Now that the 2017 NFL Draft has concluded, the analysis continues in projecting these prospects to the next level, especially during their rookie years. I’m building a series looking at the five biggest early impact contributors among each position group, including today’s focus on an extremely front-loaded tight end group that could have several impact players in three years, but might only have a couple standout rookies.
The players are listed in order from the most to least impactful rookies among each position group. It’s splitting hairs in some cases, but I figured it will give us another fun element to look back on when the season ends.
1. Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants
There’s a lot of balls to go around in New York, but the Giants will likely rely heavily on the pass again in 2017, so Engram will get his targets despite Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard surrounding him in the lineup.
While Engram is a capable in-line blocker, the Giants would be foolish not to flex him out wide and use his size and speed as a deadly mismatch in the slot. I’ve described Engram as a better version of Jordan Reed, and head coach Ben McAdoo would do well to utilize his 4.4 speed as a vertical threat down the seam, while his route-running and separation quickness dominate underneath.
Engram has the ability to put up a highly productive rookie season if Eli Manning bounces back at all from a rough campaign in 2016.
2. David Njoku, TE, Cleveland Browns
I don’t have any idea who will get Njoku the ball or how capable they’ll be, but I don’t care enough to drop him on this list. Njoku’s ability to impact the game anytime the ball is in his hands is as special as his vertical ability to stretch defenses down the field.
If Cody Kessler is in the lineup, expect him to utilize Njoku on shorter routes, as Hue Jackson puts his play makers in position to help out his smart, but weak-armed quarterback. If Deshone Kizer is at the helm, expect Njoku’s production to be more spotty, but the impact might be bigger when he is targeted.
3. O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Howard will be the best blocker of this trio right away, but his routes and releases aren’t as developed as Njoku or Engram, so his contributions as a receiver may come a little slower. Nevertheless, Howard is a size/speed/length freak, with the ability to flex out wide and be a dangerous mismatch weapon in the passing game.
I think he’ll need to adjust to drawing talented opponents on man coverage after getting so many free releases and unencumbered routes at Alabama, but I’m guessing Dirk Koetter will design ways to scheme Howard open on occasion, which could help jump start his production.
4. Gerald Everett, TE, Los Angeles Rams
There aren’t many teams Everett could have landed on that would have pushed me to add him to this list, but after hearing head coach Sean McVay rave about his love for Everett, I believe he’ll be a heavily-targeted aspect of their offense in 2017.
McVay hails from Washington, where Jordan Reed was a crucial part of his offensive attack there. He’ll deploy Everett in a similar fashion, flexing the 6-3, 240-pound tight end into the slot, where he’ll create matchup issues for defenses. The problem is that Everett still needs a ton of work as a route runner to become a well-rounded weapon in the passing game, and his peak is likely a year or two away.
Nevertheless, Everett has post-catch ability that will cause McVay to scheme him open a few times a game, and with no tight ends clearly ahead of him on the depth chart, gelling with Jared Goff could happen quickly in camp.
5. George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Kittle is unpolished as a route runner and needs to improve his posture and technique as a blocker, but San Francisco is thin at tight end, and Kyle Shanahan loves to vary his formations with some heavy looks.
The 49ers new head coach will love Kittle’s toughness and physicality as an in-line option, as well as his 4.5 speed to test the seams. He’s got a long way to go to reach his peak, but right now the 49ers are thin on options and high on Kittle. The combination should be enough to get him some decent year one production.