B/R CFB 250: Top 15 Tight Ends

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2015

B/R CFB 250: Top 15 Tight Ends

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    B/R Media Lab

    Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Brian Leigh and Kynon Codrington have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list down to a mere 250 and sorted by position. Today, we present the Top 15 Tight Ends.

    Other CFB 250 Positions

    Tight end was one of the weakest positions in college football this season, but that was to be expected given how much talent left.

    The top five tight ends from last year's CFB 250 are gone, and others who returned either missed the year with an injury (Braxton Deaver, Duke) or moved to wide receiver (Devin Funchess, Michigan).

    But the position was not as weak as it might have been if not for some breakout performances. A number of tight ends made the proverbial "leap." And this year's list is loaded with underclassmen—three true sophomores in the top seven—so the future is in good hands.

    Before we start, please note that these players were graded as college tight ends, not on how they project as NFL tight ends.

    Targeted skills, such as route running, are important at both levels, but there is a difference between college route running and professional route running. If a tight end can get open in the SEC or Big 12, it doesn't matter that he can't get open in the NFC North. At least not here, it doesn't.

    This is all about his college performance.

    Note: If two players finished with the same grade, a subjective call was made based on whom we would rather have on our team right now.

15-9. Bibbs, Price, Christian, Mundine, Heuerman, Pierce, Brown

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    USA TODAY Sports

    15. E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State

    75/100

    Hands: 20/25; Route Running: 15/20; Blocking: 15/20; Release: 14/20; Speed: 11/15

    E.J. Bibbs has been a reliable receiver for an otherwise unreliable offense. He needs to get stronger and improve his hand placement as a blocker, but he is one of the best pure pass-catchers at the position. 

    14. Josiah Price, Michigan State

    77/100

    Hands: 21/25; Route Running: 15/20; Blocking: 16/20; Release: 15/20; Speed: 10/15

    Josiah Price goes overlooked in Michigan State’s offense, but the sophomore tight end has played a big role in the Spartans’ improvement. At 6’4”, 241 pounds, he is one of Connor Cook’s favorite targets in the red zone but has also shown that he can stretch the field and make plays between the 20s. 

    13. Gerald Christian, Louisville

    77/100

    Hands: 20/25; Route Running: 15/20; Blocking: 16/20; Release: 15/20; Speed: 11/15

    Gerald Christian is a big, hulking athlete (6’3”, 250 lbs) who is quick off the line and moves well in space. He is limited as a route-runner but has the potential to improve and already makes an impact with his blocking.

    12. Jimmay Mundine, Kansas

    79/100

    Hands: 22/25; Route Running: 16/20; Blocking: 15/20; Release: 15/20; Speed: 11/15

    Jimmay Mundine came on late in the season and gave Kansas a pulse under interim head coach Clint Bowen. He is a capable target in the intermediate passing game, beating defenses up the seam and making catches between the linebackers and safeties.

    11. Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State

    80/100

    Hands: 20/25; Route Running: 17/20; Blocking: 16/20; Release: 16/20; Speed: 11/15

    Jeff Heuerman is an important part of Ohio State’s offense, even if he doesn’t flash on tape. He does consistent work in the trenches as a blocker and is good enough as a receiver that the defense has to pay attention to him. He just doesn’t have the speed or playmaking ability to rival the top guys on this list.

    10. Casey Pierce, Kent State

    81/100

    Hands: 22/25; Route Running: 16/20; Blocking: 16/20; Release: 16/20; Speed: 11/15

    Not a lot of people were watching, but Casey Pierce was a week-in, week-out factor in 2014, leading all FBS tight ends with 5.5 catches per game. At 6’4”, 235 pounds, he doesn’t cut the same frame as Kent State’s most famous tight end (Antonio Gates), but he knows how to slip between zone coverage and has a sticky pair of hands. 

    9. Pharaoh Brown, Oregon

    81/100

    Hands: 22/25; Route Running: 15/20; Blocking: 15/20; Release: 17/20; Speed: 12/15

    Pharaoh Brown missed the end of the year with a leg injury that could not have come at a worse time. He is a tantalizing athlete with great size (6’6”, 250 lbs) who was finally starting to reach his potential before going down. He wasn’t always the most consistent player, but when he was on, Brown was the closest thing to a dominant tight end in the country.

