Leistikow: Noah Fant, T.J Hockenson reunite in Iowa City ahead of NFL Draft
IOWA CITY, Ia. — What a time for two dynamic tight ends from Iowa to be charging into the NFL Draft.
Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson stood Monday at Iowa’s Football Performance Center, knowing they were exactly one month away from knowing their future employer — and a probable seven-figure payday.
With their domination of the NFL Scouting Combine, plus former Hawkeye George Kittle having taken the league by storm last season with San Francisco 49ers, the stocks for Fant and Hockenson were already high.
And on Sunday, one of the greatest tight ends to play the game in Rob Gronkowski decided to retire. Even the world champion New England Patriots will be hunting for a difference-making tight end, too.
Both players were well aware of that significant job opening.
Not that the Patriots’ current draft position at No. 32 has much chance of nabbing Fant or Hockenson, both widely projected to be first-round picks April 25, without trading up.
"There’s a lot of teams that need tight ends," Fant noted.
Hockenson had a laugh Monday when faced with the question about what he thought of being a possible top-10 pick. The Detroit Lions (with the No. 8 pick) and Buffalo Bills (No. 9) are reasonable landing spots for the full-service, Mackey Award-winning tight end.
“It’s flattering, obviously. Don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, no one knows. No one has a clue,” Hockenson said. “You could fall very easily. No one knows what’s going to happen on that day. I don’t think the teams even know what’s going to happen until that day.”
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah had Fant going No. 12 to the Green Bay Packers in a mock draft earlier this month.
“I don’t have any expectations. Anything could happen in the draft,” Fant said. “You could be picked at 8 or 9, or you could be picked at 43.”
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Fant’s thoughts are in line with Hockenson's.
But that mindset and their school affiliation are about where their similarities end.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz famously called Fant a “specialist” because of his speedier skill set, while Hockenson was awarded every-down snaps as the more trusted blocker.
It was interesting to see them both in Iowa City, together again — especially considering Fant, whose brother was publicly miffed with how Iowa coaches were using him, skipped the Hawkeyes’ bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft. Ferentz called that decision “disappointing.”
But Fant returned to town Friday and said he has an apartment here and will train with Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle from now until the draft.
If there are any hard feelings, they seem to be in the past.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Fant said. “Fit right back in. It was good seeing all the guys.”
Fant said he did 22 team interviews alone at the NFL Combine. They asked him about what he called an up-and-down time at Iowa, where he is the all-time leader in touchdown catches by a tight end with 19.
“(They asked) how I felt about things. It was all a very open conversation,” Fant said, without getting into details. “Obviously (was) not going to put a front on or anything like that. It was all very authentic conversation.”
Hockenson, meanwhile, stopped a reporter Monday who asserted that Hockenson liked being a Hawkeye.
“Love it here,” he interjected.
Hockenson’s homegrown passion for Iowa was so strong that he struggled with his stay-or-go decision. He never considered skipping the Outback Bowl; in fact, he believed he owed it to the Iowa coaches to give them everything he had in December.
Even though their paths differ, comparisons of the two will continue until the draft and perhaps beyond — because they wore the same school colors.
They get that.
They also embrace the competition within the draft: Which one will be chosen first? Opinions vary.
“At the end of the day, me and T.J. are two different players, two different skill sets,” Fant said. “It depends on what the team wants, what the team is drafting for. A lot of people are split decision of who they like better.”
Tight-end teammates have never been picked in the same first round of the NFL Draft.
“It’s definitely a cool thing, just being two tight ends from the same university,” Hockenson said. “I know what he does well, and he knows what I do well."
Fant said he’s been invited to the draft in Nashville but wasn’t allowed to disclose whether he’d accepted the invite. Hockenson was also coy about it, but surely he’s been invited as well.
Could we all be watching the two of them at the same draft table in the green room on draft night?
“I don’t know if that’d work,” Fant said. “He’ll have his family. I’ll have mine. If we both end up there, we’ll both be happy for each other.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.