College football is upon us! Yesterday’s action was the perfect intro into week one of the season. Here, we continue counting down my top five prospects, this time at the tight end position.

Tight ends in today’s NFL are expected to do very different things compared to tight ends of the past. Once a position where you needed to be a big-body that can stay in-line and block, the position has been revolutionized. The primary job of a tight end now is to be a mismatch weapon in the passing game. Priority is based off their athleticism and ball skills while blocking skills have taken a back seat.

That said, the tight end group in the 2019 NFL Draft is very weak and there is little depth to the amount of impact players.

1. Noah Fant, Iowa, Junior, 6’5” 241

Noah Fant is the consensus top tight end for next year’s draft, almost unanimously. The reason is because of his receiving ability and mind-boggling athleticism. His reported testing numbers are insane. Per LJ Chaney, Fant posted a 42.1″ vertical jump and a 3.95 second pro-agility time.

On the field, Fant translates this athleticism into being the best mismatch weapon in college football at the tight end position. Elite speed and short area quickness make him a nightmare for linebackers to cover him and he is a good route-runner. After the catch, Fant is a monster that is hard to catch in the open-field and has some power when he runs. Add in his natural pass catching ability, and boom – number one tight end.

The one major drawback to his game is his blocking. He shows effort, but he doesn’t have the strength or technique to win one on one. Of course, this isn’t as big of a deal as it once was and Fant should be the top tight end of the board without question, at this time.

2. Dawson Knox, Mississippi, Junior, 6’4” 257

Former walk-on quarterback Dawson Knox wasn’t on my radar before watching quarterback Shea Patterson. He had his breakout season last year as made the transition from special teams player to legit weapon.

Much like Fant, Knox is known for being an effective receiver that matches up well with linebackers, though not as effective. He has good hands and enough speed to threaten defenses down the field, while being a smooth, although limited, route-runner. He’s still developing as an all-around tight end, but I like his development curve heading into 2018.

The weaknesses in his game have a lot to do with his rawness to the position. Knox gives effort when blocking, and while he’s better at it than Fant, he still isn’t very good. Functionally strong enough to block, Knox has problems with hesitancy and technique. He’ll be in the right spot to make the block, but he’ll second-guess himself often. Also, Knox has a limited route tree and isn’t a real threat after the catch.

3. Caleb Wilson, UCLA, Redshirt Junior, 6’4” 235

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Caleb Wilson is a model of consistency at the tight end position for UCLA before a season-ending injury. Despite being under-sized, he did a little bit of everything for the Bruins.

The first thing that jumps out about Wilson is his route-running ability. Smooth and with an understanding of position and leverage, he is advanced beyond what is expected at his experience-level. His hands are also very strong and he has the length to have a large catch radius. His blocking is still inconsistent, but better than Knox and Fant. He plays with an edge to him in the run game, but lacks the strength to be a sturdy pass-protector, which is very rare now for tight ends coming out of college.

Wilson’s downside is that he is a jack of all trades, master of none. Not overly strong or athletic, Wilson isn’t the immediate type of “mismatch weapon” that can win without those gifts. He works best as a safety net that can work in the middle of the field because of this lack of speed and big-play ability after the catch. He will carve out a role in the NFL as a #2 tight end and possibly develop into a more featured role.

4. Kaden Smith, Stanford, Redshirt Sophomore, 6’5” 252

Another player that has very little game experience, Kaden Smith has just 23 catches.

The reason why Smith is so high then? His potential and athleticism. Smith is a physical marvel for a tight end. Having great burst and long speed, Smith is a terror for linebackers to cover down the field. Smith is also agile enough to get open without straight speed and physicality. That physicality shows up in how Smith attacks the ball in the air. He goes up and will fight through contact to come down with the ball and shows elite body control; basketball skills showing up.

The biggest problem with Smith’s film is the sheer lack of it. It’s hard to truly rate someone so high based of such a small sample size, which is why this ranking is a projection of his potential against a weak class. Smith also has to improve in all of the technical areas of playing tight end. If Smith puts it all together this season, he could challenge Fant for TE1.

5. Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri, Redshirt Sophomore, 6’5” 255

Albert Okwuegbunam is a fascinating height-weight-speed player. He’ll play faster than he’ll test, but his size is a problem for defenders.

Working best down the seam, Okwuegbunam has good straight-line speed to get open against zone coverage, but his value lies in his contested catch ability. A legit 6’5″, Okwuegbunam plays well above the rim and dominates the catch-point.

The problem with Okwuegbunam is that he is a one-dimensional player at this point in his young career. He’s only played in nine games and his lack of experience shows up in a lot of areas. A sloppy route-runner, Okwuegbunam had a majority of his big plays on plays where he ran unimpeded through the defense. This is also where his lack of athleticism, outside of his straight-line speed, is on display. He lacks burst and short-area quickness and has a hard time getting against man coverage. He is also a poor blocker, lacking the technique and functional strength to even be average at this point. Okwuegbunam’s development will be very important this season and his potential is very high for teams that want a jumpball-type tight end.

Other TEs to watch: Alize Mack (Notre Dame), Marvin Saunders (Kansas), Tyler Petite (USC), Drew Sample (Washington), C.J. Conrad (Kentucky), Jake Breeland (Oregon), Isaac Nauta (Georgia), Tommy Sweeney (Boston College), Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama)

– Ryan Dunbar is a writer for the San Francisco 49ers on Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on and Facebook.

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