8. Ben Koyack, Notre Dame

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Hands

    22/25

    Ben Koyack cuts the cloth of a traditional Notre Dame tight end. He is tall (6’5”), strong, physical and attacks the ball out of the air. He has good flexibility and body control to adjust when a pass is off-target.

    Route Running

    16/20

    Notre Dame runs a pro-style offense that features some of Koyack’s strongest routes. He is hard to defend on a corner because of his size and his smart use of angles. His route tree is limited, but he is fluid in the routes he runs well, which is a good jumping-off point.

    Blocking

    18/20

    Koyack improved his run blocking over the course of the 2014 season, helping Notre Dame field a solid rushing attack after a season-and-a-half of struggles. He is strong enough to seal defensive ends or bury linebackers and wiry enough to stay latched against pass-rushers.

    Release

    15/20

    Koyack has a stilted release, the result of his average fluidity. He can use his hands in the short area but has trouble gaining separation up the seam. He must work on his footwork and his chop move to beat defenders for position. 

    Speed

    11/15

    Here is where Koyack fails to meet the standard of his predecessors. Much like Troy Niklas in 2013, he does not have the pure speed or long strides to stretch the field vertically, which puts a cap on what this offense can do that did not exist when Tyler Eifert and Kyle Rudolph were in South Bend.

    Overall

    82/100

    Koyack will not go down alongside Eifert and Rudolph as one of the great modern tight ends at Notre Dame. But he shouldn’t be too far behind them. He does not stand out in any one area, but he is a solid player who helps as much on the ground as he does through the air.

7. O.J. Howard, Alabama

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Hands

    21/25

    O.J. Howard has a drop problem that has reared its head the past two seasons. He does not see enough targets to waste what few chances he gets. However, he compensates for this problem—at least a little bit—with his long arms and ability make spectacular plays.

    Route Running

    15/20

    Howard is still learning how to get open. His best plays have come on simple concepts such as crossing routes and verticals up the seam. The quickness is there for him to be better than he is, but the technical skills and energy level are not.

    Blocking

    15/20

    After struggling as a blocker last season, Howard has made positive strides in 2014. He is a move tight end by trade but has a big enough frame (6’6”, 240 lbs) to contribute when he puts his mind to it. There are still too many lapses in effort/concentration, but those can be coached out (hopefully). He is, after all, a true sophomore.

    Release

    17/20

    Howard is a big, long, fluid target who knows how to win an outside release and get upfield. He can slap-and-swim to create separation at the second level, although he will occasionally struggle to get off the line against defensive ends.

    Speed

    14/15

    It is not fair for a player this big to also be this fast. Seriously—it might not be legal. Howard ran a 4.49 40-yard dash in high school and has parlayed that speed to the field with some long gains the past two seasons. Go ask LSU how it feels to chase Howard in space.

    Overall

    82/100

    Alabama does not target Howard as often as fans think it should (and almost any other team in the country would). But that does not devalue how good he has been when called upon. The constant threat of his presence does a lot to open up the Crimson Tide offense.

6. Jean Sifrin, UMass

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Hands

    23/25

    Jean Sifrin is a half-giant who makes catches no mortal should make. He is 6’7” with long arms and baseball-mitt hands, all of which help him stretch out for the football. And if that first sentence sounds like an exaggeration…it’s not. This guy is for real.

    Route Running

    16/20

    Sifrin gets good depth on his routes. He is a long strider who separates from linebackers before they can turn and run. Because of his size, he is technically always open, which in some ways stunted his progress. With a deeper route tree and more consistency finishing patterns, he could make the leap from very good to great. 

    Blocking

    15/20

    Even though he’s tall enough to play offensive tackle, Sifrin is not a great blocker. He stands up too straight and does not win with leverage. After coming over from JUCO this season, it’s possible (if not probable) that he got used to physically dominating his opponents. Either way, UMass finished the regular season outside the national top 110 in rushing yards per game and yards per rushing attempt.

