NFL Draft News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Preseason tight end rankings

After a relatively down class of tight ends in 2020, it’s time to get excited about the position once again in 2021. There’s some exciting young talent, and we could see multiple first-rounders at the position in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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[Editors Note: PFF’s customizable NFL Mock Draft Simulator gives you the opportunity to be the GM of any team and is now updated with a select group of 2021 prospects]

1. Kyle Pitts, Florida

Since the turn of the century, only T.J. Hockenson, Eric Ebron, Vernon Davis, and Kellen Winslow have been top-10 picks in the NFL draft at the tight end position. There’s a good chance Pitts becomes the fifth whenever he decides to declare for the draft. His sophomore tape was that scintillating. The guys with tight end size who move the way he does either go for 800-plus receiving yards or 10-plus sacks year in and year out in the league.

Pitts went for 649 yards last season to lead all Florida receivers. He dropped only four passes on 58 catchable targets and broke five tackles after the catch, as well. The thing that truly separates Pitts from the rest of the pack is his separation. He was beating LSU’s Derek Stingley — the highest-graded cornerback in the country — one-on-one as an outside receiver last year. Florida used him in that role a good deal, as well, with 105 snaps split wide and 156 from the slot.

The negative with Pitts is clear as day. As an inline blocker, he’s not even close at the moment. I’m not going to grill him right now because not a lot of 19-year old true sophomores excel at it, but it’s something we need to see improve going forward.

Outlook for 2020

Pitts' biggest “win” in 2020 may not even come on the football field but, rather, on the team’s official website. He simply needs to come in considerably bigger than the 240 pounds he was listed at last year to be viewed as an early-round option for a lot of teams around the NFL. Defenses around the league will not respect him as a tight end whatsoever and match personnel like he’s a receiver if he doesn’t improve his play strength. And all eyes will be on Pitts in the Florida offense, as the unit lost its top three receivers from a season ago.

2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State

The biggest weaknesses for Kyle Pitts just so happens to be Freiermuth’s biggest strengths. He’s a man among boys already at the college level with his blocking prowess and contested catch ability. Listed at 6-foot-5, 259 pounds, Freiermuth already has the ideal inline tight end body type with far more athleticism than most that size. It’s lofty, but the Gronk comparisons that have been levied onto him aren’t unwarranted based on his tape after he broke nine tackles on 43 catches this season.

He’s already proven to be one of the best red-zone threats in the country, as well, with 15 touchdown receptions in his two seasons with the Nittany Lions. While he’s not near the athlete that Pitts is, Freiermuth has a much more well-rounded game at this point in his career.

Outlook for 2020

Even though he’s going to be only a junior this season, Freiermuth technically could have declared after last season because he took a prep year following high school. He’ll turn 22 in October, which takes some of the sheen off his “grown man” strength. Still, he’s already shown a fairly polished skillset and feels pretty much penciled in as an early-round pick. Freiermuth is the far superior prospect in our eyes compared to last year’s first tight end drafted — Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, who was taken 43rd overall.

3. Brevin Jordan, Miami (FL)

At this point in time, Jordan is more a big athlete than he is a real tight end. Listed at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Jordan is quite firmly an H-back body type and decidedly not an inline blocker. What he does have, though, is athleticism you can’t teach.

He’s unfortunately not close to the two guys above him in the ball skills department. There are body catches all over his tape, and he caught only two of his 11 contested catch opportunities last season. That screams the type of tight end teams would use on crossers or flat routes, but I wouldn’t count on him to make plays on third down or in the red zone.

Outlook for 2020

There’s a lot we still want to see from Jordan, as outlined above. Besides getting his weight up, we desperately need to see his ball skills improve to warrant a top-two round grade from us. While athleticism is a prerequisite at tight end nowadays, and Jordan certainly has that, it will only get you so far.

4. Charlie Kolar, Iowa State

Kolar has, quite easily, some of the best ball skills in the entire class. Listed at 6-foot-6, 257 pounds, he has had no problem high-pointing jump balls and back shoulders over the course of his career. For his career, he’s dropped only two of 62 catchable targets, and he finished fourth among all tight ends with 11 contested catches in 2019. While he’ll never be confused for a dynamic threat at the position, Kolar at least proved capable of getting downfield, hauling in the second-most receptions that were targeted 10-plus yards from the line of scrimmage of any tight end (28).

