Breaking down 5 Tight Ends from the 2022 NFL Draft to keep in mind with potential to be fantasy contributors one day.
With the draft less than a week away, analyses and opinions on the top NFL Draft prospects have been largely solidified.
We’ve all heard about the Aidan Hutchinsons, Kenny Picketts, and Malik Willises of the draft, but what about some Day Two or Three tight end prospects who might one day be fantasy contributors?
Below is a breakdown on five tight ends who I believe have more potential than we might think heading into the draft.
Virginia TE Jelani Woods
Career Numbers: 75 receptions, 959 yds, 12 TDs (45 games)
The lone draftable grade from the University of Virginia on my board, Jelani Woods has a highly impressive athletic profile and could be drafted on measurables alone. His senior year production and ball skills at Virginia are merely icing on the cake. A former quarterback, Woods knows how to use his size and has role models that fit his play style.
The discussion on Woods must start with his size and length. Easy to spot on tape as the largest human on the field, Woods is rarely overpowered by any defender. His speed takes a while to build up. He uses his length (and almost 11-foot catch radius) to his advantage, as almost every one of his catches are contested. Not the most flexible, with high hips at his height, he sometimes pushes off defenders to sharpen his cuts. He has sufficient plant power to run clean posts and corners.
Woods has average to below-average burst out of his stance, but that is expected. His route tree, and average depth of target show a player that utilizes his height against smaller DBs. His ball tracking is above average, as he played with a wildly inaccurate left-handed QB his senior year. Defenders struggle to get around his wide frame to defend passes over the middle.
Woods tested well at the NFL Combine, logging a 98th percentile catch radius, a 94th percentile speed score, and a 95th percentile burst score. His athleticism is beyond reproach.
As a blocker, Woods uses his size well, akin to your uncle blocking you on Thanksgiving when you were eight. Woods really makes an effort to perfectly square up blocks, but misses. However, his reach allows for “good enough” on most plays. He doesn’t always drive defenders back, but wins by extending and redirecting efficiently.
The questions surrounding Jelani Woods largely revolve around fluidity and lack of production. He struggled to find a role at Oklahoma State after switching from QB to TE and was only unlocked after a transfer to Virginia. However, his size and length, and his ideal fit at Y, will entice teams to pick him on the second day of the NFL Draft.
Coastal Carolina TE Isaiah Likely
Career Numbers: 133 receptions, 2050 yds, 27 TDs (48 games)
This draft has largely been characterized by the incredible athletic traits of the prospects available. Isaiah Likely’s special trait is his explosiveness. By posting impressive jump numbers — a 36” Vertical and 10’3” Broad — Likely tested in the 90th percentile or higher amongst TEs all-time. Given his size, explosion, and versatility, coaches will pound the table for the opportunity to mold this player into a potential all-around contributor.
It is easy to pick out Likely when watching tape. He has exceptional width with an overall lean body. Together, these traits make him look deceptively large compared to other players on the field. He also has an odd leaned-forward running style that demonstrates his constant desire to hit someone. This desire, however, does not match his blocking ability as a whole.
Coastal Carolina asked him to block on the edge on outside zone runs a fair amount. The success of that play was determined not necessarily by Likely’s block, but rather who he was blocking. Thanks to his frame, Likelyeasily bullies smaller defensive backs, especially in the Sun Belt Conference. Conversely, when blocking defensive lineman and bigger EDGEs, Likely often struggled to seal and would sometimes even be driven backwards. While he does a good job with his tenacious feet and tree-like thighs, his hands leave something to be desired. When blocking on the move, Likely has good “pop” as he engages the defender but only extends his arms after he is fully engaged. This leads to a “bouncing” visual when he is blocking that makes it look like he is a better blocker than he really is. Not a trouble spot but any means, but a team will have to invest some time to refine his blocking technique.
Although his punch and hands while blocking are not his strength, Likely’s hands in the receiving game are reliable. With only 1 drop versus 59 receptions and an average of 15.5 yards per reception, Likely demonstrated his ability to be not only a safety valve, but also a dangerous weapon in the offensive gameplan. From his stance, he is quick to accelerate and is at top speed within five yards. Opposing defenses often had to double-team him when running up the slot.
