Since the last week in August, credentialed scouts for the Bills have been watching TEs in live games. Nine of them declared for the draft, and are listed below. Here, I’ve attempted to rank-order the scouted TEs’ relative performances vs the given opponent(s), and I’ve linked you to cued-up video of the player, mainly from the actual game(s). Remember that GM Beane gets access to any player’s full game film of every game, but the weight of the scouts’ opinions may tilt the selection of a new tight end –or two– for the Bills in April. I’ve boldly and foolishly added the round and pick he’d be available to the Bills (my pre-Combine guess, I’ll update them mid-March).
My Five-Tier Ranking of the TE Performances
UCLA’s Caleb Wilson (#81) vs Oklahoma = 4 for 92, 23.0 ypc. What’s being reported by draftniks is that Josh Rosen’s favorite target out at UCLA has excellent all-round traits (route-running, blocking, separation out of breaks), and you see that (except for this whiff on the block when the video begins). There are two reasons to be wary: catch rate and ankle. Wilson’s “Targets Caught” percentage is tied for the lowest of my Top 15, and fifteen is the magic number for TEs that are drafted each year, on average. When he does catch the football, though, Wilson knows what to do with it; he has the 3rd-highest ypc vs AP-ranked teams. Medicals at the Combine must completely rule out Wilson’s foot injury from six months ago. You’ll know when Caleb runs the forty, as I expect him to have one of the 5 best times if he’s all the way back. [update: Caleb ran a 4.56 forty, second only to Fant]. (RD4B)
Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. (#82) vs Tennessee = 5 for 50, 10.0 ypc, 1 TD; and then 4 for 64, 16.0 ypc, 1 TD vs LSU. Smith’s size-speed dynamic (6-4, 245, 4.59) is matched only by Kendall Blanton of Missouri in this class. His 68% catch rate and a staggering 18.5 yards per catch against AP-ranked teams this year are tempting, then you remember that Brian Daboll had him last year. This pass-blocking on the far end of the line gets it done for a TD. Whether he’s an underneath safety valve like he is here, or springing Josh Jacobs for another TD, it’s the little things he unselfishly does that make the team look good. In Smith’s second game, it was #1 Alabama vs #3 at the time. It wasn’t a contest; it was a shutout. Here, Irv moves the chains on 3rd and 5 by filling the hole left by the blitzer, just snatching the ball at its apex. Here Smith takes out two defenders with two blocks on the same play. Here’s his touchdown. (RD1-2)
Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson vs Penn State = 3-63-21.0 ypc, but 1 lost fumble. Hockenson executes a TE screen with a Josh-Allen leap to perfection. He’s tied with teammate Noah Fant for fourth-highest catch rate this season, 74% of targets caught (Donald Parham was 2 for 2 for 100%, Isaac Nauta 13 for 15 for 87%, and CJ Conrad 15 for 20 for 75%, top this list, all Bills-scouted except for Parham). Hockenson is the complete tight end. He has good size for a tight end (6’5, 250 pounds). McDermott will be lured by Hock’s dogged work ethic. Hockenson’s blocking ability allowed him to average a much-higher snap count than Fant. Hock won the 2018 John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end in college football. He’s also Iowa’s first all-American since RD1 Dallas Clark, who gave Indy 9 years, 4887 yards, and 46 touchdowns. The comp bandied about for Hockenson is George Kittle, but a more consistent blocker, with better attention to detail, and more-fluid body control. Hockenson impresses as a route runner and receiver. He’s tough for a LB, let alone a safety or corner, to bring down after the catch than Fant. Hock’s a great blocker, great character, great academics, great missing weapon, great teammate. Could he be the next Gronk? At least some people think so. (RD1)
Michigan’s Zach Gentry (#83) vs Nebraska = 3 for 32, 10.6 ypc, 1 TD. Lined up here to the left of the LT (right side of the screen), Gentry (6-7, 262, 4.84) offers in-line blocking and goal-line beef, but his greatest advantage might be how easy he is to see downfield –that’s huge for a young quarterback.
Gentry towers over teammates …and his would-be tacklers. When Gentry’s blocking, he makes RBs like Karan Higdon have a great day (12 for 136, 11.3, 1 TD). Daboll ran a run-first offense at ‘Bama, and he’s running that here, at least in November through home-field-advantage games in the playoffs. [update: Gentry dropped a tad with a third-lowest 4.9 forty and the lowest bench reps of 12. Mocks have him all over the place now, #118-274. (RD4A-RD7)
Washington’s Drew Sample (#88) vs Oregon = 4 for 79, 19.8 ypc. Sample (6-5, 251) can make highlight-reel catches, even when covered. He’s put up a 71% catch rate this year, so he’s been consistent. He and Irv Smith have improved their performances the most vs AP-ranked colleges. In 2017, Sample averaged only 5.5 ypc, but he’s upped that to 12.9 this year. This might have been the best game the Bills scouts saw, with a walk-off TD by Oregon in OT. [update: Sample had the second-highest agility score on my board, and had one of the five highest vert scores. He could have moved up into RD3-4 discussion at 1 Bills Drive.] (RD5-6)
The scouts had a chance at this game to evaluate lots of draftable players in one sitting, including RD1 CB Byron Murphy (5 tkl, 1 asst), RD2 SS Taylor Rapp (4 tkl, 5 asst), RD5B-6 EDGE Justin Hollins (3rd in PAC in pressures, run stuffer, 4 tkl, 4 asst), RD5-6 OLB Ben Burr-Kirven (scholar-athlete, 7 tkl, 12 asst), RD7 ILB Tevis Bartlett (wrestler, 7 tkl, 5 asst, 1 sack), RD5-6 WR Dillon Mitchell (8 for 119, 14.9 ypc, 1 TD), and RD5-6 RB Myles Gaskin (15 for 69, 4.6 ypc).
