NFL scouting report: Iowa tight ends T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant are on first-round radar
There are a dozen talented tight ends who will be selected in April’s NFL Draft.
T.J. Hockenson stands alone at the top of the pack.
“He’s the safest player in the draft,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Monday of the Mackey Award winner out of Iowa.
Hockenson, a native of Chariton, has risen so far and so fast that he’s leaving the Hawkeyes after just two years of play. And he’s doing so as a near-lock to be picked in the first round, even ahead of former Iowa teammate Noah Fant, who was the most highly touted tight end entering the 2018 season.
Both were productive — Hockenson with 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns; Fant with 39 catches, 519 yards and seven scores. Both have size and speed.
But Hockenson’s ability to dominate a game with his blocking as well as his reliable hands is what sets him apart. Jeremiah said he watched New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski control play in a playoff game win over San Diego last month and, while he would never compare an up-and-coming player to the standard-bearer at the position…
“I saw this kid with the same temperament and nastiness,” Jeremiah said of Hockenson.
“Fant is more athletic, more explosive. He’s functional in the run game. … He’s not deficient, but he’s not the killer that Hockenson is.”
Jeremiah is among those that see both former Hawkeyes going in the first round.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Gil Brandt, the architect of the Dallas Cowboys’ teams from 1960-88, isn’t so sure. He thinks both will be selected between No. 25 and 42.
Josh Liskiewitz, who scouts the Big Ten Conference for Pro Football Focus, thinks Hockenson can go as high as eighth, to the Detroit Lions.
Hockenson and Fant are both headed to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Their workouts will begin Saturday morning. It’s an important showcase for Fant, in particular.
Here’s the latest on what NFL talent evaluators think about Iowa’s star tight ends:
HOW HE’S VIEWED: Brandt is impressed by Hockenson’s all-around skill set. He is among many who have replayed a Hockenson pancake block in a victory over Indiana over and over, marveling at the power and athleticism displayed.
But Brandt has been around long enough to know that tight ends aren’t often coveted as first-round picks. Only 16 have gone that high since 2003. In a draft class deep on tight ends, teams might be willing to wait until the second or third rounds to grab their guy. As an example, O.J. Howard was thought by some to be a top-five pick coming out of Alabama two seasons ago. He ended up being selected 19th by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The value of the tight end is not equal to that of the offensive lineman,” Brandt said. “If you look at tight ends that are playing on rosters in the NFL, they’re findable in the second round. They’re findable in the third. They’re findable in the fourth. Just like wide receivers. People go for those offensive linemen and defensive linemen that you don’t find in the second, third and fourth rounds.”
The numbers bear this out. There have been 51 offensive tackles and 24 guards chosen in the first round since 2003. But on Day 2 of the draft (second and third rounds), the numbers even out — 66 tight ends and 64 offensive tackles.
The question for Hockenson, then, is whether he’s seen as elite enough for a team to spend a top-10 pick. Or if tight end is simply becoming a much more valued position.
“It’s his blocking ability that sets him apart,” Liskiewitz said. “(NFL teams) want a guy that can do everything and open it up for that second tight end that can just line up in the slot, get vertical and be the size and speed mismatch that everyone wants. That’s a no-brainer pick to me anywhere in the first round because I think he’s one of the safer picks.
“You get a guy like Hockenson, who you don’t ever have to take off the field and doesn’t necessarily tip the defense as to the design of the play — that’s huge.”
WHAT HE NEEDS TO SHOW: Liskiewitz thinks most NFL teams have made up their minds about Hockenson. He’s the real deal. Therefore, his Combine numbers won’t be as heavily scrutinized.
“There’s an expected level of baseline athleticism. If he shows that his speed is on par with the rest of the class, I think that will be enough to make sure he’s a first-round pick. You don’t want to see him run in the high 4.7s or anything like that — that would be an issue. But if he kind of runs where everyone expects him to and measures out fairly well in the middle of everything else, I think he’ll be fine.”
Brandt has done the research on tight ends drafted in the first round since 2003. Their average size is 6-foot-4 ½ and 252 pounds (Hockenson was listed at 6-5, 250). They run a 4.61 40-yard dash with a vertical leap of 35 feet, 6 inches, on average. Their time in the 20-yard short shuttle, an important indicator, is 4.34 seconds.
Those are the numbers to keep an eye on for Hockenson. If he’s on par there, he’ll almost certainly be the first tight end taken.
HOW HE’S VIEWED: Fant is leaving Iowa after his junior season. He has the size (6-5, 241), speed, leaping ability and productivity (19 career receiving touchdowns on just 78 catches) that gets the attention of NFL scouts.
But Iowa did not use him as an every-down tight end. If NFL teams concur that that’s the case, it would limit his value. Liskiewitz sees Fant as a second-round pick. Brandt thinks he could slide into that top half of that round as well.
“He showed himself more in the traditional sense of true athleticism, being able to stretch the slot and use size to make a mismatch, whether you’re on a defensive back or a linebacker,” Liskiewitz said. “It’s tough for me to place where he’s going to end up. It’s such a deep class. I think the Combine is very important for him. There are so many guys that teams might be willing to take whoever’s left, even in the fourth round.”
WHAT HE NEEDS TO SHOW: Two years ago, Iowa tight end George Kittle went to the Combine and blew people away. He ran a 4.52 40 and had an 11-foot broad jump. He still fell to the fifth round of the draft, but became an All-Pro with the San Francisco 49ers this year.
Liskiewitz, who was an early proponent of Kittle’s, said Fant could help himself immensely by having a similar Combine showing.
“He’s awfully athletic,” Liskiewitz said of Fant. “If he can go under 4.6 in the 40, above 38 in the vertical — those are the two main ones. He also wants to catch all the passes in the gauntlet.”
That could put Fant in line to be the second tight end taken.
Brandt noted one other thing that Fant will want to display this week, this one in private interviews with NFL decision-makers.
“A lot of people are questioning Fant about some things that took place between the coaches,” Brandt said of Fant’s curious usage at Iowa. He skipped the Outback Bowl to get ready for the Combine. “The question they’re going to ask: 'Is he coachable?'”
The bottom line is that Hockenson and Fant will see their value increase by what Kittle has been able to do in the pros, Liskiewitz said.
"It's not just about him being the Iowa guy. It's about, 'It's OK for a tight end to not weigh 275 and be used exclusively as a blocker,'" Liskiewitz said. “It’s his ability to line up all over the place. It’s understanding the tight end position in a pro-style offense.”