The 2023 NFL Draft is two days away, so let's dive into the most exciting topic possible – deep-cut tight ends. Well, maybe it’s not that exciting at face value. But we also have to remember that George Kittle was a fifth-round pick and was drafted because the San Francisco 49ers took his college teammate/roommate in the third round. Mark Andrews wasn’t even the first tight end drafted by his own team. Darren Waller wasn’t even a tight end when he was initially drafted. There is gold in those later rounds of the NFL Draft, so sorting out the tight end sleepers and busts for our dynasty rookie rankings and 2023 fantasy football rankings is an important part of this process – and a potentially lucrative one. As you check out NFL mock drafts or prepare for fantasy football drafts, be sure to keep these incoming TE rookies in mind. Let's take a look at some under-the-radar 2023 NFL Draft tight end prospects who could be starring in your dynasty fantasy football lineups one day.
If you missed it, check out more positional scouting reports for the 2023 NFL Draft:
- Quarterback Top Prospects
- Running Back Top Prospects
- Running Back Sleepers
- Tight End Top Prospects
- Wide Receiver Top Prospects
As far as actual dynasty rookie rankings go, there are three pieces to the puzzle. There is college production, which can be evaluated via stats and film. We’re looking for gaudy numbers, success vs. man-to-man, chunk plays, broken tackles, etc. The second piece is workout metrics. Size, speed, relative athletic score (RAS), SPARQ-X score, etc. And the final piece, which we don’t have yet at the time of this article, is draft data. That includes draft capital, landing spot (with scheme), and draft narrative (trades, how many tight ends get drafted before, etc.).
We have two pieces of the puzzle and will get the third with the draft later this week. We just did a write-up on the five tight end prospects we like best. So what we are basically doing here is looking around at the early opinions of the community and separating the guys whose profile we like for fantasy football from those that we don’t like. “Sleepers” are guys we believe are undervalued and “busts” are the guys where we don’t really understand the hype. After the draft, we’ll recalibrate.
2023 NFL Draft Tight End Prospect Sleepers
Elijah Higgins, Stanford
The most popular meme for the tight end position is “Did you know he played basketball?” We’re all tired of it but it’s a joke that resonates for a reason - athletic specimens that convert to tight end have succeeded time and time again. Antonio Gates DID play basketball. So did Jimmy Graham. Logan Thomas played quarterback. Darren Waller played wide receiver. It makes all the sense in the world that taking a big, athletic dude and teaching him to play tight end would often result in a guy that does more pass-catching than blocking. And does it well.
In comes draft prospect and former Stanford wide receiver Elijah Higgins. He said himself at the combine that teams have asked him to play tight end at the next level. And that he’s been preparing for that by watching Evan Engram. I mean, Higgins lined up at slot 497 times, in-line 24 times, and out wide only 100 times so he’s already played a role that is no different than we’ve seen from guys like Mike Gesicki. His yardage total last year would be third-best behind Dalton Kincaid and Michael Mayer. And, at 6’3” 235 with a 4.54 forty, he’s essentially a slightly faster version of Juwan Johnson (another WR converted to TE). Most tight ends aren’t fantasy relevant for a year or two anyway and taxi squad spots don’t have positions tied to them in most cases so I’m just throwing Higgins in there and hoping he gets the eligibility. Just imagine these workout metrics below (via PlayerProfiler.com) when you compare him to other tight ends. We love Sam LaPorta who is 6’3” 245 and ran a 4.59 (who is also expected to play primarily out the slot). The risk of course is that Higgins doesn’t get TE eligibility but most of these guys won’t be fantasy relevant at all anyway so who cares? The floor for all these guys is zero, might as well aim high.
