This article is my personal breakdown of the 2019 tight end draft class pre-draft and specifically from tape review. These rankings relate specifically to how these players will translate to fantasy football.
I’m positive these rankings will change as the NFL Draft process progresses, but this makes for a great starting point. This tight end class is being hailed as much needed infusion of talent in an otherwise desolate wasteland of shallow fantasy football value. There is good reason to believe that hype is true, both at the top and “bottom” of the tight end draft class.
For more on the fantasy football values of the 2019 Draft Class, check out the 48 Report: our 2019 Rookie Database
Knox is an exciting candidate with a high ceiling and an unorthodox route to the NFL Draft. Knox played quarterback in high school and only started one game his senior season before dislocating his ankle. Knox walked on at Ole Miss as a tight end; after a redshirt year and a late growth spurt, he emerged as an extremely athletic weapon in a crowded Ole Miss offense.
In just two seasons as a starter, Knox caught 39 receptions for 605 yards and 0 touchdowns. That may seem impressive, but his career 15.5 yards/reception is eye-popping for a tight end. Knox’s lack of production may be credited to sharing targets with AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, and DeMarkus Lodge.
Knox’s tape shows an athletic player with a lot of upside. He’s versatile; lining up as a wing back, in tight, or out wide as a receiver. He can get off the line quickly and find space in the first third of the field. Past that, there’s a lot of concern. He has rounded routes, doesn’t cut quick, and has capped breakaway speed. He showed a lack of diversity in his route tree and is an inconsistent blocker. Knox is fun and worthy of a late-round flyer, but he still has to develop; for now, he’s a taxi squad stash.
In a class full of quick, athletic, and pass-catching tight ends Smith is flying under the radar. Smith redshirted his freshmen year for the Cardinal but started 20 games over his sophomore and junior seasons. In those 20 games, he caught 70 balls for 1,049 yards and 7 touchdowns. Smith was a Mackey Award finalist in 2018.
Smith’s blocking will get him drafted in April. He is anaggressive blocker; he seals blocks well on run plays, has a good chip block,finishes blocks through the whistle, and is a solid pass protector although hewasn’t often asked to. Blocking, however, doesn’t put up fantasy footballpoints.
Smith won’t blow anyone away with his 40 time, but he has quick burst. Smith has a limited route tree but can work a nice slant route and run seams into the second level. He positions his body well and creates separation when fighting for contested passes. He has a large frame and is athletic enough to go up and snag off-target passes. Smith’s blocking ability will get him on an NFL roster and some significant play time within the first few years of his career. Tight ends, though, take a while to translate for fantasy football purposes and you may be waiting a while for Smith to produce.
Still, he’s a safer bet and worth stashing as a late-round flyer in rookie fantasy football drafts.
Nauta is a former IMG two-sport athlete; his success on the football field and basketball court contributed to him being a 5-star recruit and top 10 overall recruit in most major rankings. He chose the Bulldogs over Alabama and Michigan. Nauta started 33 games over 3 seasons in Athens; catching 68 balls for 905 yards (13.3 yards/reception) and 8 touchdowns in a run-heavy offense.
Nauta reminds me of a slow wide receiver, and I mean that inthe best way. Nauta gets to the second level quickly and can outrun SEClinebackers. He doesn’t have the most developed route tree, but he is effectivewhen running drags, outs, seams, and slants. He can contribute nicely in aspread or air raid offense. He has soft hands and finds space over the middleof the field but needs to improve on positioning his large frame to box outdefenders. Nauta is a yards after catch (YAC) threat; he can make defendersmiss in space but his athleticism is limited when it comes to his vertical.
Nauta has to develop as a blocker and consistent passcatcher but he has the athletic upside to be a fantasy football steal. Heshould be available in the 3rd or later rounds of your rookie draftsand is worth stashing; especially if he finds himself in a high-poweredoffense.
5. Dax Raymond (6’5”,250), Utah State
Dax Raymond is one of my favorite sleeper picks in this draft class. In two seasons of significant playtime for the Aggies he caught 68 balls for 801 yards and 3 touchdowns. In 2018 he had 7 multi-catch games, 4 games with more than 50 receiving yards, and an impressive 7 catches for 76 yards against Michigan State.
Raymond’s tape, however, jumps out much more than his stats.He gets off the line of scrimmage like a wide receiver and can be dangerous inthe first or second level of the field. He has great hands and snags everythingthrown his way; he uses his large frame well to pull in off-the-mark passes. Hecan run a mean slant, and a solid seam route. Beyond that, though, his routetree is limited.
Raymond is a seriously high motor blocker and consistentlyoverwhelmed Mountain West defenders on while run blocking-on multiple occasionshe drove defenders off the field and into the bench area. He is very athleticand has an impressive high point for a player of his size. Raymond has cappedbreakaway speed, and won’t scare defenses like OJ Howard, but he has Engram-likeathleticism and that’s very appealing to me; especially with the way NFLoffenses are trending.
Raymond is flying under the radar, going in the 4thround of rookie mocks at best, and I’ll be using that to my advantage whilestockpiling shares of him this offseason.
4. Jace Sternberger(6’4”, 250), Texas A&M
Sternberger started his collegiate career at Kansas but was underutilized and chose to transfer to a junior college. Sternberger balled out in his season Northeastern Oklahoma A&M; catching 21 balls for 336 yards and 6 touchdowns. After his breakout, Sternberger chose to play for the Aggies over teams like Boise State and UCF. In 2018, he put up a monster season: catching 48 balls for 832 yards and 10 (yes 10) touchdowns. He finished 9th in receiving yards and 4th in receiving touchdowns in the SEC and received consensus All-America honors.
