4 candidates to be the next Rob Gronkowski
A massive target with sure hands and the quickness to beat defenders both deep and short, Rob Gronkowski routinely makes those around him look unworthy of playing on the same field. Each year fans and general managers hear rumors of the next athletic freak coming to take over the NFL. We hear promises of “the next Gronkowski.” That’s the question, though — will there ever really be another Gronk? Is his combination of size, speed, hands and skill set repeatable?
History and probability tells us that a comparable athlete will emerge. However, there’s a good chance we won’t see him coming. Gronkowski was a second-round draft pick, falling in part due to health concerns. Are there any tight ends in college football right now who could have a similar impact in the NFL?
In order to physically dominate the competition at the NFL level, they will need to have the tools, starting with size. Let’s call the magic number at 6-foot-5, as Gronk, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham have proved this to be the tipping point for true red-zone dominance at the TE position. This is going to eliminate some good pass-catchers like converted Cal wide receiver Stephen Anderson, who posted an excellent +7.5 overall PFF rating last season, with a +5.2 in the passing game. Similar can be said of Evan Engram out of Ole Miss. His +12.6 overall and well-balanced +4.7 in both the pass and run game indicate a player able to contribute at the professional level, but at 6-3 they profile as chain movers rather than elite red-zone threats.
These guys also need to be a combination of effective pass-catchers and reliable run-blockers — an underrated aspect of Gronk’s game.
Here are some college tight ends who fit the bill in all three areas:
1. Hunter Henry
Arkansas, 6-5, 253 pounds
Hunter appears at the top of most TE prospect lists. He has ideal size, and passes the eye test when it comes to speed and agility. His lofty prospect status is further validated by an outstanding +17.3 overall PFF Rating. He excels in both the run and pass game, and should be a successful player at the next level. Can he dominate though? Last season Hunter posted a catch percentage of just 58 percent — well below league average. Unreliable targets tend to get fewer red zone chances even if they can physically handle the load. On the bright side, Hunter did post above-average yards per catch numbers last year (13.6) which does indicate he can be a vertical threat down the seam, provided he can hold onto the ball.
2. O.J. Howard
Alabama, 6-6, 242 pounds
O.J. Howard is still a bit of an unknown. He looks the part of a physical freak, appearing un-guardable at first glance. Rating metrics were not kind to him last season, but this year marks his coming out party as a focal point of the Alabama offense. Howard has posted a +3.3 thus far this season, catching 88 percent of his targets. Last season he posted above average numbers in both yards per catch (15.3) and average yards after catch (6.1). This might be the guy to watch. Keep an eye on him, especially in conference play.
3. Bucky Hodges
Virgina Tech, 6-7, 242 pounds
Bucky is a Big Boy. However, despite being the largest TE on our list, Bucky posted below-average numbers in all three of our core categories. He only caught 58 percent of his targets for an average of 11.7 yards per catch, and only tacked on an additional 4.2 yards after making the grab. These numbers suggest he is not agile enough to reach Gronk status. Still, his +4.5 overall PFF Rating indicates you will be hearing his name on Sundays in the near future.
4. Jake Butt
Michigan, 6-6, 248 pounds
Jake is somewhat of a newcomer, even in a league that rotates talent on a yearly basis. However, his physical gifts and a coaching change that specifically benefits the TE position put Jake in an excellent position to excel this season. Jake has caught 75 percent of the passes thrown his way in college, and if he can improve his fundamentals and get more comfortable with the nuances of the TE position, he should be able to use his awesome size and hands to dominate his NCAA competition. The NFL still might be a ways off, but the natural talent is evident, if still a bit raw.
While it does not appear the next Gronkowski is among us, the talent at the TE position is undeniable. Offenses will continue to exploit mismatches versus the defense, and having a tall agile TE can guarantee a red zone advantage. Therefore, tight ends will continue to be over-drafted, the results yielding more busts than booms.
While there is a chance one of these players could develop into a dominant red zone force, it is more likely that one or two of them will only develop into decent professionals at the next level, acting as placeholders until the next unstoppable force blows by an immovable object. Players like Gronkowski don’t come along every day. Until then, we will watch and wait.