The 2015 NFL draft’s tight end class does not nearly stack up with what the 2014 draft class had to offer. It could still include a first-round draft pick, though, thanks to the early entry of Minnesota’s Maxx Williams after his redshirt sophomore season.
Last year’s draft was a very good one for the tight end position. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron was the first tight end to be a top-10 pick since 2006, and in total, seven tight ends were chosen within the top 100 selections.
This year’s draft will almost certainly not have a tight end drafted in the top 10, and it might only have two tight ends go in the top 100. But while Williams does not fit the profile of an early first-round pick, he should still come off the board in the top 32, as he is a well-rounded player who has spectacular pass-catching skills and is the standout prospect of his position group this year.
Why Williams Is Not a Top-Tier Prospect, But Still a Worthy First-Round Choice
Top-10 picks at the tight end position are rare—there have only been three since 1997—and are typically reserved for players who can truly be considered elite athletes. Ebron ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash at 6’4” and 250 pounds at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine; the last top-10 tight end before him, Vernon Davis in 2006, ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at 6’3” and 254 pounds, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
Williams’ measurables, by comparison, do not stack up. Although his 4.78-second 40-yard-dash was the third-fastest time among tight ends at this year’s combine, it is certainly not a time that qualifies him as a fast tight end, especially with the modern evolution of the position.
Some analysts, including former NFL scouting director Greg Gabriel, believed Williams’ 40 time was disappointing enough to knock him out of the first round altogether.
It’s possible that could be the case, considering the overemphasis that the NFL seems to place upon straight-line speed, but it really shouldn’t be. While the 6’4”, 249-pound tight end does not have the elite physical attributes of a top pick, he nonetheless has the skill set to be a starter, and one that is highly productive, at the next level.
Williams’ collegiate production, which you can see in the following table, does not glimmer off a stat sheet.
|Maxx Williams' College Statistics|
But Williams is Exhibit A of why scouts who evaluate prospects often condemn “box score scouting.”
The statistical lines above do not reflect the circumstances which kept Williams from putting up big numbers in his two-year collegiate career. In a run-heavy Minnesota offense, Williams played with quarterbacks who were often woefully inaccurate and had no dynamic wide receivers around him to draw coverages off him.
Williams’ market share within the Minnesota offense itself was impressive. He led the Golden Gophers in receiving in both of his collegiate seasons, and in 2014, he had double the receptions of his closest teammate. In total, Williams accumulated more than 28 percent of Minnesota’s receptions and more than 30 percent of its receiving yards this past season.
Another impressive number for Williams: his 13 touchdowns. A big target who combines great leaping ability with enough size and athleticism to create mismatches with linebackers and safeties, Williams is especially dangerous as a red-zone threat.
Speaking of creating mismatches, one quality that makes Williams enticing is that he has a proven ability to make plays from all over an offensive formation. While he can play as a traditional, in-line tight end, Williams can also line up in the slot, as an outside receiver or as a fullback/H-back in the backfield.
It’s reasonable to question whether Williams has enough speed to continue making plays on the outside in the NFL. It is true that even at the collegiate level, Williams was never a burner and had trouble gaining separation when matched up against cornerbacks.
Even more true, however, is that there is more to athleticism than how fast one can run 40 yards in a straight line. And there were plenty of examples from this past season alone of Williams demonstrating special athletic qualities.
Perhaps Williams’ most impressive display of athleticism came on his final collegiate touchdown in the Citrus Bowl against Missouri. Channeling his inner Edwin Moses, Williams hurdled two defenders en route to the end zone to cap off a 54-yard score, the longest of his career.
There aren’t many tight ends, even in the NFL, who can leapfrog defenders in stride, all the while maintaining their balance up the sideline.
There also aren’t many tight ends—or players, in total—who have as much ability to make spectacular catches as Williams does.
A sure-handed receiver who snagged just about every catchable ball that came his way at Minnesota, Williams also has a 34.5” vertical jump and great body control. Combining these traits with his 33.5” arms and 10.375” hands, Williams has a wide catch radius that enables him to make plays mere mortals cannot.
The following video and GIFs should give you a sense for the type of plays Williams is capable of making.
As the last clip above of his diving one-handed grab against Michigan this past season shows, Williams’ ball skills go a long way in making up for his speed limitations. While he might not always be able to regularly separate from defensive backs, that won’t necessarily stop him from making plays, as he can box them out with his size and extend out away from his body.
You won’t see Williams making defenders miss in space, but he can extend plays on the virtue of using his size and strength to finish through contact. In another clip from his collegiate career finale on New Year’s Day, Williams showcased that ability by trucking through two tackles to turn what should have been a two-yard loss into a 10-yard gain.
All told, Williams has the tools to be a dynamic threat for an NFL passing offenses. He is an adequately skilled route runner whose ability to make plays on the ball and movement skills make him dangerous no matter where he lines up in the formation.