    Release

    17/20

    Sifrin understands inside releases. He stems to the post and works his way into space up the seam. He can step through on the inside arm of his defender and then rip to dislodge and gain separation.

    Speed

    11/15

    While definitely not a burner, Sifrin has pretty good speed. He is an awkward-looking runner, but his legs are so long that he gets by. He is fast enough to win (and maintain) separation from linebackers but isn’t a threat to do much after the catch. 

    Overall

    82/100

    Sifrin chose UMass over offers from Oklahoma and USC in large part because he wanted to play for Mark Whipple. Whipple was Miami’s offensive coordinator in 2009 and 2010 and helped turn Jimmy Graham into the player he is today. Sifrin, like Graham, has physical tools that are rare and impossible to teach. He obviously isn’t there yet, but he’s on his way. If he stays in school next season, watch out.

5. Jonnu Smith, Florida International

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Hands

    23/25

    Jonnu Smith has quick-twitch reflexes that help him catch all types of passes (Hail Marys included). His 61 receptions this regular season led all FBS tight ends. "[Smith] spends more time on that Juggs machine catching balls than…all of our other receivers and tight ends combined," head coach Ron Turner told David J. Neal of the Miami Herald in NovemberAnd it shows.

    Route Running

    16/20

    Smith has a great feel for when to sit down or slide against zone coverage, which is especially impressive for a sophomore. However, almost all of his damage is done within 10 yards, so it would be nice to see him expand his vertical repertoire.

    Blocking

    16/20

    Florida International has used Smith as a fullback in certain formations, which is a testament to his improvement as a blocker. At 6’3”, 230 pounds, he does not have the size or strength to move bigger defenders and will sometimes get overmatched. But he is solid with a head of steam (and at the second level) and appears committed to improving this area of his game.

    Release

    16/20

    Smith has a fluid release and can get over the top or win inside position with equal effectiveness. He doesn’t rip or chop through the arm against physical coverage but has a useful swim move and good footwork.

    Speed

    12/15

    Smith is more agile than fast, but the way he plays makes the former more important. He is difficult to mirror off the line and has quickness to get open underneath. His straight-line speed isn’t as impressive but still lands high on the bell curve for tight ends. 

    Overall

    83/100

    Smith is not the sexiest player, but it’s hard to argue with his production. He has a knack for getting open and knows what to do with the ball once he does. The last FIU player who fit that description was T.Y. Hilton, and he turned out pretty darn well.

4. Maxx Williams, Minnesota

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Hands

    23/25

    Maxx Williams is a big, dependable target who rarely drops a pass. He doesn’t have a huge catch radius, but he grabs the ball with conviction and secures it through contact. More than that, he is a spry athlete who contorts to make circus catches at weird angles (something that playing with Minnesota’s quarterbacks has always required). 

    Route Running

    17/20

    Williams has a thick, muscular frame (6’4”, 250 lbs) and knows how to use it. He stems defenders to the inside on short routes, opening up throwing windows for his quarterback, and understands how to find the open space against zone coverage.

    Blocking

    17/20

    Minnesota is a run-first (and -second) (and -third) team that wouldn’t keep Williams on the field if he didn’t do the dirty work. He showed promise as a freshman last season and capitalized on that promise with an even better year in 2014. He is strong enough to move bodies near the line of scrimmage and athletic enough to keep blocking down the field.

    Release

    17/20

    Williams has a good short-area release. He dips off the line, stays low and gets through traffic. In space he makes sure the defense sees an outside path before moving back inside.

    Speed

    12/15

    Williams is not the type to gain big yards after the catch, in part because he isn’t very quick. His straight-line speed is better than his agility but also no better than average. Despite this, he manages to crack the occasional big play, getting over the top if a defense doesn’t show him respect.

    Overall

    86/100

    Williams is the No. 1 receiving option on a team that has won eight games in each of the past two seasons. Especially for a redshirt sophomore, that means something. He is a gifted physical specimen who seems to care about getting better, which should land him on some preseason All-American teams this summer if he stays in school.

3. Evan Engram, Ole Miss

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    Thomas Graning/Associated Press

    Hands

    22/25

    Evan Engram has soft hands and knows to catch the ball away from his body. He sees the ball into his grip and does not break stride to haul it in. This last point is important, separating Engram from similar athletic specimens who don’t post the same production.

