David Njoku appear to be locks for the first round, and Engram’s performance at the Combine has him fighting to be a Day 1 selection. He ran a blistering 4.42 in the 40-yard dash, which was the third-fastest time for the position since 2006. He actually had a better time than WRs A.J. Green and DeAndre Hopkins, and only 4 WRs from this class timed better than him. Engram didn’t disappoint in the jumps either, with a 36” vertical and 10’5” broad jump. It’s not surprising that he also fared well in the receiving gauntlet because of his athletic ability. Engram was a highly productive, four-year starter at Ole Miss, finishing his career with 162/2320/15 receiving in 43 starts. He led all TEs in receiving as a senior, posting 65/926/8 to earn first-team All-American honors. Engram was a two-time team captain, and he led the nation with 17.4 yards per catch back in 2014. He missed the final five games of his freshman season because of a high ankle sprain, which eventually needed surgery. Engram is just 6’3”, 234 pounds, so there are questions if he’s big enough to be a three-down TE. He’s been compared to Jordan Reed in the draft process, and he’s certainly athletic enough to be a matchup nightmare no matter where he lines up. He’s basically just a huge WR, separating with ease with his speed and dynamic route running. Engram is a natural receiver who stretches the middle of the field as a vertical threat. He skies to high-point jump balls, which makes him a threat in the red zone, but he does have some concentration drops. Engram certainly needs to improve as an inline blocker, and he’s never going to be known as blocker because of his size. Still, he improved as a senior in pass protection, and he showed willingness to block. He also actually fared well as an inline blocker at the Senior Bowl. Engram might be more of a move TE or an H-back with his smaller frame, but he can separate from defenders with his speed and he’s extremely athletic for the position. The best-case scenario is that he turns into a Reed type, and at the very least he should be in the same vein as Charles Clay. It could take a little time for his offensive coordinator to figure out how to effectively use him, but it should only be a matter of time before he’s a mismatch nightmare and a fantasy TE1.
Future Fantasy Starters
4. Bucky Hodges
Hodges looks more like a huge WR and Virginia Tech essentially used him like a WR, splitting him out wide most of the time. He finished his career with 133/1747/20 receiving, and he earned Freshman All-American honors. He’s a converted dual-threat QB out of high school before moving to TE in college and playing out on the perimeter, so he’s an exceptional athlete for the position. Our guy Greg Cosell watched every one of Hodges’ targets in five games, and he didn’t see a single play with him lined up inline (yes, you read that correctly). However, he played a little more inline in the old offense before Justin Fuente’s spread system showed up last season. He’s yet another freak TE in this class, setting a new position record for the broad jump with a leap of 11”2’ at the Combine, and he was the top TE in the vertical with 39” jump. Hodges also ran an impressive 4.57 in the 40-yard dash. He struggled a bit in the gauntlet and blocking drills, and he had surprisingly short arms (32½") for his frame. He ran WR routes at Virginia Tech – even WR screen passes – and he’s elusive after the catch. Hodges was a big-play and red-zone threat with 20 TDs in three seasons, tracking passes well and showing good body control. He needs to refine his route running, and he struggles to come down contested catches at times despite his size advantage because he lets passes get into his body. Hodges has a ridiculous frame to build off (6’6”, 257 pounds) to transition inside, but he obviously needs a lot of work as a blocker as he’s much more comfortable on his feet than with his hand in the ground. He reminds us a lot of Julius Thomas because of his combination of size and athleticism as a receiver with similar concerns as a blocker. Hodges could be team and scheme specific to start his career as he develops into a three-down player because he’s a classic mismatch piece for LBs and DBs. He’s certainly athletic enough to develop into an average blocker, and he has a really high ceiling as a receiver. It shouldn’t take long for him to become a red-zone and big-play threat for non-PPR formats.
