Richner: 2016 Top TEs

Last Updated: 5/1/2016 1:00 PM ET
2016 NFL Draft - Top Tight Ends

Yet another year where we have an underwhelming group of tight end prospects. This year's crop of tight end prospects lack the star power that previous drafts have had at this position. Since 2000, there have been a total of 18 first round picks used on a tight end. On average, 14 tight ends are selected during the draft with the majority coming in rounds 5-7 (130 tight ends were selected in these rounds since 2000).

In 2015, only one tight was selected in the second round, none in the first round. Maxx Williams (Baltimore Ravens) was the first tight end chosen in last year's NFL Draft. Williams had a lackluster rookie campaign, contributing 32 receptions for 268 yards and one touchdown.

Tight ends selected in the first round have had limited success for the most part. A few have reached, and even exceeded, their potential (Greg Olsen, Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Heath Miller) and a few failed to live up to expectations (Eric Ebron and Jermaine Gresham).

This year's crop of tight end prospects have more depth than previous years, especially for teams looking for an inline blocking tight end. A handful of the tight end prospects excel when they are asked to be split out wide and used in a similar fashion as wide receiver.

The new age tight ends coming from the college spread attack have a tremendous learning curve when it comes to understanding and developing quality pass blocking techniques. These same players have excelled as a receiver and are typically a little more mobile and athletic once they get the ball in their hands.

The rankings for all the tight ends are generated by a statistical formula to encompass each prospect's ability as a pass catcher and a blocker. These statistics are also combined with each player's respective athletic measurements taken from either their Pro Days or at the NFL Combine.

1) Hunter Henry (TE, Arkansas):

Despite playing in a predominantly run-heavy offense, Hunter Henry was the leading pass catcher amongst tight ends in the SEC in 2015. He was instant mismatch whereever he lined up on the field. The Razorbacks split Henry out wide to take advantage of his size against smaller defensive backs. When asked to block, Henry had little problem putting his hand on the ground and shutting down opponent's pass rush moves.

At 6'5” and 250 pounds, Henry has the speed and quickness of a typical slot wide receiver. Defenses have a hard time finding a player who can match up with Henry's length and speed. He has superb hands and hand eye coordination. NFL coaches will be in love with the fact that Henry did not have allow a single drop in 2015.

In 35 career games, Henry had 116 receptions, 1,661 yards, 14.3 YPC, nine touchdowns and 85 first downs. He had a total of 42 receptions for 15 or more yards, a big play rate of 36 percent. 73 percent of Henry's receptions resulted in a first down, the highest amongst all the tight ends in this draft class

It is a rarity in college football to find a tight end who is a reliable and dangerous threat as a pass catcher as well as a quality inline blocker. He is able to neutralize a pass rusher, showing the ability to shut down an opponent's top pass rusher.

Most NFL teams will run a high percentage of plays out of a two tight end formation. With Henry being an exceptional pass catcher, this will force defenses to commit to either leaving a linebacker on him or putting a smaller defensive back. He can be a matchup nightmare for some teams.

With a weak tight end draft class this year, don't be surprised if a team takes Henry in the late first round. A team such as Seattle or Denver could be a perfect fit for someone with Henry's talents and skill set.

2) Austin Hooper (TE, Stanford):

A major contributor for the Stanford offense was starting tight end, Austin Hooper, who is a big target at 6'4” and 254 pounds. As a redshirt sophomore, Hooper was the third leading receiver last season, finishing with 34 receptions for 438 yards and six touchdowns.

In just 26 career games played, Hooper had 74 receptions, 937 yards, 12.7 YPC, eight touchdowns, and 47 first downs. A deep downfield threat, he produced 26 receptions of 25 or more yards, with a big pay rate of 35 percent.

An example of Hooper's threat as a deep field target came against USC this past season. Hooper finished the game with four receptions for 79 yards and one touchdown, an average of 19.8 yards per reception. He was targeted a total of five times, with an average distance of 14.6 yards past the line of scrimmage. Showing the quickness and agility to slip past blockers and get upfield, Hooper had a total of 21 yards after the catch.

Hooper wasn't asked to be the primary blocking tight end in Stanford's offensive scheme. He was split out wide on a majority of his snaps this past season. When called upon, Hooper did show good blocking technique. He won't pancake anyone, but he can sustain his block long enough for the hole to open up.

Still a young prospect who is growing by leaps and bounds, watch for Hooper to become a vertical deep, downfield threat for an NFL team similar to a Travis Kelce. It might take Hooper a season or more to develop and get used to the speed of an NFL offense. Stanford has a solid reputation of producing quality NFL caliber tight ends. Look for Hooper to be another addition to this list.

3) Jerrell Adams (TE, South Carolina):

The Gamecocks' offense didn't meet the usual Steve Spurrier fun-and-gun approach of airing the ball out forty times a game. It was a conservative offense that was more focused on running the ball and using quick, high percentage throws to their wide receivers and tight ends. Adams was regulated to being mostly an inline blocker last season, an area of the field which few tight ends have experience coming from college to the NFL.

