There is one position on offense that is often overlooked in the NFL, and that is tight end. It also happens to be the position in this year's draft that is the most loaded it's been in years. There hasn't even been a first round pick at the position since 2014 but it looks like this year will be changing that.
The Oakland Raiders are like many teams in the NFL, they need to find a quality starter for the position. They used a 3rd round pick in 2015 on TE Clive Walford who has shown immense potential with his big body and athleticism but he just hasn't developed into the player the Raiders hoped he'd be as of yet. It's not to say that he can't still be a very good tight end, but this draft is so loaded that it might be time for a back up plan just in case.
Even if Walford were to a have the break out season we are hoping he will have, the Raiders still have a need for a back up at the very least with Mychal Rivera being a free agent this year. There is an argument to be made that Rivera is a good 2nd option at tight end that deserves to be re-signed, but GM Reggie McKenzie didn't extend Rivera yet so it is reasonable to think they might be letting him walk.
With that in mind, here is a look at a few of the best tight end prospects in this year's draft:
O.J. Howard, Alabama – Unless the Raiders are prepared to use a 1st round pick on O.J. Howard, he is probably out of reach for them. The 6'6, 242lb tight end is probably the most hyped at the position this year and is being projected as the most likely player to end the 1st round drought at the position. In fact, there is reason to believe that an AFC West rival might be interested with the Denver Broncos still having a very big need after never being able to fill the void that Julius Thomas left when he went to Jacksonville in free agency.
However, if Howard were to fall to the 2nd round he might be too good of a prospect for the Raiders to pass up on. The guy is immensely talented with an incredible size and speed combination that would be a great addition to the Derek Carr led Oakland offense.
He isn't the most physical guy at the position but he uses his size well to make catches over smaller defenders and his acceleration can not be ignored. The downside is that since he hasn't reached his full potential yet that there could be a reason to worry about whether there is more hype than substance to Howard.
David Njoku, Miami – David Njoku is easily the most intriguing player at the position. Njoku doesn't have a lot of experience after playing just two seasons for Miami but his play jumps off the screen when you watch his tape. He followed up an impressive Redshirt season of 21 catches for 362 yards with a huge jump forward last year when he caught 43 passes for 698 yards with 8 touchdowns.
There is a good chance that Njoku too will end up being out of the Raiders reach after he performs at the combine where he is expected to decimate the workouts. The 6'4, 240lb player has everything teams are looking for with speed, size and strength that compares him favorably to fellow Miami Hurricane alumni Jimmy Graham and Greg Olson who are two of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Though right now O.J. Howard is the player that is getting the most hype, Njoku might just pass him as the top prospect once it’s time for the workouts to begin. The one reason that he might fall far enough for the Raiders to have a shot at him is that he did only play two seasons in college before entering this draft though. Stranger things have happened than seeing a player with such little experience drop in the draft even if it isn’t very likely.
Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech – You would never guess by looking at him but the 6'7, 245lb tight end out of VT was actually a high school quarterback. He is a raw player who has only played TE for 3 years but his upside is unbelievable. The guy dominated when given the chance to be the focal point of his offense, though that happened too few and far in between to really get to see what all Hodges is capable of.
Though he hasn't had to really learn to be a great route runner yet but because of his towering size over college defender there is a lot to like about Hodges. He knows the game through the eyes of a QB from his high school days which gives him a heads up when reading defenses and knowing the game over other tight ends in this draft. Add that to his gigantic frame and wide receiver worthy speed and you have a player that could really bloom in the NFL.
Another plus for Bucky Hodges is that he is projected right now to be a 2nd or 3rd round pick so he might be able to be gotten a little later in the draft at a great value. One big negative for him is that he is truly a receiving tight end and the Raiders might be more interested in a guy with better blocking. That is especially true if Oakland still has faith in Clive Walford as their pass catching tight end as they might be more interested in a more well rounded player rather.
Jake Butt, Michigan – Here is the player that truly would be the best fit for the Raiders at the tight end position. Jake Butt is a 4 year starter at a Big Ten school where he was one of the stars of their offense showing great heart with his willingness to make tough catches in traffic. The 6'5, 250lb senior tight end is a solid blocker that likely will improve in that area at the next level and an excellent receiver who is experienced in an NFL style offense under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
If not for the torn ACL in the Wolverines' Citrus Bowl game you would likely be hearing Butt talked about as a 1st round worthy selection. That knee injury is serious and has made his draft stock take a hit with him now projected as a 3rd round pick but some lucky team will likely get a long term starter on the cheap now.
He might not be athletic enough to be elite like Travis Kelce or Rob Gronkowski but he is a blue collar worker type that will consistently make plays when needed in the NFL. There is one thing you can't measure in workouts though and that's heart, and Butt has that. His top comparison for the NFL is Jason Witten and if he was half as good as Witten he will have a long and lucrative career.