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Sophomore Bucky Hodges Looks Like 2016 NFL Draft's Top Tight End Prospect

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2016

Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges (7) celebrates his touchdown against North Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014. Virginia Tech won 34-17. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

With the first 20 picks in the 2016 draft order locked in after a long regular season, many fans have gone into mock draft mode. Sure, they'll watch the playoffs, but with their teams out of Super Bowl contention, their eyes are now fixated on the future.

With the rookie salary cap, the draft has never been more important for the immediate success of a franchise. Ask the Seattle Seahawks, who were paying Russell Wilson about $20 million a year under market before his second contract, just how important finding value in the draft is.

As we approach draft season, one of the questions asked with the highest frequency is "Who are the best tight end prospects?"

Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn't what most fans want to hear. As far as I'm concerned, Bucky Hodges of Virginia Tech is shoulders above any other talent in this class.

There are other prospects whose names are buzzing, but none to the level of Hodges. Hunter Henry of Arkansas is a junior who lacks the skills to contribute as a blocker and also has average to above-average athleticism. Henry's really a possession tight end in the mold of an upgraded Richard Rodgers, Green Bay's 2015 starter who is best known for his Hail Mary reception against the Detroit Lions.

O.J. Howard is a junior tight end who college football fans have known since he was a freshman. The Alabama product was a star, looking like the next big thing for the position, but he has been neglected and inconsistent for the past two seasons under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Jake Butt of Michigan decided a month ago that he was going to stay another year in Ann Arbor. The last player is Evan Engram—who is almost a hybrid H-back, receiver and tight end in the mold of Jordan Reed—who has already stated he's returning to Ole Miss for the 2016 season.

Outside of that, no one else has really even come close to the top-60 conversation. Now, why are there so few quality tight end prospects? A lot of it has to do with the economics of football.

Body types often reflect on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. If you're 6'4" and 250 pounds, you're playing tight end on offense and a pass-rushing position on defense. Here's where the two sides split: money.

According to Over The Cap, only Jimmy Graham is averaging $10 million or more per season over the life of his contract at the tight end position. At 4-3 defensive end, there are five players who pass that threshold in Mario Williams, Robert Quinn, Charles Johnson, Chris Long and Greg Hardy. At 3-4 outside linebacker, Justin Houston, Clay Matthews, Ryan Kerrigan and DeMarcus Ware are added to the list. It's simple: If you're playing this sport for money with an able body suited for either slot, you're picking the defensive side.

The other factor is that pass-rushers, especially at the college level, have more of an impact in games. Win shares on tight ends aren't high in the NCAA, where the position is largely looked at as a secondary one in spread offenses. Why put your top talent as a tight end when you're going to be playing in the shotgun, running option plays where you have to read the contain defender anyway? A tight end just muddies up the tempo and vision lane.

Pass-rushers, though, are the most important position on the defensive side of the ball on just about every level of the sport. If a defensive end can dominate a one-on-one matchup for a whole game, offenses have to completely reshape their game plans.

For that reason, Vic Beasley was asked to switch from tight end to the defensive side of the ball while at Clemson. He was drafted eighth overall this past draft class and currently leads the Atlanta Falcons in sacks as a rookie. Houston's J.J. Watt and Green Bay's Julius Peppers, two defenders, have also seen time at tight end for moments. There aren't a lack of bodies that can thrive at the position, just a lack of persuasion for those players to stick as blockers and secondary pass-catchers. We shouldn't blame them for chasing glory as defensive cornerstones.

That's why when you see a talent like Rob Gronkowski playing the position, he destroys long-standing records easily. Even when putting Gronkowski's athletic web into context, though, you can make the case that lower-level defensive ends, like rookie Preston Smith, are as athletic as, if not more than, the player who looks like The Hulk on the relative scale of the tight end talent in today's NFL.

When a player like Hodges comes through the league's doors, general managers better take notice. He showed up at Virginia Tech as a quarterback, but as his first year went along, he found himself spending more time at tight end while redshirting in 2013. According to him, one of his scout team roles that year was to mimic Eric Ebron leading up to the North Carolina game. Ebron was selected eighth overall by the Detroit Lions in 2014, and Hodges has done a solid job at filling in his shoes as the ACC's top tight end.

