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  • He doesn't have the complete package offered by O.J. Howard or the raw potential of David Njoku, but Evan Engram will make some NFL team very happy it took a chance on the least glamourous option of 2017's elite tight ends.
By Chris Burke
February 24, 2017

Earlier this week, we rolled out Big Board 4.0 and our latest batch of positional rankings for the 2017 NFL draft.

In both, Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram ranked above his Miami counterpart, David Njoku. I don’t think that necessarily qualifies as a “hot take”—haven’t checked the official hot take guidelines lately—but it is against the recent run of play concerning the TE position. Alabama’s O.J. Howard has been the consensus No. 1 tight end in this draft class, but Njoku has emerged most places as a close No. 2, and possibly a top-25 pick himself.

Engram’s placement above Njoku on the SI Big Board has more to do with Engram’s own potential than any glaring concerns about Njoku’s game. I’ll explain, but first let’s get in the right mindset:

On that play Engram was matched up against a safety (Georgia’s Quincy Mauger), broke off a nice corner route, then made an outstanding adjustment to come back and get the ball after it was underthrown. Any discussion of Engram will start with his unique athletic gifts for a tight end, and arguably at no time this season was it on better display than on that leaping end-zone grab.

And the fact that it came against a safety is noteworthy, because teams struggled all year long trying to figure out a coverage plan vs. Engram. He has enough speed and precision in his routes to be problematic for safeties, and he has a significant size advantage on most slot corners and linebackers.

That play offers a glimpse into how Engram may be utilized most often in the NFL—as a “move” tight end (others might prefer “Joker” or “H-back”, but the concepts are all similar). Ole Miss frequently bluffed Engram as a blocker to help set up play-action, and in that case above, the motion found him in a matchup with a linebacker.

Another example here, from this year’s game vs. Auburn:

QB Chad Kelly faked the toss sweep, Engram took a dummy step inside toward the linebacker as if he’s blocking, then exploded to space for an easy TD.

This is a good spot to circle back on the Engram-Njoku conversation. As a guest on the “Locked on NFL Draft” podcast, I made the comment that I had Engram above Njoku for some of the same reasons that I have Corey Davis ahead of Mike Williams in the WR rankings.

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Here’s what I meant by that: Williams and Njoku are physical specimens, players who combine impressive athleticism with size—the former as a potentially dominant force outside at receiver; the latter cut from the mold of the modern, pass-catching tight end.

Neither Davis nor Engram is diminutive, by any means (both are listed at 6' 3" headed into next week’s official combine measurements), but their games right now are built more on nuance than on imposing their will. Whereas Njoku is raw as a route runner, Engram racked up 65 catches this past season in large part because he displays a mature understanding of how to play his position. The only team that really managed to shut him down in 2016 was LSU, using a combination of safety Jamal Adams (a potential top-five pick) and cornerback Tre’Davious White (a potential first-rounder).

Otherwise, Engram scorched defenses that were unable to match his athleticism. This catch, for example:

That looks simple—motion across the line, then an out route—but it only played out that way because Engram executed it with such precision. Notice not just how sharp Engram was into his break, but how quickly he turned his hips and got his head around for the pass. This was a timing route all the way, with a defender to Engram’s inside shoulder and a DB closing from about 12 yards deep.

Here’s another one that doesn't look like much at first glance but actually helps tells us why Engram’s game translates to the NFL:

That appeared to be a run-pass option, with Kelly having to make the call whether to take the inside handoff or fire a quick toss Engram’s way. Engram helped make the decision by firing off the line, sitting down in an open area and getting turned back toward the QB. Kelly had the ball in his hands for fewer than two seconds, so there could be no wasted motion on Engram’s end.

Better yet, Engram spun upfield after the catch and left the Memphis safety flailing en route to a TD.

Easy pitch and catch? Sure. Bad defense? It definitely wasn’t great. But that quick-twitch skill Engram has, to make sure everything is happening on time, is critical. That is, in part, why he is being viewed as more of a hybrid wide receiver/tight end than a fullback/tight end. A play like that touchdown vs. Memphis is more reminiscent of a Julian Edelman type—a receiver that almost knows ahead of the snap where he can get open.

But back to the idea of Engram as a move TE.

If a team is playing man-to-man, how is it supposed to defend him on that play, shy of bodying him into the sideline before he can make his cut upfield. That was a safety/nickel back trying to run with him to the boundary; Engram secured a step on the edge, then turned upfield on another wheel route before any defender found him.

Oh, and this is how he finished the reception.

Again, this is all about combining natural ability with football know-how. Ole Miss was able to draw up plays that worked Engram into space, but if he were a clunkier or more limited tight end, the majority of these options would be off the table.

So, what’s the problem? For Engram, it comes down to his size. He is never going to be an in-line tight end, as Njoku can be (at least in combination with other alignments). Engram’s blocking is less a strength than a bonus to his game, on occasion.

But for every solid effort like this ...

... there is a whiff like this:

When Engram is offset at the line, be it via motion or otherwise, he can hold his own as a pass blocker. If nothing else, that aforementioned athleticism allows him to get in front of rushers, and he does fine when he locks on. Ole Miss even used him as a lead blocker at times on run plays, motioning him into the backfield in that H-back mode.

But he will not be a consistent presence in that respect. Engram does not move bodies in the run game, nor does he adjust all that well when a defender hits him with a counter or changes his line of attack. Asking him to cut across the formation and find a blitzer or unblocked lineman, as Ole Miss did on that sack above, is a recipe for disaster.

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His early NFL role, then, may be limited. Teams that want their tight ends to help with the power run game probably will have to look elsewhere. That is just not what Engram does. That’s not how he should be utilized.

When he is on the field, the majority of Engram’s responsibility should be as a pass catcher. He’s a movable piece for an offense, one capable of getting open from a variety of alignments, against whatever defender a team wants to throw at him.

And Engram should only improve in that realm, as he continues to hone his feel for where and when to plant his routes. If there is an obvious area where Engram could become even more dangerous, it’s on extended plays—when his initial route doesn’t work, he has a tendency to shut it down and wait where he is, instead of continuing to search for open space.

Consider that the next level of Engram’s development as a pass-catching threat. He still will land in the NFL well ahead of the curve as a receiver.

Njoku and others may have higher ceilings, at least when it comes to being a dominant tight end like a Rob Gronkowski. Engram, however, should be able to be a playmaker from Day One. He is a tight end by trade who plays like a veteran slot receiver.

NFL defenses may have just as much trouble figuring him out as his college foes did.

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