Will Mallory, Miami
Since we are talking about athletic tight ends to gamble on, we might as well talk about Will Mallory next. Technically, Elijah Higgins is still classified as a wide receiver so Will Mallory ran the fastest combine forty time of any of the tight ends with a 4.54 (95th percentile, for his size at 6’5”, per PlayerProfiler). On tape it’s not only easy to see how he utilizes his athleticism to his advantage but I was also impressed by his spatial awareness and his ability to find “creases” amongst defenders with the ball in his hands. He has a sneaky ability to gain extra yards to end plays. That type of body control and cognitive ability is what separates playmakers from the guys who simply get the yards in front of them and go down.
The knocks on him are his age and “lack of production” but he was behind NFL player Brevin Jordan early on and was top 10 in yards for tight ends last season. The industry seems to really like Luke Musgrave despite his lack of production. And, if we are going to give Musgrave “pedigree” points for his famous uncle Bill Musgrave, maybe we should consider that Will Mallory’s father Mike coaches for the Denver Broncos, his uncle Doug coached for the Atlanta Falcons, and his other uncle Curt is the head coach of Indiana State. So maybe Will Mallory should get TRIPLE pedigree points for that.
Josh Whyle, Cincinnati
It’s no secret that this tight-end class is blessed with athletic monsters. So why not continue to take stabs at the ones that skew the direction we like? Here is a look at the Relative Athletic Score chart for Josh Whyle, from RAS.football.
Per Kent Lee Platte, the creator of RAS, that score would rank 116 out of 1,020 tight ends from 1987 to 2023 so just outside the top 10%. And, when we look at the deficiencies like the low weight compared to his height, that’s much easier to stomach than him being slow or unathletic. A little time in the weight room could help sort that out. On tape, you can tell that his speed is meaningful in-game (which isn’t always the case) and he demonstrated the ability to high point the football on top of also being 6’7” (which again, isn’t always the case for big guys who like to catch with their body at times). If guys like Whyle or Mallory get even decent draft capital, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be taking a shot on them in the late rounds of dynasty rookie drafts.
Honorable Mention NFL Draft Rookie TE Sleepers
Cameron Latu, Alabama - These guys can be tough to evaluate because Alabama has so many playmakers. Did he not get a ton of targets because of competition? Or did that competition help open things up for him? On film, it’s hard to argue that he can make people miss and make plays in traffic but we would have liked to see more dominance at a dominant program.
Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State - Perhaps it’s just me but it feels like North and South Dakota schools seem to be pumping out the prospects as of late. Tucker Kraft to me is not particularly exciting but I do like the odds of him finding a job as a two-way tight end and he’s flying under the radar compared to some of the guys with similar profiles being ranked much higher.
Brayden Willis, Oklahoma - Willis is yet another guy who would be better served as part of a less stacked tight end class but ran out of college eligibility at the wrong time. He’s fairly average and an older prospect so draft capital is going to mean a lot here. But, much like Tucker Kraft, it also seems like no one is talking about him when his profile isn’t far off from the guys that everyone likes.
2023 NFL Draft Tight End Prospect Busts
Luke Musgrave, Oregon State
This section is going to be comprised of two types of players - guys that I believe will be overdrafted in fantasy and guys that I believe will end up skewing more toward blocking tight ends (or not playing at all). In the case of Musgrave, I lean towards the former. He does have some things going for him - he’s fairly athletic as a former lacrosse, track, and ski racing star. As we mentioned earlier in the article, he also has the pedigree of having an uncle, Bill Musgrave, who played in the NFL and now coaches in the NFL. Those are parts of the reason I believe that Musgrave will potentially be drafted too high in the NFL draft and fantasy drafts alike.
The problem is that he didn’t really show us much. Statistically, he was unimpressive with his best season seeing 22 catches for 304 yards and one touchdown. His on-paper college accomplishments were so lacking that, of the four sentences on his Wikipedia page discussing his time at Oregon State, one of them is dedicated to “that one time he blocked a punt”. In this first article with our top 5 TEs, we talked about how Sam LaPorta broke 20 tackles in a single season - Musgrave only broke two his entire time in college. People are leaning on the injury his senior year as a factor but we saw him play in 20 games and he averaged about 32 yards a game in those. We're basically just drafting him because he ran a 4.61 at 6’6” and his uncle is famous. Maybe that will be enough but I’m not really paying the price of admission for that when some guys have him ranked as high as the top three.