5. Adam Shaheen
Shaheen came out of nowhere to become the most intriguing prospect in this year’s TE class. He started his college athletic career as a basketball player at Division II Pitt-Johnstown before eventually transferring to Ashland for football. He set Division II TE records for catches in a season (70 in 2015) and TD catches in a season (16 in 2016). Shaheen started the last two seasons and absolutely dominated the lesser competition, with 127/1670/26 receiving. He is absolutely massive at 6’6”, 278 pounds with 33½” arms – that’s huge even for the position – and he ran a fairly impressive 4.79 in the 40-yard dash. He also led the group with 24 reps in the bench press and had an impressive 10’1” leap in the broad jump and 32½” vertical. Shaheen looked athletic against incredibly weak competition the last two years, and it was good to see some of the athleticism translate at the Combine. He moves well even with such a massive frame, and he has good ball skills and quick feet from his basketball days. Shaheen worked all over the field and ran a variety of routes, and his size helped him win in contested situations, which made him a real threat down by the end zone. It was a little troubling that he wasn’t physically dominating all the time in college. He wasn’t destroying defenders as a blocker like you’d think he would, and he needs some technique work as a run blocker. He also got tied up in press coverage at times, and he’ll need to learn how to use his strength better to fend off defenders. Based just strictly on his size, he was a weaker blocker than we thought he would be but a much better receiver than we imagined. It’s hard not to see a little bit of Rob Gronkowski when you watch Shaheen with the way he moves for his size. The jump in competition is going to be a big obstacle for him as a rookie, and he has some boom-or-bust potential because there is an element of the unknown with the raw prospect. He certainly has the size and tools to become a long-time starter and an impact receiver if he can handle the leap in competition.
6. Gerald Everett
Everett took an unconventional route to get to the NFL. Everett grew up as a basketball player before he started football as a high school senior and went to community college for a year. He then transferred to UAB before heading to South Alabama after UAB decided to cut their football program. Everett doesn’t have a ton of experience playing against top competition, but he played well against much tougher competition at the Senior Bowl and against Mississippi State (8/95/1 receiving) last year. He led South Alabama in receiving the last two years with 91/1292/12, as they lined him up all over the field. He’s small for the position at 6’3”, 239 pounds, and he might be more of a move TE or an H-back type than an inline TE. Everett lit it up at the Combine in just about every test, including the in the vertical leap (37½”), the broad jump (10’6”), and the bench press (22 reps). He’s a controlled, smooth athlete, and he might be the most dynamic TE after the catch in the class. His basketball background shows up when he uses his body to shield away defenders at the catch point. He’s a weapon down in the red zone and isn’t afraid to go over the middle. Everett lined up all over the field at South Alabama, but his route running is still raw and lazy at times. He made some spectacular catches, but he has some of the smallest hands we’ve ever seen for a receiver (8½”), and they show up on tape with some bad drops. He’ll need to get stronger and develop as a blocker if he wants to become a three-down, inline TE, but he’s willing to stick his nose into the fray. We see a little Delanie Walker in him because of his size, movement skills, and his willingness to mix it up as a blocker. He has a lot of raw skills right now because of his limited football experience, but he appears to be a moldable prospect for whichever team selects him. Everett might not make an immediate impact as a rookie, but he could have a high ceiling for fantasy in the future with his receiving skills.
7. Jordan Leggett
It’s tough to find many TE prospects who were more productive than Leggett the last two seasons. He earned the nickname “Lazy Leggett” early in his Clemson career, but he really finished his career strong in his final two seasons. Leggett posted 86/1261/15 receiving in 2015-16, including 12/173/1 combined against Alabama in the last two national championship games. He was also nominated for the John Mackey Award for the nation’s top TE in 2015. Leggett skipped the 40-yard dash at the Combine, and he had just an average vertical jump (33”) and a weak broad jump (9’6”). He performed well in the receiving gauntlet but struggled a bit when he had to put his hand in the ground for blocking drills. According to mockdraftable.com, Leggett is an above-average athlete in most categories, but he ranks in the top quarter of TEs in just hand size (10⅜"). He has ideal size for the position (6’5”, 258 pounds) and soft hands. He makes plays at the catch point and has excellent ball skills. He stepped up on the big stage, including a couple key catches in the waning moments of the NCAA title game. He isn’t the fastest guy at the position, but he stretched opposing defenses down the seams at Clemson. He’s a reliable target in the middle of the field, finding soft spots against zone coverage. Leggett lined up all over the field and runs every route as a former high school WR, but he is a bit stiff getting in and out of his breaks and could struggle against man coverage. He got better as a blocker during his career, but he still needs to improve in that area if he wants to be a three-down, inline player. Leggett is a well-rounded receiving prospect, and he reminds us a bit of Jace Amaro coming out of Texas Tech. Leggett isn’t a quick-twitch athlete and needs to improve as a blocker to get on the field consistently early in his career, but he has the potential to be a solid fantasy receiver.
