There’s no denying that the tight end is slowly becoming one of the most valuable positions in the NFL today. A great tight end gives you a receiving threat that can also make an impact in the running game and also in pass protection when he isn’t going out on a route. Two of the top ten players in terms of receiving yardage this past season were tight ends: Rob Gronkowsi (90 receptions for 1,327 yards) and Jimmy Graham (99 receptions for 1,310 yards). Graham’s quarterback, Drew Brees, broke Dan Marino’s single season passing yardage record and Graham was a big part of this effort.
Gronkowski was also the NFL’s leader in touchdown receptions with 17 scores in the 16 game regular season (I’m hoping you knew that there are 16 games in a season. If you didn’t I’m not sure why you are reading this blog.). Gronkowski was instrumental in the Patriots’ super bowl appearance along with fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez who had 79 receptions for 910 yards and 7 touchdowns in the regular season. Keep in mind he was either backing up Gronkowski or playing as the second tight end for much of the season. This just goes to show that opposing defenses have a difficult time covering tight ends. The defense can go one of two routes: either place a linebacker over the tight end or use a safety to cover him. Linebackers are often slower than most tight ends in the league today; Vernon Davis ran a 4.38 coming out of Maryland. Most receivers don’t even run that. Plus Davis is 6’3” and 250+ pounds.
That combination of size and speed, along with a 42” vertical, make it hard for a linebacker to keep up with him athletically. The benefit of having a linebacker covering a tight end is that they match up physically. Safeties are able to match up to tight ends athletically but physically they are much weaker which hurts them on drag routes over the middle and short yardage passes where the tight end relies on physicality to get through the defender. Other notable tight ends in the NFL are Vernon Davis (67rec, 792yds, 6tds), Tony Gonzalez (80rec, 875yds, 7tds), Jason Witten (79rec, 942yds, 5tds), and Jermichael Finley (55rec, 767yds, and 8tds). Needless to say, these guys are evidently serious threats in the passing game. They are most efficient in the red zone where it’s easy for a quarterback to find a 6’6 player over the middle.
This year’s NFL draft has a few big name tight ends that will likely go in the first three rounds. Dwayne Allen of Clemson, Coby Fleener of Stanford, and Orson Charles of Georgia of three of this guys, and rightfully so. They’re big, physical, and deadly in the passing game. But these guys are going to be gone in the first three rounds more than likely. What should teams do who can’t afford to take a tight end this early because of other needs? This year’s combine raised NFL scouts’ awareness of James Hanna from Oklahoma after he put up amazing numbers in his 40 yard dash.
However, he is a high risk-high reward type player. In the two seasons that he received a good amount of playing time at Oklahoma, he compiled just 45 receptions for 673 yards and 9 touchdowns. This isn’t exactly an outstanding college career. But it also isn’t awful. For the sake of this write-up, I’ll compare Hanna to Gronkowski. I’m not at all implying that Hanna is or ever will be as good as Gronkowski was this past season. I’m simply using the NFL’s top tight end to show why Hanna presents a high risk-high reward player. Gronkowski had just 75 receptions for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns in college. Although these numbers are much better than Hanna’s college numbers, the hope lies in the fact that Hanna’s average reception went for about 15 yards while Gronkowski’s went for 16. Had Hanna gotten more looks in college, he could have had similar numbers. As far as the difference in touchdowns, Gronkowski scored on 21% of his receptions and Hanna scored on 20%. Again, more looks could have led to more touchdowns for Hanna. These are just “what-if” scenarios. Hanna didn’t catch 16 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards in college. His upside is in the possibility that he could have. He showed signs of greatness in college but didn’t necessarily post the stats to back them up. In college his ability as a blocker was often questioned and many scouts have said he is more of a receiver than a tight end. With a 6’4”, 252 pound frame, NFL teams can turn him into a blocker. His issue isn’t size but rather technique which can be fixed and tweaked. The biggest upside to James Hanna is his athletic prowess. He ran an extremely impressive 4.49 40-yard dash and was the top tight end in the 3 cone drill, 20 yard shuttle, and the 60 yard shuffle. He also posted a 36” verticle and knocked out 24 reps on his bench press. Coming out of Arizona, Gronkowski ran a 4.62 (at his lowest), had a vertical of 33.5”, and knocked out 23 reps on his bench press. It’s clear that athletically Hanna has similar tools to Gronkowski. He just needs to be coached to use them and if so he could be very successful in the NFL.
Best case scenario: Poor man’s Vernon Davis- an athletic tight end who doesn’t block extremely well but plays like a receiver in the passing game
Worst case scenario: A team wastes a 5th round pick on him and he rides the pine for a few years, playing sporadically on special teams and two tight end sets before leaving to play for the CFL.
The question now is if scouts and NFL teams believe they can mold James Hanna into a Vernon Davis type tight end. Either way, I think he’s worth the risk and could be a potential sleeper for this year’s draft.