There has definitely not been a consensus in the back channels of Steel City Underground discussions about the tight end position and whether the Pittsburgh Steelers will even look at any of the prospects in the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft. While I feel that they will, and even went into some detail why in an early article about free agents the Steelers will have to deal with at the position, others felt the position wasn't a high need for Pittsburgh. High, low, or not a position they'll address depending on other needs they see as higher priorities, Chase Hammes, of CHDraftScouting (@CHDraftScouting on Twitter), helped me assemble some of the tight end prospects the Steelers should have on their radar as potential picks or undrafted free agent targets in 2019.
Among several mock drafts out early, two University of Iowa products have moved to the top of the tight ends list. Being an Iowa native and having seen these two play, I feel that some of the hype is well-deserved because of the athleticism they displayed on the field as well as the way they helped the Hawkeyes football team perform on offense. While Chase has placed Noah Fant as No. 1, I would put T.J. Hockenson in that position. Let's look at the duo.
Noah Fant (Iowa, #87)
6'5", 241 (Omaha, NE)
2018 Season Stats
39 receptions, 518 yards, 13.3 ypr avg., 7 TDs
Strengths (Hammes): One of the better athletes to enter the draft at tight end in some time. Will post some absurd numbers at the Combine and could even break a few records while he’s there. Great weapon in the red zone with his ability to high-point the ball over small defenders. Will give you some yards after the catch; a great athlete who has the speed to get by defenders in the open field. Already ahead of where most college tight ends are in terms of route running ability. Will be too fast for most linebackers to cover and too big to put a nickel corner or safety on him. Shows the effort as a blocker, even though he has a long way to go there. Has the versatility due to athleticism to be able to be lined up as a big slot receiver.
Weaknesses (Hammes): Shows the effort as a blocker but his technique has a lot of room to grow. Isn’t strong enough to consistently ask a back to run behind and will need to grow in that area. Wasn’t as productive as a red zone threat this year as he was in 2017. Sometimes got overshadowed by T.J Hockenson.
How he fits the Steelers (Hammes): Pittsburgh doesn’t have a receiver the size of Fant, or the same level athlete as he has shown to be at that position. Fant would instantly give Pittsburgh an 'Alpha' in the red zone and a guy that could win in contested-catch situations. Would be a mismatch for opposing defenses due to his ability to line up anywhere as a receiver. Fant would easily give Pittsburgh a weapon at tight end they've been missing since the Heath Miller days and Fant’s ceiling could be even higher than Miller’s.
I can’t say it enough. I love the way Iowa uses TE Noah Fant. They move him all over the field with various motions and formations in order to create mismatches. He’s a match up nightmare for LBs and DBs. pic.twitter.com/6b8TMxFDjw
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) June 24, 2018
T.J. Hockenson (Iowa, #38)
6'5", 230 (Chariton, IA)
2018 Season Stats
46 receptions, 717 yards, 15.6 ypr avg., 6 TDs
Positives (Rivers): While Fant got a lot of attention for his big-play ability, Hockenson showed he has what I consider to be a more complete package as a tight end. His long body and strength showed better technique as a blocker than Fant and the Hawkeyes offense fully utilized that skill to help break their rushers free. Chase and I agree that Hockenson has a large route tree. What was impressive was that Hockenson has the ability to be elusive in the open field despite his size, has fantastic soft hands, real fight to earn extra yardage after the catch, and is one of the most reliable red zone weapons I've seen at the position in recent collegiate seasons. He's smoother and more natural at the top of his routes and the Hawkeyes loved putting him in deep crosses, delayed release, motioned flat routes, stick routes, curls, and seam routes. He showed an ability to be an in-line tight end with vertical ability as well and wasn't easily moved in pass protection on the line.
Question Marks (Rivers): Chase felt that Hockenson was a "one year wonder" due to not receiving many targets. I feel confident saying that was due, in part, to playing with Fant on the same roster and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz didn't utilize a ton of four-receiver or two tight-end sets if the run game got hot. Hockenson got two years in the Hawkeyes offense (he declared for the Draft as a redshirt sophomore), so he has had less time on the field than Fant. Fant may be the more flexible of the two when it comes to waist movement and pivot, and he had some of the more spectacular plays in 2018.
How he fits the Steelers (Rivers): The Steelers have Vance McDonald as their bulldozer and he's shown - when healthy - that he can get down the field and fight for yardage. Jesse James (a free agent) is far and above every other tight end the Steelers have in-house and rumbled a bit that, although he has enjoyed his playing time in Pittsburgh (a local product, too), he'd like to see more action beyond just playing blocker. Hockenson has better vertical skills (see the high-point passes against Indiana and Wisconsin in 2018) than McDonald or James.
