Leistikow: T.J. Hockenson seems like sure first-round bet; will Noah Fant join him to make NFL Draft history?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

If T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant make NFL Draft history on Thursday night, they should extend a heartfelt thank-you to a former Iowa teammate.

It was George Kittle’s explosion as a second-year player with the San Francisco 49ers — in which he set a single-season NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end — that has no doubt helped increase the league's appetite for difference-making tight ends.

Franchises are on the hunt for the next Travis Kelce, the next Rob Gronkowski — or the next Kittle, who went from a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 to league history with 1,377 receiving yards in 2018.

One last time together? T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant starred for Iowa in the fall, and will be collectively rooting for the same thing Thursday night ... a first-round selection in the NFL Draft.

The market for tight ends is high, and that, more than anything, is why Hockenson and Fant could become the first teammates at that position to be chosen in the same first round of the NFL Draft.

The festivities start Thursday night in Nashville, where Fant and Hockenson will be arriving on the red carpet before waiting in the green room. The first round commences shortly after 6 p.m. CDT.

Who needs a tight end in the first round?

The list is plentiful, starting at the back end of the top 10.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah thinks once the Jacksonville Jaguars go on the clock with the seventh overall pick, it’s time to pay attention to the Hawkeyes’ 2018 tight ends.

“I think you just start talking about them at 7 with the Jags. That would make some sense,” Jeremiah said. “Seven to the Jags, eight to the (Detroit) Lions. … I could still see Hockenson fitting them and making some sense with them.

“Nine to Buffalo and 10 to Denver … 12 to Green Bay.

“I think Minnesota (at No. 18) is a sleeper team for a tight end. They've done a lot of homework on tight ends. That would not shock me.”

Bottom line: A lot of teams need tight ends. Kittle helped a lot of these teams realize that. Gronkowski’s retirement in New England further accentuates the need.

Jeremiah rates Hockenson as the No. 5 overall prospect in the draft, with Fant at No. 15. In his most recent mock draft, he sees Hockenson going No. 9 to the Bills and Fant No. 24 to the Oakland Raiders. But in a recent interview, Jeremiah further expanded on the appeal of Fant.

“I don't think he'll get down that far, when it's all said and done,” Jeremiah said. “I think both those tight ends are gone in the top 20, and if it's not to a team that's there right now … when you look at the Patriots having a need and the Patriots having a lot of draft capital, I would think if either one of the Iowa tight ends started to drop and drift a little bit, that that would be one phone call away for the Patriots to go get them.”

So yes, it sounds realistic that Iowa could have two players taken in the first round of the NFL Draft for the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era. The last time Iowa logged two first-rounders was in 1997, with cornerback Tom Knight and offensive lineman Ross Verba.

Under Ferentz, seven Hawkeyes have gone in the first round, and only one at a skill position (tight end Dallas Clark, in 2003). Hockenson will almost surely be the second, and Fant could be the third.

Of course, those of us who follow Iowa football closely know that nothing is certain until the names are called.

Just last year, cornerback Josh Jackson and offensive lineman James Daniels were frequently projected to be first-rounders. Both fell to Friday night’s second round.

“No one has a clue. You could fall very easily,” Hockenson said. “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.”

Hockenson seems to be more of a dependable bet. Jeremiah compared him to longtime Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. And that is quite a comp.

Witten, who recently unretired, ranks fourth in NFL history with 1,152 receptions. He’s gone to 11 Pro Bowls.

“I think he's got a chance to be that exact same guy,” Jeremiah said.

Fant is more of a wild card. USA TODAY still lists him as a top-10 overall prospect. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay each have Fant clinging to a first-round spot, at No. 30 to the Green Bay Packers. But on a recent “First Draft” podcast, Kiper expressed concern over Fant’s football drive — and usually when these guys talk, they’re reflecting what they’ve heard from NFL scouts and front offices.

“That’s the concern with Noah Fant, that he doesn’t always perform to the level of the talent,” Kiper said, explaining that he wondered why Fant didn’t have more pass targets (and echoing what we experienced in Iowa, stories about Fant's snap count). “… Why didn’t that happen? And all of a sudden, it’s going to happen in the NFL?

“We’re watching the Combine; he looks the part. But is the fire, the passion, the love for the game (there)?”

So, we’ll see what happens. There's a plausible scenario in which Hockenson, the Mackey Award winner, is the No. 2 skill-position player off the board — after projected No. 1 pick Kyler Murray of Oklahoma.

Either way, it's clear that a lot of teams on the clock Thursday need tight ends.

And that could make it a night to remember for two former Hawkeyes.

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.

Iowa’s first-round NFL Draft picks under Kirk Ferentz

2003: TE Dallas Clark, No. 24 pick, Indianapolis Colts

2004: OL Robert Gallery, No. 2, Oakland Raiders

2006: LB Chad Greenway, No. 17, Minnesota Vikings

2010: OL Bryan Bulaga, No. 23, Green Bay Packers

2011: DE Adrian Clayborn, No. 20, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2012: OL Riley Reiff, No. 23, Detroit Lions

2015: OL Brandon Scherff, No. 5, Washington Redskins