Part 1, WR/TE: Hallelujah, it's the Year of the Tight End
Michael Mayer, Dalton Kincaid and Darnell Washington may drive this All-American position into the next generation. Bob McGinn's 39th annual draft series begins exactly where it should.
This is the 39th year that Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared at the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-’19), The Athletic (2020-’21) and GoLongTD.com (2022-’23). Until 2014, personnel people were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts. The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test no longer is administered at the NFL combine but players generally took the test at spring 2022 timing days, all-star games and at pro days in March and April. The NFL average score is about 19.
Today, Part 1: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends.
It shouldn’t be like this. There’s no way that college football should be producing a better class of tight ends than wide receivers.
That certainly would appear to be the case in a draft without a legitimate No. 1-level wide receiver and with half a dozen or more projected starters at tight end.
“Tight end is the strongest position group in the draft,” an executive in personnel for an AFC team said. “Top to bottom. Cornerback is comparable. Those are the two. The wide receivers are awful, which is surprising with all the spread offenses and the way people throw it around.”
More wide receivers than tight ends populate NFL rosters than wide receivers, of course, because of the typical allotment of five to three. Simple math, along with the ever-increasing importance of wide receivers in a high-scoring league, help explain why there have been 13.3 wideouts selected among the top 100 selections in the past 15 drafts compared to 4.9 tight ends.
Don’t be surprised if the tight ends make a spirited charge to overtake the wide receivers when the top 100 plays out April 27-28.
“This may be the worst year for wide receivers I’ve seen,” said a personnel man with 30-plus NFL drafts behind him. “Most years, this is one of the outstanding positions. Most years, there’s an abundance of them. I do not know what happened here. All these guys are small. It’s not like the old days when they threw the ball deep so much. Now it’s more of a horizontal game with quick guys you hope can make a guy miss after the catch.”
Regarding the tight ends, the scout continued: “This is totally amazing. You usually have to struggle to find guys, but there are some interesting guys. They’re certainly as good as the Kittle’s and the Kelce’s, and people like that. It’s as good a group as I’ve seen in years.”
The 49ers’ George Kittle and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce have been the best in the biz for years; the scout’s point was they came from humble beginnings. Eight tight ends already had been taken by the time Kittle landed at No. 146 in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. Kelce, No. 63 in 2013, was the fifth tight end off the board in his class.
My survey of 16 personnel men in the past few weeks asked them to rank the tight ends on a 1-to-5 basis, with a first-place vote worth five points, a second worth four and so on. Michael Mayer led with 10 firsts and 68 ½ points, followed by Dalton Kincaid (61, five firsts), Darnell Washington (40, one), Sam LaPorta (26 ½), Luke Musgrave (21), Tucker Kraft (11), Luke Schoonmaker (10) and Brenton Strange (two).
“There will be guys in the third, fourth, maybe even the fifth round that end up starting,” said an AFC exec. “I could see two going in the first. Then the third, to me, gets foggy. Darnell Washington tested like crazy but he didn’t play like that. He’s a maybe.”
If the first round includes three tight ends, it would be just the fourth with more than two in the last 50 years. Since the origination of the NFL-AFL common draft in 1967 there has never been more than three tight ends in the first round.
The five drafts with three first-round tight ends were:
1970: Steve Zabel, 6; Rich McGeorge, 16, and Raymond Chester, 24.
1973: Charle Young, 6; Paul Seymour, 7, and Billy Joe Dupree, 20.
1978: Ken MacAfee, 7; Ozzie Newsome, 23, and Reese McCall, 25.
2002: Jeremy Shockey, 14; Daniel Graham, 21, and Jerramy Stevens, 28.
2017: O.J. Howard, 19; Evan Engram, 23, and David Njoku, 29.
Six of the last 12 drafts have gone off without a tight end in the first round.
“I think there will be a big run between the mid-second and the mid-third,” said an AFC personnel man. “I think nine or 10 will be starters. Some of them are more F (detached), some are more Y (attached). There are a lot of good backup guys, too.”
The scouts’ poll at wide receiver reflected uncertainty. The first-place votes were split four ways, and 12 players received at least one mention.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba led with five firsts and 57 points, followed by Quentin Johnston (53, seven), Jordan Addison (48, three), Zay Flowers (43, one), Jalin Hyatt (17), Josh Downs (seven), Xavier Hutchinson (four), Cedric Tillman (four), Jonathan Mingo (three), Michael Wilson (two), Jason Brownlee (one) and Marvin Mims (one).