With a second-gear most opponents do not expect, Hockenson blew some defenders out of their coverage lanes and is powerful enough to require opponents to use more than one tackler to bring him to the turf - all while he protects the ball. He can handle tight coverage situations and would be able to give Ben Roethlisberger bail-out options (something Heath Miller used to offer Big Ben as a bit of a security blanket). Hockenson would not be afraid to apply a healthy stiff-arm, similar to the bruising tenacity seen in McDonald. Above all, he is a tenacious blocker that doesn't quit until the play is whistled dead and is able to wash defensive ends and outside linebackers out of the play, setting a nice edge for rushers. He'll reset his feet and hands to maintain his base and is smart in how he leverages his blocks. Think David DeCastro relentlessness on the line with the finesse of a guy who can release and get into a receiving route.
TJ Hockenson - “The Block”....my favorite highlight all season pic.twitter.com/ZxTQwTQXmY
— Hawkeye Football Fan (@HawkeyeFanHQ) October 14, 2018
Oh that's right, we have TJ Hockenson pic.twitter.com/sqAgsSrU2y
— HeavensBarstool (@HeavensHawkeye) January 1, 2019
Moving past the dynamic duo Iowa produced, here are the remaining prospects who made the cut at tight end for Chase (with my notes thrown in):
Irv Smith, Jr. (Alabama - #82)
6'4", 246 (New Orleans, LA)
2018 Season Stats
40 receptions, 667 yards, 16.7 ypr avg, 7 TDs
Strengths (Hammes): Enjoyed a breakout 2018 season at Alabama even when surrounded by all kinds of weapons. Shows big-time athletic ability which elevates his ceiling. Very good after the catch and will give teams a first down machine with the ability to make splash plays. Effort as a blocker is there and has the strength to hold up if he improves his technique. Has the ability to stretch the field with his speed against slower linebackers.
Weaknesses (Hammes): Still is pretty raw as a route runner and didn’t have a very advanced route tree like most college tight ends. Doesn’t show many different variations of releases to get open and will need to improve route running technique in order to get open consistently at the next level. Doesn’t always dominate jump balls which is a concern because of his size. Will need to improve his technique as a blocker to not be limited as just a receiver.
Why he fits the Steelers (Hammes): Another very good athlete that can offer something for Pittsburgh after the catch. Could be a weapon in the slot with his speed, and could potentially be a very good blocker if he develops his technique. Would be a good short safety blanket to pick up yards when needed.
Thoughts (Rivers): Not sure Smith, Jr., will be nearly as elusive at the next level and his blocking skills did not impress me enough to put a seal of approval on him being on the Steelers' big board. He has moves in the open field, but is it enough to make him valuable enough to use a draft pick on? In my opinion, not for Pittsburgh.
This Irv Smith Jr. juke should not be legal
— SI College Football (@si_ncaafb) November 17, 2018
Dawson Knox (Ole Miss - #82)
6'4", 257 (Brentwood, TN)
2018 Season Stats
15 receptions, 284 yards, 18.9 ypr avg, 0 TDs
Strengths (Hammes): Knox is a very good athlete that could test similarly to Mike Gesicki last year; a very fluid athlete that has the ability to make spectacular catches. Has good body control and will be a tough cover for small defenders because of his ability to make tough grabs. Has shown the versatility to play in the slot and can separate from defensive backs. Versatile player that has played all over the field for the Ole Miss offense.
Weaknesses (Hammes): Very limited production in a heavy Ole Miss passing attack. Much like the rest of the Ole Miss receivers, he has a very limited route tree that has one main route with a few stems. Has only played tight end a few years and it showed with how raw some of his game is. Has a ton of room to grow as a blocker, and hasn’t shown much to be excited about in that area. He has good play strength, but his footwork and technique is a mess.
Why he fits the Steelers (Hammes): Knox is a very raw player at this point, but with the right coaching, he could have one of the higher ceilings in this class. He will be able to stretch the field with his speed and ability to create separation downfield and give Big Ben a big deep threat. His size gives him a big catch radius to help out Roethlisberger in big-game situations.
Thoughts (Rivers): For the Steelers to make a move, I feel they'd need Knox to show he's a better blocker than Xavier Grimble or Bucky Brooks, can be crisper in route running, and is able to maintain control of the ball. The weakest part of Knox's game is a lack of creativity in detaching from coverage; he allowed defenders in man coverage to mirror him step for step often. Inconsistent but would be a raw project player and I don't see the Steelers pulling that trigger unless they lose Grimble and Brooks in free agency.
Isaac Nauta (Georgia - #18)
6'4", 240 (Buford, GA)
2018 Season Stats
30 receptions, 430 yards, 14.3 ypr avg, 3 TDs
Strengths (Hammes): Strong in the open field with the ball in his hands. Nauta is a pretty good vertical athlete that can make some plays with the ball in the air. Nauta was an advanced blocker for a Georgia team that has been run-heavy the last three years he’s played there. A former 5-star recruit out of IMG Academy, he still has some unfulfilled potential.
Strengths (Rivers): Nauta hasn't shown consistency in being a dynamic route runner or ability to detach from coverage down the field, but he has shown flashes of high-point ability and adjustment to throws that aren't on-target. The fact that Nauta rarely dropped a pass targeted to him, including balls he had to extend for in the center of the field, showed he has the mental toughness in the receiving game. He has long speed, just not explosiveness off the snap. He excels in firing off the line of scrimmage in run blocking and is willing to go toe-to-toe with defensive ends and outside linebackers. Strong chip in pass defense. Elite blocker.
