The NFL Draft is five weeks away, which doesn’t feel close at all, yet the more dialed-in part of the evaluation process has long been underway. The quarterbacks and certain skill players get all the pre-draft glory, but a deeper look into this year’s class shows one position group, in particular, has more than a few top-end game-changers: The tight ends. While a majority of NFL offenses have done away with every-down running backs and focused more on mobile quarterbacks who also have a decent arm, the more options to throw to the better.
Teams need elite QBs, but QBs also need weapons
As much as an elite quarterback is now one of the near-universal requirements to win a Super Bowl, having at least one elite passing target is on the list as well. For the Kansas City Chiefs, Travis Kelce is obviously better than any wide receiver they had on this year’s team. Kelce was also better than any receiver Kansas City had for its first championship with Patrick Mahomes steering the ship. Yes, better than now-Miami-Dolphins star Tyreek Hill. And I’m not saying the next Kelce is in this draft class. Calling your shot and plucking someone as one of the best to put on shoulder pads at any position is blasphemous. What I will predict is that one of the next great NFL tight ends will hear his name called by the end of the second round at the end of April. Let’s look at the contenders.
Here’s who could be the next great TE
The highest-rated tight end prospect on ESPN’s draft board is former Notre Dame standout Michael Mayer, who is their No. 9 overall prospect in the draft. Since the 2004 NFL Draft, five tight ends have been selected within the top 10 picks and Mayer will no doubt bring that number to a half-dozen. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder consistently improved every year in South Bend and while his statistics aren’t jumping off the page as fantastic, that’s rarely a great way to evaluate potential at the next level anyway. His size and pass-catching ability make Mayer the safest bet among the tight ends in the draft. In terms of potential, I wouldn’t put Mayer No. 1, but there’s a clear top three.
Alongside former Utah legend Dalton Kincaid and Darnell Washington, who was part of Georgia’s back-to-back national championship teams, Mayer completes the trio of top prizes, among a stacked group. The chance one of the three of them lands as an All-Pro player in the next few seasons is high. Washington and Kincaid are the other two tight ends that’ll be selected who currently have first-round draft grades, and for good reason. The drop off to the No. 4-rated tight end, Luke Musgrave from Oregon State, is significant. It isn’t Wile E. Coyote, but it’s noticeable for any scout with two healthy eyes.
It can’t be understated how being part of a program that consistently wins is sexy to NFL teams. What’s the best recruiting pitch Nick Saban has to bring incredible talent to Alabama? “Look at how many of our guys have success in Tuscaloosa and after leaving my program,” Saban probably says while eating Whataburger (which is so much better than In-N-Out). Georgia’s Kirby Smart is starting to have that same swagger. And Washington will reap the benefits of that. Do you not remember five Georgia players being taken in the first round of last year’s NFL Draft? Washington will hear his name called on April 27 in Kansas City. His length and height at 6-foot-7, 270 pounds will make some team’s mouth water. You can’t grow a player in the NFL, but you can’t adopt a giant!
Then comes Kincaid, who I believe is the biggest boom-or-bust prospect of the three. And bust is relative here because I can’t see him not panning out positively in some form or fashion. He was an indelible part of Utah’s Pac-12 powerhouses of the last two years. Kincaid is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, which is oddly the same exact measurables as Mayer, but the duo is easily discernible from each other from their playing styles. Mayer is more of your Jason Witten-type tight end. He’s bulkier, a great blocker, and has enough speed to beat linebackers off the line of scrimmage. Kincaid is more of the larger wide receiver, with the ability to twist his body and make incredible catches. The former Ute is the best pure athlete in this tight-end class and maybe the whole damn draft. A few other interesting tight-end prospects exist in Tucker Kraft, Davis Allen, and Sam LaPorta, and they could all turn into great pros. That top trio though …get them while supplies last. I’m betting they end up being constantly compared for the rest of their careers because at least one is going to be an NFL beast.