Adams was one of the NFL Combine's biggest stars, regardless of position groups. He measured in at 6'5” and 247 pounds and posted the fastest 40-yard dash time for tight ends at 4.66 seconds. An exceptional athlete and a player who can be the big target for any quarterback in almost any offense in the NFL.

In 31 career games, Adams had 66 receptions, 977 yards, 14.8 YPC, seven touchdowns, and 43 first downs. He had 27 receptions of 15 or more yards, with a big play rate of 41 percent, the fifth highest rate in this draft class.

It is Adams' ability as a blocker which separates him as a top tight end prospect from the rest of the class. He can drive his man downfield and be a weapon to help propel his team's rushing attack. One area where Adams needs to improve is his ability as a pass catcher. He had a total of five dropped passes last season according to Pro Football Focus.

Adams is one of the better all-around tight ends in this draft class. While other prospects might have superior pass catching abilities, they lack the blocking skill set. Adams is a quality tight end who should provide some instant help to any offensive unit.

4) Devon Cajuste (WR/TE, Stanford):

The standard thinking is that Cajuste, who played wideout for the Cardinals, would do the same once he reaches the NFL. I believe Cajuste is best suited to play the tight end position in the NFL. At 6'4” and 234 pounds, he is already big enough, albeit he might have to put on a few more pounds as a blocker, to play the position. At Stanford, the receivers and tight ends are asked to play in multiple formations and are required to learn how to block.

A 4.63 forty-yard dash time at the NFL Combine puts Cajuste in the lower levels compared to other wide receivers. Take his performance as a whole and put him in the tight end group and suddenly Cajuste is one of the top tier athletes in that group.

In 46 career games, Cajuste had 90 receptions, 1,589 yards, 17.7 YPC, 14 touchdowns and 64 first downs. He amassed 45 receptions of 15 or more yards, giving him a big play rate of 50 percent, the highest in this draft class. With 71 percent of his receptions resulting in a first down, Cajuste had the second highest first down rate per reception in this draft class.

It will take some time to develop Cajuste into a formidable, elite tight end. He will have to get used to putting his hand in the ground and blocking pass rushers and linebackers versus smaller defensive backs. NFL teams can utilize his speed and quickness by flexing him out wide and using him in a similar mold of a Jimmy Graham or Zac Ertz.

The ability to be a consistent or even adequate blocker might take a couple of seasons to develop. But Cajuste's abilities as a pass catcher make him an exciting developmental type of prospect who shouldn't be overlooked. Teams would be wise to use a mid-round draft pick on Cajuste and use him as an offensive weapon during his rookie season. Look for a team such as the Arizona Cardinals or the Minnesota Vikings as possible landing spots for Cajuste.

5) Nick Vannett (TE, Ohio State):

On a team saddled with more offensive firepower than most NFL teams, Nick Vannett never got to showcase his complete skill set last season. Regulated to being a blocking tight end, Vannett recorded just 19 receptions for 162 yards in 2015. With a limited number of opportunities, scouts are left to wonder what type of production and effect he can have on an NFL roster.

At the NFL Combine, Vannett measured in at 6'6” and 257 pounds and impressed scouts with his quickness and ability to change direction with relative ease for a player of his size and stature. He has the long arms and giant hands that will make him an instant weapon in the red zone. He has shown the strength to push off defenders and use his body to shield them away as he comes down with a catch.

The Buckeyes had two quality tight ends in 2014: Jeff Heuerman, who was selected by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and Vannett. Heuerman finished with 17 receptions for 207 yards, 12.2 YPC and two touchdowns in his final season as a Buckeye. In 2014, Vannett flourished with 19 receptions for 220 yards, 11.6 YPC and five touchdowns.

With Heuerman being drafted in the second round and having produced at a similar rate to Vannett over their respective college careers, don't be surprised if an NFL teams decides to use a second or early third rounder on Vannett. He isn't the most polished tight end prospect, but is still an adequate blocker who has proved to be a weapon in short yardage situation and in the red zone.

Ranking Player School Draftable Round
1 Hunter Henry Arkansas 2
2 Austin Hooper Stanford 2
3 Jerell Adams South Carolina 3
4 Devon Cajuste Stanford 3
5 Nick Vannett Ohio State 4
6 Beau Sandland Montana State 5
7 Ben Braunecker Harvard 5
8 Tyler Higbee Western Kentucky 5
9 Kivon Cartwright Colorado State 6
10 Bryce Williams East Carolina 6
12 David Morgan UTSA 6
13 Joshua Perkins Washington 7
14 Jake McGee Florida 7
15 Kyle Carter Penn State 7
16 Tanner McEvoy Wisconsin 7
17 Cam Serigne Wake Forest 7-FA
18 David Grinnage North Carolina State 7-FA
19 Ben McCord Central Michigan FA
20 Darion Griswold Arkansas State FA
21 J.P. Holtz Pittsburgh FA
22 Matt Weiser Buffalo FA
23 Temarrick Hemingway South Carolina State FA
24 Steven Scheu Vanderbilt FA
25 Sean Price South Florida FA
26 Henry Krieger Coble Iowa FA
27 Ryan Malleck Virginia Tech FA