Weaknesses (Hammes): His average athleticism puts a cap on his ceiling. Doesn’t have any real calling card at the next level. Versatility as a big slot or as an H-back isn’t there due to his average athletic ability and scheme of Georgia’s offense. After being a 5-star recruit he had very limited receiving.
Weaknesses (Rivers): His inability to remain loose has led to separation quickness being a major weakness. In the NFL, this could present an issue. He has an average athletic profile overall, but decent size and length. There isn't anything that says he can't improve with good coaching at the next level.
Why he fits the Steelers (Hammes): His blocking would be valuable as a potential H-back or in-line tight end for Pittsburgh. Underutilized at Georgia and could potentially be a diamond in the rough.
Thoughts (Rivers): The Steelers have Roosevelt Nix, so I'd expect Pittsburgh to look at Nauta's in-line abilities if he's available in the middle rounds of the Draft for potential tight end depth.
The lowest drop rate among SEC tight ends was a tie between C.J. Conrad from Kentucky and Isaac Nauta from Georgia. Both guys only had one drop ALL SEASON. pic.twitter.com/xv5LuSRg7P
— PFF College (@PFF_College) February 9, 2019
Josh Oliver (San Jose State - #89)
6'5", 250 (Paso Robles, CA)
2018 Season Stats
56 receptions, 709 yards, 12.7 ypr avg, 4 TDs
Strengths (Hammes): Oliver is a good athlete who shows a lot of promise as a receiver. Had good production for a college tight end and could put up similar numbers at the next level. Can be lined up at numerous spots due to his size and athletic ability. Will be able to separate against defenders due to great size and impressive athleticism. Has shown potential as a blocker, and has the size and strength to be able to have an impact in that area.
Weaknesses (Hammes): Will need to work on his route running and releases at the next level. Relies on pure athleticism to separate from average opponents in the Mountain West. His technique as a blocker will need to be something the coaching staff works on; he suffered from a few concentration drops on tape and will need to cut down on those at next level.
Why he fits the Steelers (Hammes): Potentially gives the Steelers another high-ceiling athletic weapon for the offense. Versatility as a big slot or potentially outside receiver could appeal to Pittsburgh. Potential impact as a blocker could be looked at by Pittsburgh. Could be a mid-round steal for them.
Thoughts (Rivers): When he's lined up as a receiver, Oliver looks more impressive - especially in the seam and vertical passing lanes. He's a physical route-runner but can be less efficient on short breaks. The fact that he has experience running routes from the in-line tight end position, slot and outside formation speaks to his versatility. Natural speed without elite top gear, but has decent burst out of his stance. The Steelers could see Oliver as another option at slot should they part ways with Eli Rogers.
Hammes' extra targets
Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M) - 6'5", 250 (2018: 48 receptions, 832 yards, 17.3 ypr avg, 10 TDs)
Dominated in 2018 after transferring from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M after a year at Kansas. Was the go-to guy in the red zone for a loaded skill position group at Texas A&M. A very talented athlete that can give you a little bit of everything as a receiver. Very good in contested catch situations due to his size and ability to high point the football. Has the potential to be a very good blocker. Huge catch radius due to his size and traits. Strong hands that will pretty much always come down with the ball when in jump ball situations.
Why he fits the Steelers: Besides the Iowa tight ends, Sternberger offers the highest ceiling of any tight end in this class. His breakout in his first year starting shows that he could potentially build on this at the next level. Could just be an overall dominate weapon all over the field for Pittsburgh.
Mitchell Wilcox (South Florida) - 6’5", 245 (2018: 43 receptions, 540 yards, 12.6 ypr avg, 2 TDs)
Good production this year out of a USF offense that doesn’t like to sling it around much. Advanced route runner who has clean releases of the line of scrimmage. Lined up at several different positions including H-Back and mostly as a slot receiver. A pretty solid overall athlete that may make his money as a bigger slot guy at the next level.
Why he fits the Steelers: Like most guys on this list, he offers versatility as a long slot receiver that has lined up some at different spots. An overall advanced route runner who could benefit from having more opportunities in the league as a receiver and not as much as a blocker.
Jacob Breeland (Oregon) - 6'5", 241 (2018: 24 receptions, 377 yards, 15.7 ypr avg, 2 TDs)
Good athlete that has some explosiveness to his game. Has solid size and can go up and get the ball in contested situations. Ability to pick up yards after the catch is one of his best attributes. His frame may be able to put on a few more pounds which would be something that he needs to work on in the NFL. Has some versatility to play some outside receiver because of his agility and size. His frame is very slender and will prevent him from being a productive tight end if he can’t add more weight. May have to make the transition to a red zone wide receiver if he doesn’t bulk up his frame.
Why he fits the Steelers: Breeland is a good athlete and has the size to be reliable in the red zone. Is good with the ball in his hands after the catch, which is something not many Steelers tight ends have had since Heath Miller. Can win vertical routes down the seam and be a threat beside JuJu Smith-Schuster if he transitions to wide receiver.