    Route Running

    18/20

    No tight end in the country runs better routes than Engram. Defenses pair him against safeties and their best coverage linebackers, but he still gets open time and time again. He works routes equally well to the inside and the outside, which keeps defenders guessing.

    Blocking

    15/20

    Engram is a liability in the running game. There is no way around it. He doesn’t have the size (6’3”, 227 lbs) to get a push when he lines up off tackle, and he doesn’t seal the edge on cutback plays or end-arounds. Hopefully, this will change if/when he adds weight.

    Release

    17/20

    It is difficult to grade Engram’s release as a tight end, since he is basically a wide receiver. Playing from the slot, though, he does a good job gaining separation, winning the inside shoulder with hand combat. 

    Speed

    14/15

    The play is not over when Engram catches the ball. He has agility to make the first (and second) man miss and speed to turn a crease into a long gain. His three receptions of 50-plus yards this regular season were the most among FBS tight ends. Only 22 receivers had a higher total.

    Overall

    86/100

    Engram was an overlooked but vital piece of Ole Miss’ 2013 recruiting class. Eighteen future Rebels graded higher than him—highlighted by productive 5-stars Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy TunsilLaquon Treadwell and Tony Conner—but Engram’s contributions have been just as important as any of his classmates’.

2. Clive Walford, Miami (Fla.)

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Hands

    23/25

    Clive Walford has a good-looking catch radius and the big hands needed to secure all types of passes. He does not wait for the ball to come to him, instead snatching it out of midair.

    Route Running

    17/20

    Miami runs a pro-style offense that calls for Walford to run a fairly complex route tree. He struggled in previous seasons but made marked improvements as a senior, learning how to sell his breaks and take advantage of slow-footed defenders.

    Blocking

    17/20

    No part of Walford’s game has impressed more than his blocking this season. He isn’t huge but has good thickness (6’4”, 258 lbs) and is comfortable moving defensive ends in zone. He also has the speed to get downfield and block at the second level.

    Release

    17/20

    Walford uses arm technique to win releases up the seam. He swims to the inside after taking a big outside step, which earns him separation over the middle, and has enough strength to rip past down linemen in the short area.

    Speed

    12/15

    Walford is not a burner, but he proved against Florida State that he is fast enough to take it to the house. His long speed might never be a strength, but it will never be a weakness either. And his short-area burst and quickness are most definitely considered strengths.

    Overall

    86/100

    Walford parlayed an average first three years into a wonderful senior season. He became a week-to-week contributor. True freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya benefitted greatly from having Walford as a safety net.

1. Nick O'Leary, Florida State

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Hands

    23/25

    Nick O’Leary is a sure-handed target whom Jameis Winston relies on in the red zone and on third downs. He does not have a huge wing-span, which limits his catch radius, but he makes the plays he’s supposed to make. (And he definitely gets bonus points for doing it bare-handed.)

    Route Running

    17/20

    O’Leary is a polished route runner who understands the nuances of his position. He does not have the quickness to sell defenders on fakes or plants, but he reacts to what he is given and understands how to drop into open space.

    Blocking

    18/20

    He doesn’t have ideal size (6’3”, 247 pounds) for an in-line blocker, but O’Leary compensates with proper hand placement and max effort. He moves his feet well, gets his pads downhill and moves defenders off their spots in the running game. He also fares well in pass protection.

    Release

    17/20

    O’Leary is a savvy player with a savvy release to match. He wins the inside when he’s supposed to and keeps his pads low to disguise his route from defenders. This can cause the linebacker to drop a step and open up room for O’Leary to make a play underneath.

    Speed

    12/15

    It’s rare to see O’Leary in the open field, so his speed is a bit of a question mark. He is fast enough that his speed doesn’t hinder him, but it’s hard to call him anything more than "above average."

    Overall

    87/100

    O’Leary is a valuable part of Florida State’s offense, even if he goes overlooked. The grandson of Jack Nicklaus has made a name for himself as a viable receiver, a great blocker and a player one should hide from when he gets rolling downhill.

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