The Bengals’ tight end position is arguably one of the last positions on the team in need of attention this offseason. Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah might not be among the elite tight ends in the NFL, but Tyler Eifert is, when healthy. The Bengals also have fullback Ryan Hewitt, who serves as a tight end at times, too.
Unfortunately, the deciding factor for the tight end position over the last few years has been health. Eifert is a top tight end when healthy, but he has missed 27 games during the course of the last four seasons due to injury. In fact, he missed almost the entirety of his sophomore season in 2014 with a gruesome dislocated elbow and half of the 2016 season due to an ankle injury suffered in the Pro Bowl and a back injury suffered while recovering from that ankle injury. Eifert ended up having back surgery in Week 17 of the 2016 season.
With 11 picks in the upcoming draft, it wouldn’t be crazy for the Bengals to pick up one of Mel Kiper’s top 10 tight ends in the 2017 draft. A tight end who impresses the scouts and coaching staff could convince the Bengals to follow the best player available strategy, despite little need for talent at the position.
1. O.J. Howard (Alabama)
Howard might be one of the most talented athletes in this year’s draft, despite being a bit undersized and passive for the tight end position. If an NFL team thinks they can motivate him to develop a stronger competitive drive and a deeper love for football, they won’t need to develop his ability to actually play the position. He might be somewhat of a project at first, but when he breaks through to that next level there won’t be any stopping him. He is likely going to be a late first round pick, so if the Bengals want him they might try to trade down to one of the final spots in the first round. However, he could possibly drop to their second round pick.
*2. Bucky Hodges (Virginia Tech)
At 6’7” and just under 250 pounds, Hodges is a perfectly proportioned tight end. If the ball is thrown near him, you can nearly guarantee he will be able to come down with it. No defensive player will be able to both shadow him through a route and effectively cover a well placed pass in his general vicinity. However, he may struggle against the most elite defenders in coverage. He has difficulty shaking defenders on his routes and doesn’t produce after the catch as much as you would hope. He will probably need an elite quarterback to best thrive in the NFL. He is essentially an overgrown wide receiver, so for all of his talent, there is a chance he slips into the third round.
3. Jake Butt (Michigan)
Butt is arguably the most reliable tight end in this year’s draft. He has good size (6’6, 250 pounds), strong, reliable hands, fantastic technique, and is a proven leader. He isn’t particularly spectacular in any one area, but he is the kind of safe tight end selection that a team can pick up in the third or even fourth round to bolster depth and solidify the position. If the Bengals are looking for any help at the tight end position, he is probably the kind of prospect they will be looking for.
**4. David Njoku (Miami Fla.)
Kiper is a bit lower on Njoku than most draft experts. Many consider him the second best tight end in this year’s draft due to his outstanding size, athleticism, speed, and blocking. Not many prospects come into the draft with all of those qualities developed as highly as Njoku. Kiper is actually very complimentary of those qualities when explaining his ranking, however, he likely has him ranked this low due to his relative inexperience. His instincts still need to develop to compete at the NFL level and his technique betrays him in certain scenarios. The Bengals probably won’t be considering him as he will likely be off the board by the mid-second round, which is much too high for the Bengals to take chances on developmental players at a position like tight end.
*5. Jordan Leggett (Clemson)
Another tight end with fantastic size and talent, but not ideal work ethic, Leggett absolutely thrived in Clemson’s system. He’s reminiscent of Kellen Davis in the way he can move and catch in tight spaces. He has proven that he can receive direction and improve his production over time. We know he can compete at a high level, but the NFL is a much different beast than college. Simply skating by won’t cut it at the professional ranks, so teams will probably pass on him until the fourth round at least. If the Bengals are looking for a tight end, they will probably want to find someone more reliable.
Here’s the rest of Kiper’s top 10 tight ends:
6. Cole Hikutini, Louisville
7. Gerald Everett, South Alabama
8. Pharaoh Brown, Oregon
9. Evan Engram, Mississippi
10. Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
For reference and comparison, here’s Todd McShay’s list of the top 5 tight end prospects for 2017:
1. O.J. Howard, Alabama
2. *David Njoku, Miami (Fla.)
3. Jake Butt, Michigan
4. Jordan Leggett, Clemson
5. Gerald Everett, South Alabama
One asterisk denotes a junior, and two asterisks denote a redshirt sophomore for the 2016 season.