The Watch List: 2019 NFL Draft Previews, TEs Fant & Hockenson

Updated: March 16th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the Winter and Spring as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Apparently, the main ingredient needed to grow a tight end prospect is corn because Iowa has officially cemented their reputation as “TE U” with Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson atop this class. Last season, George Kittle showed fantasy owners just how productive a young athletic tight end can be. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that we could end up with all three recent Iowa TEs in the top ten of dynasty rankings as early as this Summer. It was a no-brainer to highlight Fant and Hockenson in this preview because they are the cream of the crop this season (pardon the corn puns). There’s a definite tier break between them and Alabama’s Irv Smith and an even further drop off to TE4. Both players will be selected in the top half of the first round but the order is still a topic of debate, so let’s get to it!

 

Noah Fant, TE, Iowa

  • Combine measurements:

  • Stats:
Receiving & Rushing Table
Rece Rece Rece Rece
Year School Class G Rec Yds Avg TD
*2016 Iowa FR 6 9 70 7.8 1
*2017 Iowa SO 12 30 494 16.5 11
*2018 Iowa JR 12 39 519 13.3 7
Career Iowa 78 1083 13.9 19
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 3/9/2019.
  • Film watched for this profile: Penn State 2018, Iowa State 2018

Fant has been on the radar of devy owners for awhile now after he scored 11 TDs as a sophomore in 2017. The touchdown rate was unsustainable since it came on just 30 catches but people like myself were excited for 2018. Unfortunately, he started slow (just 41 yards in the first two games) and faded late (5-67-1 combined in the last three games). Through the middle of the season though, he showed just how productive he could be. His production in Games 3-9 would extrapolate to a 48-708-8 line. (Funny enough, that’s nearly the exact line that Hockenson had for 2018.)

In addition to promising production, Fant also displays tantalizing physical attributes. He’s been featured on various lists of “can’t miss” athletes and he proved just how athletic he is at the combine. He finished above the 90th percentile in four key categories: 40 yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump and 3-cone. Fant’s size measureables are mediocre, 6041 and 249lb, but teams won’t be drafting him for his size.

The first trait I was looking for while studying Fant was his blocking.  He doesn’t have the strength to hold blocks for long or to dominate defenders at the point of contact, but Fant is a high energy blocker.  What I mean by that is that he often flies at defenders ready to make contact, but sometimes does it in an inefficient or mindless way.  He can struggle to get to defenders at the second level or on the outside of a play.  I noticed that a few times early in the Iowa State game and then saw this play later where Fant does block the OLB.  However, I think his running back lacked trust in him to hold the block for long.  Instead of kicking it outside, the back kept it inside and ran right into traffic.

On this attempted block, Fant lets the defensive end get inside leverage right at the snap and the play is over before it even starts.  The end contacts the runner in the backfield and is stopped for no gain.

Even though he isn’t a strong blocker, Fant does feign blocking well on his routes.  He sells the block on this play before breaking inside to make the catch.  He protects the ball as he’s contacted to avoid a fumble or incompletion.

Much of Fant’s production that I saw came on crossing routes, so it was encouraging to see him adjust to late throws.  Unfortunately, he was pretty inconsistent with his hand use when catching the ball, resulting in a few catchable drops.  This observation is backed up by data from Pro Football Focus which showed that Fant had a 9.3% Drop Rate last season (which is higher than the others in my top five at the position).  On this play he did show great hands and an ability to adjust in mid-stride, reaching back against his momentum to secure a bad throw.

There was a similar play against Penn State where the pass was behind him, limiting his opportunity to rack up extra yardage.  Fant uses his speed though and is still able to take a good angle to the sideline and secure a first down.

That play came late in the Penn State contest on a drive that, for better and worse, Fant was the focus.  He kept the sticks moving by converting two of his three receptions into first downs.  However, confusion at the goal line essentially ended the game for the Hawkeyes (they would get the ball back with a minute left but fail to score).  Without the context of the full broadcast replays it’s hard to know who exactly to fault but Fant was obviously not ready for the snap and is at least partially responsible for the turnover.

I’ll end with one last play that shows how Fant is most likely to be utilized in the NFL.  This pass resulted in an incompletion but it showed that Fant can be a mismatch in the red zone.  He clearly has the size advantage but a poor throw grounds the play.  More accurate passes in situations like this one, and on all of those crossing routes, would have increased Fant’s production mightily.  Even with suspect quarterback play at times, Fant managed to turn six of his eight red zone receptions into points.

