Draft Class Heroes: Ranking Top 8 Tight Ends

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Draft Class Heroes is live! Every Tuesday we talk 2019 NFL Draft prospects, including addressing major narratives, offering a few sleepers and listing my quick scouting observations over the past week.

How about this tight end class? I offer my initial ranking of the top 8 pass-catchers in the class, while also identifying two sleepers to watch and my eight scouting observations for the week.

Draft Class Heroes: This Freaking TE Class

I've been covering the draft in some capacity for six years now, and this is easily the deepest tight end class I've ever seen. The group a couple of years ago with O.J. Howard, David Njoku and Evan Engram was extremely top-heavy, where this one offers both premier talent and tons of depth.

Without further ado, let's get to my rankings so far.

Round 1 Grades

1. T.J. Hockenson, Iowa

2. Noah Fant, Iowa

Both of these guys are dynamite. In my mind, Hockenson is a can't miss prospect with star potential. I think he'll surprise people with his testing in Indy. Fant is an athletic freak who needs a little more polish, but I'm shooting my shot in Round 1 still. Can't pass up those traits.

Early Round 2 Grades

3. Irv Smith, Alabama

I'm not sure Smith is as fast as people think he is (still fast), but he is an excellent route runner and the best blocker in the class not named Hockenson. Smith's ability to make people miss after the catch and stretch the field will allow him to be effective in a number of different roles right away in the NFL.

Mid Day 2 Grades

All four of these guys are extremely close on my board right now. Combine testing will determine the final order.

4. Dawson Knox, Ole Miss

The entire appeal with Knox is basically what he can be if the right staff can mold him. Expected to dominate the Combine, Knox has the size, speed, athleticism and work ethic to be a steal, but Ole Miss threw to him just 22 times last year and he never scored a collegiate touchdown. He's the ultimate test of traits vs. production at the position.

5. Isaac Nauta, Georgia

I love Nauta's vertical ability and strong hands through contact, but I do worry a little bit about his ability to separate from man coverage due to some hip stiffness in his routes. He could easily finish as my no. 4 tight end, and is another case of an under-utilized guy in college whose best football should be ahead of him. Difference between he and Knox and Sternberger is that Nauta is the third-best blocking tight end in the class and can contribute right away in that role, where the other two need more work.

6. Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M

Sternberger might be a one-year wonder at the collegiate level, but he has good football ahead of him at the next level. His YAC ability, strong hands and success against quality competition on tape have me excited about his potential, but Sternberger isn't a finished product. His blocking and route-running need to be coached up in the NFL.

7. Dax Raymond, Utah State

I love Raymond enough to have him in the same bucket as three tight ends I think very highly of, which says a lot about the traits he exhibited over his past two season of tape at Utah State. Raymond was quietly very good in Mobile and is a very solid blocker, the question will be how his athletic traits match up at the Combine when compared to Power 5 competition.

Early Day 3 Grades

Big drop-off in my current tight end rankings, as I haven't graded any of them as late day 2 options just yet.

8. Kaden Smith, Stanford

I've seen Smith as high as TE3 for some analysts, but I just can't get there. He's awesome in high-point, contested-catch situations, but Smith looks like a middling athlete without great speed or separation ability. Contact really bothers him in his routes, and I question if he is physical or athletic enough as a receiver to consistently win 1v1 matchups. He'll help a team, but I prefer him early on day 3.

Haven't studied yet: Foster Moreau, LSU/Alize Mack, Notre Dame/Josh Oliver, Memphis/Zach Gentry, Michigan/Tommy Sweeney, Boston College/Drew Sample, Washington

Deep Sleepers

Malik Gant, Marshall

An early declaree who is a relative unknown, Gant was a walk-on athlete with zero offers out of high school before earning a scholarship at Marshall in 2017. He's blossomed more and more every year there, showing the physicality and athleticism to fill a number of different roles for a defense. With more and more teams using 3-safety looks, a defender like Gant who can match up in the slot and play in the box is more valuable than ever before. If he tests well, don't be surprised if he sneaks into the top 100.

Armon Watts, Arkansas

Watts came out of nowhere this year for Arkansas, barely playing for three seasons before dropping a 49 tackle-8.5 TFL-7 sack-3 forced fumble senior campaign that got him an invite to the Shrine game. Watts was excellent there, showing quick hands and a legit plan of attack as a pass rusher. I'll have his full-length scouting report coming soon at TDN, but I think he'll be a riser through the pre-draft process.

8 Quick Scouting Observations

-Kyler Murray declaring he's in for football means absolutely nothing. He was always going to have to say that eventually, but now he'll need to live it and convince NFL teams of it. Bottom line though: if he's a top ten pick, obviously he's going to be committed where the money is. If he falls, that's when the commitment will need to be questioned. And Arizona isn't picking him, not even considering it, per an extremely reliable source.

-I like Dillon Mitchell, but does he have a trump card? He might have been better off in school for another year. I see him as a late day 2/early day 3 talent whose lack of great ball skills could be his undoing.

-Top 3 linebackers for me so far, in order: Devin White, Devin Bush, Mack Wilson

-Andre Dillard might be the biggest boom-or-bust tackle in the class. Maybe overall prospect in the class. I strongly push back against him being the best pass protector in the class, as some analysts have said, but he does have the potential to be the best. Right now, his game still needs a good amount of polish. The landing spot will be huge.

-Amani Hooker is one of the smartest defensive backs in the class...he might also be one of the least athletic. Can we put his brain in a better athlete? I've been told the league does not expect him to test well at all, and is struggling to find the best place to play him at the next level.

-I know Tre Lamar declared early and received some early round buzz before the new year, maybe even in January, but I think he might be undraftable unless he blows us away at the Combine. He looks unathletic, hesitant and out of place consistently on Clemson tape.

-Two safeties that could sneak into Round 1: Florida's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Mississippi State's Johnathan Abram. Consistency can be an issue with both players, but their size, speed, athleticism, physicality and vocal leadership will sell teams during the pre-draft process.

-In this cornerback class, expect the unexpected. The Combine will help establish who the risers are, but I would be floored if the top three corners off the board are Greedy Williams, Deandre Baker and Byron Murphy. Watch out for Lonnie Johnson, Joejuan Williams and Trayvon Mullen.