Under the Radar 2019 NFL Draft Targets: TE (Fantasy Football)
The NFL Scouting Combine begins this week, and we’re about to learn a lot about players who possibly haven’t generated much noise until now. The Combine is an opportunity for players to showcase their athleticism and measurables that can’t always be perceived by studying film. Some prospects who played for top colleges will just show us more of what we already expected to see, but others from smaller schools finally get a chance to stand out.
Before everything gets officially measured, I want to look at tight end, a relatively overlooked position. For fantasy purposes, running backs and wide receivers usually generate the most excitement and anticipation, but I compiled a list of three tight ends who have fallen under the radar and deserve a closer look.
Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama)
Of course, the argument can be made that it’s impossible to label any Alabama player as “under the radar.” They are the most popular college football team in the country and are always on TV, so how could their top tight end be considered overlooked? I only consider Irv Smith Jr. overlooked in the context of seeing him consistently ranked under the Iowa duo of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
Smith deserves to be in the same conversation as Fant and Hockenson, and he might be a more well-rounded player than either of them. His versatility as a blocker is the first thing that stands out. At Alabama, he was an elite run blocker who lined up all over the formation. As an in-line blocker, he’s able to hold his own despite being a bit small for the position, and out of the backfield he excels at paving a path for his running backs. His technique is beautiful. He runs under and then up into his blocks, and dominates linebackers and safeties in the second level, winning with his hands and lower body strength. He shows a clear understanding of the angles to take to clear the most space for the ball-carrier.
As a route runner, Smith is reliable. He’s not the fastest guy, but he’ll regularly beat linebackers with vertical speed and has smooth hands to secure his catches. He could stand to be quicker and snappier as he sometimes loses speed hitting his breaks, but he’s able to create separation with his frame and is fast enough once he gets going. He’s also adept at leveraging the zone to find spaces where he’s wide open.
Smith is a versatile blocker and a relatively polished route runner who should find work right away in the NFL. His size is a slight deterrent, but his technical skills should win out.
Isaac Nauta (Georgia)
If I had to describe Isaac Nauta in one word, I’d call him a fighter. He’s still relatively raw in his technique and development as an in-line blocker and in his route running, but his strength, speed, and tenacity earn him a closer look.
Nauta will routinely take the fight to the defender as a blocker in the run game and is more than satisfactory in pass protection when asked to do so. Nauta’s strong anchor and aggressive play help him win against bigger defenders, creating holes for his running backs to blast through. While watching his tape, I lost count of how many times I saw him bulldoze through a linebacker.
Overall, his blocking technique and route running both need refinement. He can get ahead of himself in space, which results in taking a bad angle at a block before being quickly evaded or pushed away by the defender. As a receiver, he blows by linebackers on seam routes, has soft hands and the ability to make athletic/aggressive catches (he’s also very physical after the catch). However, his route tree is not very developed, and he can lose speed getting into his breaks.
Alize Mack (Notre Dame)
Alize Mack has a significant list of “cons” heading into the draft. At the top of that list for me are his multiple suspensions for academic ineligibility and internal team issues. Coming into the NFL with off-the-field issues is not a great way to start, and he’s also been criticized for his lack of effort on the football field and in preparation.
As a player though, he’s an incredible athlete. He’s big, strong, and fast, and will be a matchup nightmare for any linebacker in coverage. He’s not immune to dropped passes, but he high-points the ball well and has made some incredibly acrobatic contested catches. His speed at the tight end position makes him a threat as well with the ball in his hands, though you’d like and expect him to be a bit more physical.
As a blocker, he’s inconsistent. He has put some great flashes on tape. I’ve watched him make picture perfect blocks as a mover in the run game where he has completely taken defenders out of a play for his running back, but it doesn’t happen often enough. Many times as an in-line blocker you’ll see him getting out-muscled by a defensive end.
Mack has flashed impressively as a receiver and as a blocker, but he needs development and consistency at the next level to succeed, provided he sorts out his off-field and effort concerns.