Fant and Hockenson are a conundrum for rankers. Is Fant’s athleticism enough to push him past Hockenson who may be a more complete prospect? In my opinion, for fantasy purposes, the answer is yes. I undervalued Evan Engram two years ago and want to avoid making the same mistake twice. Fant put up better agility numbers than Engram, and did it with a bigger frame (Fant is .08 slower but that’s negligible in this context). Pending his team fit, Fant is the TE1 for me.  Draft Prediction: Round 1

 

TJ Hockenson, TE, Iowa

  • Combine measurements:

  • Stats:
Receiving & Rushing Table
Rece Rece Rece Rece Rush Rush Rush Rush
Year School Class G Rec Yds Avg TD Att Yds Avg TD
*2017 Iowa FR 10 24 320 13.3 3 0 0 0
*2018 Iowa SO 13 49 760 15.5 6 1 4 4.0 1
Career Iowa 73 1080 14.8 9 1 4 4.0 1
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 3/9/2019.
  • Film watched for this profile: Wisconsin 2018, Iowa State 2018

TJ Hockenson’s ascension from contributing redshirt sophomore to Top 10 NFL Draft prospect is impressive.  I think it’s safe to say that at this time last year, few analysts would have had Hockenson on their big board, let alone ahead of Fant.  If it weren’t for some of the stellar numbers that Fant put up, we would be talking more about how well Hockenson did in the combine agility drills.  That’s likely why I came across a thread on Reddit today where numerous people claimed that TJ Hockenson was the “safest” pick of this draft class.  An athletic tight end who can also block?  That’s NFL Draft gold.  That may be true but to get a better sense we need to look more closely at Hockenson’s stats and film.

We can easily see that Hockenson bested Fant in terms of “traditional” statistics this season, so I wanted to go deeper.  I checked a number of metrics from CFBStats.com and PFF’s annual draft guide to get a better feel for Hockenson’s game before I dove into the tape.  Per these more advanced stats, it’s clear that Hockenson can be a go-to receiver on third downs (9 of 11 third down receptions converted).  His QB trusts him because he has sure hands, dropping just one catchable ball all season (2.0%).  A stat that surprised me was that Hockenson had a high Yards Per Route Run (2.21) according to PFF.  That in and of itself isn’t surprising but what was surprising was that Hockenson beat Fant in this metric, contrary to the conventional wisdom about their skill sets.  One cautionary thing I noticed is that Hockenson may have been the beneficiary of junk time to pad his stats.  Half of his touchdowns came when the Hawkeyes were up by 8+ points.  Furthermore, his yards per reception average spiked highly in those multi-possession situations.  When his team was up by 8+, Hockenson averaged 22.0 yards per reception, meanwhile in one possession games he averaged 14.02 yards.

When I watched Hockenson’s film, I wanted to evaluate his blocking in comparison to Fant.  The current narrative is that Hockenson is a much better blocker than Fant but I wanted to see for myself.  Second, I wanted to see if his hands were as good as advertised by his Drop Rate stat.  TL:DR, yes he is and yes they are.

My favorite block of Hockenson’s from the two games I watched came on this short gain against Wisconsin.  The play, a counter, starts slow as the back fakes to the left.  Hockenson hesitates to make first contact with the end, instead letting him see the back’s motion and using his aggression against him.  Once the back takes the hand-off and reverses his direction, Hockenson easily shepherds the defender out of the play.  It showed some patience and awareness, which was something that I thought Fant lacked as a blocker.

The next blocking highlight I chose shows Hockenson’s flexibility to lineup in the backfield in an h-back role.  His block helps spring the running back for a first down.

This last blocking clip wasn’t very pretty from Hockenson but it proved effective enough to help ensure victory against Iowa State.  Iowa has the ball at the goal line and Hockenson is on the line and covered up.  The run is headed to the left so the blockers all take their first step in that direction.  Hockenson hits is defender and pushes him back before moving on to the second level and getting a piece of another.  Hockenson’s blocks were instrumental to the score.

As for Hockenson’s hands, it sure appears that the film backs up the stats.  I repeatedly wrote down “soft hands” when describing his catches.  Perhaps none of the receptions I saw showed that as well as this replay.  Not only does he use great hand placement, he ran a perfect route for a first down and secured the ball before going to ground.

