It's pretty much universally agreed that the Dallas Cowboys have a need for a starting tight end, particularly one who can stretch the field as a receiving threat.
Despite not having a first round pick, this class should give the Cowboys an opportunity to add tight end talent to their roster through the NFL Draft.
Will that be TE1 talent, though? Or will it just be another replacement-level tight end on a roster which already seems full of them?
Let's get into my top 5 tight ends of this 2019 class, and see what they could potentially bring to the Cowboys this season and beyond.
1. TJ Hockenson, Iowa
The clear TE1 in this class is TJ Hockenson. The 2018 John Mackey Award winner earned his way to the top of this list with his versatility, lining up in-line and as a slot receiver for Iowa during his college career.
At 6'5" 243 pounds, Hockenson looks like he was made in a tight-end producing lab, and he has the athleticism and ability to maximize his build.
In the run game TJ Hockenson is a good blocker, showcasing excellent effort and competitiveness through his blocks. A technical route runner with good hands, a plus-catch radius, and legitimate yards-after-catch ability, Hockenson has a chance to be the very first offensive skill player off the board this Spring.
2. Noah Fant, Iowa
Hockenson's teammate at Iowa, Noah Fant, comes in at number two on my tight end rankings. While Hockenson is the more well-rounded of the two players, Fant certainly has more athletic upside. I expect him to test better than Hockenson will at the combine, and has the receiving skills to be a real threat at the next level.
Noah Fant fits the bill for a modern NFL tight end, flexing out wide and threatening defenses vertically with his receiving ability. A long player with good route running ability and speed, Fant is able to create separation against defensive backs in a variety of ways.
Fant is far from a one-trick pony, and would be an excellent addition to a Cowboys offense which is yearning for this type of flex-threat from the tight end position.
Unfortunately, he won't last anywhere near 58th overall.
3. Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
Can I interest you in a tight end who averaged 16.3 yards per catch and scored 7 touchdowns last season? If so, meet Alabama's Irv Smith Jr.
Smith is the number three tight end on my board entering the combine, and I really don't expect him to drop whatsoever in the coming months. Smith is an athletic player who runs good routes and offers excellent run blocking ability. He's not as refined as Hockenson nor as athletic/explosive as Fant, but he combines the in-line and flex abilities of the two to a certain extent.
Smith is the first somewhat-plausible target for the Cowboys on this list, though I'd still be surprised if he lasted until 58th overall.
4. Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
Jace Sternberger came out of nowhere last season at Texas A&M. Relatively unknown before the 2018 season, Sternberger finished the year with 800+ yards and 10 touchdowns on 48 catches, and earned All-American honors for his production.
Now he has a chance to be a second round pick in the 2019 draft, and is finding himself mocked to the Cowboys by many major draft media outlets. Sternberger fits the prototype of the modern receiving tight end, with better speed and hands than most others in his class. Though he is still raw in many areas, his upside is intriguing, and there's no doubt he's a pretty good player as is.
Like the first three, it's hard to imagine I will move Sternbeger any lower than fourth in this class, and he is a legitimate option for the Cowboys 58th overall.
5. Isaac Nauta, Georgia
While the first four tight ends on this list will make their money with their passing game production, Georgia's Isaac Nauta looks like more of an old-school run blocker. Nauta is right up there with any tight end in this class in terms of blocking, and would be an immediate contributor to the Cowboys' run game in that area.
He's still growing in multiple areas as a receiver, however, such as his route running and yards-after-catch ability. Still, I think Nauta is much better as a receiver than his college production would suggest. He, like others in that talented Georgia offense, got lost in the shuffle a bit, and didn't get the number of targets he could have seen elsewhere.
There's a real possibility Nauta is available at 58 when the Cowboys pick, and I wouldn't be surprised if he were the pick either.
Cowboys Draft: Film Notes on Iowa State Cyclones WR Hakeem Butler
The 2019 NFL Draft is light on a lot of the offensive skill position players at the top of the draft. There are a couple of wide receivers that are making noise in the first round, but I'm surprised to see that Iowa State Cyclones Wide Receiver Hakeem Butler isn't one of them.
Is he a perfect NFL prospect coming out of the Big 12? No. But this year, there isn't a perfect NFL wide receiver prospect, in my opinion.
