T.J. Hockenson
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NFL Draft TE Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 4, 2019, 7:56 pm ET

3. Kahale Warring (San Diego State) | 6'5/252

SPARQ percentile: 80.1
Comp: Todd Heap (Lance Zierlein)


warring combine


Do you remember what you were doing in 2013? Through that year, Warring had never ever played football before. He picked it up in 2014 as a senior in high school. Up until that point, Warring was a sort of prep athletics renaissance man.

He was a water polo goalie. He ran cross country. He swam. He soccered. He averaged 19 points a game playing basketball. He took a writing class and wrote a compelling TV pilot titled “Warring Pees”, a Tolstoy-inspired buddy cop sendup starring he and now-Titans DC Dean Pees. Only one of those sentences was a lie.

Look Warring up on Google. You’ll note that he does not have a Rivals prospect profile for the 2015 cycle, nor a rating on 247Sports. David Montgomery and Josh Jacobs were overlooked in recruiting for the longest time— but at least they were on the radar. Nobody knew who the hell Warring was. But his frame and athletic traits were enough to earn him a walk-on look from San Diego State. He was an uber-uber-uber-raw 6-foot-5, 210-pound athlete. Nothing more.

The Aztecs figured they’d try to make the kid a tight end, or something, and so they instructed him to eat up and get his swoll on during a 2015 redshirt campaign. Warring sporadically played in 2016 (a broken foot ended his season early), but showed enough to earn a scholarship.

SDSU taught the kid to block. Which is really all the Aztecs ask its tight ends to do. The team I describe as the “G5 Wisconsin of the West Coast” (run, run, run) uses tight ends like extra offensive linemen. That was the idea with Warring as well, to turn him into a hammer.

Even diligent #FilmGrinders knew little about Warring entering this season except that he could move out defenders (return to the 2017 Rashaad Penny tape and you’ll see plenty of Warring Easter eggs) and had an intriguing athletic profile.

Warring declared for the NFL Draft after posting 49 receptions over the past two years. Meager receiving production, for sure, but keep in mind the team we’re talking about. Irv Smith, for instance, caught more balls last year — but finished fourth on the high-flying Tide in receptions.

Warring, meanwhile, led the land-locked Aztecs in receptions by nine last year (which is by MARGIN on a team that didn’t even complete 175 passes total last fall). Warring also led SDSU in TD catches in each of the past two years.

On those rare occasions SDSU asked Warring to run routes and catch the ball, he flashed. He gets where he wants to go quickly and smoothly, uses his big frame to effectively to pin you to his back, and takes the elevator to the top floor on jump balls or errant throws (of which SDSU’s QBs provide plenty). Basically, he combines the hands of the water polo goalie he once was with the box-out/elevate combo of the forward that he was once on the basketball court.

There are of course lingering questions with the profile. Warring dropped four balls last year on only 34 catchable targets, giving him an 11.76% drop rate that gives pause. Of course, the sample size is tiny and he’s still learning. Targeted NFL coaching should take care of his route running, which remains understandably rudimentary.

Same goes for blocking. Warring fires himself like a projectile into blocks with a tenacious, if unschooled, approach. He’s willing and able but reliant, at this time, on grit, athleticism and strength more than technical know-how.

Let’s be clear: Warring is no sure thing to succeed. This is a risky profile, absolutely. But we know he excelled at many different sports in high school, we know his combination of traits/work ethic are top-notch, and we know that he suffered from his situation in college while prospects like Irv Smith greatly benefited from their own (if Irv and Kahale had switched teams last year, SDSU would almost assuredly have used Irv as an H-Back lead blocker while Kahale may have finished right behind TJ Hockenson in the Mackie voting).

Warring himself believes he’ll be better in the NFL than he was in college. He believes that he hasn’t come close to his ceiling. I agree. I’m not going to take potshots at a coach as good as SDSU’s Rocky Long, but it’s fair to suggest that Warring’s skillset was wasted on that team.

I think of Warring as the anti-Dawson Knox, who continues to receive love for reasons that are not quantifiable. Unlike Knox, Warring starred at the combine, and unlike Knox, Warring also showed out when given the opportunity.

Despite playing in a far, far less conducive offense for the pass (Ole Miss ranked No. 5 in the country in passing yards per game last season, SDSU ranked No. 101), Warring still put up better stats than Knox both last season (31-372-3 to 15-284-0) and throughout their respective collegiate career (51-637-8 to 39-605-0).

Warring is a Magic Eye prospect. Some people look at him and don’t see much of anything. For others, like myself, the closer they look, the more they like. NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call that he’s “limitless in terms of his athleticism” — his traits are basically the pills Bradley Cooper took in LIMITLESS. If Warring can learn to channel that power, look out.

4. Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M) | 6’4/251

SPARQ percentile: 933.6
Comp: Jacob Tamme (Lance Zierlein)


sternberger combine


As a Kansas alum and diehard Jayhawk football fan (yes, we exist!), it broke my heart to watch Sternberger go nuclear on the SEC last season. Sternberger signed with KU out of high school, caught only one ball over two years (he redshirted as a true freshman in 2015), and then skipped down to the JUCO ranks in 2017.

There, he established himself as TE1 among the 2018 JUCO class. A must-have recruiting target for Jimbo Fisher after arriving at Texas A&M, Sternberger signed with the Aggies and went off in his only season in College Station, earning All-American honors while posting a 48-832-10 line. The Aggies had a ton of young receiving talent — Kevin Sumlin, if nothing else, recruits that position as well as anyone — but sophomore QB Kellen Mond relied most heavily on the veteran newbie.

Like Warring, Sternberger has a crazy backstory. As a sophomore in high school, Sternberger was a 5-foot-9 quarterback who wore black-rimmed glasses. I picture him as a red-haired Michael 'Squints' Palledorous from THE SANDLOT. And just like how Squints’ encounter with Wendy Peffercorn changed everything, Sternberger’s brush with kismet occurred when his arm strength was zapped by a shoulder injury, followed by a big growth spurt and a permanent move to tight end.

Tight end is notoriously one of the slowest-developing positions in football. For Sternberger to go from a guy who had one FBS catch through his first three years in college to one of the nation’s most dangerous receiving TEs in the SEC in one calendar year struck me as less of a flash-in-the-pan phenomena and more of a flashing red sign that he has serious untapped NFL ability.

Sternberger is a natural receiver, near the top of the class in the areas of route running and seamlessly converting from a receiver to a runner after the catch. And my gosh did that impress me. Sternberger is very, very difficult to contain one-on-one.

He’s such a clever and fluid route runner — one of those guys who moves faster and quicker on the field than he tests. He creates separation, he plucks the ball clean away from his body on the move, he wins in contested situations, he offers a large catch radius, he doesn’t waste motion turning upfield, and he’s dangerous after the catch due to a combination of fluidity, vision and I’m-not-going-down tenacity.

The eval isn’t all roses. Sternberger only tested as a 33rd-percentile athlete. He plays more athletic than that, but he’s no Noah Fant; Sternberger feels NFL average to me. He's an inline guy, but an inline guy who isn’t much of a blocker. He’s a tough kid who tries hard, but Sternberger lacks muscle and pop.

As with receiving, Sternberger is a finesse blocker — technique and effort help him win against non-power guys via positioning and leverage. A power run team probably shouldn’t prioritize him, but a team that throws more and motions the tight end around the formation should be able to extract a little value out of Sternberger in this area. As with Warring, Sternberger is a relative newcomer to the position (and also to his big frame). Perhaps NFL coaching could coax a little more value out of him in this department.

All-in-all, I see an ascending prospect whose further ahead of the developmental curve than he has any business being. If Sternberger falls to Round 3, some lucky team may get a long-term starter on the cheap — if they’re willing to be a little patient early on.

5. Irv Smith (Alabama) | 6’2/242

SPARQ percentile: 32.6
Comp: The ceiling is a better-blocking Trey Burton… the floor is a Quadruple-A tweener


irv smith combine graph


If you think TE5 is harsh, let me do you one better: I very nearly grouped Irv in with the fullback/H-back group below. But while I think he may in short order be heading for a utility jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none role, Irv offers tools that a smart staff could weaponize.

A former four-star recruit, Smith rarely played as a true freshman in 2016 and managed a pedestrian 14-128-3 receiving line as a sophomore on Alabama’s championship team in 2017. Smith’s stock spiked this past campaign as he broke out with a 44-710-7 line during Alabama’s march to their title-game guillotining at the hands of Clemson.

The Crimson Tide were always on national television, giving Smith, listed at 6’4/241, a big stage to make his NFL Draft case. He was an integral part of the Crimson Tide’s explosive passing offense, finishing fourth on the team in receptions. He doubled as a versatile blocker. On several draft boards during the regular season, he was rated as TE2. He remains a nearly-consensus top-3 TE around the industry.

As you can tell, that’s too rich for my blood.

I see a 6-foot-2 tight end who tested in the 32nd percentile as an athlete, and I wonder if I’m seeing an NFL tweener who benefited from one of the great tight end situations this side of Mark Andrews in the past five classes. I see a guy who most often won as a blocker in college when he wasn’t lined up next to an offensive tackle, and I wonder if asking him to be an NFL inline blocker against power edge rushers is a bridge too far.

The lack of athleticism Smith displayed at the NFL Combine wasn't necessarily a surprise, as Smith struggled to consistently gain separation on his own in college. But often finding himself in one-on-one situations against inferior defenders with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jalen Waddle and either Damien Harris or Josh Jacobs also running routes and Tua Tagovailoa a threat to run, Smith proved to be a highly-reliable outlet receiver.