In the Iowa State game, I noted that much of his routes were either simple go routes or out routes to the sideline.  Against Wisconsin, a few games later, his routes were more varied.  I’m guessing that’s because the coaching staff started to trust him more as the season progressed.  That’s a good sign for his ability to run a bigger route tree in the pros.  This play shows him go in motion before the snap, he initially angles his route towards midfield, straightens his stem and then breaks it out.  The throw was behind him but he still managed to make the catch with his hands instead of his body.

The Fant/Hockenson debate will certainly continue but here’s my take after studying both… If I was drafting for an NFL team, I would take Hockenson first.  If I was drafting for my fantasy team, I would take Fant first.  I don’t think that’s a knock on either guy, it’s just a comment on their best traits. Either way, both players will be worth your RSO draft capital.  Draft Prediction: Round 1


Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  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.  When writing a full report for a player, I typically pick two games of film to watch.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. 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 college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.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, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: oddsshark.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 recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2018 Bowl Game Previews, Part V

Updated: December 28th 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout bowl season as The Watch List will preview every game and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Redbox Bowl, Michigan State (7-5) vs Oregon (8-4), Mon 12/31 at 3:00pm on FOX:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon (Editor’s note: After this was written, Herbert announced that he will be returning to Oregon for his senior season)
    • The name to know while watching the inaugural Redbox Bowl will undoubtedly be Oregon QB Justin Herbert. Herbert has confirmed that he is going to play in the bowl which is a departure from other top prospects, including fellow QB Will Grier. Herbert has prototypical NFL quarterback size at 6060/233 to go along with his above average athleticism and speed. His mechanics and footwork could use some improvement but he has enough accuracy and arm strength to overcome some of his poorer habits. Herbert will be in contention for the first pick in the 2019 NFL Draft so be prepared to hear about him all offseason. This matchup against the Spartans defense, who ranks 13th overall in the FBS in points allowed, will prove to be a tricky final exam.
  • My Pick: Oregon, -2.5
    • This may be the game with the worst combined record ATS this season (both teams are 4-8 for a combined 8-16 mark). The Spartans offense pales in comparison to its defense (120th in points scored versus 13th in points against) and it could be without starting QB Brian Lewerke. Herbert will be able to move the ball because the defense is weaker against the pass than the run.

Liberty Bowl, Oklahoma State (6-6) vs Missouri (8-4), Mon 12/31 at 3:45pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
    • In my opinion, Lock has a wide range of potential draft outcomes. He could go first overall (as can any other Top 10 quarterback prospect once we get into “shorts and t-shirt” season) or fall to the fifth round. Depending on when you looked, Lock has fluctuated greatly on experts’ big boards. He exploded in 2017 for 3,964 yards and 44 TDs but regressed statistically in 2018 (3,125-25). I haven’t done a recent study of Lock but in the preseason I summed him up thusly: “I felt that both the speed and touch on his balls was average to above average but inconsistent. To borrow a cliche, he has the ‘arm talent’ but he doesn’t display it on every rep. I have to admit that he can throw a beauty of a ball [though], dude can spin it.” Lock has already accepted a Senior Bowl invitation so his showcase circuit is just beginning. Unfortunately, two other offensive draft prospects will likely sit out of this one due to injury: Mizzou TE Albert Okwuegbunam and Cowboy RB Justice Hill.
  • My Pick: Missouri, -8
    • This one is a big number but Oklahoma State’s defense is just not good enough to slow down Lock. The Tigers are 3-1 in their last four games ATS and I expect that trend to continue.

