(A series looking at some of the top players at various positions leading up to the NFL Draft, set for April 27-29)
Only two tight ends have been selected in the first round over the last five drafts, including none in 2016.
That's a trend that's subject to change.
"I think we have some special guys," Carolina Panthers tight end and NFL Network analyst Greg Olsen observed at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We saw a lot of solid kids last year, a lot of good players.
"I think this year we have a chance to see some special guys, some guys who can really run, who can move."
NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah agreed.
"I started scouting with the Ravens in 2003," he acknowledged. "This is the best tight end group I've seen since I began scouting. You watch these guys run, it confirms it. Their grades hold up on the field when you study them."
Added NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock: "On tape most of them, even the smaller guys, will commit to blocking."
The dual-threat tight end could be beginning to make a comeback.
Howard told the NFL Network he returned to Alabama for his senior season in 2016 to improve his run blocking. He apparently accomplished that mission. "You can put him in-line, he can block," Mayock assessed. "He can flex out, he can get down the field (on) intermediate and deep (routes)." Jeremiah quoted a 30-year scout as saying Howard "might be the safest player in the draft." His career numbers (114 catches, 1,726 yards, seven TDs) reflect Alabama's use of the tight end position more than they do Howard's NFL potential.
Engram (6-3 1/8, 234) is more the type of player who confuses the boundary as to where a small tight end ends and a big wide receiver begins, particularly when he's running a 4.42 40-yard dash. "Is he (a) hand-in-the-ground (tight end)?" Mayock wondered. "Is he hard enough to cover that blocking doesn't matter?" It didn't at Mississippi, where Engram caught 65 passes for 926 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016. "This kid can flat-out play," Mayock continued. "He's that matchup tight end-wideout hybrid." Engram isn't accomplished at lining up in a three-point stance, but against linebackers and safeties he's often a mismatch.
Another athlete, Njoku (6-4, 246) was a national champion in the high jump in high school. He caught 43 passes for 698 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016 as a redshirt sophomore at Miami. "I think sometimes it matters less what we call some of these guys," Mayock said. "At the end of the day, they're match-up players in the pass game." Added NFL network analyst Charles Davis: "All the slot guys are not going to be little people anymore." More Mayock on Njoku: "He's a freak, and he'll stick his face right in the fan (a willing blocker)." Dane Brugler's 2017 NFL Draft Guide assessed Njoku as follows: "Still raw in several areas, but massive upside to be a play-making NFL starter earns him a Top-20 overall grade."
Shaheen (6-6 1/2, 278) began his career in college athletics as a basketball player at Pitt-Johnstown (he averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in 2013-14). The 16 touchdown passes caught by Shaheen at Ashland in 2016 (an NCAA Div. II record for a tight ends) got the NFL's attention. "There's a ton of interest in this kid," Mayock said at the Combine. "The entire NFL was looking forward to watching Adam Shaheen this week." NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein sees in Shaheen a player who possesses "starting potential with an ability to impact a passing game early in his career."
A torn ACL suffered in the Orange Bowl kept Butt out of the pre-draft process, but his game was already on tape. Butt (6-4, 246) is neither overly athletic running routes or overpowering as a blocker, but whatever the task he often found a way to get the job done at the University of Michigan. Brugler's analysis: "While there is very little flash to his game, Butt is very well-rounded with all the tools to start as a rookie and earn an NFL paycheck for the next decade. Might take a slight tumble due to his knee injury but still projects as a Top-80 prospect if the rehab stays on track."
The 2016 Draft, TE
Number drafted: 11
Picks by round: 0 in the first; 1 in the second; 2 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 0 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 2 in the seventh
Highest pick: Hunter Henry, Arkansas, Round 2, 35th overall, San Diego Chargers
Impact pick: Henry was apparently the first selected at his position for a reason. He appeared in 15 games for the Chargers (10 starts) and wound up with 36 catches for 478 yards and eight receiving TDs and improved as the season progressed as a blocker.