2021 Pre-Draft Rookie Best Fits – Tight Ends

Updated: April 21st 2021

This will be the third installment of our Rookie Best Fit series with a focus on the often forgotten tight end position. If you are looking for Best Fits for either Quarterback or Running Backs you can find those in the corresponding links.

Most years, because of RSO’s short window to capitalize on rookie contract values over their veteran counterparts, tight end is either pushed down in the rankings or just ignored altogether. There are cases of talents pushing their way into the late first round but often fail to live up to expectations when compared to those around them.

This year there is one player, Kyle Pitts, who is so well known and considered so unanimous that people forget that there are other options even available in 2021. Pitts is likely to go top 10 in the NFL draft and likely between 1.03 and 1.07 in most rookie drafts regardless of the landing spot. Remember to temper expectations though as even the best tight ends often take a year or two to develop before turning into George Kittle or Travis Kelce.

The other options are more rooted in normal tight end projects and would be better served to wait till at least the third round of rookie draft unless in a tight end premium league. With that, let us look at some of the prospects most likely to be drafted in rookie drafts for 2021.

Pat Freiermuth – Penn State

DLF Ranking – 19th (24th SF)

NFL Draft – 2nd Round

Best Fit – 2.38, Cincinnati Bengals /2.39, Carolina Panthers

If the Bengals do the responsible thing at 1.05 and draft Penei Sewell, missing out on Kyle Pitts, they may be rewarded with the opportunity to still draft Pat Freiermuth aka “Baby Gronk” out of Penn State. Freiermuth is easily one of the more polished blockers in this tight end class and would be perfect for both weak side blocking for Joe Mixon in the running game as well as providing another pass catcher for Joe Burrow over the middle. If the Bengals do not take him at 38 the Panthers should immediately turn in their card for all the same reasons one spot behind them.

Brevin Jordan – Miami (Florida)

DLF – 26th (27th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd/4th Round

Best Fit – 3.85, Tennessee Titans

Another example of the team not having the right capital to acquire a player as I think Brevin Jordan would do excellent in Kliff Kingsbury’s spread offense where his slimmer frame as a slot tight end would do better for his value than being wasted as a part-time blocker. However, unless a trade down from the second round leaves them with mid-range capital we have to look elsewhere. The Titans just lost Jonnu Smith and while Anthony Frikser did okay as a receiver last season, Jordan would do much better to replace Smith alongside A.J. Brown and Josh Reynolds as the primary catching tight end in Tennessee.

Hunter Long – Boston College

DLF – 43rd (50th SF)

NFL Draft – 2nd/3rd Round

Best Fit – 2.54, Indianapolis Colts /2.61, Buffalo Bills

Watching Hunter Long gives off Zach Ertz vibes so why not pair him up with the coach and quarterback that made Zach Ertz, Frank Reich and Carson Wentz, in Indy. While there are several tight ends in Indianapolis right now there should be opportunities for a rookie like Long to come in and contribute in 2021 and continue to develop into a top tight end by 2022 or 2023. If the Colts do not take him, the Buffalo Bills could sweep in later in the second and fill one of the few holes they have at offense. One thing that usually makes a great fantasy tight end is a great quarterback and being linked to Josh Allen would do nothing but help Long’s case to be the TE2 in this class.

Kyle Pitts – Florida

DLF – 6th (8th SF)

NFL Draft – Top 10 Selection

Best Fit – 1.08, Carolina Panthers

Kyle Pitts is one of those rare talents where even though he plays a less valuable position in terms of draft value he likely is still going in the top 10 if not top 5 of the draft because of how overwhelming the gap between him and the next tight end option would be. If a run on quarterbacks goes early and he was to fall to 1.08 for Carolina, his chances of becoming a top 3 tight end right away would be oozing with potential. With Head Coach Matt Rhule and Offensive Coach Joe Brady able to scheme around talents like Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and then Kyle Pitts it would easily create one of the most dynamic offenses in the league to start day two of the draft.

More Analysis by Nick Andrews

The Watch List 2021: Early TE Tiers

Updated: January 5th 2021

Throughout the offseason I will be compiling early positional tiers for the 2021 NFL Draft. In past years I’ve done early rankings but in hindsight those feel counterproductive to my ultimate goal of creating RSO’s rookie rankings that are used in the draft room. Frankly, it’s hard to change a ranking because it feels “locked in” once I put it out into the world. When I would create my early rankings I would always start by grouping the players into themed tiers first, so that’s what I will be sharing in this series. Each tier includes players whose potential and plot line feel similar to me; the sequence of tiers is indicative of a general order of expected draft value. I’ll repeat though: these are not rankings. Within each tier players are sorted alphabetically.

