NFL draft TE rankings: O.J. Howard, David Njoku showcase exceptional, deep group

Over the past decade, there has been an average of 14.9 tight ends drafted per year. The highest-drafted tight end in that span: Eric Ebron, to the Detroit Lions with the 10th pick in 2014. The 2015 class featured 20 drafted tight ends.

We could see those final two numbers surpassed in what looks like a terrific collection of talent at the position.

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The clearest difference between the 2015 class (or the 2009 group, which featured 19 tight ends drafted) is the top-end talent this year. Alabama’s O.J. Howard, despite being lost in the passing-game shuffle at times, appears to be a top-10 pick. Miami’s David Njoku also could land in Round 1. Ole Miss’ Evan Engram and South Alabama’s Gerald Everett both could be top-50 picks, with Engram even slipping into the final picks of the first round.

Alabama TE O.J. Howard could be a top-10 pick, even in a loaded class at the position. (AP)
Alabama TE O.J. Howard could be a top-10 pick, even in a loaded class at the position. (AP)

By comparison, 14 of the 19 tight ends drafted in 2009 and 15 of the 20 tight ends in were Day 3 picks. This year could feature eight or nine tight ends landing in the top 100 selections. There is a fascinating array of all shapes and sizes.

A lot of the talent comes in the form of pass catchers, or tight ends in receivers’ bodies, such as Engram and Everett. But Howard is a terrific blocker, and there are plenty of big-bodied “Y” tight ends (think Rob Gronkowski’s position) throughout the class. There also are converted receivers and athletes with raw tools, such as Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges, that add a layer of upside and intrigue to the group.

Positional grade: A

There should be starter-grade talent that leaks into the fourth round this year. That’s rare, as not too many quality tight ends fall that far — other than Brent Celek, Julius Thomas, Dennis Pitta and a handful more, most impact starters have come from the first three rounds in recent years. With Howard the best talent seen coming out at the position since perhaps Gronkowski, Njoku carrying significant upside as a third-year sophomore, and Engram appearing to us to be a quality third receiving option, this is the best TE class we can remember from top to bottom.

Shutdown Corner’s Top 10 tight ends for 2017

1. O.J. Howard, Alabama — 6-foot-6, 251 pounds — Underused field stretcher with good blocking ability and exceptional size and athleticism, Howard’s ceiling is as a Pro Bowler
2. David Njoku, Miami (Fla.) — 6-4, 246 — Sky’s the limit for this freakish athlete who will be a 20-year-old rookie and has plenty of room to grow
3. Evan Engram, Ole Miss — 6-3, 234 — Respected, smart pass catcher who churns out first downs and makes yards after the catch
4. Gerald Everett, South Alabama — 6-3, 239 — Small-handed pass catcher needs improvement in blocking, route-running but has clear mismatch potential
5. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech — 6-6, 257 — Converted QB still learning the position but has rare athletic traits and could be a red-zone weapon with his leaping ability
6. Jake Butt, Michigan — 6-5, 246 — Torn ACL/MCL cloud his draft picture but profiles as a very good No. 2 tight end and chain mover when healthy
7. Jordan Leggett, Clemson — 6-5, 258 — Moves well for his size and has made a lot of big plays but must show a little more grit in his game
8. Adam Shaheen, Ashland (Ohio) — 6-6, 278 — Soft-bodied late bloomer with fascinating tools; dominated at D-II level and runs well but will require some refinement early in his career
9. Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas — 6-5, 252 — Looks the part and has the makeup of an early contributor on offense and special teams but has had to answer for embarrassing bowl game shoplifting incident
10. Jonnu Smith, Florida International — 6-3, 248 — Fiery temperament and good athletic traits will earn him a role but might be limited to playing off the line of scrimmage

Sleeper
George Kittle, Iowa

A fun study on tape when he’s healthy, Kittle has limited production — mostly because of injuries — but good athleticism and makeup. Although Kittle is not massive at 6-4 and 247 pounds, he throws his weight around as a blocker and finishes with terrific effort. He was well-schooled at Iowa, a program that has produced a lot of NFL tight ends, and that will help him in the pros. Throw in some terrific explosion for the former prep receiver, and you can see the upside here.

Iowa TE George Kittle has been hindered by injuries but has a skill set worth developing. (AP)
Iowa TE George Kittle has been hindered by injuries but has a skill set worth developing. (AP)

The problem is that Kittle has suffered through a litany of injuries — back, knee, elbow and a severely sprained ankle that pretty much quashed his senior season. He still earned honorable mention all-Big Ten and still played through pain with intensity. Kittle reminds us a bit of Chicago Bears TE Zach Miller, who has taken a few years to develop and who also has fought injuries but now stands as a nice contributor as a blocker and receiver.

Small-school wonder
Eric Saubert, Drake

Having already mentioned the biggest small-school wonder in Shaheen, we drop down just a bit to Drake, a school that last produced an NFL draft pick in 1983 (Pat Dunsmore, Chicago Bears, in Round 4). It’s no football factory, and Saubert had to work out at Iowa State’s pro day, but he ran a good 40 (4.65 seconds) and posted a 35-inch vertical jump, which also is strong. Even with a so-so three-cone time (7.29), his postseason work has been excellent.

Saubert was one of the standouts at the East-West Shrine Game, and he followed it up with a promotion to the Senior Bowl and a spot at the NFL scouting combine, where he put up 22 reps on the bench press and long jumped 121 inches. He has the build of a big receiver, can be maddeningly inconsistent and likely never will do much in the way of dirty work in the trenches. But with a background on special teams and some fascinating pass-catching potential, Saubert reminds us a bit of Cameron Brate, who broke out last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Other 2017 NFL draft position rankings:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Wide receivers

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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