Not one scout spoke with conviction about any wide receiver assuming the role of a true No. 1 “out of the can,” as one AFC exec put it.
“None of them would have cracked the top group from last year,” another AFC personnel chief said. “The top four from last year were Drake London, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jameson Williams. Christian Watson, in this group, would have been at the top probably. Watson is better than (Quentin) Johnston.”
Whoever leads off at wide receiver will become a member of the infamous first-wideout-taken club. By subjective analysis, over the past 25 drafts eight of the first-picked wide receivers were busts while four more were disappointments. The busts included David Terrell (8) in 2001, Charles Rogers (2) in 2003, Donnie Avery (33) in 2008, Darrius Heyward-Bey (7) in 2009, Justin Blackmon (5) in 2012, Tavon Austin (8) in 2013, Corey Coleman (15) in 2016 and Henry Ruggs (12) in 2020.
Milder disappointments were Kevin Dyson (16) in 1998, Peter Warrick (4) in 2000, Sammy Watkins (4) in 2014 and Corey Davis (5) in 2017.
“I guess it probably goes with all the other positions,” said a seasoned scout. “Look at the numbers. At every position half of them fail. But that’s a rough group there. That is bad. That’s scary.”
One of the 25, Calvin Johnson, sits in Canton. Others with four or more Pro Bowls are Larry Fitzgerald, Torry Holt, A.J. Green, Amari Cooper and Demaryius Thomas.
After remarking that “the Ravens, they can’t pick a receiver, the Patriots, they can’t pick a receiver,” a personnel man with more than two decades of scouting experience attempted to explain the failure rate among the lead wideouts.
“I think people rely on the 40 time just a bit too much,” he said. “It matters who your quarterback is. If you’re going to a team that doesn’t have a good quarterback, for the most part, that impacts the receiver. I also think some of the college offenses are not complex so there might be a learning curve for these guys coming into the league and recognizing coverages. And that (the Wonderlic test) very well could be (significant).”
Of the eight busts, six blazed the 40 in less than 4.4 seconds and their average score on the Wonderlic was just 14.5.
Based on my records, the 40 times and test scores were Terrell (19, 4.50), Rogers (10, 4.37), Avery (14, 4.37), Heyward-Bey (14, 4.28), Blackmon (22, 4.47), Austin (7, 4.30), Coleman (10, 4.38) and Ruggs (20, 4.24).
It would be hard to find fault with that scout’s assessment.
Offering a word of caution, another scout said, “The narrative’s been set on all these (wide receivers) on social media. If all these players go off in the first round it’s going to continue with that bust thing. I really don’t like the guys that are being talked about in the first round.”’
Here are the wide receiver and tight end rankings with full analysis from scouts and personnel men from across the NFL.
1. JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA, Ohio State (6-0 ½, 197, 4.52, 1-2): Adam Thielen has fashioned an outstanding nine-year career with the Minnesota Vikings after signing as an undrafted rookie from Minnesota State Mankato. “I thought he was Adam Thielen,” one scout said, referring to Smith-Njigba. “He can get deep because of his route-running ability, whether it’s a double move or a little shake. His 40 was fast enough for me. He may be the most consistent out of the bunch. He can do some outside stuff, but he’s mainly best in the slot.” Caught 10 passes in seven games as a true freshman, exploded for 95-1,606-9 in 2021 and was limited to 60 snaps in the first two games last season when a hamstring injury ended his collegiate career. “I do like him,” said a second scout. “He can be a good pro. More in the vein of a big slot kind of guy. He catches the ball. He’s competitive. You just wonder if he has the top-end juice.” His shuttle-run times at the combine (3.93 short, 6.57 3-cone) were the best at the position. “I’m really concerned about his speed,” said a third scout. “The (4.52) is not real good nowadays, and I don’t think he plays that fast. He plays like 4.6 to me. He’s a really good player. I just don’t see that explosiveness.” His score of 14 on the Wonderlic test was the highest of the top four wideouts. “He’s one of the most overrated players in the draft,” said a fourth scout. “He’s got good hands, not great hands. He’s got good vision and run after but he doesn’t run away from anybody and he’s not particularly elusive. He can find holes in zones, and he’s tough. He’ll take a hit to make catch. I don’t see special traits. Has to be a slot. Not fast enough to play outside. I’d rather have (Zay) Flowers because he’s really fast and really good after the catch. Sounds like he might be a solid second-round pick, and I didn’t see that.” From Rockwall, Texas.