Surefire First Rounders

  • Pat Freiermuth

  • Kyle Pitts

Calm down, calm down. The order of Pat Freiermuth above Kyle Pitts is not a hot take. Remember: these are not rankings. Kyle Pitts is BY FAR the top tight end prospect in this class. He was one of three in the conversation at the beginning of the season and is the last man standing now atop the 2021 tight end class. Back in Week 5, I wrote that “nobody did more for their professional prospects in Week 4 than Florida TE Kyle Pitts.” Well now we can extrapolate that even further to say that nobody improved their NFL draft stock as much as Pitts did in 2020. He went from a borderline first rounder to having a shot at a Top 10 pick come April. Pitts is the quintessential receiving tight end for the current NFL metagame. He can be dominant at the catch point, has solid hands, good body control and separation speed. His 43-770-12 line in eight games played is fantastic and does not even fully illustrate what a beast he’s been. I think Pitts will be a late first rounder in your 2021 rookie drafts and could sneak up a few spots depending on landing spot. Pat Freiermuth probably would have been my pick as the TE1 before the season started. In the Spring, I called him a “zone buster” as a receiver who makes himself an easy target for his quarterback. I didn’t see much of him during that study as an in-line blocker but I liked what he did to seal running lanes from the slot. Unfortunately we only got four games of Freiermuth in 2020 which turned out to be a lost season for the Nittany Lions for a litany of reasons. Freiermuth had surgery in November so we’ll need to check on his recovery leading up to the NFL Combine. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a late first rounder in the NFL Draft and a second rounder in your rookie draft.

Preseason Shortlist Picks

  • Matt Bushman

  • Jake Ferguson

  • Brevin Jordan

  • Charlie Kolar

Matt Bushman has been a crush of mine dating back to the spring of 2018 when I first wrote about him. It’s a shame he suffered an Achilles injury before the 2020 season started, it would have been so much fun to watch him ascend alongside QB Zach Wilson. I last studied Bushman heading into the 2019 season and at that time I described him as a a “versatile tight end” who was “one of the best blockers I’ve seen as an underclassman” and who was also “a good route runner.” I’ve seen conflicting information on the interwebs about whether Bushman has declared as of early January. I expect he’ll go pro but keep an eye on his status and his pre-draft workouts because Achilles injuries typically require a lengthy recovery. Jake Ferguson’s status for 2021 has just been announced as I write this: he’ll be returning to Madison for another season with the Badgers. I watched both of Ferguson’s first games of the season versus Illinois and Michigan and was very impressed with his 11-123-4 output. Those initial games ultimately were his best of the season though, so perhaps it’s not a surprise he’ll be back. I had originally included Ferguson on this list because I felt he was going to be one of the most balanced tight end prospects in the class. Speaking of balanced tight ends, I was encouraged by just how often Brevin Jordan featured as an in-line blocker when I studied him this past spring. I didn’t watch enough Miami ball this season to have a feel for whether his blocking improved to an NFL level. He was the team’s leading receiver on a yards per catch basis (15.2) and receiving scores (7); his 576 receiving yards and 38 receptions were second-best on the squad. Jordan ended the season on a high note: torching the Oklahoma State defense for 8-96-2 during a furious comeback attempt. Brevin Jordan is a bit undersized (6030/245) to be a blocking tight end in the NFL but there’s surely no question about his ability to be a playmaking receiver. Charlie Kolar, a junior, has been QB Brock Purdy’s favorite target over the last two seasons. During that span, Kolar has an impressive 95 receptions for 1,188 and 14 TDs which lead the Cyclones. Kolar stood out in the Big 12 Championship against Oklahoma. He had two great downfield catches where he went up and snagged the ball away from his body with soft-strong hands. He’s got a huge body at 6060/257 and looks ready for the NFL but he’s yet to declare. If he does come out, I’d expect Kolar to be a Day Two consideration.

Regular Season Risers

  • Cary Angeline

  • Hunter Long

  • Kenny Yeboah

The three guys on this list were not on my tight end radar to start the season but it’s time for that to change. Angeline is a transfer from USC who never recorded a catch for the Trojans. In 26 career games with the Wolf Pack, Angeline has 11 games where he scored or had at least four receptions. That’s solid, reliable production for a low-volume target. (I bet you NFL fantasy players would kill for that consistency from every tight end not named Travis Kelce or George Kittle.) In highlights it looks like Angeline, who is listed at 6070, has the wingspan of a pterodactyl so it’ll be fun to see his combine measurements. Hunter Long played eleven games for BC in each of the last two seasons. In 2019, he posted a solid 28-509-2 stat line. In 2020, he burst out of the gates and eclipsed those totals with a 57-685-5 tally. In those first four games — against Duke, Texas State, North Carolina and Pittsburgh — Long had 31 grabs for 363 yards. Surely that must have been the second best start to the season among tight ends, except for the aforementioned Kyle Pitts. The clips I watched showed Long solely as a big slot receiver rather than an in-line blocker so I’m not yet sure if he’s the complete package but will study him further this offseason. Last up in this section is Ole Miss TE Kenny Yeboah. Yeboah is a grad transfer from Temple. In his four seasons as an Owl he was only an occasional target so his 27-524-6 output in 2020 is a positive outlier. I watched Kenny Yeboah’s film against Alabama and I came away very impressed. He looked like a rare combination of an athletic yards-after-catch receiver who is also an able blocker. Like Long, he’ll warrant a deeper dive over the winter.

