While the tight end position has seen a plateau in offensive attention, it’s still one of the most dynamic positions offenses can game-plan with. But few tight ends leaving the college level can threaten in the three areas that the position requires: route running, catching-point finishing and run blocking.
Thriving in any one of those three areas can get you on an NFL roster, but the few who can have NFL-level success at all three are worth drafting early. In what’s become a deep but mid-round-heavy tight end class, Arkansas’s Hunter Henry stands alone as the draft’s best tight end.
Finishing with 739 yards receiving on 51 receptions this year, 2015 marked the third straight season he’s been the No. 2 leading pass-catcher for the Arkansas offense. And especially this season, Henry has gotten work at every receiver spot and every possible tight end alignment and run nearly every route a tight end or receiver would need to at the NFL level.
It’s that adeptness at all three key areas of the tight end position that cement his place alone atop the tight end rankings and could push him firmly into the Round 1 discussion as the draft nears.
As a Route-Runner
His experience at outside, slot and a true tight end spot has allowed him versatility in a host of routes, both in- and out-breaking. He’s been groomed in the Arkansas offense to thrive in the slot and on interior routes, allowing the vertical threats the Razorbacks offense has had to thrive on the perimeter.
While experience has certainly benefited Henry, it’s his devotion to the craft that appears to have paid off. He’s active in his upper half to shake through linebacker physical coverage and separate from his defender with shoulder movement and positioning.
Additionally, he’s shown deliberate and plant-powerful footwork in his route to quickly and efficiently establish position for throwing windows for his quarterback, especially against zone coverage.
Along with efficient route running in the short area and against zone coverage, Henry separates himself from other tight end prospects in his smoothness at the second and third level of defenses and his ability to still generate separation. In the seam, Henry uses his hands to subtly maneuver through or around linebackers, especially mastering the in-step arm-over on linebackers or defensive backs as he baits vertically to attack back inside.
But what’s most impressive is his ability to win with routes generally reserved for a receiver’s route tree. As in the play below, Henry runs what's normally a slot-receiver wheel route, with a finishing comeback route at the step. Notice how his footwork and downfield-anticipation route style forces the defensive back to lean back despite Henry never considering threatening vertically.
Henry runs his route perfectly to finish for a first down on a 3rd-and-10, getting his team in the red zone.
He can be a bit delayed in separating on underneath routes, and his somewhat slow start off the line of scrimmage limits his effectiveness on underneath routes that aren’t predetermined and set up by teammates. Additionally, he’s not overly physical in separating with his upper half on the interior, which lingers over into his pass-catching physicality as well.
As a Catch Finisher
While not always the most physically imposing ball-catcher at the tight end position, Henry wins with more finesse receiving upside. On the inside, he works under defenders well to elude initial and after-catch contact, sliding to the ground or adjusting his body to avoid big hits.
While soft isn’t the right word, Henry is choosy in which hits he takes on the inside and rarely leaves his body up for grabs when it comes to downhill contact aimed at disengaging the ball from linebackers or defensive backs.
And especially impressive is his finishing ability on the outskirts of the usual tight end routes. A plus-red-zone target and sideline receiver, Henry plays with remarkable balance, poise and speed control to finish in the air, control his lower half and maintain body control to run upfield or, at the very least, finish within the boundaries.
Henry could be more physical when approaching the catch point in midfield, and it’s a question NFL teams will need to answer as to whether he’s purposely avoiding contact or if he’s just not rising with upper-half strength to finish those catches. He does shield pre-catch to allow him to finish, but the avoidance of contact will likely come up in team meetings about the tight end.
As a Run-Blocker
Often underappreciated in the modern tight end scouting report, run blocking is a critical dynamic that allows a plus-body type and athletic specimen of a tight end to be more than just an oversized receiver. Run blocking is the staple that separates receivers from tight ends, and Henry has proved effective in this area.
A part of a run-based offense, Henry has gotten ample experience in zone- and man-blocking opportunities, and he shows a great willingness to extend, pivot and finish blocks. While not providing overly powerful push on the perimeter, Henry plays with a wide base, controlled hands and a real focus for the position.
And at the second level, Henry shows extra patience and hand control to engage and allow his talented college running backs to explode downfield. He even received work as a pass-blocker in 2015 and showed the same effective wide base and initial hand placement to slow rushers enough to merit his value as a sixth pass-blocker when needed.
Clear Top Tight End
Versatility is an overused word when it comes to tight ends. Most college tight ends get experience in the slot and at multiple tight end alignments. The real key when evaluating tight ends from college to pro is to see if their versatility reaches over to effectiveness at the three core skill sets a tight end requires.
Henry, while not the most physical or explosive tight end prospect, shows a focused and refined route tree, a controlled and plus-positioned catch-finishing ability, and a devotion to run blocking.
Not as sexy as some of the top tight ends of the past, Henry is the best the 2016 NFL draft class has to offer. And with a handful of playoff teams needing an added interior pass-rusher coupled with Henry’s perceived “safeness” as a prospect, he could be destined for a first-round selection. While his talent level doesn’t scream top-32 prospect, his NFL readiness, polish and reliability in every key tight end area should make him the only plug-and-play tight end from the 2016 class.