It’s officially reset time in college football.
We are on to the 2022 season, where teams across the country will compete for a chance to play for the College Football Playoff National Championship at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. There’s still a lot to be figured out between now and then with team rosters and depth charts — the transfer portal deadline is months away. But the 2022 NFL Draft deadline is approaching for those who are eligible, so we now know which of college football’s top talents will be leaving and returning for this season.
As such, there's no better time to dive into early position rankings of the top returning players in college football.
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The following are the top 10 tight ends returning to college football this fall. Please note that this has nothing to do with pro potential.
Bowers was in the conversation for best tight end in college football despite being a true freshman this past season. He earned a 91.7 PFF receiving grade in 2021 while generating 3.14 yards per route run. This is a level of production we've never seen from a true freshman — and a level rarely obtained by any player at the position. With the help of his speed, explosiveness and ball skills, Bowers is already a college football star.
Mayer was the engine of Notre Dame‘s passing offense, as he was responsible for more combined first downs and touchdowns than any other pass-catcher on the roster. The 2020 five-star recruit also racked up more such plays than any other Power Five tight end. Mayer ran well over half of his routes in the slot or out wide, making his 82.0 receiving grade for the year that much more impressive. The true sophomore’s 15 explosive plays in the slot or out wide tied for the most in the FBS by a tight end.
Gilbert didn’t play a down with Georgia in 2021 after shining in 2020 for the LSU Tigers. He didn’t play due to personal reasons, and it’s currently unknown whether he will be able to suit up in 2022 or not. If Gilbert is able to take the field this fall, it would be a big win for Georgia.
Gilbert isn't much of an in-line blocker, but his overall athleticism and receiving ability are in the elite tier for the position. His true freshman campaign was reminiscent of Kyle Pitts as an underclassman. The No. 5 overall recruit from the class of 2020 lived up to the hype as a true freshman in 2020, producing an impressive 73.0 receiving grade that ranked first among first-year tight ends. Gilbert did this while running over 55% of his routes from the slot or out wide. The 6-foot-5, 249-pounder has a massive catch radius and some craftiness both as a route-runner and after the catch. He hauled in seven of his 13 contested targets and broke nine tackles on 35 receptions in 2020.
It’s borderline whether Kuithe should even be labeled a tight end. He doesn’t have prototypical tight end size at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, and he has transitioned to running well over half of his routes in the slot or split out wide. At the end of the day, Kuithe is playing in-line tight end on just over 50% of his total snaps. Kuithe’s athleticism, route-running, run-after-catch ability and overall production lands him here at No. 4. He has now earned a receiving grade above 75.0 for four straight seasons. Kuithe broke 15 tackles and averaged 6.1 yards after the catch on 50 receptions in 2021.
Bell made a lot of noise in South Carolina’s bowl win over UNC. Despite running only seven routes, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end hauled in five passes for 159 yards and two scores. He also took a counter run for a 20-yard gain. He posted a 95.1 PFF grade for the game, making it one of the best tight end performances PFF College has on record.
Overall in 2021, Bell was ultra-productive despite only running 134 routes for the season. He saw 41 targets in total and generated 3.64 yards per route run. Bell saw mostly underneath targets and did his part by adding value after the catch. He picked up 11.8 yards after catch per reception and broke 13 tackles on 30 catches.
After an underwhelming first two years on campus, All is starting to finally develop into the player Michigan was expecting. The 2019 four-star recruit earned a 75.4 receiving grade this past season, more than 30 grading points higher than his 2020 mark. The best word to describe All’s game is grit. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end looks to impose his will in the running game. All recorded five big-time run-blocks en route to a 76.4 run-block grade this season. The latter ranked eighth among Power Five tight ends with at least 200 such snaps.
Kincaid is a completely opposite player than his teammate just ahead of him on this list, Brant Kuithe. After transferring from San Diego prior to 2020, Kincaid earned an 83.2 receiving grade in his first season consistently on the field for the Utes in 2021. His ability to win at the catch point was a key reason why. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound tight end’s ball skills stand out in every game played. He caught seven of his nine contested opportunities and didn’t drop any of his 45 targets. Kincaid is exceptional at adjusting to passes downfield and welcomes the fight against defensive backs for the ball. And as the data shows, he almost always came out on top. Kincaid is an exceptional complementary piece to Kuithe and one of the top red-zone threats at the position.
Stogner was in the midst of a breakout sophomore season in 2020 before suffering an injury in Week 10 that led to a staph infection. Stogner lost 35 pounds during the brutal recovery process, and he struggled to regain that breakout level of play when he returned in 2021. Before the major injury and infection last season, Stogner owned an 87.3 receiving grade while putting up 2.72 yards per route run and a 15-plus yard gain on 32% of his targets. All three of those metrics ranked inside the top five among all FBS tight ends. He will try to reclaim that old form as he reunites with quarterback Spencer Rattler and head coach Shane Beamer at South Carolina.
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Ford has gone from walk-on to one of the best pass-catching threats Louisville has on its roster in just a few years time. He has produced at a high level ever since he was given a notable role in this offense in 2019. The Louisville H-back has earned a 91.4 receiving grade while generating a 139.2 passer rating when targeted over that span. Ford is mostly asked to work underneath in the Cardinals’ offense, but that’s not to say the 6-foot-2, 240-pound tight end hasn’t impressed going up against single coverage in his career. He owns a 98.7 receiving grade on such plays since 2019 (27 targets versus single coverage).
10. SAM LAPORTA, IOWA HAWKEYES
LaPorta was one of the few bright spots in an underwhelming Iowa offense this past season. He was undoubtedly the most effective receiver on the roster, as his team-leading 80.0 receiving grade attests. That mark was also good for 16th among qualifying FBS tight ends for the season. He did a good job of converting a high target volume into moving the chains despite lackluster quarterback play. LaPorta’s 25 receptions past the sticks were fourth among Power Five tight ends in 2021.
SLEEPER TO WATCH: JAHLEEL BILLINGSLEY, TEXAS LONGHORNS
Billingsley reportedly got into Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s dog house in 2021 and will now play for his old ‘Bama offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, who is now the head coach at Texas. Prior to a nightmarish 50.6 receiving grade in 2021, Billingsley showed a lot of potential in 2020. He earned a 73.5 receiving grade that year, catching 18 of 19 targets for 287 yards and three touchdowns. The 2019 four-star recruit has the tools to become a top-tier tight end in college football, but he'll need to build on that early success in Texas.