Luke Schoonmaker, Michigan
Let’s really take a second to think about “scouting” tight end for fantasy football. So few of them actually become fantasy relevant that we personally don’t need to watch too much blocking - guys that are good blockers but bad pass catchers and guys that are not good enough at blocking to get on the field suffer the same fate. They don’t matter. So we really just need to figure out which guys have that special something in the passing game and then hope they are good enough in the blocking game to make it happen. Or, are bad enough in the blocking game that they just line up at WR the whole time. That would honestly be great for fantasy in the right system, as we saw with Mike Gesicki playing under Brian Flores/Chan Gailey.
And, due to the nature of the position, you can watch every catch pretty easily. Luke Schoonmkaer caught 54 passes in college so it takes like 10-15 minutes to watch every single one. When you watch a guy like George Kittle at Iowa, it’s pretty obvious right away that he’s electric. He’s breaking tackles, ripping off chunks, hurdling, and finishing plays. With Luke Schoonmaker, it takes over three minutes before you see him make a single catch vs. man-to-man coverage. Perhaps the scheme was to blame but he’s really not making plays for himself. You can take the completely uncovered plays like play-action or RPOs and throw them out the window for evaluation purposes and that doesn’t leave a whole lot to love for Schoonmaker outside of a couple of nice catches vs. Iowa. If he had a crazy athletic profile to lean on that would be one thing but he really doesn’t.
Payne Durham, Purdue
I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one - a 4.87 forty-yard dash is simply unacceptable for what I look for in a fantasy tight end. We are talking Jack Doyle caliber speed here and Jack Doyle is actually Durham’s best comparable player on PlayerProfiler. Here is a tweet that illustrates my issue with Jack Doyle-type players.
A complete lack of speed like that leads to a low average depth of target (aDot) and low yards after the catch (YAC). Those guys either need to get peppered with targets or score a boatload of touchdowns. So I understand that real-life NFL scouts might like Durham for his blocking and he will inevitably score a touchdown or two that gets folks excited but I don’t think he’s ever going to be the kind of guy that we can comfortably slot into a lineup in fantasy.
Honorable Mention NFL Draft Rookie TE Busts
Davis Allen, Clemson - If we don’t like Payne Durham for his lack of speed it’s hard to like Davis Allen at 4.84. The one thing I do like is that he can go up and get the football but can’t draft a guy just because he’s tall.
Brenton Strange, Penn State - He may have beaten out Zach Kuntz for the starting job at Penn State but that was likely for his blocking as he didn’t do a whole lot production-wise with the opportunity.
Blake Whiteheart, Wake Forest - His workout metrics remind me of a Dalton Schultz or Austin Hooper type but he had very little production in his three years at Wake Forest (541 yards total in his career is less than what Will Mallory had last year alone). They also asked him to stay in and block on over 20% of his pass plays which is brutal. I don’t really like the profiles for Schultz and Hooper as is so a mystery box version of that does not sound particularly appealing.
Related NFL Links:
- 2023 NFL Mock Draft 1st Round 2.0: Bryce Young is a Lock to Carolina Panthers at Number 1
- 2023 NFL Draft Top Running Back Prospects: Bijan Robinson Highlights Incoming Rookie RB Class
- 2023 NFL Draft Top Quarterback Prospects: Bryce Young & C.J. Stroud Headline the Rookie QB Class
- 2023 NFL Draft Top Tight End Prospects: Dalton Kincaid and Michael Mayer Among Best TE Rookies
- 2023 NFL Draft Running Back Prospects: Tank Bigsby Headlines the Rookie RB Sleepers