The situation flattered Irv greatly. His lack of athleticism shows on routes, where his heavy feet deprive him the ability to make quick cuts or put defenders in a blender. Irv is at his best when he gets a head of steam running north-to-south. He ran the third-fastest time of any tight end at the NFL Combine, trailing only freak athlete Noah Fant and jumbo slot Caleb Wilson.

Smith’s agility tests and jumps (measuring explosion) were poor, confirming that the lack of separation and rounded routes we saw last year weren’t a result of a lack of technique from inexperience. Irv also isn’t much of a threat after the catch — unless he’s wide open and has a runway of open field in front of him, a scenario that allows him the extra beat he needs to convert from receiver to runner and the space to build up to his top-end speed.

Smith also isn’t the smoothest receiver, allowing the ball into his frame to lose another split-second he could use to mitigate his lack of foot speed. If Irv isn’t wide open, and if he can’t break the first tackle if he isn’t, the play is about to be whistled dead (to be fair: Smith is a fighter with the ball in his hands and isn’t getting taken down by an arm tackle).

As a blocker, Irv acquitted himself best last season when used as a lead-blocker fullback or when Alabama would shift him around as an H-back. I question whether Smith has the size and play strength to rely on as an inline blocker. And if that’s off the table, you’ve got yourself a 6-foot-2 H-back with below-average athleticism and average hands.

Team fit is more important for Irv than most others on this list. A smart staff will get creative with him, using Irv as a fullback when a lead blocker is required and shifting him around the formation to send him down the seam or manufacture touches that could give him the runway he needs to build up to top speed.

An unimaginative staff will try to shove a square peg into a round hole and find that Irv doesn’t have the skillset to excel in a traditional NFL tight end role. I’ve seen the Delanie Walker comp. I'm gonna drop the "Erroneous!" Vince Vaughn GIF on that. Walker ran a 4.49, Irv a 4.63. Walker had a 36.5 vertical, four inches more than Irv. And Irv’s athletic profile is predicated on straight-line speed — he’s less flattered elsewhere. I seem to be on an island in questioning the viability of Irv’s game in the NFL. So be it. I’d let another team pick him and try to figure it out.

6. Drew Sample (Washington) | 6'5/255

SPARQ percentile: 58.4
Comp: Luke Willson (Gabe Ward)


drew sample combine


The Washington football program instills a “construction worker on the Space Needle” kind of attitude and that’s Sample. Coaches are going to bang the table for him in April. He’s a first-in, last-out hard-working kid who wants it.

Sample is a very, very good blocker. In that area of the game, he’s NFL-ready. In fact, Sample easily finished No. 1 in PFF’s run-blocking grades last year among draft-eligible TEs (even over my dude TJ Hockenson). In the run game, he locks onto speed guys like a Nile Crocodile and won’t let go. Power edges have given him a few more issues, but that’s a bit nitpicky.

The question becomes: What, outside of blocking, can Sample offer at the next level?

Staying in his PFF profile, Sample finished No. 1 in the 2019 TE class with a 0.00% drop rate — he caught all 25 catchable targets he saw last year. But to be fair: He finished lowest among the top TEs in the class in yards per route run, confirming what we saw on the field: Sample is a very reliable outlet receiver who Washington didn’t ask more of. At the next level, he will have the benefit of finally cutting free the leg chain which kept him attached to Jake Browning at Washington.

There’s reason to believe that Sample could have a little more development to go as a receiver. We know he’s got soft hands, and he tested better than expected at the NFL Scouting Combine, one of seven tight end prospects to test over the 50th percentile on SPARQ.

We didn’t get to see as much of that athleticism at Washington, but Sample had over 96.5% athletic similarities to Todd Heap and Travis Kelce, per Mock Draftable. There were a bunch of bums on that list, too, but the point is that Sample has enough athletic traits to improve as a receiver. Heck, he tested a little better than Josh Oliver, a pure receiving tight end who checks in just below him on this list.

He never created any separation in college, and he never looked very natural on routes — but then again, Washington asked him to run less than a yard per route, and never let him do anything fun. How the hell are you going to separate from a linebacker behind the line of scrimmage?

Sample needs a lot of work as a receiver, specifically in terms of nuance and route-running, but, like Dissly, may immediately show more chops than we thought he had, freed like Andy Dufresne from Browning’s ducks and Chris Peterson’s BLOCK-FOR-MYLES-AND-EAT-YOUR-WHEATIES mandate.

I’m bullish on Sample’s profile. At worst, you’ve got yourself a blocking ace off the bench. At best, you may find a reliable inline starter at a discount. Sample may have gotten something of a developmental short stick at Washington, where he had to fight for playing time with Hunter Bryant (an exciting receiving TE who will touch down in the NFL in one of the next two classes) and Will Dissly (who proved to be a better receiver for the Seahawks than expected right out of the gate before his injury last year, including a 100-yard game in his NFL debut).

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!