Hakeem Butler measured in at 6-5, 225 with 35 1/4 inch wingspan, and 10 3/4 inch hands. He's a big receiver and generally, the type of wide receiver that the NFL looks for when they're attempting to build their receiver corp.
Here are his measurements, courtesy of Mockdraftable.com.
And here is his Spider Graph, if you're into that sort of thing.
As you can see, Butler moves the needle on the spider graph in the strength and athletic testing. He didn't run the short shuttle or the 3-cone drill at the NFL combine, which isn't surprising as those would be lesser traits to his game.
For his size, Butler runs an excellent 40-yard dash at 4.48 seconds. That puts him at the same time as Carolina Panthers Running Back Christian McCaffrey. Former Dallas Cowboys great, Dez Bryant ran a 4.52. The 40-yard dash helps measure straight line speed and it's helpful, it just isn't the be all-end all. Sure, you'd like a receiver to be faster, but Butler's size-speed combination makes up for being a touch slower than the guys running in the 4.3's.
In order to get a handle on Hakeem Butler, I watched his games against Iowa, Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU, Baylor, and Washington State. Believe me, watching the Iowa State offense was no small task. Quarterback much?
Here's what I saw from Hakeem Butler.
- Is able to create separation on a variety of routes and against press coverage. Ran posts, slants, ins, outs, curls (both in and out breaking), double moves off of slants (sluggo and hitch and go), and nine or go routes.
- Moves well for size, could use some more quickness.
- Hakeem Butler is at his best when thrown back-shoulder fade routes. He's an excellent ball tracker and shows great anticipation for the ball being thrown under the route for him to come back to the ball.
- Quarterback play at Iowa State was an issue. I counted three, maybe four different quarterbacks that he had to work with throughout the 2018 season. Though Butler was able to bail them out at times, he and the rest of the Cyclones receiving corp dealt with poor ball placement.
- Butler is a physical blocker at the point of attack and away from the ball. He uses route feints to set up the defender so he can get square on them and uses good technique to secure his man and plays till the whistle.
- Was lined up all over the field in the games watched including the slot, the middle receiver in bunch formations, and in tight sets as a single receiver to one side.
- Is very physical against press coverage and fights to get free throughout the route.
- The two games he struggled the most were against TCU and Iowa where they used more zone coverage than Iowa State's other opponents. Those teams kept him bracketed, which left him little room to work in the zone and forced him into more contested catch situations.
- He had bad drops in both the Iowa and TCU games, but also came up with excellent catches.
- Butler is very physical after the catch and uses his size and agility to break tackles and create yards after the catch. Against the Sooners, he broke three or four tackles after the catch to take one the distance for the touchdown.
I like Hakeem Butler as a pro prospect. He has some nuanced route running to him and is more than just a jump-ball specialist, red zone threat. He has the skills to be a lead receiver for a team in the NFL and could even be used as a big-slot receiver much like the New Orleans Saints use Michael Thomas. Despite some drops, I think he has really good hands and with his size and physicality would be an excellent addition for the Dallas Cowboys.
I'd be surprised if he was available for the Cowboys at pick 58 of the second round, but if for some reason he was there, I wouldn't hesitate to select him. You can use him on the outside and move Amari Cooper to the slot or put Butler in the slot and use Cooper on the outside. His ability to run routes from all over the formation is an asset that a smart team will take advantage of.
Cowboys Draft Target: Central Florida DT Trysten Hill
NAME: Trysten Hill
POSITION: Defensive Tackle
SCHOOL: Central Florida
JERSEY: No. 9
RECRUITMENT RATING: 3-star
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Uploaded by Micah Wade on 2019-02-22.
The first thing that jumps off the tape when studying Trysten Hill is his first step quickness at the snap of the ball and his burst to get upfield. He is scheme diverse, but projects better as a 4-3 defensive tackle. Can play the one-technique or the three-technique in a 4-3 defense, but is at his best as a one-gapper.
Hill plays with a nonstop motor and high energy down after down. Doesn't take any plays off. Shows the ability to fight off blocks. Always working his hands and feet to free himself. Is equally disruptive harassing the quarterback as a gap penetrator and in the running game playing sideline to sideline.
