Iowa TE tandem likely to go in 1st round of NFL Draft
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Talk about a culture change.
Not long ago, drafting a tight end in the first round was taboo for NFL teams. On Thursday night, two might go high, and they come from the same school.
T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant of Iowa are projected to go early, and it’s not just because they are versatile, talented players. Or that the Hawkeyes have turned into a college mecca for the position: 10 of them reached the the pros since 2000, including Dallas Clark, who helped the Colts win a Super Bowl, and George Kittle, who set records for the position with the 49ers last year.
With the emphasis on more passing and a shift toward more open offenses, the tight end spot has become a critical component of NFL attacks. Every team is eager to find the next Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz. And colleges are putting more emphasis on using the tight end as a weapon, not as a glorified tackle.
“The tight end is the eraser for the quarterback,” Fant said Wednesday as 21 potential first-rounders gathered at Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans and a short walk to where the draft will occur. “That’s where being a dynamic tight end comes into play.”
Added Hockenson: “It’s become a valued position. A three-down tight end who can run past defenders when needed and block when needed is special.”
So, apparently, are these two. Hockenson has been rated on some draft prognostications as one of the top 10 prospects in this crop. Fant hasn’t been far behind.
Neither likely will go in the top half-dozen selections, which figure to be dominated by defensive players such as Nick Bosa of Ohio State, Quinnen Williams of Alabama, Josh Allen of Kentucky and Devin White of LSU. Both tight ends, however, are expected to be gone in the top 20 or so.
That would be a rare occurrence. Since the NFL went to 32 teams in 2002 when the Texans joined the league, a pair of tight ends has not gone in the first 20. Only three were drafted higher than 19th: Kellen Winslow Jr. (2004, sixth), Vernon Davis (2006, sixth) and Eric Ebron (2014, 10th).
But pro teams have changed their tunes most recently. Two years ago, three tight ends were taken in the opening round: O.J. Howard by Tampa at 19, Evan Engram by the Giants at 23 and David Njoku at 29 by Cleveland.
Now come Hockenson and Fant, who say they have no clue where they will land.
“I just feel we’re ready,” Hockenson said. “This entire process has been flattering, and it has been cool to learn how people see the game differently. But as for where, don’t know.”
Fant also shrugged when asked where he might wind up, though when the subject of replacing Gronk in New England was broached, he said:
“Playing at New England, you couldn’t ask for a better situation.”