The lead up to the 2019 NFL draft has largely been reduced to two distinct narratives. Will the Arizona Cardinals draft Kyler Murray with the first overall pick a year after selecting Josh Rosen? And elite defensive line prospects will dominate the first round.
There are however, other storylines worthy of closer inspection as the draft now sits less than a week away. One particular plot deals with a position the Bills will likely be considering at some point over the three-days of player selections.
The 2019 NFL draft offers one of the strongest tight end classes in years.
“Tight end-wise, one of the better tight end drafts we've had in a while with premier top-end guys as well as a lot of depth all the way through,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah of the 2019 class. “I can find you tight ends in every round in this draft. It's a really, really good group.”
Buffalo has added to their tight end ranks after entering the offseason with only Jason Croom under contract. They signed free agents Tyler Kroft and Jake Fisher. But with a tight end class offering rare depth and the Bills armed with 10 draft picks, the opportunity could present itself where the Bills can improve the position even further.
The tight end class has a blue-chip prospect in Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson, who could sneak into the top 10 of round one based on his top-flight all-around skill set.
“I love Hockenson. I think he's the safest player in the draft,” said Jeremiah. “And part of the benefit for him in terms of what I gave him and where I ranked him, I graded him the day after watching Rob Gronkowski live in person in the playoff game against the Chargers. I saw Gronk completely dominate a football game without really having to catch the ball. He was just so dominant in the run game. And then I flip on this kid, and he's not as tall as Gronk, but I saw this kid with that same temperament and nastiness and control in the run game. Then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him. He's going to be a very valuable player with a very high floor as well as a high ceiling.”
“He might be my favorite player in the entire draft,” said Rotoworld college football analyst Thor Nystrom. “He’s is a guy who absolutely took off. It’s a next level thing. Hockenson is the best tight end prospect to enter the NFL in the last decade. He was the best receiving tight end in the nation last season and going into that year he was already the best blocking tight end in the nation. He was the Mackey award winner. He won the Ozzie Newsome award. He was a first team All-American.”
Hockenson has been projected as a top half of the first-round selection coming off the board anywhere from seven to 15 in most mock drafts put together by national draft analysts.
So would the Bills consider Hockenson as an option with their pick at nine overall?
It’s no secret that Buffalo’s front office made a concerted effort to upgrade the talent around their franchise quarterback Josh Allen this offseason, signing six free agent offensive linemen, a pair of wide receivers and two tight ends.
Having seen how integral TE Greg Olsen has been to the success of Cam Newton in Carolina, it sounds as though head coach Sean McDermott has a healthy respect for how tight ends can help young quarterbacks.
“I feel like I’ve learned over the years how important that tight end position is to a quarterback and in particular a young quarterback to a point where it becomes a security blanket,” McDermott said.
GM Brandon Beane has maintained that as a personnel department they’re always looking for upgrades.
Do the Bills currently have a tight end on the roster as dynamic as Hockenson?
That’s to be determined by Beane and his college scouting department. What also must be weighed against it is the history of drafting tight ends in round one.
In the last 20 NFL drafts, only five tight ends have been taken in the top half of round one. Bubba Franks (2000), Jeremy Shockey (2002), Kellen Winslow Jr. (2004), Vernon Davis (2006) and Eric Ebron (2014).
All of them have or have had relatively successful careers ranging from eight to 12 years. Four of the five went to at least one Pro Bowl.
Though that position history has value, it’s not the end-all be-all factor in a given year for Beane.
“You have to look at each situation differently,” he said. “So again you put your value on a player and trust your instincts if they fit. If you value him in the first, then you take him in the first. There have been a lot of first round receiver busts for example. You do your due diligence and obviously that’s a warning sign for you, but if you still feel that they fit what you do and their talent is worthy of that then you select him.”
Over the last 20 years two-thirds of the 289 total tight ends chosen in the draft have come off the board on day three (191). That could be an indication that the depth at the position over the years has been lacking with the majority of the tight end talent more toward the back end of the draft pool. It could also mean that teams simply have more pressing needs at other positions.
This particular draft class however, offers both elite talent and depth, giving the Bills and most other clubs the option to address the position early, middle or late.
After Hockenson, most draft analysts have his fellow college teammate Noah Fant followed by Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. on their tight ends rankings board.
“Noah Fant ran faster, but Hockenson is a better player,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “In the second round, Irv Smith might be there, and then you get later in day two, Tommy Sweeney out of Boston College is a sure-handed tough guy, who is going to block and do everything you need him to do. Dawson Knox has some ability from Ole Miss. Jace Sternburger from Texas A&M has some athleticism. So there’s some depth to this class and it’s better than most years.”
Jeremiah is particularly intrigued with a couple of middle round prospects out west.
“Kahale Warring from San Diego State, who is 6-5 plus, 250 pounds, he's got really, really soft hands,” Jeremiah said. “He can really roll. Excellent change of direction athlete. He's a work in progress. He has not played a lot of football. I want to say he played water polo in high school. But the best is ahead of him and he's limitless in terms of athleticism.
“Then Kaden Smith from Stanford, who has probably more contested catches than anybody in this draft. He’s not going to run away from a ton of people, but he works in the seams and he catches balls and absorbs contact as well as anybody you're going to see. So he's somebody that can play in line, you can flex him out. He's going to be another one that's going to be to me in that (day) two, three range.”
With the 2019 NFL Draft one week away, we take a look at Bills draft history and particularly 'Draft Diamonds.' Check out photos of Bills players that were drafted in the later rounds and had celebrated careers. Bills draft coverage is presented by ECMC.
Even on day three, Jeremiah likes LSU’s Foster Moreau, who is physical in the run game and had experience on special teams.
“He's just so tough and physical,” said Jeremiah. “You watch him on punt coverage, he's down there consistently one of the first guys down there racking up tackles. He's a little bit stiff as a route runner but he's dominant in the run game. He's just all man. I wrote down ‘macho man’ on my paper because this dude is just throwing dudes all over the place. So he's one of my favorite players to watch in the draft. To me he's fourth, fifth round, but he's somebody that you want those types of guys on your team.”
NFL personnel executives like to have options, and while the position won’t be grabbing headlines, the tight end class appears to offer everything a GM could ask for between rounds one through seven.
Whether the Bills choose to pluck from the tight end class will, as always, be predicated on value and opportunity.