Outlook for 2020

While Iowa State utilizes Kolar a ton as a split receiver, with only 298 of his 583 snaps last season coming as an inline tight end, his size and skill set is indicative of an inline tight end in the NFL. We simply need to see more of that in 2020 after he had only 12 positively graded run blocks all last season.

5. Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin

Of all the tight ends mentioned on this list, there’s a good chance Ferguson is the slowest. If you’re not in the 4.7-second range at the tight end position, you’re simply capped in terms of the value you can bring to an offense. That being said, Ferguson brings pretty much everything else about the position to the table. He shows exceptional balance after the catch with 17 broken tackles on 69 receptions in two seasons as a starter. He routinely plucks the ball out of the air and caught five of his seven contested targets last season. The pièce de résistance for Ferguson is his run blocking. He had the second-most positively graded run blocks last season of any Power Five tight end. Only a redshirt junior this upcoming season, Ferguson is a likely candidate to return to Wisconsin in 2021.

Outlook for 2020

Ferguson is not suddenly going to sprout some wheels overnight, so that’s not even worth bringing up as an option to improve his stock. Where I think Ferguson can “win” the most in 2020 is by simply adding weight. He's already one of the best inline blockers in the country at 246 pounds, and if he got up toward the 260 range, then evaluators would feel much better about that prowess — as well as his tackle-breaking ability — translating to the NFL.

6. Trey McBride, Colorado State

McBride is a big-bodied tight end at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, but don’t let that weight lull you into thinking he’s a plodder like some opposing defenses assumed last year. McBride can get out and breeze past a linebacker if need be. He can also make plays in traffic with the best of them. As a true sophomore in 2019, McBride caught eight of his 10 contested targets and dropped only one of his 46 catchable passes.

Of course, McBride comes with the obvious caveat of level of competition. He wasn’t exactly bowling over future NFL players when he broke five tackles after the catch last season. There is a simplicity to McBride’s game after the catch, though, that I can respect — as I don’t think I saw him do anything other than plow straight upfield with the ball in his hands. He still needs to develop as a route-runner, but there are some real tools to work with.

Outlook for 2020

Colorado State has sneakily been a wide receiver pipeline in recent years with Rashard Higgins, Michael Gallup and Preston Williams all hailing from the Rams. In 2020, I’d like to see if McBride can get some of that shine. He played only 43 snaps as a split wide receiver in 2019, and getting him involved on the outside more would not only give him a more nuanced route tree but also a more featured role in the offense.

7. Brant Kuithe, Utah

Kuithe is yet another tight end with the requisite athleticism but not the requisite size. He checks in at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds — right in the no man's land for the position. While his numbers look exceptional —34 catches for 602 yards last season — Kuithe racked up a ton of yards on seam and wheel routes. That sort of production is often scheme based and not necessarily indicative of what one can do as a receiver.

His biggest value add at this point is what he can do after the catch. Kuithe played running back in high school, and it shows with the ball in his hands. He averaged 8.0 yards after the catch — sixth-most in the country last year — and broke six tackles on 34 catches.

Outlook for 2020

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that Kutihe will end up declaring after his upcoming true junior season. He simply has too far to go physically to make the early leap. If he stays four years, we could be looking at one of the most productive tight end careers in recent memory, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him as a Day 2 pick.

8. Noah Gray, Duke

Gray is another tight end who has yet to get to the NFL size thresholds, but he is at least knocking on the door. Listed at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Gray is close to the NFL size but was not particularly close to traditional NFL usage. He was, for the most part, Duke’s slot receiver last season. Only 127 of his 647 snaps came inline in 2019. The fact that he was able to take 384 snaps from the slot and still produce 50 catches is encouraging, though. He’s an extremely sure-handed tight end who has dropped only one of 76 catchable passes in his career.

Gray’s usage last season did him no favors in terms of showcasing his talent to the NFL. Five-yard ins/outs, flats and slant routes litter his tape. His average reception came 4.7 yards down the field — an extremely low number. We want to see more than 16 targets that come 10-plus yards downfield in 2020 for Gray to showcase what he can do as an athlete.

Outlook for 2020

While Gray has proven capable on the underneath route tree, he hasn’t shown it from a traditional tight end alignment. As one of the most dynamic receivers in a rough Duke offense, that simply may not ever be in the Cards for the Blue Devils. Any run blocking ability is going to be guesswork with how little we’ve seen from him.

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