Troy Niklas is a 21-year-old tight end in Rob Gronkowski's body. For someone who's only played the position for two years at Notre Dame, those truths equate to some freakish upside.
At 6'6'' and 270 pounds, Niklas' natural size is tremendously appealing.
With proper coaching and experience at the NFL level, the former Golden Domer's potential is astronomical.
He appeared in 12 games as a true freshman in 2011 at outside linebacker. Before the 2012 campaign, head coach Brian Kelly flipped Niklas to tight end. The nastiness and physicality needed at the point of attack to play in a defensive front seven translated to the offensive side of the ball for Niklas, especially when asked to battle in the trenches.
As the understudy to first-round NFL draft pick Tyler Eifert, Niklas caught only five passes for 75 yards with one touchdown as a sophomore.
In 2013, Niklas assumed the starting tight end role in the Irish offense and made admirable, albeit not spectacular, contributions.
His best outing of the year came against the rival Michigan Wolverines in September. Niklas snagged six passes for 76 yards with a score. He ended the season with 37 receptions for 498 yards—a 15.6 yards-per-reception average—with five touchdowns.
Rob Gronkowski was more polished than Niklas when he entered the NFL in 2010, but the similarities to the New England Patriots star are striking.
The Gronkowski Comparison
Over the past four years, Gronkowski has become a bona fide NFL superstar due to his pass-catching ability—the receiving production he's seen as Tom Brady's primary target, when healthy, and his incredible efficiency catching touchdown passes.
However, though it's not as flashy and easy to miss the myriad of large men grappling for position near the line of scrimmage, Gronkowski is an incredibly valuable blocker.
Here's how he's been graded as a run-blocker during his time as a pro:
While the 2013 grade is concerning, it's easy to conclude that the variety of injuries Gronkowski labored through and his extended time away from football likely played a role in his regression as a blocker.
If fully healthy this upcoming season, it wouldn't be a surprise if Gronkowski returned to his dominant ways creating running lanes.
Why is this important?
Niklas isn't as refined at running routes or relatively as explosive as Gronkowski was as a draft prospect, but he established himself as a sturdy blocker in 2013.
CBS Sports' Rob Rang wrote this about Niklas' blocking ability:
Seems to enjoy blocking, rocking opponents with an impressive initial punch and latching on to control throughout the play. Keeps his legs driving through contact and he is already among the classes' most reliable blockers.
Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller ranked Niklas as the No. 4 tight end in the class behind Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro and North Carolina's Eric Ebron—more advanced pass-catching targets—but he had this to say about his blocking prowess and NFL-readiness:
When asked to kick out a defensive end or linebacker in the run game, Niklas puts all 270 pounds into his blocks.
I talk a lot about three-down tight ends, and Niklas is pro-ready right now.
NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah listed Niklas at No. 46 on his first Top 50 Big Board and wrote the following:
In the running game, he has the upper strength to torque/control defenders at the point of attack and he is athletic enough to adjust in space.
Greg Peshek of Rotoworld researched the top of the tight end class, and found that Niklas took nearly 71 percent of his snaps in Notre Dame's offense from a class "in-line" position.
Joker tight ends comfortable with lining up in the slot or even on the outside are trendy, but Niklas' foundation as a sound blocker will go a long way as a professional, just like it has for the New England Patriots stalwart.
However, the Gronkowski comparison doesn't end with the way each can win in the trenches. In today's NFL, tight ends must be reliable seam-stretchers or at least dependable intermediate targets. Also, as we've seen with Gronk', the bulk of their value lies inside the red zone.
Niklas isn't a dynamic runner with yards-after-the-catch skills we see with some of the "new-age" tight ends. But neither is Gronkowski.
On film, Niklas proved to be regularly somewhat "slow" getting off the line, but he didn't take a significant amount of time to reach top gear at the second level.
Despite being heavy-footed compared to say, Eric Ebron, like Gronkowski, Niklas is a fine athlete.
Check the "swim move" he put on the Michigan linebacker as he attempted to press the tight end after he released from the line:
|Rob Gronkowski's PFF Run-Blocking Grades|
|Grade (Positional Rank)|
|Pro Football Focus|
The body control Niklas displayed to catch the ball thrown slightly behind him was impressive, as was the way he fully extended to make the reception with his hands.
Niklas used that move to sneak past the press on a few occasions throughout the season.
Also in the game against the Wolverines, Niklas demonstrated his athleticism on a shoe-string grab and rumble into the end zone:
Gronkowski's knack to box out defenders on hook routes or near the goal line and his ability use his height to his advantage are two of his most unstoppable attributes.
In the final seconds of the first quarter against USC, Niklas initiated contact with the linebacker assigned to cover him just before he entered the end zone. He subtly used the jolt he delivered to create separation as he broke outside near the front pylon.
Niklas then plucked the ball out of the air for the touchdown:
In a neutral-site outing against Arizona State, Niklas broke off his seam route as quarterback Tommy Rees drifted to his left to avoid pressure.
The ball was simply throw up for grabs, and Niklas had no problem going over the smaller defender to make a forceful grab with his hands away from his body:
The final aspect of Gronkowski's game that makes him an unquestionably elite tight end is the yards he routinely gains after the catch.
In 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Gronkowski led all tight ends who played at least 50 percent of their respective team's snaps with a 5.7 yards-after-catch average. In 2011, his 7.1 YAC average was only outdone by Brent Celek of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Gronkowski doesn't do it with jukes, spins and sudden changes of direction.
He gets upfield instantly and, because of his size and balance, he's incredibly difficult to bring to the turf.
Niklas is too.
Example No. 1:
Example No. 2:
He's not always a wrecking ball, but those plays illustrate that he's capable of gaining yards after the catch the blue-collar way.
In fact, Peshek's article indicated that Niklas' yards-after-catch average was 6.41 in 2013, lower than the averages of Ebron (8.84) and California's Richard Rogers (8.17), but higher than the averages of Jace Amaro of Texas Tech (5.82) and Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins (3.40).
Additionally, Niklas caught the ball further downfield than any of the four tight end contemporaries Peshek studied.
Gronkowski was a few weeks away from his 21st birthday when he was drafted in 2010. Niklas won't turn 22 until September 18.
Without question, Rob Gronkowski landed in the perfect situation with a future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback and a legendary coach willing to drastically alter his offensive scheme to feature the massive tight end.
Troy Niklas may have to be drafted by a team that'll place him in an environment conducive to success with the willingness to be patient while he develops.
The similarities to Gronkowski are striking and his upside is so high. The former Golden Domer should be a hot commodity on draft day.