The biggest question with Williams is whether he can be an effective blocker in the NFL.
On the positive end of the spectrum, Williams is a more than willing blocker who typically sustains his blocks well. He has shown some ability, like he did on the following 20-yard touchdown run by Minnesota running back Rodrick Williams Jr., to stick a block in space downfield and take his opponent out of a running play.
Williams is not a consistently great blocker in space, however, and he is not a people-mover at the line of scrimmage. He lacks the power to drive bigger defenders away from runs, and that can lead to plays getting stacked up behind him, like the following tackle for loss by Michigan against running back David Cobb.
Ultimately, Williams is going to have to bulk up and play with better leverage if he is going to trusted to consistently lead block for runs as an in-line tight end. It is likely that he will be manhandled at times by NFL defensive ends, especially early in his career.
Williams’ blocking inefficiency and lack of top-end speed will turn some teams off from being a first-round talent. So too could his confidence, apparently, at least in the eyes of one NFL regional scout, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein.
"That Minnesota tight end came across as all about himself from what people in our room said,” the scout told Zierlein. “They were a little turned off by him."
It’s probable that the latter concern will have no significant effect on his draft stock; Zierlein also said that at least one general manager “had no problems with his interview with Williams.” Still, it’s possible that a team on the fence about drafting the tight end, in light of his other concerns, could be swayed to go in another direction if its interview with Williams did not match its expectations.
Nonetheless, it will be a mild surprise if Williams is not among the selections in the first round of this year’s draft on April 30. And while that is largely because of the impressive skills that Williams brings to the table himself, it is also because there is a lack of talent behind him in this year’s tight end group.
The Best of a Bad Class
The only prospect in this year’s class who should provide any competition to Williams’ standing as the top tight end is Miami’s Clive Walford, who probably will not be chosen in Round 1 but is a good bet to be drafted by the end of Round 2.
In truth, there are many similarities between Williams and Walford. At 6’4” and 251 pounds with a 4.79-second 40-yard dash, Walford’s combine measurables were nearly identical to those of Williams. Like Williams, he is a dynamic receiving threat who can be moved to different spots around a formation, and he is a decent but underwhelming blocker.
Walford has not demonstrated the acrobatics to make spectacular catches like Williams often did this past season, and he did not post substantially better numbers despite playing in a substantially more potent passing offense. But there is no reason why a team considering Williams as a first- or second-round pick should not also consider Walford in Round 2.
Beyond the slight drop-off from Williams to Walford, there is a big gap back to the rest of the tight end prospects in the 2015 draft, none of whom should be selected any higher than the late third round.
Penn State’s Jesse James fits the measurable profile of an early-round tight end, but he is a project who would have benefited from the development of his senior year.
Rutgers’ Tyler Kroft is a good athlete for the position, but he is a non-impactful blocker whose production dropped significantly in 2014, which could be a turn-off for some NFL teams.
Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman is arguably as talented as anyone in this year’s tight end class, but he was virtually a non-factor in the national champions’ passing offense in 2014. He is a strong blocker and gifted athlete, but his playmaking ability is limited and he has missed all predraft events to date while recovering from an ankle injury.
Coming from a program that has consistently churned out NFL tight ends in recent years, Notre Dame’s Ben Koyack fits the mold of his Fighting Irish predecessors at the position. He is an in-line tight end who has some playmaking ability and is a quality blocker, but he has limited explosiveness and did not have a great deal of collegiate production.
Florida State’s Nick O’Leary won the Mackey Award this past season as college football’s best tight end, but he shouldn’t be viewed as a top NFL prospect. While he is a sure-handed pass-catcher who had a productive collegiate career, he has poor measurables for the position and is not a strong blocker.
There are some intriguing projects in this year’s tight end class, including the two fastest players from the position group at the combine, Southern Illinois’ MyCole Pruitt and South Alabama’s Wes Saxton.
All of the tight ends not named Maxx and Clive in this year’s draft class, however, really should not be viewed as early-round prospects. And as teams will know that their tight end options are limited in this year’s draft, that could up the ante for a team to draft Williams in Round 1, while it still has a chance to make a significant upgrade at the position.
Williams could presumably be drafted as early as the No. 16 pick by the Houston Texans, who could use an upgrade at tight end and have an overall need for receiving playmakers. Other potential suitors in Round 1 include the Kansas City Chiefs (who hold the No. 18 overall pick), Cleveland Browns (No. 19), Denver Broncos (No. 28), Green Bay Packers (No. 30), Seattle Seahawks (No. 31) and New England Patriots (No. 32).
If Williams makes it past all those teams into the draft’s second day, teams who could target him early in Round 2 include the Oakland Raiders (No. 35), Atlanta Falcons (No. 42) and Cleveland (No. 43).
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.