A coaching staff favorite, Likely’s 27 career touchdowns are third-most by any receiver in Coastal Carolina history. He utilized his wide frame well to create vertical windows for QB Grayson McCall. If there are flaws to his receiving package, it is that he tends to let the ball into his body. This isn’t to say that he is a body-catcher by any means. However, he could stand to improve by attacking the ball in the air more aggressively. On throws down the seam, Likely turned to grab the ball instead of tracking the ball over his shoulder on a few occasions. But this is likely not a problem for the role he will fill in the NFL.
A versatile player who lined up all over the field for Coastal Carolina, Likely is a bit of a project who should find a home as a starting F in the NFL. He showed better athleticism on the field than in testing but will have found some fans amongst tight end coaches in the league for his legitimate three-level threat and his willingness and toughness as a blocker. With a little development, Likely can contribute to an NFL team looking to bring a little more physicality to their receiving weapons. I expect him to come off the board near the top of Round 3.
Nevada TE Cole Turner
Career Numbers: 117 receptions, 1,370 yds, 20 TDs (45 games)
For any team looking for a deep-threat TE, Cole Turner fits the bill. Turner is built more like Mike Evans than Jason Witten. Playing in a vertically predisposed offense at Nevada, Turner managed impressive production, including over 600 yards in each of his last two seasons, earning all-conference designations both times. He will not be a fit in every offense, but his receiving skills will surely attract teams looking for a seam-stretching tight end.
Turner’s struggles as a blocker will probably be an issue his entire career. With a noticeably narrow build and little potential for added mass, he will never be the most effective inline. He lacks the strength to seal NFL EDGEs and the wide base to wall off at the second level. Even when he manages to square up a defender, he often lets them slip by him after initial contact. He will need to learn to widen his body to create more of a boundary and better sustain blocks.
The team that selects Turner will be drafting the best receiving target in the class at his position, but projecting on his ability to separate. His long, stretched-out build is a serious asset in the seam as he effortlessly tracks balls over his shoulder and high points balls over smaller defenders. Lining up primarily in the slot or split out, Turner was asked to fill the role of the flex TE in Jay Norvell’s scheme. His stance is easy and relaxed, although he often needs a few steps to roll his hips forward and accelerate. Turner has nuanced route running that involves a mixture of releases and the ability to sink his hips to come back to the ball.
He has strong hands, evidenced by his 3 drops versus 62 receptions his senior year. His catching motion is natural and doesn’t fight the ball as it comes into his body. The trust the coaching staff had in Turner was evident in the Fresno State game. In multiple red zone trips, Nevada ran the same isolated back-shoulder fade to Turner on four different occasions all from different formations. Two of those resulted in touchdowns. Another one of his touchdowns, this time against San Diego State, was a catch at the front pylon after a QB rollout with two defenders draped all over him. Turner’s awareness to readily make himself available when the play breaks down and the QB is forced to leave the pocket is exceptional.
Turner’s profile will appeal to a select few teams in the NFL. Despite his slightly above-average athletic testing (RAS of 7.38), Turner displays many tools that make him a highly effective receiver. However, the unidimensionality of his skillset will limit his popularity, and he will likely hear his name called early to mid-Day 3. However, we may hear his name in headlines sooner than some of his more highly-rated counterparts.
Maryland TE Chigoziem Okonkwo
Weight: 241 lbs.
Career Numbers: 77 rec, 717 yds, 8 TDs (37 games)
A true physical specimen, Chig Okonkwo is an athletic player that may lack a clearly defined role in the NFL. Okonkwo was diagnosed with myocarditis before his junior season, which resulted in a lost year while recovering from surgery, Okonkwo had an up and down senior season. He had the occasional big game, such as his performance against Penn State in which he had the second-most receptions by a tight end in a game (12) in Maryland history. He also disappeared for stretches at a time. Okonkwo will require specific usage at the next level but can contribute in many ways.
