With NFL bloodlines and a history of reliable NFL tight ends that have come before him at Notre Dame, Troy Niklas has all of the tools to be one of the best tight ends to come out of this year's NFL Draft.
However, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound junior has just one year of significant game tape to evaluate, after converting from linebacker after his freshman season and playing behind 2013 first round pick Tyler Eifert in his sophomore season. But in that one season he produced 32 catches for 498 yards and five touchdowns, despite inconsistent quarterback play.
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Niklas' best attributes to this point have shown up in the run game, where he is a throwback to old-school tight ends with a mauler attitude. He matches up well with linebackers and safeties, where he uses his size and strength to lock on to them and eliminate them from the play.
"I can block and I enjoy blocking. I think that's something I can use to my advantage," Niklas said.
Another advantage Niklas has is his ability to talk to others about the draft process. He is the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and cousins with former Texas A&M offensive tackle and fellow draft prospect Jake Matthews. Niklas says he has also been in contact with Eifert and Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph, both Notre Dame alumni.
"I've talked to Kyle and Tyler a little bit about this process and so far they have been right," Niklas said. "They've gone down my path and showed that I can do it too."
For such a big body, Niklas has surprising athleticism. He is not going to burn NFL defenses with his speed, but can high point a jump ball over almost anyone and runs precise routes.
"He's an interesting guy, first of all, because of his size," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "He's a better receiver than people think. He can catch the ball short or intermediate, understands how to use his body to position it. So I don't think he's getting out of the second round because I think there's a drop off after him."
With just two years of experience at the position, Niklas still has plenty of room to improve. While he shows promise, Niklas is inconsistent in pass protection - although most NFL tight ends are being used less and less in this role. He must also learn how to be more physical in the receiving game and use that to create more separation downfield.
"I think what he is, if he commits to becoming a good in line blocker, he could be the best blocking tight end in the NFL in two or three years. If I was his father or his coach, I would try to impress upon him that he should try to become the best blocker he can. He'll make a lot of money for a lot of years," Mayock said.
Because he is so new to the position, the news came as a slight surprise to some who anticipated Niklas to come back to Notre Dame for his senior season.
"It definitely wasn't one of the most fun conversations," Niklas said when asked about his talk with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. "He was a little disappointed but at the same time it made me feel good that he was mad when I left."
When Niklas requested an NFL evaluation at the end of his junior season, he received a second round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory board, making the decision to come out much easier.
"The biggest thing was going back to my childhood. I always wanted to play in the NFL, watching my uncle play in the league."
He's certain to get that chance come May.