Sternberger’s route running stands out to me. He has aneffective curl route, good seam routes, and can run drags over the middle. He’squick off the line of scrimmage, has good footwork, and uses his size verywell. Sternberger is particularly effective within the first 10 yards off theline of scrimmage but has the potential to make big plays downfield. He is asolid pass protector and an aggressive run blocker; often sealing edges welland opens up nice gaps for Trayveon Williams (2018 SEC rushing leader) to movethrough.
His strength and balance help him fight off defenders afterthe catch. He won’t be burning defensive backs in the NFL but he has good speedthat can get him to the second level. He has soft hands and is able to react topasses and adjust his body in midair. He may not be considered in the “big 3”tight ends of this draft class, but Sternberger deserves to be in theconversation and is far and away my TE4.
3. TJ Hockenson (6’5”,250) Iowa
Surprised to see Hockenson ranked at 3? Yeah, me too. It’s close, though, and it should not lead you to think I’m not impressed with this monster of an NFL prospect. In just two seasons playing at Iowa Hockenson compiled 1,080 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns on 73 receptions. 49 of those receptions, along with 760 yards and 6 touchdowns came in 2018-his redshirt sophomore season. In 2018 he finished 8th in receiving yards in the Big Ten and won the John Mackey Award. He caught at least 4 passes in 6 of his 13 games, put up more than 75 receiving yards three times, and had 2 multi-touchdown games.
Hockenson has great hands that allow him to create separationat this line of scrimmage and get move past linebackers to subtly sneak intothe second level of the field. He can be effective downfield on outs and seamroutes. He has great hands and positions his body well when going up for acontested pass; consistently forcing defensive backs into defensive pass interferencecalls. His blocking ability, though, is what is driving up his NFL Draft stock.He drives Big 10 defenders off the line and finishes blocks strong. He is extremelyeffective when pass blocking; he has both the strength and the mobility to keephis quarterback clean. Hockenson, along with the other members of this years “big3” tight ends bring the type of potential fantasy football players have beendreaming of at this otherwise bleak position.
Hockenson is being favored by many to be the first tight endto come off the board in the 2019 NFL Draft. I don’t doubt that, however, Ibelieve it’s because he’s a better blocker than the two tight ends I’m about todiscuss. I am not letting that element of his game boost his fantasy stockabove the two players I considered to be “freak-athlete” level. I’d still bethrilled to get him on my fantasy football rosters, but if I have my choice, I’mtaking Smith and Fant over Hockenson at this point.
Irv Smith Jr., son of former NFL tight end Irv Smith, caught44 receptions for 710 yards (16.1 yards/carry) and 7 touchdowns in his junioryear at Alabama. Smith had a dominator rating of 14.6%; a number I consider impressivein the context of his position and the explosive Crimson Tide offense. 45% ofhis receptions came on plays of 8-20 yards, and 25% of his receptions came onplays where he gained more than 20 yards. 5 of his 7 touchdowns were on gainsof at least 9 yards.
Smith’s speed and athleticism is what draws me in. He bursts off the line of scrimmage and can accelerate very well for a man of his size. He consistently pushes past linebackers and dominates the second level of the field. His route tree is not as developed as I’d like but he consistently finds himself in open space and is able to make plays after the catch. He has good body positioning and consistent hands. He can cut like a wide receiver, juke like a running back, and break the ankles of a defender like a point guard. He is a solid pass blocker and finishes run blocks nicely. I think he has room to develop his blocking, but not enough to keep him off the field.
I realize I’m higher on Smith than most, he’s consistently going 6-10 picks later than Hockenson in rookie mock drafts, but his athleticism and pass-catching ability give up a high ceiling. Landing spot will ultimately be the tiebreaker for him, Hockenson, and Fant but for now, he’s an exciting TE2.
Fant has two seasons of consistent production for theHawkeyes. In his sophomore season (2017) he caught 30 balls for 494 yards (16.5yards/reception) and 11 touchdowns. That season drew many to Fant and labeledhim as the front runner TE1 in this draft class. Fant performed well in hisjunior season (2018) as well. He pulled in 39 receptions for 519 yards (13.3yards/carry) and 7 touchdowns. Fant led the Big 10 in receiving touchdowns in 2017and finished 9th in 2018.
Fant will be a big play threat in the NFL. He is very quick offthe line of scrimmage and does have the speed to burn down the field. He worksa mean seam route and has a dangerous out route; both of which allow him to makecatches in the second level. He is a great underneath option too; he has tremendousfootwork that baits defenders into backing off him while he turns on comebackroutes. Fant isn’t afraid to run a straight 9 route either. When he does, hesells it well with subtle but effective body movements that allow him to be athreat in the third level of the field. Fant has great hands that allow him tocatch contested balls and layout for wild passes he has no business putting afinger on. He has a great high point; allowing him to outjump defensive backsand snag jump balls.
Fant is a solid blocker but definitely needs to develop at the next level. He holds his ground well in pass protection but defenders consistently get off the snap quicker than him and stand him up. He often gets caught blocking on the back shoulder and doesn’t hold blocks for the entire play. This is enough to make him the TE2 for NFL GMs but Fant is still clearly the TE1 when it comes to fantasy football.