The NFL has been trending toward a desire to find matchup tight ends who can force defenses into sub packages while still offering enough size and athleticism to give slot corners and safeties problems. However, the most coveted tight ends will always be the combination tight ends who can catch and block. The top two tight ends on this list fit into the combo roles.
This is not a list previewing the 2017 NFL Draft, but a look at tight ends that are generating interest from NFL scouts and/or are expected to post big seasons for their teams. Here are 10 to watch in 2016.
1. O.J. Howard, Alabama
Howard's overall body of work wouldn't suggest he's good enough to be placed at the top of this list. He has had disappointing career production and at times lacks the competitive fire we've grown accustomed to seeing from Alabama players. Then, he destroyed Clemson in the national championship game (scoring two touchdowns) and we remembered that sometimes potential can be realized. Howard has terrific size and enough run-blocking acumen to be a solid contributor in that area as a pro. He's not an exciting runner after the catch, but he has the speed to hit the home run on seam routes. I would love to see him chew a little more glass on the field, but there is no denying his pro potential.
2. Jake Butt, Michigan
Butt is a throwback tight end who combines size with outstanding toughness over the middle as a big, reliable target for the Wolverines. Butt might have the strongest hands in college football. He uses them to snatch throws away from his body and then secure the catch no matter how much traffic surrounds him. Butt plays to his size after the catch, breaking tackles and grinding out yardage. While 21 percent of his catches went for 20-plus yards, he's not the athlete that Howard is and he might be a little less consistent as a run blocker as well.
3. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech
Hodges is the new generation of tight end that NFL teams are coveting thanks to the matchup difficulties his size and speed can create. While he's a willing blocker, his ability to stretch the field and work from the slot or as an outside receiver will likely limit teams from using him in a traditional, in-line role. Hodges is listed at 6-foot-7 and he has outstanding play speed, which means he can be a matchup nightmare for cornerbacks or safeties from anywhere on the field. Hodges also possesses soft hands and an ability to snare difficult throws. Scouts will be salivating over him.
4. Jordan Leggett, Clemson
Leggett is a former high-school receiver who has filled out into a grown-man frame. Despite playing in an offense full of weapons, Leggett found his way into 40 catches and eight touchdowns and should be able to post similar numbers this season. He's still unpolished as a blocker, but has the size to become more effective and consistent with more work. Leggett is a confident hands-catcher who saw 92.5 percent of his catches go for a first down.
5. Gerald Everett, South Alabama
Everett is an extremely intriguing tight end who has been able to add functional weight to his frame and still maintain his speed along with his elite athletic traits. Everett was a high-school wide receiver who transitioned to tight end while at UAB before transferring to South Alabama. He runs routes and has the separation speed of a wide receiver, which makes his potential as a matchup tight end at the next level that much more exciting. However, don't look for him to be an important cog in the South Alabama running game.
6. Evan Engram, Ole Miss
While Ole Miss has done a good job of moving Engram around in the formation to create favorable matchups and keep defenses off-balance, his true position will be as a move tight end with slot abilities. Engram is way too athletic for linebackers in coverage, as he has the foot quickness and acceleration to get easy separation in his routes. He's good after the catch and can threaten all three levels, but a lack of size (6-foot-3, 227 pounds, per school measurements) could hurt his pro stock a bit. With wideouts Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core gone and quarterback Chad Kelly back, Engram figures to be targeted more frequently this season.
7. Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
Keep a close eye on Andrews. He's listed as a wide receiver by Oklahoma, but we're projecting him to be a tight end at the next level. As a redshirt freshman, Andrews produced seven touchdowns on just 19 total catches and I counted at least two or three more that could have been touchdowns if not for a drop or an overthrow. Andrews is a big slot target with very good speed and athleticism for a matchup tight end. With Sterling Shepard gone, he could become one of Baker Mayfield's go-to targets.
8. Jonnu Smith, Florida International
One of the premier receiving tight ends in the country, Smith, a senior, has been a full-time starter for Florida International since his freshman season. Smith, who's a former high-school weight-lifter, is well defined but lacking in true tight end size (6-3, 232, according to school measurements). However, Smith is a load to bring down after the catch. He uses his athleticism to elude tacklers and his leg strength and balance to run through contact. He has the speed and athleticism that teams will covet, but must work on his focus drops and blocking.
9. Josiah Price, Michigan State
His numbers are solid, not flashy, with his biggest stand-out statistic being that six of his 23 catches were for touchdowns last season. Price's hands and willingness to mix it up in the running game make him attractive to scouts. While he won't be able to attack defenses vertically very often, he is a reliable target who can secure the chain-moving throws on third down. He has the ability to contribute as a blocker in the running game. His traits won't set him apart, but his hard-hat effort might.
10. Jaylen Samuels, North Carolina State
He's listed as a "TE/FB", but I'm not sure how to classify him. Samuels' 65 catches for seven touchdowns were impressive, and the former high-school running back's ability to line up in the backfield or from the slot helped the Wolfpack create matchup opportunities. With a new quarterback coming in, it is hard to tell whether Samuels can keep up the same pace in 2016, but he's a playmaker. Playmakers find their way into plays, no matter what you label them.