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.

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