Draft Preview

O'HARA'S 2017 DRAFT PREVIEW: Tight end

Posted Apr 21, 2017

The range of skills are present in this year’s draft class to have the ultimate all-around tight end that teams seek and seldom find.

The range of skills are present in this year’s draft class to have the ultimate all-around tight end that teams seek and seldom find – size, speed, athleticism, good hands, blocking ability and intangibles.

They just might be on one player.

O.J. Howard of Alabama comes closest as a combination blocker-receiver that makes him the No. 1 prospect at the position and potential top 10 pick. After Howard, the 2017 class of tight ends has talented prospects but none who will step into the NFL as dual-threat players.

In that regard, what the Detroit Lions did in free agency shows how the tight end position has evolved in a passing era. There are receivers and blockers, but few who do both. The Lions signed blocking specialist Darren Fells to complement Eric Ebron, who has been primarily a receiver in his three seasons as a Lion.

The prospects behind Howard span the spectrum – the athletic versatility of David Njoku, small-college star Adam Shaheen, and Jake Butt of Michigan, who has spent his offseason rehabilitating from a knee injury sustained in a bowl game.

Lions tight end draft priority: Not a primary need, but a mid-round prospect could be added.

Free-agent impact: Darren Fells (6-7, 281) signed to upgrade blocking and can help in the passing game.

Lions’ tight end draft breakdown: Depth chart, stats, Ebron trend, capsule highlights of the top 5 tight end prospects, other notable potential draft candidates and the spotlight player:

Depth chart: Returning starter -- Eric Ebron; Backups -- Cole Wick, Khari Lee, Kennard Backman, Fells.

Stats: Ebron was third on the team in catches (61) and yards (711). He had one TD catch and one run for a one-yard TD. Three other tight ends combined to catch six passes for 45 yards and no TDs. Ebron led all Lions players with seven dropped passes.

Trending: Ebron’s production has improved consistently with the Lions. He had 25 catches as a rookie in 2014, 47 – and five TDs – in 2015 and career highs for catches and yards in 2016.

Top 5 tight ends

1. O.J. Howard, Alabama: Built to play the position at 6-6, 251 with a 4.51 time for the 40 at the Combine and 22 reps in the bench press. A four-year player, Howard’s production increased steadily. He was Alabama’s leading receiver in its last two national championship games against Clemson  – five catches for 208 yards and two TDs in the 2016 win; four catches for 106 yards and a TD in the 2017 loss.

Stats line: Howard had his career highs in 2016 for receptions (45) and yards (595) with three TDs.

2. David Njoku, Miami (Fla.): A tremendous athlete – 37.5-inch vertical jump, 11-1 broad jump at the Combine – with big hands and long arms. Njoku was the national high school high jump champion as a senior in 2013 with a jump of 6-11. He was a red shirt at Miami in 2014, and a two-year player who decided to turn pro.

Stats line: 43 catches for 698 yards, eight TDs and 16.2 yards per catch in 2016 in 13 games with five starts. Dropped passes have been a problem.

3. Evan Engram, Mississippi: Not as big as most teams might want for a tight end at 6-3, 234 but he ran like a wide receiver at the Combine with a 4.42 40. A four-year player who made All-SEC as a true freshman in 2013, one of only two players in school history to accomplish that.

Stats line: He set the school’s career record for catches (97) and receiving yards (1,394) in his first three years. He added to both in 2016 – 65 catches, 926 yards and eight TDs. His career records should last a while.

4. Adam Shaheen, Ashland: Big-time prospect from a small college – and a big target at 6-7, 278. He broke in in a big way – fittingly. His first two catches came in the last two games of 2014 and were for gains of 42 and 43 yards. He’s looking to be the fourth player in Ashland history to be drafted by the NFL. No other Ashland player has been drafted higher than the seventh round.

Stats line: A starter the last two years, Shaheen had 70 catches for 803 yards and 10 TDs in 2015, and 57 catches for 867 yards and 16 TDs in 2016.

5. Gerald Everett, South Alabama: Another prospect on the small side for the position at 6-3, 239. Tested well at the Combine, especially in the jumps – 37.5 vertical, 10-6 broad jump. Small hands could be a drawback. A two-year player at South Alabama after two years at Hutchinson CC and one at Alabama-Birmingham. He played one season of high school football. His college bio lists Eric Ebron as his favorite player. No doubt, Eric Ebron would say the same.

Stats line: 41 catches, 575 yards, 8 TDs in 2015; 49 for 717 yards, 4 TDs in 2016.

Others: Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech.; Jordan Leggett, Clemson; Cole Hikutini, Louisville; George Kittle, Iowa; Jonnu Smith, Florida International; Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas; Michael Roberts, Toledo.

Spotlight player – Jake Butt: He hasn’t looked back with any misgivings at an unfortunate play that made a negative impact on his immediate future after a rewarding career at Michigan. Butt sustained a knee injury in Michigan’s loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31.

Butt was solidly in the second tier of tight end prospects before the injury, which likely will lower his draft stock. Still, he has no regrets about playing in the bowl game. Some other top prospects skipped their team’s bowl games.

“Absolutely not; It was the right decision for me,” Butt said at the Combine. “I love that university, and just the kind of player I am, I would never sit out of a game.”

Butt had 51 catches as a junior in 2015 and 43 in 2016 when he won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.