Potential Immediate Role Players
8. George Kittle
Iowa has a rich tradition of putting TEs into the league in recent years (Dallas Clark, Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers, Tony Moeaki, C.J. Fiedorowicz), and Kittle is poised to grow that list this year. Heck, his cousin, Iowa TE Henry Kreiger-Coble, entered the league last year with the Broncos. Kittle put up decent numbers the last two seasons in Iowa’s run-centric offense, recording 42/604/10 receiving despite missing six games because of injuries. Kittle raised his profile in an outstanding TE class by easily stacking up with the best tight ends at the Combine. He posted exceptional marks in the 40-yard dash (4.52), broad jump (11”), and vertical jump (35”). Like seemingly all Iowa TEs, Kittle is a strong blocker even for his smaller frame (6’4”, 247 pounds) for the position. We’ll see if he can hold up against bigger defensive linemen, but he has the technique and the willingness to make it happen at the next level. He actually played WR in high school, which explains why it took him three years to become a starter, but it also shows in how he plays as a receiver. Kittle has good hands and can make some tough catches on passes that are off the mark. He has room for improvement as a route runner if he improves his technique, but he has the quickness to separate from linebackers. Kittle stretches the field down the seams and worked all three levels as a receiver, and he makes plays after the catch. Kittle reminds us a bit of another former Iowa TE Dallas Clark because of their size and athleticism. We think Kittle could play inline or as a move TE, but his limited size will ultimately determine what he becomes. He still has the potential to develop into an effective receiver at all levels of the field, and he’d be fantasy relevant if he can be the #1 TE in an offense.
9. Jeremy Sprinkle
Sprinkle’s stock took a hit when he made headlines for all the wrong reasons before what was supposed to be the final game of his career. He received a gift bag that included a $450 gift card from the Belk department store, the bowl game sponsor, but he took more than merchandise than allotted and was cited with shoplifting and suspended for the game. He had a fairly productive final season before that, with 33/380/4 receiving in 12 games in a run-heavy Arkansas offense. He posted 27/389/6 as a junior playing next to 2015 second-round pick Hunter Henry. He gained around 40 pounds since he left high school to get up to 6’5”, 252 pounds, and he’s a fairly effective blocker who is willing to mix it up. Compared to some of the other TE prospects, Sprinkle at least has the experience of blocking in Bret Bielema’s run-centric offense in college. He’s big target in the middle of the field, and he used his to his advantage down by the end zone the last two seasons. He has pretty solid hands and his route running is above average for his size because of quick feet. He won’t be confused as a burner at the position, but he does have long strides to eat up ground after the catch. We see a little bit of Crockett Gillmore in Sprinkle because of his frame, his potential to be solid blocker, and his limitations as an underneath receiver. He’s above-average prospect at this point, who doesn’t necessarily excel in anyone area. Sprinkle should be able to work inline, and he has the body type to fill out and to develop as a blocker. He’s unlikely to ever be a fantasy stud because he ‘s not a TE who will command a ton of targets, but he has the chance to eventually get on the non-PPR radar as a red-zone specialist.