Mizzou’s Kendall Blanton (#11) vs Georgia = 3-21 7.0 ypc. Despite pressure on Drew Lock from the Bulldog defense, Blanton provided a perfect outlet valve, with some Josh-Allen-Leap frosting on top. Possessing elite size at 6-6, 260, and some measurables (2nd in bench, 1st in hand size), Blanton’s Combine-timed forty of 4.95 seems way off compared to his 4.58 DraftScout time. On film, I see Blanton’s game speed to be among the fastest of the TEs. He can play inline to block, or he can be that screen or dumpoff option. He can split out and run the seams. Blanton’s a capable move blocker who can find and eliminate second-level targets. The versatility is there. To be sure, he’s raw, but Blanton’s someone with a high ceiling that Daboll and Co. can coach up. Drew Lock’s preferred target. (RD3-4B).
Iowa’s Noah Fant (#87) vs Penn State = 5-56-11.2 ypc. I’m not a Fant fan, and here’s just one reason: Fant likely cost Iowa the game here. He’s not doing his job, and the play has already begun. It results in an interception instead of a TD. He’s also slimmer than you’d like in your #1 TE, and the Bills already have that (Croom) as a viable #2 receiving-type tight end. Fant’s weight is the lowest of all draftable TEs, and for this reason he’s occasionally struggled as a run blocker. The Hawkeyes took him off the field on those plays. Last year’s 4 TEs weighed 245 (Clay), 252 (O’Leary), 223 (Croom), and 248 (Logan Thomas), so the prototype will be in the range of best-fits Hockenson, Irv Smith, Isaac Nauta, CJ Conrad, Zach Gentry or Drew Sample. By the way, all of those were Bills-scouted. You’d like a mauler or blocker type with good catch rate; Fant’s just the receiver who occasionally occupies the EDGE, like he does here. I also think he sometimes looks awkward on catches. What can Fant give you that some of these guys can’t? As a sophomore, his best year, Fant had 30 catches for 494 yds (16.5 avg) and 11 TD, logging a TE-class-best 36.7% of his catches going for a touchdown. You can watch his touchdowns here. I’m just saying that when Fant was on the field, the defense knew he wouldn’t be blocking, and sometimes even Fant didn’t know what he was doing. [update: Fant gained a lot of weight for the Combine weigh-in, with estimates up to 15 pounds. Can’t be healthy weight. I wouldn’t take him in RD2.] (RD2-3)
Houston’s Romello Brooker (#82) vs Tulsa = 4 for 44, 11.0 ypc, 1 TD; and then 5 for 57, 11.4 ypc, 1 TD vs Tulane. Brooker (6’5″ 253, 4.62) is a reliable receiver (seen here on his TD catch), and he’s an effective blocker, here sealing the edge for D’Eriq King’s TD. He has heft, is one of the 5 fastest TEs in this class, and he loves the physicality of the position. Weren’t the Bills at the game to scout Oliver? Nope, he was on the sidelines. He had left Houston’s program by this game. Standouts in these games were RD7A-7B Brooker, RD4B CB Isaiah Johnson (2 tkl), and RD6-7 ILB/ATH Austin Robinson (9 tkl, 6 solo, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL). For Tulane, the jukes of RD7-PFA RB Patrick Carr (5-8, 195, 4.49) impressed me a lot. With the Bills scout watching, Carr had a career-high 18-139-7.7 ypc – 2 TD); he’s my Day 3 offensive sleeper. By the way, RD7-PFA OLB Zachery Harris (13 tkl, 6 solo, .5 sack, 2 TFL) was a Green Wave tsunami. There’s your Day 3 defensive sleeper.
Notre Dame’s Alize Mack (#86) vs Pittsburgh = 6 for 31, 5.2 ypc, and then 1 for 15, 15.0 ypc vs USC. Mack’s stats weren’t impressive vs Pittsburgh or USC. I’ve put Mack here in this tier, and it’s more than stats; it’s traits. While Mack’s speed-size combo when blocking and receiving is what that GMs covet, his lack of focus and preparation at times and underwhelming work ethic have been major red flags. Mack was suspended for the bowl game vs. LSU, missed time with concussions, and declared academically-ineligible in 2016. I just don’t see Mack as part of the Process. (RD5B-6)
Oregon’s Elkanah “Kano” Dillon (#85) vs Washington = 1 catch for 8 yds. The 6-4, 259 Dillon should run in the mid 4.8’s at the Combine. His 43% catch rate is 3rd-lowest in this TE draft class. (RD7B-PFA)
Only one tight end has been taken in the top 10 picks of the past 12 NFL Drafts. Will the Bills make it two? Is Hockenson coming to Buffalo?
Editor’s babble: As I’ve mentioned many times, I’ve been yearning for two TE sets for years. Would love to see the Bills draft one in the early rounds and pick up a veteran TE. My favorites in this draft (so far) are Hockenson and Gentry. Many, many thanks to Dean Kindig for sharing his draft expertise with us. We are very grateful for all his contributions to our blog.