College News & Analysis

PFF 2022 Preseason John Mackey Award Watch List: Most outstanding tight end in college football

Indianapolis, IN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs tight end Brock Bowers (19) against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2022 CFP college football national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We often hear that football is a chess game. As football has evolved more and more toward finding mismatches in the passing game, the tight end position has become that critical rook, knight or even queen piece that can swing momentum and scoreboards in a single move.

The John Mackey Award is given to college football’s most outstanding tight end. Last year, Trey McBride ended up taking home the hardware, with notable NFL names such as Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson and Kyle Pitts having received the award in the recent past.

Here’s an inside look at a handful of players we have our eyes on for the PFF Mackey Award Watch List heading into the 2022 season.

Check out even more in-depth coverage with PFF's 2022 College Football Preview Magazine.

The Headliners

Michael Mayer, Notre Dame

Mayer enters the 2022 college football season as TE1 on many early draft boards. With the nickname “Baby Gronk,” why shouldn’t he be? Notre Dame’s 6-foot-4, 250-pound junior tight end has been one of the best at his position since his true freshman year. That year, he was tied for first on the team with 42 catches and ranked second on the team in receiving yards (450). Last year, he once again led the team in catches.

With back-to-back seasons of heavy volume from Mayer, there’s no reason to expect a lesser result in 2022. His 840 receiving yards last season ranked fourth-most in the FBS. He has the stats, the notoriety and the hype to be in position to win the award

Brock Bowers, Georgia

One year ago today, Bowers had yet to even play a snap in college football. Now, he enters the 2022 season regarded as one of the best tight ends in the country, if not the best. As a true freshman in 2021, Bowers was Georgia’s leading receiver with 56 catches for 882 yards and 13 touchdowns. He finished the year as an All-SEC selection and national champion. 

Bowers will once again command the full attention of both Georgia’s offense and opposing defenses. His 92.9 overall grade last season was third-highest in the country among FBS tight ends. He’s many people’s choice to be the Mackey Award winner when the 2022 season is all said and done.

Other Favorites

Jaheim Bell, South Carolina

A lot of teams try to say their versatile offensive players are a “Swiss Army knife,” but not many can actually carry that title the way Bell does. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder truly lines up everywhere for the Gamecocks. In 2021, he was second on the team in receptions (30) and receiving yards (497) while tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (5). Those stats came from a split of 168 snaps inline, 83 snaps in the slot, 27 snaps out of the backfield and 30 snaps out wide. With all that diverse usage, he still finished the season with an 84.9 overall grade, 11th-best among all FBS tight ends.

Arik Gilbert, Georgia

Gilbert is unique in just about every way you can measure a player. Physically, he’s 6-foot-5 and, depending on who you ask, around 255-260 pounds. Those measurables put him right around the 70th percentile for an NFL tight end. Then you watch him move at that size, and you’re blown away. The explosiveness and overall athleticism pop off the screen. This has been evident for a long time with Gilbert, as he was the No. 1 tight end recruit in the 2020 class.

But his journey also makes him unique. He started his college career at LSU yet played in only eight games. He then briefly transferred to Florida, but not even for long enough to put on the pads. He soon announced he’d be transferring to Georgia but did not play in the 2021 season. For 2022, we’re hoping to see a full season out of Gilbert for the first time in his college career. There was talk of moving him into more of a wide receiver role this season, but that’s unlikely at his current reported weight. 

There is so much hype around Gilbert for how talented he is, but we haven’t even seen him on the field in quite some time. Still, the talent is undeniable, and that’s why he's high on this list.

Sam LaPorta, Iowa

To win a college football award, especially on offense, you need volume. LaPorta has that. Among Big Ten tight ends last year, LaPorta ranked first in catches (53), receiving yards (670), yards after catch (299), yards after contact (206) and catches of 15-plus yards (18). He will once again be a focal point for the Hawkeyes’ passing attack.

The Best of the Next

With Jameson Williams, John Metchie III and Jahleel Billingsley no longer at Alabama, there are plenty of targets up for grabs in 2022. Latu is slated to see a lot of those. He had a very quiet season before saving his best for last: five catches, 102 receiving yards and a touchdown in the national championship.

Yurosek had a three-game stretch in the middle of 2021 where he caught 17 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown. That was one of the just three touchdowns he caught all year. If that number goes up, he could get some steam amongst voters.

Kincaid was tied for fourth among FBS tight ends with eight touchdowns last season. PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner has Kincaid as his No. 2 tight end in the class headed into the season, and that’s because of how natural of a receiver he is. His 85.4 grade was a top-25 mark in the country among FBS tight ends.

As for Kuntz, his 73 receptions were the second-most of any tight end, and his 692 receiving yards were also top 10 at his position. He came away with a 79.4 receiving grade for 2021, a top-40 mark in the FBS. He has offensive efficiency and emphasis on his side.

Names To Know

Washington stands out (literally) due to his size. He’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, which would put him in the 95th and 94th percentiles, respectively, for tight ends in the NFL. But, he’s more of a powerhouse blocking tight end. With just 17 receptions and over 300 receiving yards to his name across the past two years, he would have to undergo a complete play style overhaul to win the award.

Speaking of play style overhauls, Auburn’s John Samuel tallied 16 catches, 158 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns through the first three seasons of his career but went on to catch 33 passes for 413 yards in 2021. It's hard to say if he'll build on last year's effort, but he’s a fun long shot.

Penn State's tight end duo of Strange and Johnson could be potential standouts. Both had similar stats last season, but with Jahan Dotson off to the NFL, that’s 91 receptions and over 1,100 receiving yards the Nittany Lions will be looking to replace.

Finally, we have Michigan’s duo of All and Schoonmaker. All recorded 38 receptions for 437 yards and two touchdowns. His 77.0 receiving grade was a top-10 in the Big Ten among tight ends last year. Meanwhile, Schoonmaker brought in 17 receptions for 165 yards and three touchdowns.

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