#25 Ravens: TE Hayden Hurst
NFL Draft Scout
Due to spending 2.5 years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Hurst literally was a man amongst boys in the SEC the past three seasons, culminating with a 2017 campaign in which he earned First Team all-conference honors by leading the league with 44 catches for 559 yards and two touchdowns - not bad considering that he joined the Gamecocks as a walk-on and spent much of his freshman season in 2015 at wide receiver.
Hurst played both sports in high school but a low 90s fastball as a teenager earned him a 17th round selection in the 2012 Major League baseball draft and he opted to forgo football to join the Gulf Coast League in the hopes of one day joining the Pirates. Instead, after struggling to harness his control and the Pirates looking to move him to first base, Hurst opted to walk-on at South Carolina to play football.
Hurst's athleticism, natural receiving skills and maturity made an impression on the South Carolina coaches immediately and he saw playing time in all 12 games in his first season on campus, even starting (and catching two passes for 12 yards) against Florida. Though he signed on with the team at nearly 6-5 and 240 pounds, he initially played receiver, only switching to tight end after the first month of the season. Hurst caught eight passes for 106 yards in all in 2012 with a 46-yard reception against Texas A&M far and away his biggest play of the season.
Coaches remarked prior to the 2016 season that Hurst looked like a potential breakout player and he lived up to their hopes, earning a permanent team captain role and setting new school records for tight ends with 48 receptions for 616 yards. Hurst's production slipped slightly a year later with opponents focusing on him but league coaches recognized his impact, voting him the top tight end in the conference. Hurst opted to announce his intentions to leave South Carolina early for the NFL prior to the Outback Bowl but he played, nevertheless, finishing his abbreviated college football career with three catches for 41 yards (and two rushes for -6 yards) in the Gamecocks' 26-19 over Michigan.
Graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla. in 2012... played football but was also a standout on the baseball diamond... selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 baseball draft... helped the Bulldogs to a pair of state baseball titles... was a Florida All-Region first-team selection and a 2012 Rawlings second-team All-American as a righthanded pitcher with a fastball in the low 90s... pitched in the 2011 Under Armour All-America Baseball Game... turned down a baseball scholarship from Florida State to sign with the Pirates. Played two seasons in the Pirates organization in the rookie Gulf Coast League, as a pitcher in 2013 and as a first baseman in 2014... underwent Tommy John surgery as an eighth grader.
Looks the part of an NFL tight end with a naturally large frame, including broad shoulders, long arms and a tapered build with good overall weight distribution. Perhaps Hurst's best attribute is his smooth acceleration off the ball. He shows impressive suddenness off the snap, quickly getting into his routes and showing good burst laterally out of his breaks to create separation, as well as the breakaway speed to be a legitimate seam-buster. Despite his relatively limited experience, Hurst shows natural receiving skills, consistently catching passes with his hands extended away from his body and looking the ball all the way in. He can extend and pluck outside of his frame, showing a large catch radius that extends low to the ground as well as high above his head. Hurst is an alert and willing blocker who showed improved strength and grit in 2017 with the work ethic to realistically expect improvement with more experience. He was voted a team captain in both 2016 and 2017. -- Rob Rang 1/2/2018
For his advanced age, Hurst remains technically raw in some of the finer points of the position, showing limited functional strength at the point of attack as an in-line blocker and too often getting knocked off his routes by physical defenders. He is bothered by defenders around him, too often losing control when the hits come as the ball arrives... Hurst was too easily bottled up in the red zone, showing just average spatial awareness of defenders around him and of the boundary lines. It is worth questioning how much he loves the sport given his late switch... Though he has no known medical issues since undergoing Tommy John surgery as an eighth grader, the seriousness of the injury and Hurst's relatively advanced age could earn him an extended look by team doctors at the Combine. -- Rob Rang 1/2/2018
COMPARES TO: Luke Willson, Seahawks - Like Hurst, the 6-5, 255 pound Willson spent his youth playing other sports (hockey and baseball) before earning a living on the gridiron. Also like Willson (a fifth round pick by Seattle in 2013), Hurst is a fluid athlete for his size with good top-end speed who catches the ball well, projecting as a quality backup early in his career with future starting potential.
IN OUR VIEW: While some teams will opt to shy away from Hurst due to his age - he will turn 25 in August - or lack of functional strength as a blocker, there is no denying his prototypical combination of size, athleticism and soft hands as a seam threat. Unlike most athletes of that age, Hurst's relative inexperience playing football could mean that he still has untapped potential, making him worthy of top 100 consideration.