Notes: These are not college fantasy football or NFL Draft rankings. They are meant to be judging college football performance. ... "ReYD" is receiving yards, which are more sticky year to year than touchdowns and have actually been moderately correlated to NFL production. ... "ReTD" is receiving touchdowns. The stability of touchdowns is weak, but it's at least interesting to look at. ... “YPT” is yards per target, which helps us spot out some underutilized but talented tight ends. … Now, let's get to the rankings!
Tier 1 tight ends are either hyper-efficient or productive Power 5 pass catchers and are Day 1 or Day 2 NFL prospects.
Tier 1 Tight Ends
Colby Parkinson (Stanford, JR)
Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt, SR)
Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri, JR)
Colby Parkinson (6’7/240) tied for the second-most touchdowns (7) in 2018 among returning FBS tight ends, with four of them coming inside the red zone. Red zone beast JJ Arcega-Whiteside is now in the NFL, so Parkinson is a prime candidate to lead tight ends in touchdowns this year. However, Parkinson is not limited to the red zone. Parkinson gets after it on deep routes, averaging 14.3 yards per target on passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield. Parkinson has the profile -- production, speed, size, and age -- of a tight end that my NFL prospects model will love. You can see the results of my 2019 NFL Draft model here.
Jared Pinkney (6’4/255) had the most receiving yards (770), the second-most receiving touchdowns (7), and the third-most receptions (50) in 2018 among returning FBS tight ends. In the red zone, Pinkney scored five touchdowns, so there aren’t issues there, either. On underneath routes, Pinkney gives Vanderbilt yards after the catch, but he can also win down the seam and deep downfield, making him an all-around nice receiving prospect. As a blocker, Pinkney is more than serviceable, especially for a receiver of his caliber.
Albert Okwuegbunam (6’5/255) had the sixth-most receptions (43) in 2018 among returning FBS tight ends, but he averaged a forgettable 10.1 yards per reception. That second part was interesting to me because Okwuegbunam posted decent numbers on intermediate and deep passes. The issue seems to be on underneath passes; Pro Football Focus credits Okwuegbunam with averaging just 5.35 yards per target on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Is this an agility and/or burst issue? Maybe??? But even if that was the case, Okwuegbunam has enough physicality and coordination to be a very productive college tight end before heading to the NFL as a Day 2 (or possibly Day 1) prospect.
Tier 2 tight ends are either strong Power 5 or elite Group of 5 tight ends and are clearly on the NFL Draft radar.
Tier 2 Tight Ends
Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin, SO)
Patrick Freiermuth (Penn State, SO)
Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic, SR)
Hunter Bryant (Washington, JR)
Grant Calcaterra (Oklahoma, JR)
Brycen Hopkins (Purdue, SR)
Matt Bushman (BYU, JR)
Jake Ferguson (6’5/239) was Pro Football Focus’ second-highest-graded tight end in 2018 among returning FBS tight ends with at least 20 targets, and he accomplished that as a freshman. More elusive than explosive, Ferguson can make one guy miss shortly after the catch and he also has enough route running skills, hands, and fluidity to be among the best tight ends in the country. Hopefully Wisconsin gives Ferguson more looks deeper downfield in 2019 to give him a more well-rounded route tree.
Patrick Freiermuth (6’5/258) scored the most touchdowns in 2018 among returning FBS tight ends, and seven of the eight came inside the red zone. Freiermuth’s game outside of the red zone leaves some to be desired -- he has issues with drops, is an average blocker, and is wobbly after the catch -- but that may be a product of a freshman still growing into his huge body. There’s plenty of upside with Freiermuth.
Harrison Bryant (6’5/240) was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded tight end in 2018 among returning FBS tight ends. He achieved that by finishing with the fourth-most receptions (44) among returning tight ends, by only dropping one pass, and by grading out as the best blocker on this top-25 list. Bryant also led FBS tight ends in yards per target (10.5 - minimum 60 targets) and yards after the catch. Bryant is arguably the most underrated tight end in college football with multiple years of production.
Hunter Bryant (6’2/241) has as much receiving upside as anyone on this list, but his injury history is worrisome. However, Bryant looks ready to go in 2019 and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to shine. In limited action late last year, Bryant lined up all over the field and was utilized as a deep threat, especially when slower linebackers were matched up on him. This draft class is pretty weak overall, so I’m hoping Bryant stays healthy and continues to show the ability to rack up yards after the catch because he can be a riser.
Grant Calcaterra (6’4/221) is undersized and isn’t a willing blocker, but he is athletic, especially running while setting up his routes over the middle. According to Pro Football Focus, Calcaterra had the second-most yards per route run among returning FBS tight ends, only trailing Harris Bryant. In the red zone, Calcaterra converted all four of his receptions into touchdowns, but he’ll pose an even bigger threat if he can fill out his frame a little more.