Holiday Bowl, Northwestern (8-5) vs Utah (9-4), Mon 12/31 at 7:00pm on FS1:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Chase Hansen, LB, Utah
    • I came across Hansen’s name for the first time while looking for a player to spotlight for this game. His 2018 totals stood out: 114 tackles, 22.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 2 INTs. After I read his bio, I was even more intrigued. Hansen redshirted all the way back in 2012 and then went on a church mission trip for two years. He returned to campus for the 2015 season which was cut short due to injury. During that initial campaign, Hansen played at both safety and quarterback. In 2016, he switched to defense full-time but split time between linebacker and safety. He did the same in 2017 but again missed time to injury. Fast forward to this season where his determination finally paid off with All-American and All-Pac-12 honors. Along the way, Hansen has won All-Academic awards and was a candidate for the IMPACT Trophy which is given to a defensive player who shows great character. What does this all mean for Hansen’s prospects as a professional? I have no idea. The biggest knock against him will certainly be his age (other guys from the 2012 recruiting class: Landon Collins, Stefon Diggs, Jameis Winston). After reading about his back story, I have no doubt that Hansen has the patience and perseverance to make an NFL roster. If he does, he’ll stick because his versatility will make him ideal on special teams.
  • My Pick: Northwestern, +7
    • Both teams are banged up and will come into this one short-handed. Utah has a top defense which should keep it close. Since I’m expecting a low-scoring affair, and since both teams lost their last two ATS, I will take the points and hope for the best.

Gator Bowl, Texas A&M (8-4) vs NC State (9-3), Mon 12/31 at 7:30pm on ESPN:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Jace Sternberger, TE, Texas A&M
    • Sternberger is a former transfer from Kansas who excelled in his first season with the Aggies and new coach Jimbo Fisher. He led all FBS tight ends in receiving TDs (10) and finished second in yards (804). Sternberger is listed at 6040/250 but as usual appears smaller on film (that’s not a knock on him, just something I try to remind readers). He shows good enough speed and agility to run after the catch and is a natural pass catcher. I will need to do a more thorough study to evaluate his blocking ability but in truth it probably doesn’t matter. If guys like Evan Engram and Mark Andrews were first rounders, it’s possible that Sternberger could elevate to that level too. I haven’t seen anything official that Sternberger will declare for the NFL Draft so file his name away for next year if he decides to return.
  • My Pick: NC State, +7
    • The line on this one started at +3 and moved all the way to +7. The hate has gone too far, methinks. A&M’s rushing defense is ranked 2nd in the FBS, meanwhile State’s is 13th. The passing defenses though are ranked 118th and 108th respectively. This one will hinge on which quarterback is more efficient with the ball and that will be Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley.

Outback Bowl, Mississippi State (8-4) vs Iowa (8-4), Tue 1/1 at 12:00pm on ESPN2:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: TJ Hockenson, TE, Iowa
    • Back-to-back tight ends? You bet, 2019 is shaping up to be a pretty good class. Hockenson will have an opportunity to make his case to America that he’s the better tight end on the Hawkeyes (Noah Fant will be sitting out the bowl game). Like Sternberger, Hockenson has not officially declared yet but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying attention. Despite Fant getting all of the plaudits, Hockenson led the team in receiving (46-717-6). Fant will have the edge athletically, but Hockenson is bigger (6050/250). Considering how weak the tight end position was in fantasy this year, I have a feeling many of us will be looking for 2019 lottery tickets at the position.
  • My Pick: Mississippi State, -7
    • Similar to the NC State game, this line has moved a lot. I wanted to lean Iowa because of my Big Ten fandom but the stats tell me otherwise. The Bulldogs are 8-4 ATS on the season and 4-1 ATS in their last five games. In the three games this season when Iowa was getting points, they lost all three straight up and failed to cover.

Citrus Bowl, Penn State (9-3) vs Kentucky (9-3), Tue 1/1 at 1:00pm on ABC:

  • Draft Eligible Player to Watch: Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky
    • Benjamin Snell Jr. became one of my favorite players to watch this season. He finished the year with 1,330 rushing yards and 14 TDs to bring his career totals to 3,754 rushing yards and 46 TDs. That’s A+ production for a three-year starter. Snell lacks top-end speed but he’s fast enough for the NFL. I think he’ll predominantly be a two-down back in the NFL but he has the versatility to play passing downs. Since he’s unlikely to be a flashy prospect you may be able to get him for a bargain come your rookie draft.
  • My Pick: Penn State, -6.5
    • Kentucky has struggled to cover recently, losing 2-5 in their last seven. Penn State also features the better quarterback (Trace McSorley) and their own NFL hopeful back (Miles Sanders). So, I’ll take Penn State and lay the points.

 

Lines and betting stats courtesy of OddsShark.com, as of 12/24.

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  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.  When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games.  When time permits, I may add a third game. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. 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 college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com, mcubed.net
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, 247Sports College Football, College Fantasy Football: On Campus, Underdog Pawdcast, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com, the media home for FWAA members
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: oddsshark.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 recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper