NFL Draft: What to watch for when scouting tight ends

Ever wonder what NFL Draft talent evaluators look for when scouting tight ends? Look no further!
Dec 10, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Evan Engram (17) makes a reception under coverage by Cleveland Browns safety Grant Delpit (22) during the second quarter at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 10, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Evan Engram (17) makes a reception under coverage by Cleveland Browns safety Grant Delpit (22) during the second quarter at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports / Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

As we creep into the summer, most NFL Draft analysts and evaluators are getting into summer scouting. And for me, over at the Daft on Draft podcast, that has started with a scouting series with a long list of high-profile guests to break down exactly what to look for at specific positions.

In the episode titled, "What to watch for when scouting tight ends," I am joined by PFF's Trevor Sikkema for an in-depth conversation on how to put our best foot forward when breaking down a position of over-growing importance. The full audio of the podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

You can find the other positions already covered by me and the guests joining me below:

Quarterbacks with Reception Perception and Bleacher Report's Derrik Klassen
Running backs with ESPN's Jordan Reid
Wide receivers with The Athletic's Dane Brugler

Here are some of the major topics discussed by Sikkema and I:

How the evolution of 12 personnel has impacted the evaluation of the tight end position

Sikkema: "Now you have teams that are running multiple looks out of 12 and 13 personnel. And if you want to check into a run to give you ultimate versatility, like you mentioned, if there's a linebacker on the field, you could check into a pass. If there's not an extra linebacker on the field, you could let it be a run and then you have an advantageous blocking situation because tight ends are better blockers than the wide receivers.

So to me, it feels like this rise in 12 and 13 personnel, sure, it's a little bit more towards like, okay, we're getting back to the roots of football. We're running the ball a little bit more. Things are getting a little bit more heavy at the line of scrimmage. Yes, but that versatility in the passing game still remains, especially with the types of crazy athlete tight ends that we're seeing come out of the draft year in and year out.

So looking at this movement of heavier personnel, to me, it is the evolution of the philosophy that Sean McVeigh put into place back in, you know, what was it, 2017, 2018. And I think that that's really what we're seeing right now."

How to evaluate the blocking ability of a tight end

Sikkeeam: "When you're looking at tight ends specifically, a lot of times the first thing that I'm writing down on a scouting report is, okay, name, school, experience, height, weight, how big is it, right? And if I get a tight end who is 6-foot-5, 6-foot six, and 260 to 275 pounds, like somewhere in between there, I go, all right, this is a big boy. I am going to expect you to hopefully be a little bit better of a blocker because you got extra weight on you, right? If you are 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 as a tight end and you're listed at 240 pounds, okay, well then I have to kind of go into different expectations.

When blocking, I'm looking for different things. When you are bigger, if that is what your streamlined role is, then I want to see you be able to handle things a little bit better. Whereas if you are a smaller tight end, when it comes to blocking, that is, when you are a smaller tight end, it's obvious that you're not going to see as much success. But the thing that I want to see no matter what from tight ends, whether you're 6-foot-6, 270, or whether you're 6-fot-3, 240: effort, do you care about blocking?

Because there are a bunch of times when I will watch tight ends and I will note this in my scouting report, pound for pound, this is a strong blocker. Now, are you going to want a one-on-one with five-technique defensive ends at the NFL level? No, of course not. But you know that there are going to be some situations, hopefully not a ton, in which you are going to have to do that, even if it's just to slow the defensive end down. Even if it's just to stay in front of them, don't let them blow by you immediately.

That's where that effort comes in. If you can get off the line of scrimmage with passion and pride, and you can get into that defensive end, and if you even hold him for one second, and then he stacks and sheds you to the side, you probably did your job well enough to where, if it's a run play, hopefully, you're not running to that side of the strength, if you know that that guy's going to be a liability for you. But the running back hopefully is hitting the hole at that point. I mean, they're already up at the line of scrimmage. They can't get caught from behind. Or if you're walling somebody off, again, if it's more of an outside zone concept where you're just trying to reach somebody and get in front of them and be annoying, do you have the effort to be even annoying as a blocker?"

Adjusting the lens of evaluating tight ends as tight ends and not wide receivers

Sikkema: "This is why I love a guy like Ja'Tavion Sanders. This is why Sanders for me was tied into in this class because of the movement skills. It took me all of half a game that I watched of Sanders for the first time, where even if he's not getting targets, the way that this guy explodes out of his stance on the line of scrimmage, and more importantly, the way he chops his feet, flips his hips immediately, and can turn extremely well shows this flexibility that he has and this body control that is so rare for a player who is his size. You know, Ja'Tavion's weight? You know, like 6'4, anywhere from like 240 to 250 is probably what he played at, right?

And so he is this big...Imagine a wide receiver that big, right? If you saw a wide receiver that big, they'd probably be turning like a boat, right? It probably would have to be three-point turning to get over to the sideline or change direction. But when you see a tight end, be able to do things like that, that has so much natural athletic value to me because it's a rarity, the bigger you get, the more difficult it is to move.

So again, it kind of comes down to a context thing. Like one, what kind of a tight end are you? Are you primarily a blocking tight end, or are you primarily a receiving tight end? Because if you're a little stiff as a receiver, but you're a blocking tight end, I'm not going to ding you that much for it, right? A lot of times you'll probably be releasing late on play-action or a league play, or a lot of your stuff's probably just going to be vertical up the seam anyways, maybe wheel routes up the sideline, but that's a momentum route. They're not going t be asking you to truly separate against guys who are locked in on you when it comes to man coverage and getting guys off of your hip and things like that.

But if you were a, like you said, more NFL valuable, I use that in quotations, sort of a tight end, well, then you're going to be playing in a slot a lot. You're going to have a lot of slot defenders just staring right at you, where their only job is to just make sure that you don't get separation. Well, at that point, you have to become a better route runner. And if you're not, then okay, where is the actual receiving value that you're giving? Are you a vertical type of receiver? Are you just going to try to get behind the defense and in between the corner and the safety level? Because that's sort of tough to do. That's a little bit quarterback-dependent. Your quarterback has to be really good and confident to be able to do something like that, even if you have the ability for it.

So there's, I don't say it to be any sort of cop out, but there is so much context to, like you said, like route running. You have to view it through the lens of the player that you are watching. Are they more of a blocking tight end? Are they bigger? They're probably just not going to turn as well. Are they more of a receiving tight end? Are they a little bit smaller in weight? Well, it's less weight to move. That's less height to move. It's less of your body that you have to stop and start and control and all of that. So to me, again, it's just, it is such a contextualized evaluation that is not a one-size-fits-all."

Does being labeled a "chess piece" actually hurt the stock of a tight end?

Sikkema: "I think it hurts them because, you know, the NFL Draft kind of happens in like phases, you know, like you have like the top 50 phase where you're just picking like the best and really good football players. I guess you could say like the first two rounds basically, where you're just picking the best football players. But then when you get into round three and four, it's a lot more like, okay, we envision this guy in a particular role, right? Like the Tip Reiman selection for the Arizona Cardinals is the one that stands out to me the most from this past draft, because Reiman's fascinating.

I think there's a couple of different things that you could talk about with his scouting report and sort of his draft process to why he might've been drafted in the third round. But to me, he is somebody who does not have a lot of experience as a receiver, but he has this streamlined role for the Cardinals specifically, where they can go 12 personnel and attach him to the line of scrimmage, and it frees up Trey McBride to be more of that move around, sort of slot tight end. And all of a sudden, Arizona thought that particular skill set that Reiman could give them was valuable enough in the third round.

I had Reiman ranked, I don't even remember, somewhere in the hundreds. And when they picked him in the third round, I was like, whoa, okay, I like Tip Reiman, but for you to draft him that high, to me, that's because you were saying, we have a team-specific vision for this player, and we will draft him there.

So getting back to your original question, the first two rounds always feel like we're just taking the best football players. Like we're taking good guys who can be starter-level players for you. And then when rounds three and four come around, specifically, you go, okay, maybe this is not an obvious immediate starter for us, but somebody who will be a rotational player, and then you just start getting more and more niche with that."

Athleticism and YAC-ability is elevated at the tight end position

Sikkema: "The league is just going to gravitate towards athletes. They are always at every position, but tight end specifically, because it's a unique blend of what you are asked to do. And I think that just being of a bigger size and being labeled an athlete enough to win at the position, I think is really, really important. You mentioned some of the best tight ends in the league are great athletes. There's no tight end in the league right now that you would mention among the great tight ends that is not a great athlete.

And so you're always just going to take a chance on those guys, just like every other position, right?Edge rusher, offensive tackle, wide receiver running back, obviously, cornerback, obviously, like linebacker, safety. Like when in doubt, you kind of ask yourself the question, all right, well, who's a better athlete, right? Because we don't have to teach that part because it's very difficult to teach that part if you can learn it at all, being a better athlete than what you are naturally. So especially when it comes to that flexibility and the explosiveness, those are two things that are just very, very tough to get better at. Not saying you can't, obviously training and things like that can really help you, but it is something that is paramount to standing out of the position.

And I think the league sees the same thing that you do, where you go, okay, well, let's look at all the top tight ends of the position. They all have a high Relative Athletic Scores. They all move well and explode well for their size. And that is really impactful in just not only getting on the field but also the yards after catch thing is a really big deal. Like teams are always going to look for that yards after catch part for tight ends because often they think that the tight ends are going to be those guys that can either find the open space or get forgotten about, right? It's a lot easier to hide a tight end in an offense."

Cory Kinnan