Brycen Hopkins (6’5/245) led FBS tight ends in yards per target (11.2 - minimum 50 targets), largely because of his athleticism. Hopkins is a fluid runner and that translated to tons of success on intermediate and deep targets. If Hopkins rounds out his game on underneath patterns, he may end up being a nice sleeper.
Matt Bushman (6’5/245) averaged 17.4 yards per catch, only dropped one pass, and led FBS tight ends in yards per target (11.2 - minimum 40 targets) last year. The reason why Bushman was successful last year was his ability to win downfield, where he shows off quality athleticism and ball tracking skills. Bushman has NFL size and plenty of production, so the primary knock against him is his age.
Tier 3 tight ends are low-end NFL prospects or are the next wave of Tier 1 and Tier 2 tight ends.
Tier 3 Tight Ends
C.J. O'Grady (Arkansas, SR)
Jacob Breeland (Oregon, SR)
Jared Rice (Fresno State, SR)
Joey Magnifico (Memphis, SR)
Mitchell Wilcox (South Florida, SR)
Baylor Cupp (Texas A&M, FR)
Cole Kmet (Notre Dame, JR)
Brevin Jordan (Miami, SO)
Jeremy Ruckert (Ohio State, SO)
Kyle Pitts (Florida, SO)
Charlie Kolar (Iowa State, SO)
Hudson Henry (Arkansas, FR)
Carl Tucker (North Carolina, SR)
Dalton Keene (Virginia Tech, JR)
Josiah Deguara (Cincinnati, SR)
C.J. O’Grady (6’4/251) converted four of his five red zone receptions for touchdowns and he graded as one of the better blockers in this class, but Arkansas did him zero favors last year. Most tight ends are targeted over the middle, but O’Grady was constantly targeted outside of the numbers -- targets that have been proven to be way less efficient. Hopefully the Razorbacks figure out ways to script him open in 2019 because he has nice athleticism for a bigger college tight end.
Jacob Breeland (6’5/248) only dropped one pass last year and showed well on intermediate and deep passes, but Breeland is still adjusting to the position and probably won’t ever be a good blocker. That’s alright if he can rebound as a receiver in 2019, but with Justin Herbert at quarterback, there are no excuses for Breeland not to produce.
Jared Rice (6’5/238) had the second-most receptions (55) in 2018 among returning FBS tight ends, and he did so by going ham at all depths of the field. On underneath routes, Rice was a yards after the catch machine, but he was arguably at his best on deep passes where he turned seven targets into 171 yards. Without KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State should lean on Rice even more in 2019.
Joey Magnifico (6’4/235) didn’t suffer a single drop last year and led FBS tight ends in yards per target (11.4 - minimum 30 targets). Magnifico was able to pick up yardage last year by consistently avoiding tackles underneath -- not by working downfield. Magnifico just doesn’t have the athleticism to win on deeper routes. However, in the red zone, Magnifico converted four of his five receptions for touchdowns.
Mitchell Wilcox (6’5/245) had the sixth-most receptions (43) among returning FBS tight ends, but he had a drop issue last year. However, drops are overanalyzed, so let’s focus on a positive. Wilcox was one of the most productive and efficient tight ends from the slot last year, particularly showing promise on over the middle targets.
Baylor Cupp (6’6/240) was the top tight end recruit in last year’s class, and all reports from this offseason have been extremely positive. It’s hard not to be bullish on Cupp after what Jace Sternberger did in the offense last year. There’s a chance Cupp climbs on this list drastically, but freshmen tight ends can be sketchy as you’ll see with the next player...
Brevin Jordan (6’3/250) was legit bad last year (5.9 YPT) outside of his four touchdown grabs. But that’s how most freshmen look, so I’m giving him a pass and keeping him inside the top 20. With another season to adjust to college football, Jordan should be able to come down with a lot more deep passes -- he caught one of his seven targets that traveled more than 20 yards downfield last year -- and he should also show more after the catch ability on underneath routes. Coming into school, Jordan was best high school recruit in the country.
Cole Kmet didn’t drop a pass last year, but the reason why he made this list is his high-end athleticism and massive frame (6’6/268) not his hands. Kmet has reportedly recorded a 38-inch vertical. However, Kmet is still very much a projection. One area of improvement will come as a blocker, but he’ll need production as a receiver to climb this list.
Carl Tucker (6’2/255) led FBS tight ends in yards per target (12.1 - minimum 20 targets), but that was probably just good luck on a small sample. Where Tucker does win is as a blocker, but maybe Tucker can turn last year’s luck into a full season of production now that he’s a senior.
Dalton Keene (6’4/246) caught 84% of his 33 targets -- the highest catch rate among returning tight ends with at least 20 targets -- but that stat was elevated by his ridiculously high rate of targets near the line of scrimmage. The good news is Keene was able to convert gimme catches into yards, but he’s only been a one-trick pony thus far. Keene has also missed a chunk of this offseason after undergoing knee surgery.
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