While Okonkwo had the fastest 40-yard dash time among tight ends at the combine, he lacks length compared to the rest of the class. This is most evident in his blocking. He has the ability to hang on for dear life if a sustained block is needed. However, he is at his most effective when blocking on the edge while on the move. His athleticism lets him seal defenders by engaging and rotating on the axis to create leverage behind the defender. However, he lacks the quick hip jerk out of his stance to be able to seal defenders from the snap.
When asked to lead block, Okonkwo struggled to square up linebackers in the hole, but usually got just enough contact to create a small crease. He needs to fix his habit of stopping his feet when he feels he’s about to be overpowered. Michigan’s defensive line was a good test for Okonkwo. Aidan Hutchinson’s ability to shed blocks was apparent and particularly effective against Okonkwo, but David Ojabo had a harder time ridding himself of Okonkwo’s nagging presence.
As a pass-catcher, Okonkwo is limited in the type of role he can have. Almost solely lining up in wing or in-line, Okonkwo’s route tree largely consisted of flat routes, with a subpar average depth of target compared to the rest of the class. But, when asked to run routes deeper, he has sufficient sink in his hips to come out of a break smoothly. His speed is his greatest asset in gaining separation, but his build is also noticeable when going against defensive backs.
Possessing a thick lower half, Okonkwo regularly saw smaller defenders bounce off when in the open field, while also quickly gaining the edge with his speed and even mediocre blocking from receivers. He probably takes one or two more steps to turn the corner upfield than desired, but that may come with increased hip flexibility.
Back to Okonkwo’s speed: His 4.52 40-time was 96th percentile among tight ends and his speed score was 91st percentile. His agility score, of course, left much to be desired, ranking in the 41st percentile among tight ends. Still, his straight line speed could be useful for an NFL coordinator seeking a big man who can split the seam.
Although limited to certain roles in the NFL, Okonkwo likely fits as an H-back in a movement-heavy scheme. Even though he was not a primary target in the Maryland offense, Okonkwo managed to carve out an important role for himself in one of the more prolific offenses in the Big10.
Virginia Tech TE James Mitchell
Weight: 249 lbs.
Career Numbers: 52 rec, 938 yds, 7 TDs (38 games)
Although he lacked production in college, Mitchell is a prospect that has the potential to be a solid contributor, possibly even a fringe TE1, if he can avoid injury and continue to develop.
Mitchell is not a sudden athlete by any means. Rather, every movement is smooth and deliberate. This isn’t to say he is slow by any means, but his questionable burst and lack of a release package make it difficult for him to win routes at the line of scrimmage. Mitchell approaches the position like a power forward, regularly boxing out and fighting off defenders for catches.
Mitchell also has a smoothness in the way he leaks out on flat routes, which provides a good balance between beating defenders with physicality and finesse. His more technical route tree leaves a little to be desired as he tends to get in and out of his breaks too high. Mitchell had an incredible TD catch against UNC where he fought off a defender draped all over him, and caught a pass from his QB rolling right.
His route running consists of getting to a spot and using his size against smaller defenders. This means that he has only a single gear, although subpar QB play limited his production more than his ability to mix speeds. He creates yards after the catch opportunities using starts and stops. He is a natural hands catcher and doesn’t fight or attack the ball, instead using his body to shield the catch point.
As a blocker, Mitchell displays a unique awareness to create angles for ball carriers. Often used as a downfield blocker, Mitchell has few blocking “wins” but rarely “loses” the rep. Essentially, this amounts to a player that lacks a mean streak, but is proficient at getting the job done in creating lanes using his length. Thus, while he is comfortable split out as a big slot, he spent the majority of his snaps inline. Mitchell did, however, get overpowered from time to time and needs to get stronger when entering the league.
Injuries aside, Mitchell is a prospect with the potential to fit a Y role but is more likely to develop into a usable H-back. With added strength, Mitchell should be able to fill the role of finding holes in the zone in a vertical passing attack. Expect his name to be called in round three or four.
Barnabas Lee may be a data scientist by day, but he’s an All-22 enthusiast and freelance contributor by night. Obsessed with all things NFL Draft, he will be featured on a post-draft show at twitch.tv/hubbsywubbs. He roots for the All-22, Korea, Cowboys, Terps, Nats, Mavs, G2, and Noles, in that order.