The 2015 tight end draft class, led by Minnesota's Maxx Williams, is notoriously thin, but if front offices are willing to gamble, there's some hidden talent.
Things are not as bad as they seem.
Sure, this year's crop of tight ends boasts but a handful of guys who might be taken off the board before day two ends, and the draft could pitch a Round 1 shutout at the position. But there's some hidden talent among these players, especially for a front office willing to develop a raw prospect.
Our look at the top 10 tight ends available for the 2015 NFL draft:
1. Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The TE draft outlook changed for the better when Williams announced his intentions to forego his final two seasons of eligibility at Minnesota. Suddenly, there was hope that this position might produce a Round 1 draft pick.
A big-play weapon at 6'3" and 249 pounds, Williams can create the mismatches against linebackers and safeties that NFL are salivating over these days. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch for the Golden Gophers, with nine of his 36 grabs in 2014 producing gains of 25 yards or more. Williams also scored eight touchdowns last season, finding the end zone once for every 4.5 catches.
He is not a flawless prospect, however, in no small part because he put just 25 games under his belt at the collegiate level. Williams himself said at the combine that he's not as strong as he needs to be, something that may limit how often his new team can ask him with confidence to block.
Nevertheless, at a position of vital importance to most NFL offenses, Williams is the clear top dog this year.
Draft projection: Late first round
2. Clive Walford, Miami (Fla.): Walford has the potential to be a very good NFL tight end, but probably not a great tight end, which is why his name may not be called during day one of the draft. In round two and beyond, though, Walford will fit the profile for what teams want: a possible starter who could develop into a long-term answer. The 6'4", 263-pounder blocks well, catches passes out of various alignments and can be a threat in the red zone.
Walford's self-scouting report: A dominant player. A dual-threat tight end. A competitor. Will to win. I play with my heart, so they’re going to get somebody who will lay it on the line every down."
If even half of that is accurate of Walford as an NFL player, he'll be a nice piece for whichever teams lands him.
Draft projection: Mid- to late second round
3. Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State: Heuerman caught 52 passes over four seasons for the Buckeyes, so he's not exactly comin' in hot as a pass-catching prospect. And yet, there has been a minor buzz around him for months now. Why? Well, because he has the size (6'5", 254 pounds) and athleticism to be much more active as a receiver than Ohio State needed him to be. The experience Heuerman gained as a blocker in Urban Meyer's system will not hurt his case either.
Draft projection: Third round
4. Ben Koyack, Notre Dame: Not really much separating Heuerman and Koyack, who bring a lot of the same positives and negatives to the field. The two players are the same height (6'5"), with Koyack weighing in one pound heavier than his Buckeye counterpart at the combine (255 to 254). As with Heuerman, Koyack was nowhere near his team's first option in the passing attack, although he did hit a career high with 30 catches last season. As things stand right now, Heuerman's probably a little better than Koyack as a blocker, and Koyack's shown more versatility through the air. Odds are, whenever one gets drafted the other will not be far behind.
Draft projection: Third round
5. Tyler Kroft, Rutgers: There is a lot to like here, but the question as it pertains to Kroft is: How long until he puts it all together? Kroft's stats tumbled last season, down to 24 receptions and zero touchdowns from 43 and four in 2013, respectively. (The quarterback play deserves some blame there, but Rutgers had Gary Nova under center for the majority of both seasons.) Kroft did put some stellar moments on tape during his career as a blocker and receiver, but at times one had to dig through the muck to find them.
But break it all down and what's left is a tight end capable of making plays in the passing game or helping pick up defenders at the line. Once Kroft polishes his route-running and adds a little extra strength, he could be a terrific NFL player.
Draft projection: Late third round to early fourth round
6. Nick O'Leary, Florida State: O'Leary may have tumbled off a few teams' boards at the combine when he ran a sluggish 4.93 in the 40-yard dash. That time helped hammer home that the 6'3", 252-pound former Seminole is less an athletic marvel than others at this position.
What he lacks in physical gifts, O'Leary makes up for with his feel for the game. He's smart when released into routes, finding holes in opposing defenses for his QB and backing that awareness up with reliable hands. Effort and technique get the job done for him in the blocking game, as well. He rarely is able to overpower anyone there, yet still holds his own. An H-back role likely awaits in the NFL.
Draft projection: Early fifth round
7. Jesse James, Penn State: Bonus points for the name. James has the feel of a player who may struggle to nail down a starting gig but manages to stick in the NFL for a decade or so anyway. His 6'7" frame offers some intrigue as a red-zone threat—he caught 11 TDs over three seasons in Happy Valley. Therein lies some of the issue, unfortunately, as James is somewhat clunky as a receiver. His hands aren't great and he allows smaller defenders to outmuscle him at times. On the plus side, James has proven himself as a steady blocker and did come through in the passing attack when given opportunities.
Draft projection: Fifth round
[daily_cut.nfl]8. Jean Sifrin, Massachusetts: A much more in-depth glimpse into Sifrin can be found here, courtesy of The MMQB's Emily Kaplan. The one aspect of his scouting report that cannot be ignored: He's already 27 years old, leaving almost no time for him to ease into a pro transition. Were he not such a raw prospect, that aspect may be less of an issue. The NFL still has interest because Sifrin flashes the ability to wreak havoc on defenses. A former basketball player, Sifrin has huge, 11-inch hands, a noticeable trait when he goes up to get the football. At the very least, he has a chance to make headway as a third tight end who sees most of his snaps in the red zone. There is limited time for him to become more.
Draft projection: Sixth round
9. Rory Anderson, South Carolina: Think of Anderson as being from the same mold as Michigan's Devin Funchess—not quite a receiver, not quite a tight end. Anderson does not have the athletic traits to kick outside on a semi-permanent basis, as Funchess may, but he can beat defenders with his speed. He's another tight end whose stats were limited by his college offense (61 catches for 954 yards and nine touchdowns in four seasons; just one TD combined in 2013–14). Causing the most trouble for Anderson at the moment: his injury history. An October triceps issue took months to heal, then Anderson had to bail on South Carolina's pro-day workouts because of a hamstring strain. He is expected to hold a private pro day before the draft.
Draft projection: Sixth round
10. Wes Saxton, South Alabama: Saxton is even more of a receiver stuck in a tight end body. At 6'3" and 248 pounds, he has his work cut out for him to show that he can block in the NFL—there is not much evidence of it from his college days. Should he land with a team that already has a reliable in-line blocker, Saxton could see work as a movable piece. He runs his routes well and definitely could create some issues at the second and third levels for opposing defenses.
Draft projection: Seventh round