Underutilized, Underdrafted

  • Nick Eubanks

  • Peyton Hendershot

  • Jeremy Ruckert

This trio from the Big Ten were tough to categorize. I wanted to include them but didn’t feel that they fit into my other categories. I felt the through line of their stories were being underutilized or underappreciated in college, leading to them being underdrafted at the NFL level. Eubanks (Michigan) and Ruckert (Ohio State) were both 4-star recruits according to ESPN; both are also 6050 and 250+. Unfortunately, both are similar in another way: they have played a limited number of college games and have just 72 combined receptions. Eubanks had a strong 2019 season where he grabbed 25 passes for 243 yards and 4 scores but he was outshone at times this year by redshirt frosh Erick All and ended with just 10-117-1. As a Michigan fan I have been pulling for Eubanks to become a star but it just never happened; I hope he gets a shot at the next level. Jeremy Ruckert is a block-first red zone threat who has just 27 career receptions. Much of Ruckert’s production, including 8 of his 9 career touchdowns and half of his receptions, have come from within twenty five yards of paydirt. Ruckert had just 9 grabs in the 2020 regular season but added 3-55-2 in the semi-final against Clemson. If he comes out early, ending on an upswing will be good for his pro portfolio; if he returns, a bigger role in the offense would help us solidify his evaluation. Indiana’s Peyton Hendershot lands on this list because he’s underappreciated by #DraftTwitter more so than because he’s underutilized by his team. Hendershot has significantly more career receptions than Eubanks and Ruckert (90 vs 45 vs 27) and yet there’s no film out there to watch to give him the look he deserves. The 2020 version of the Hoosiers’ offense really undercut Hendershot’s downfield targets. In 2019 he averaged 12.0 yards per reception but in 2020 he’s notched barely half that (6.6).  Regardless, Hendershot was a productive piece of a surprisingly successful Indiana squad in 2020, catching 23 balls for 151 yards and 4 TDs. Last year that 12.0 average turned 52 catches into 622 yards and four scores. Underappreciated plus underdrafted could equal late round rookie draft steal.

Small School Sleepers

  • Trae Barry

  • Zach Davidson

  • Cole Turner

Well, it wouldn’t be a draft preview article by yours truly without some deep sleeper suggestions. I first introduced my readers to Central Missouri’s Zach Davidson back in May when I shined the spotlight on some FCS and DII sleepers. Davidson’s size is what caught my eye first (6070/245) but I was further impressed by his stats and the limited highlights I was able to find. Davidson was a frequent downfield target and also served as the team’s punter (trick play possibilities!). Davidson has announced that he is ready to move onto the pros so watch him closely. Two years ago I fell in love with Stetson TE Donald Parham who went onto lead the FCS in receiving yards per game (as a tight end!). This year, I will include Jacksonville State’s Trae Barry on my list as an FCS hopeful to monitor. As of this writing, Barry leads the FCS in receiving yards per game for the position (60.0) and has a career line of 80-1,316-5. Barry is listed at 6070/245, identical to Davidson; and like Parham, Barry is lanky with a looping gait that doesn’t look fast but covers ground. I watched some film of his matchup against North Alabama and I think Barry’s upside is being a situational red zone target. He’s unlikely to become fantasy relevant but when he scores a random touchdown in Week 9 next year you’ll remember this article! My last small school sleeper, Cole Turner of Nevada, is a bit of a unicorn. The only easily searchable clips on Youtube for him, as of early December, are two highlights uploaded by his uncle and a number of high school profiles. Luckily for us, Turner is active on Twitter retweeting clips of his best catches. This I do know: he’s a converted receiver with a big body (6060/240) who has contested catch skills. Turner has just nine games of experience at tight end so let’s not jump to conclusions yet but he excites me. Ending the season with a five game streak of 4+ receptions and 1+ touchdown also excites me. Since he is just a junior, and this year doesn’t count against eligibility, we could see Turner for another two years before the NFL Combine comes calling.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper