Evaluating the college game is an art, definitely not a science. It’s hard to find good quarterbacks. That’s why anyone who can throw a ten yard out receives a small fortune (see Daniel, Chase). It’s hard to find good offensive linemen. The game simply isn’t taught enough at the NCAA level to prepare those hog mollies for Sunday’s.
And it’s hard to find good tight ends. Ones ready to step up to the NFL’s plate. In college? Sure, there’s lots of them. With spread offenses and colleges being able to hide weaknesses, most tight ends are just wide receivers with slower metabolisms.
That makes a week like the Senior Bowl an eye-opening one for those attending. In a muddied class with no clear creme de la creme talent, it creates a chance for someone to separate from the pack.
Separation is how they won in college. Blocking is how they’ll win in the pros.
At his opening press conference Monday evening, Senior Bowl Director Jim Nagy gave an overview of the class and what he – and scouts, Nagy is a former one – is looking for over the next five days.
“Tight end position is a big week for those guys,” he said. “Because they don’t get asked to do a lot of in-line stuff. They aren’t attached a whole lot. It’s become a big wide receiver position. And we’ve got a couple of those in the game. I grabbed a couple guys coming off the bus yesterday and told them, don’t worry about what the block looks like. Just come off the ball and put your face on somebody. And try to get into someone. If you get thrown around, fine. But show the effort, show the willingness. That’s the tight end’s coach at the next level to teach you hand placement and hat placement and feet. All those things.”
Want-to and effort are the first boxes to check in molding a complete, blocking tight end. In college, they get to stand up, split out and detached from the formation, running free downfield against soft zone coverages. Life isn’t so easy in the NFL. Playing on Sunday’s means putting your hand in the dirt, so many college players almost never align in a three-point stance, blocking a defensive end, climbing to a linebacker, and acting like another linemen as opposed to wide receiver.
Even with that challenge looming, Nagy couldn’t help but gush about the moldable talent Mobile offers.
“It’s a big week but it’s a really good crew. You got Harrison Bryant, who is the Mackey Award winner. And Brycen Hopkins is gonna be, wait a month until the Combine. He’s going to jump 40 inches.”
None earned more praise from Nagy than Dayton’s Adam Trautman, one of the handful of small schoolers here to prove he belongs.
“Really intriguing guy. I can’t wait to see him. Really crisp route runner. Came to college as a quarterback. He’s going to test well. He’s really good with the ball. When we sent our scout to Dayton this fall, Brian Adams texted me and said, I’m on the road to Columbus. Trautman just scored four touchdowns. I’m out, I’m good on Trautman. It’s a good group. It should be fun to see those guys this week.”
Four touchdowns isn’t draft hyperbole either. In a 56-28 win over Jacksonville this past season, Trautman found the end zone four times. For comparison’s sake, Steelers’ tight ends scored three touchdowns – all via Vance McDonald – in 2019.
Even if the Steelers decide to pick up McDonald’s option, tight end is a critical position of need. Nick Vannett is set to be a free agent and struggled post-trade. There aren’t long-term prospects on the roster, except for those who bleed Michigan blue and think Zach Gentry is the future (hint: he’s not). Tight ends take at least a year to develop, blame that on the college game, so it’s wiser for the Steelers to invest now than wait.
In a talented class, they’ll have plenty of choices. Whoever stands out at the Senior Bowl may end up being their draft day target.