Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Tight Ends

Photo: Nov 4, 2017; Berkeley, CA, USA; Oregon State Beavers tight end Noah Togiai (81) reacts during the fourth quarter against the California Golden Bears at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

It's not great, folks!

Why is it not great? Because I don't even really know what constitutes a tight end anymore, especially in the Pac-12. I know the big white dude Stanford puts next to their sixth offensive lineman is a tight end, and he'll probably be a hard-working blocker at least. But beyond that, I've got nothing for ya.

Scouting Pac-12 tight ends is a tedious investigation in: "Which slightly bigger wide receiver does this team have half-heartedly attempting an arc block on a read option?" You get to the point in which you want to stop noting blocking entirely. I mean sure, Drew Sample from Washington can square up a dude or two, but he isn't an NFL-caliber receiver, and as such, he will not be valued highly in the NFL Draft.

Tight ends are just big receivers -- for the Pac-12 already, and increasingly for the NFL. And that makes evaluating this players a bit tricky.

1. Caleb Wilson, RS Junior, UCLA (6-5 235)

Wilson exploded onto the scene last year with that Texas A&M comeback (is 15 receptions for 208 yards good?) but faded a bit down the stretch before a foot injury sidelined him for good. At the height of his play, Wilson looked every bit the modern TE NFL teams crave.

The film backs the hype, in my eyes. Wilson is an excellent route-runner who knows how to attack defenders in man and zone coverage alike -- he has that knack for creating space with great burst immediately out of his cuts to uncover instantaneously and present a throwing window. At his size/with his length, Wilson is a huge target that is nigh on impossible to 'blanket,' and he can make those tough catches away from his frame and through contact.

He's not super thick or super quick, so as of right now he's winning with a lot of polish -- and that's not a bad thing, but it can make you wonder if he's gonna hit NFL athletic benchmarks at such a small size. Because he doesn't wiggle super well, he's not an impressive YAC player at this juncture -- and if he's just a possession tight end who can uncover against linebackers and get you a consistent eight yards, he won't be drafted at a premium

What to watch for in 2018: Downfield play. That which I saw on tape looked great: he can track over his shoulder, maintain leverage down the field with decent long speed, and again, make those tough catches when going to the ground -- but he wasn't targeted a ton downfield. Again, he needs either better YAC or more downfield attempts to begin accumulating those precious explosive plays.

2. Kaden Smith, Junior, Stanford (6-5 253)

Smith was all the rage in preseason evaluations, but I'm not really sure how high to feel on a player with exactly 23 receptions to his name, as a college player. I fear that a lot of the hype on Smith is predicated on the in-game flashes casually observed, as well as the Stanford lineage that, admittedly, does hold some weight. Regardless, Smith is an intriguing player -- but let's calibrate expectations for a young man stepping into his first full season.

That said, Smith does strike me as a lab baby: with his size, explosiveness, and vertical ability, there's no way an intelligent creator didn't make this man with the intention of him playing tight end in the National Football League. He's willing and able to attack the football at its highest point, exposing his thick frame to shots across the middle. His hands have enough strength to pull it off.

But it's that downfield play we mentioned with Wilson that I think really makes Smith a promising player. He locates the ball impossibly quickly and knows how to get leverage downfield to best attack it. What impresses the most is the contortionism: Smith makes silly adjustments to the football for a player of his size. That's the potential I want to see tapped.

What to watch for in 2018: Route running. Smith does not yet have a good sense of timing in his routes, let alone any deception. His routes, to this point, are simply: get to a spot. When contact comes, he is unprepared and too easily jarred off his path. You cannot win on athleticism alone.

3. Noah Togiai, RS Junior, Oregon State (6-4 244)

Noah Togiai: The third best tight end in the Pac-12, but! the second best tight end named Noah. Stock up.

Wilson and Smith can both kinda block. Wilson has good technique and bad mass; Smith has good mass and bad technique. From here on out, safely assume that no-o-o-o-body can block worth a lick. I mean, not even stalk blocking as a flexed-out WR on a bubble screen. Nothing.

So who are the best receivers remaining? Togiai takes the cake. He does not have much agility in space to make players miss with the ball in his hands or immediately uncover when blanketed man-on-man. But he can eat up space quick with powerful strides and keep that burst going through soft breaks when working the seam/boundary. I particularly like how well he finds space in zones.

I want him to have better hands than he does. He does well to address the football at a safe point away from his frame, but he will double catch (annoying) and jump for balls he doesn't need to jump for (more annoying). Both of those limit an already capped YAC player.

What to watch for in 2018: Man coverage. Are you really a separator, or do you just find space in zones, Noah? I'd love to see him get more physical to play some bully ball (244 ain't too small by Pac-12 standards), because I don't think he has the quicks. Show me some wins in man coverage, and I'll get more interested.

4. Jacob Breeland, RS Junior, Oregon (6-5 241)

Okay, so let's start here: Jacob Breeland probably isn't a great athlete.

He excels as a downfield threat in Oregon's attack, but I don't see great speed. They work him into the middle of the field among zones, but I don't see body control or quickness to separate. They use him on seam RPOs in 'pop-pass' ideas, but I don't see burst.

Breeland is super long and has a stellar catch radius -- he's only second to Kaden Smith in terms of the catches he can make across the middle/with bodies draped around him. But he's dealing so often with contact at the catch point because he just can't get away from defenders. So many of his plus plays are manufactured by offensive space.

While Togiai and Wilson should be primarily considered wide receivers at this point, Breeland might actual need to consider a positional switch, given how much he struggles with physicality within the first five yards. He needs the cushion of a slot alignment to be successful running routes at the next level, and he lacks the blocking upside to have meaningful in-line reps -- so there you are.

What to watch for in 2018: YAC. I've seen a surprising number of reps for this upright, thin, non-physical player surviving contact and picking up dirty yardage -- and given what I saw on the rest of the tape, that surprised me. If Breeland puts together a full season of excellent tackle-breaking, that'll do wonders for his very limited stock thus far.

5. Tyler Petite, Senior, USC (6-3 250)

Listen, if Jake Breeland isn't a great athlete...woof. I'm really not comfortable projecting Tyler Petite to the NFL, if I'm getting the correct read of his on-field athleticism.

It takes Petite forever and a day to get in and out of his breaks, which means against man and zone coverage alike, it's far too easy to get and stay connected with him. I have yet to see Petite uncover against almost anybody -- there just isn't a quality route to be found on his tape.

As a blocker, he knows what he's supposed to be doing: he gets his hips where they belong on arc blocks and when sealing the frontside on zone. But he has so much stiffness in the lower half, so his weight stays upright and he lacks any power to speak of. You wish he could at least stalk block or climb with decent success, but again, the athletic limitations seem to much to overcome.

What to watch for in 2018: Catch radius. Petite did make catches away from his frame, but I didn't see his catch radius truly tested. If you can't uncover, you must be able to make catches while covered. Petite doesn't have the physicality to pull off 50/50 bullyball plays, so I hope he can win accurate balls put away from the defender. I'm not optimistic, but it's the only avenue I see.

Also on the watchlist: Drew Sample, Washington; Daniel Imatorbhebhe, USC