(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
The changing nature of offenses in college football is having an effect on the tight end position in the NFL.
"Tight ends and fullbacks are like dinosaurs. They're harder to find," Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert noted. "There just aren't a lot of conventional tight ends. And some of the guys who are called tight ends on the spread-option teams are actually big guys playing in the slot and they're more for blocking on the perimeter, passes or runs, than they are for being a traditional tight end. They're a lot like quarterbacks. It takes them a little while longer to transition and to be able to play traditional tight end.
"If they're of a certain size and speed and mentality, I think you can teach them to block. It just might not be in the first month of training camp."
There are still some traditional tight ends available, but not many.
The winner of the John Mackey Award in 2015 is a complete tight end in the traditional sense. Henry, 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, caught 51 passes for 739 yards and three touchdowns in 2015 and was also counted upon as a blocker at Arkansas, a program that values running the ball. Henry's catches and yards increased in each of the past two seasons. He'll catch the ball in traffic and he'll catch the ball when he's about to take a hit. About the only thing he didn't do last season was drop a pass.
Stanford has already sent Zach Ertz, Levine Tiololo, Coby Fleener, and Jim Dray to the NFL. Hooper, 6-4, 254, is the next in line and capable of contributing as a move tight end/H-back or as an in-line tight end. He caught 34 passes for 438 yards and six touchdowns, and he established himself as a willing blocker at another college program where running the football still means something. Hooper catches the ball with his hands, he'll catch it in a crowd, and he's strong after the catch. He also dropped nine balls over the past two seasons.
Although he wasn't often featured in Ohio State's big-play offense, Varnett has drawn comparisons to former Buckeyes teammate Jeff Heuerman (third round, Denver, 2015). Varnett, 6-6, 257, caught 19 passes in each of the last two seasons, five for scores in 2014. A combo tight end who can stay on the field in all situations, Varnett also contributed in pass protection and as a run blocker. He's not necessarily a big-play guy but he's a large, safe target.
Here are some of the top tight end prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
A redshirt-senior, Higbee started just one season at Western Kentucky. He made the most of it with 38 catches for 563 yards and eight touchdowns despite missing four regular season games. Higbee, 6-6, 249 is a converted wide receiver who won't impress as a blocker, but he'll go over the middle to make a catch and he's competitive after the catch. He has big hands and dropped just one pass this season and only two over the last two seasons. Higbee is facing charges after being arrested following an altercation on April 10, but he reportedly will plead not guilty at his arraignment on May 5.
He has a big frame (6-5, 247) and the long arms to go up and get the ball. Adams caught 28 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns in 2015 and displayed an affinity for adding yards after the catch with jukes and spin moves. He can get down the field, and he can help as a run blocker, where he's willing if not especially devastating. Adams projects as following a backup-to-eventual-starter transition into the NFL.
THE 2015 DRAFT, TE STATISTICS
Number drafted: 18
Picks by round: 0 in the first; 1 in the second; 3 in the third; 1 in the fourth; 5 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 4 in the seventh
Highest pick: Maxx Williams, Minnesota, Round 2, 55th overall by the Baltimore Ravens
Biggest impact: More than 300 prospects were invited to the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, but Will Tye was not one of them. Then at the 2015 draft, 18 tight ends were selected, but Will Tye wasn't one of them. Tye, from Stony Brook, squeezed into the NFL after impressing the New York Giants at a rookie minicamp, and that was the start of a season in which Tye led all first-year tight ends with 42 catches for 464 yards and four touchdowns, 10 catches and 196 yards more than Maxx Williams, the first tight end to be drafted in 2015.