Often moving around the field, Hodges has played as an in-line tight end, a solo receiver on the boundary and a jumbo slot target. Not one Hokie is motioned on offense more than him, either. In his two years at Virginia Tech, he's totaled over 1,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on 85 receptions. This is all while the Hokies also had Ryan Malleck lining up at tight end, too. Malleck is a senior who caught 21 balls this season and is slated to participate at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, college football's premier all-star game.

If you managed to catch one of Hodges' games this season, he's not hard to miss. Announcers gush over the fact that he's listed as a 6'7" athlete. What will go unnoticed, though, is his blocking ability.

For example, in Tech's bowl game, the Independence Bowl, two early blocks on the perimeter by him impacted two long touchdowns against Tulsa's defense. He's more than willing to participate as a blocker, which is half the battle with college tight ends, and he's even held his own against defensive ends, not just defensive backs.

Justis Mosqueda @JuMosq

Insane blocking by Bucky Hodges and the rest of VT on this 51-yard TD run off a power play. https://t.co/RqXjeVecCC

By all accounts, the former passer is an effort player. When his first assignment is gone, he keeps his head on a swivel looking for a second target. Lining up as a wing player on the Hokies' third touchdown of the night, he ditched a cornerback and blasted a safety out of his running back's lane to paydirt.

His ability as a pass-catching athlete speaks for itself. He casually runs toe-to-toe with cornerbacks. He's good with the ball in his hands, both after the catch and when he's afforded Wildcat looks. If you're interested in how well he can use his gloves, there are highlights after highlights available for you.

Workout numbers for college athletes can be tricky, but according to Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times, who documented Virginia Tech's top max-testing players off of former head coach Frank Beamer's website, the tight end ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and had a vertical jump of 38.5 inches. Per Mock Draftable's combine database, the average for the position is 4.79 seconds and 32.93 inches in those drills, respectively.

In 2015, the highest vertical jump from a tight end at the combine was Michael Pruitt's 38-inch mark. Pruitt also had the top 40-yard dash, measuring in at 4.58 seconds. The last tight end to crack under 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash was Dorin Dickerson in 2010. Since 2006, the only other player to do so was former Pro Bowler and sixth overall pick Vernon Davis.

Nothing seems to be stopping Hodges from entering the draft as a sophomore with a hope that he turns into a top-five tight end in the league by the end of his rookie contract, other than the NFL advisory board. Per Bitter, Hodges received negative feedback from the group, as they told the tight end that he wasn't a top-60 pick.

Now, many have criticized the board, especially when it comes to sophomores, whom they rarely try to convince to declare early. Just because they told him to stay in school doesn't mean that he will, either. When asked about the result, he didn't say he was returning.

“[It’s] definitely motivation,” Hodges said of the feedback. “Definitely just go out there and have a great game Saturday and go from there, see what the waters are.”

There's been a history of players just disregarding the board's input, too. Terrance Mitchell, then an Oregon cornerback, once declared after he received a poor grade from the committee.

Though he requested an evaluation by the NFL draft board, Mitchell said he did not read much into a review he did not consider favorable.

"It wasn't a fair evaluation," he said. "It came back in like a week and they didn't have time to break down film. They didn't get chance to really dissect what was real. I've been an underdog my whole life.

Two years later, Mitchell is still hanging around the NFL on Dallas' team, bouncing between the active roster and the practice squad, after being drafted 254th overall in 2014. Hopefully, for Hodges' sake, if he does go pro, he'll fare better than the cornerback has.

The NFL has a tight end problem. College teams and the league don't put enough emphasis on the position, so there becomes a giant need for tight ends when there isn't corresponding talent to fill the various holes around the sport.

New England has Rob Gronkowski. Washington has Jordan Reed. Carolina has Greg Olsen. Kansas City has Travis Kelce. If Hodges chooses to forgo his last two seasons at Virginia Tech, where a new head coach, offensive coordinator and tight ends coach are coming in for 2016, then he may find himself in the mix with the names of franchise tight ends sooner than he could have possibly expected after moving to the position just two seasons ago.

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