Shows good agility and flexibility to bend and finish tackles behind line of scrimmage and in the open field. Can anchor down against double teams, but needs to improve his overall play strength. Uses a twitchy arm over and spin counter move to penetrate the gap as both a pass rusher and run defender.
There are questions about Trysten Hill's maturity, work ethic, and coach ability. He found himself in the doghouse last year at Central Florida and only started one game. Was he demoted because of the new coaching staff or are the character concerns about him factual? This is something teams will have to dive deeper into.
Needs to do a better job of playing under control. Will run himself out of gaps at times, which causes him to lose his gap responsibility. Can get washed out of the play by down blocks. Needs to develop a better feel and response to keep that from happening.
Can anchor down against double teams, but needs to add functional strength in order to become more consistent. Drops his head at times on his initial punch. Needs to develop a more diverse pass rushing repertoire. Relies too much on arm over and spin move.
Trysten Hill is a versatile defensive tackle capable playing the one-technique or the three-technique in the Dallas Cowboys 4-3 defensive scheme. Due to his first step quickness and high motor, he is likely better suited to play the three-technique. He has starting potential, but would likely be a rotational piece on the DL as a rookie behind Maliek Collins. His ability to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage and sidelined the sideline would be a welcomed addition along the Cowboys defensive front. He projects as a late Day 2 or early Day 3 draft pick, and that's exactly where the Dallas Cowboys would likely have to target him to acquire his services.
Cowboys Draft Target: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
NAME: Stanley Morgan Jr.
POSITION: Wide Receiver
CONFERENCE: Big Ten
JERSEY: No. 8
RECRUITMENT RATING: 3-star
"Where I come from ... I had to block for Leonard Fournette, I played on the same team as Tyrann Mathieu," Morgan said. "It's just guys like that around me that made me want to work harder, just to keep going and give it my all. It's something that I was born with."
Stanley Morgan Jr. was a consistent and productive wide receiver during his time at Nebraska. He projects as a "Z" receiver in the NFL, but is probably better suited to play in the slot because of his skill set. Might be the best route runner in the entire 2019 WR draft class.
There's no questioning his toughness and competitiveness. His passion for the game shows up on tape. Unafraid to carry his routes across the middle of field. Possess good separation ability due to his precise route running and his ability to change directions on a dime. Has an understanding of how to temper his routes as well and has a way of lulling defensive backs to sleep and catching them off guard.
Has soft natural hands and shows good technique at the catch point. Shows the ability to make contested catches. Large catch radius. Excellent catch focus and body control. Shows the ability to climb the ladder and high point passes. Unfazed with DBs draped on him and shows good spatial awareness along the sideline. Has a little wiggle to be a threat after the catch, but doesn't have homerun ability.
Stanley Morgan Jr. could be labeled as "just a guy" as a wide receiver prospect. There is nothing really special about his game and he has just average speed and athleticism. Despite his productivity and consistency at Nebraska, he may have already reached his peak.
Morgan may be nothing more than a slot receiver in the NFL. He doesn't possess the necessary speed to be a threat down the field and doesn't show a lot of burst out of his breaks. Average speed will limit his big-play ability as well. Struggles to beat press coverage, which could cause cornerbacks to sit on underneath routes.
Doesn't offer anything on special teams. Had a handful of opportunities at Nebraska as a kick and punt returner with very little success. Doesn't show a lot of functional strength on film. Lack of strength and power limits his blocking ability in the passing game. Arrested for marijuana possession in May 2017.
Although Stanley Morgan Jr. has the ability to play the "Z" position with the Dallas Cowboys, they would likely move him into the slot full-time as Cole Beasley's replacement now that he's officially moved on to the Buffalo Bills. He may not have the same kind of change of direction skills as Beasley, but Morgan's precise route running ability immediately makes him a threat in the Cowboys aerial attack as a rookie.
Morgan unfortunately doesn't offer much, if anything, on special teams. He returned a few kickoffs and punts during his time at Nebraska, but had marginal success. He will probably never be more than a WR3 and might have already reached his peak as a prospect, but he is the type of WR who can have a long career in the NFL. As a potential mid-round draft pick he is an intriguing slot option for the Cowboys, but probably won't help fans forget about No. 11 anytime soon.
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