10. Jake Butt
Butt may have been the third TE off the board before he tore his right ACL in the Orange Bowl against Florida State in January. Now, it looks like he might not go off the board until the third day of the draft. Butt has been a victim of some circumstances out of his control. He’s obviously plummeted because of his knee injury, but this TE class is also one of the best in recent history. He was incredibly productive the last two seasons in Jim Harbaugh’s pro-style offense, posting 97/1200/7 receiving and earning second-team All-American honors in back-to-back seasons. He started all four seasons at Michigan and racked up 138/1646/11 overall. Butt obviously missed the Combine workouts, but he measured in at 6’5”, 246 pounds. He has great size (6’5”, 250 pounds) and strong hands, which helped him to be a reliable target in the middle of the field. He could be a QB’s best friend as a short-to-intermediate receiver, turning up field quickly after the catch and making catches in traffic. He’s not going to make a ton of big plays downfield, but he will make some plays in the red zone. He’s certainly not a burner and is more of a traditional in-line guy, which is a bit of a problem since his work as a blocker has been exaggerated a bit. He didn’t hold up at the point of attack nearly enough as a run blocker, and he struggles to get to the second level as a blocker. At least he was asked to block inline in a pro-style offense the last two years, which wasn’t the case for many of this year’s top TEs in this class. We see a little bit of Jason Witten in Butt because of his strong hands and his work as a chain-moving TE in the middle of the field. Butt is obviously a bit of a long shot to be a contributor this season, at least early in the season as he recovers from his ACL injury. He has the chance to develop into a rock-solid target in the middle of the field for many years, but he needs to improve as a blocker to realize his full potential.
11. Billy Brown
Brown would typically be the most intriguing TE prospect coming out of Division II most years, but he lost that honor to Adam Shaheen this year. Brown had interest from West Virginia and Maryland out of high school, but academic issues led him to Shepherd where he played WR. He put up absolutely massive numbers during his career, including a Division II best 99 catches for 1580 yards and 22 TDs in 2016. Brown is an older prospect having spent five seasons in college, redshirting in 2013 after tearing his ACL at the end of his freshman season. He’s a long athlete with 33” arms and 10⅜” hands, but he showed plenty of strength with 23 reps in the bench press, behind just Shaheen. He worked out with the WRs at the Combine, but his huge frame (6’4”, 255 pounds) suggests he’ll play TE at the next level. He moves well for a big man, and he should be a threat down the seams once he gets comfortable playing inside. He catches everything thrown his way, and he uses his body like a basketball player to come down with contested catches. He dominated his level of competition, and he was tough to bring down after the catch for much smaller defenders. Brown will need to learn the TE position on the fly this summer, and he might never be the inline type with such a steep learning curve. Still, he’s already pretty strong and there appears to be a little more room for growth on his frame to potentially develop into a competent blocker. Brown is built and moves similarly to 2014 draft prospect Xavier Grimble. Brown obviously has two huge adjustments ahead of him as he moves from WR to TE and from Division II to the NFL. He’ll be a work in progress early in his career, and we can’t expect him to make immediate contributions as a rookie, but he has the skillset to be an impact receiver down the road.
12. Pharaoh Brown
Brown was once destined to be a potential star NFL TE but a life-threatening knee injury and three off-the field incidents have derailed his career. He’s been in two locker-room fights, one of which left a teammate concussed, and he had a domestic violence incident with a girlfriend, which never resulted in charges or an arrest. Brown suffered a terrible leg injury in November 2014 and nearly had his leg amputated. He eventually returned to the field in 2016 after multiple surgeries, but he didn’t show the same explosiveness he once had as a junior in 2014 despite posting similar numbers (33/426/5 in 2016 and 25/420/6 in 2014). He showed plenty of strength with 24 reps in the bench press at the Combine, and he had a solid vertical jump at 34”. However, he disappointed at his pro day with a 4.78 40-time and a terrible 8’7” broad jump. Brown was a standout basketball player in Ohio before he arrived at Oregon, and he used his big body well down near the end zone. He played all over the field in Oregon’s impressive offensive attack, and he was a force with the ball in his hands. He’s not a complete blocker yet, but he flashed the ability to be a good blocker and he has the frame to get better. He did show shaky hands at times, dropping some easy passes or double-catching throws. Brown certainly once showed enough promise to be a talented NFL TE, but the big question is if he suffered irreparable damage from his leg injury. Brown is a total wild card in this year’s loaded TE class, and the team that picks him will be betting that he can get back close to his 2014 form with another year removed from his leg injury.