This is the fourth part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the tight ends.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl.
Kyle Pitts became the highest drafted tight end in NFL history last year when the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the fourth overall pick. He was the first non-quarterback off the board.
He showed why he went so high, catching 68 passes for 1,026 yards as a rookie. Led all tight ends in yards per catch (15.1).
There isn’t another Kyle Pitts in the 2022 draft class. There are several tight ends who probably will earn spots on NFL rosters this summer and make positive contributions, but none with the difference-making skills of Pitts.
For the second time in the last three years, it’s likely that no tight end will even go in the first round. Most draft analysts don’t have any tight ends in their top 50.
“This is not the sexiest group as far as explosive playmakers,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said of the tight ends. “There are some really well-rounded tight ends in this class that have NFL ability, NFL starting traits. But there isn’t a headliner. There isn’t a Kyle Pitts on the billboard of this class, or a T.J. Hockenson with incredible blocking highlights.
“Everybody is either well-rounded, or if they do something really well, it’s at the expense of something else.’’
Fennell used Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert as an example.
“He blocks his ass off,” he said. “He’s an incredible blocker. But they never threw him the ball at Ohio State. He made a couple of nice catches against Clemson in the 2020 championship game that made people sit up in their chair a little bit. But (quarterback) Justin Fields got most of the credit for them.’’
Colorado State’s Trey McBride and UCLA’s Greg Dulcich are considered the top two tight ends in the ’22 draft class. But it’s possible neither will get taken before the third round. The last time a tight end didn’t go until Round 3 was 1987.
“This group is very fluid, very all over the place. Jalen Wydermyer, the tight end from Texas A&M, was a stud as a freshman (in 2019). Averaged 14 yards a catch and had six touchdown catches. Everybody thought he was going to be the next Jermichael Finley. Then he fell off the proverbial cliff last year. Bunch of drops. Questionable attitude. Ran a 5.03 at his Pro Day.
“If you looked at tight end projections last summer, he was TE1. Nine out of 10 big boards would’ve had him as the best guy in the (tight end) class. Now, I don’t even know if he’s draftable.
“Then you have a guy like Jelani Woods, who has a strong Pro Day and goes from (down) here to (up) there.”
Fennell’s top 5
1—Trey McBride, Colorado St., 6-4, 246, Rd. 2-3
2—Greg Dulcich, UCLA, 6-4, 243, Rd. 2-3
3—Cade Otton, Washington, 6-5, 247, Rd. 3-4
4—Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State, 6-5, 250, Rd. 3-4
5—Jelani Woods, Virginia, 6-7, 259, Rd. 3-4
Arms: 32 ½ inches
40 time: 4.56 seconds
Vertical jump: 33 inches
Ben’s take: “McBride has been described as a bully with pillow hands. That’s pretty accurate. He’s a physical guy. A lumbering runner. Despite the 4.5 forty time, he doesn’t separate particularly well and typically has somebody on his back on every catch. He’s not an explosive player. But he catches everything and blocks very well in the run game.
“He’s going to be good in the red zone. He’s going to stiff-arm people after the catch and pick up extra yards. But it all comes at the expense of a lack of separation, a lack of speed. Contested catches on Saturdays typically become a little harder on Sundays. Especially when you’re making them in the Mountain West Conference.
“We’ll see if he can translate. Is he Owen Daniels? Is he Austin Hooper? That’s kind of what I think. Not the sexiest, most explosive pass-game weapon, but a guy who’s on the field because he blocks his ass off and catches everything.”
Round projection: 2-3
Arms: 33 3/8 inches
40 time: 4.69 seconds
Vertical jump: 34 inches
Ben’s take: “He’s a converted wide receiver who’s put on good weight each year. He’s now pushing 250. He came to UCLA as a 210-pound wideout. He has all of the receiving skill-sets and traits you want. He’s a good route-runner. He’s explosive. He can manipulate his stride. He can attack leverage. Catches the ball very easily, whether it’s over his shoulder or plucking the ball low around his ankles.
“He’s good after the catch as well. Tons of speed. Tons of playmaking ability. Chip Kelly’s UCLA offense is not the old spread offense he ran at Oregon. There are a lot of multi-tight end sets. Dulcich had to block a lot in the run game as an inline tight end or a wing tight end. His trajectory is really moving to be a nice “Y’’ tight end. I think right now he’s probably suited to be more that “U’’ guy. That second tight end. The “move’’ tight end. But if he keeps putting on good weight, I think he’s going to be a helluva player.’’
Round projection: 2-3
Arms: 34 1/8 inches
40 time: 4.61 seconds
Vertical jump: 37 ½ inches
Ben’s take: “Woods is a former high school quarterback who transferred to Virginia for his last year of eligibility after spending four years at Oklahoma State. He’s a very interesting player. Somebody else described him as a moose. That’s what he is – a moose. He’s enormous. He’s hulking. He’s broad.
“During his one year at Virginia, he was able to showcase his pass-catching ability. Caught 44 passes last year and had eight touchdowns. He showed some really strong moves at the top of routes, and then used that big frame of his to shield out defenders and pluck the ball. Defenders just bounced off of him. He’s not an explosive guy. He’s a lumbering runner and struggles to get off press coverage. They would line him up as a wide “iso’’ guy and he couldn’t get off press. But if you give him room to operate he will eat up cushion. He’ll threaten you vertically. It just takes a little while for him to get going.
“He tested out of this world at his Pro Day, but I don’t see that level of player on tape. At Oklahoma State, all he was asked to do was block. And he did it very well. He had just 31 catches in three years there. So, in a nutshell, good blocker, good size. Goes to Virginia and shows his pass-catching ability. Has a great week at the Shrine game. Went there as probably a sixth-round guy and now it’s looking like he might not get out of Day 2. He tested well at his Pro Day. He’s stacking the whole pre-draft process.
“He reminds me height, weight, speed and ability-wise of Mercedes Lewis. Lewis was a first-round pick by Jacksonville a while back. Later played for the Packers. The way he was used at Oklahoma State was exactly the way Lewis was used with the Packers. So, when people look at him and wonder how good he’ll be in the pass game, that’s not a big deal. That’s not what he’s mainly going to be asked to do in the NFL. But he’s very well-rounded.’’