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NFL Draft Order

2021 NFL Draft Tight End Sleepers

by Eric Froton
Updated On: March 20, 2021, 2:00 pm ET

There are a few tight ends in the late-round mix that I feel could outperform their draft slot and provide value in NFL fantasy leagues if they manage to garner significant playing time.

Dynasty leaguers will certainly want to take note of the following names once Kyle Pitts and Pat Freiermuth are off the board.

 

Matt Bushman - BYU

A former three-star recruit out of Tucson, AZ, Bushman was rated as the 35th best tight end out of the 2014 high school class. One of the elder statesmen of the 2021 NFL Draft crop, he served a two-year mission in Santiago, Chile before enrolling at BYU, so he checks in at a ripe 25 years old. 

An extremely productive player from the moment he stepped on campus, Bushman rang up at least 500 receiving yards in each of his three seasons at BYU. His advanced pass catching acumen is reflected in his 81.6 receiving grade in 2018 and 77.1 grade in 2019. BYU essentially built their passing game around him for three years, not many tight ends can make that claim.

He overcame moderate drop problems in his freshman year, where he donked five of 54 catchable pass opportunities. Worked tirelessly at improving and it paid off, dropping only one pass in each of the next two seasons, spanning 96 catchable targets. His vice-grip like hands earned the star tight end a pristine 87.1 hands grade from PFF in 2019 en route to being named to the Mackey Award and Walter Camp Award watch lists.

Bushman proved his worth against quality opponents such as Washington, SDSU Utah and Boise State. HC Sitake designed his game plans against the upper-tier defenses to take advantage of Bushman’s consistent matchup advantages in coverage. Legitimate field stretcher between the hashes with an average target depth of 13.0 yards in 2018 and 11.8 yards in 2019. Both marks ranked in the top five nationally, as did his superb 14.6 yards per catch average over that time frame. He also ranked sixth in the nation in receiving yardage and 10th in receptions in 2019.

Unfortunately heading into the 2020 season the Cougars’ star tight end was the victim of terrible timing, as he ruptured his Achilles' tendon shortly before the season started. To make things even worse, he had surgery to repair it just five days before his daughter was born. Ever the optimist, Bushman said becoming a father helped him endure the rigors of rehabbing from the injury, stating “I was down in the dumps about the injury, for sure,” he said. “But having her there was definitely helpful, so I am grateful for that.”

Fortunately for Bushman, he has been training daily at EXOS where his physical therapy has been going well and should put him on track to be able to participate when rookie camps open in the summer. Father-in-law is former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, so dominant tight end play clearly runs in the family.

Bushman has a thin lower body for a tight end but he is an accomplished receiver who is a virtuoso in the receiving game, as his tape is littered with examples of him reaching back to reel in a wayward pass while at the same time planting and pivoting in the opposite direction to maximize the yards after catch. To even attempt to pivot without securing the ball shows the supreme confidence the talented tight end has in his hands. 

He uses his elite hands instead of “body catching”, as his vast catch radius allows Bushman to corral even errant passes down at his shoe tops. Terrific body control and good hands fighter who plays through contact when a defender tries to knock him off his route. Disguises his routes extremely well in-line, faking blocks before slipping out in the flat to burn the befuddled inside linebacker who just blew his coverage. 

A crafty route runner who is effective catching passes when flexed out or in-line, as he split his reps evenly between the two positions. It’s scary to think what he might have been able to do with a fully formed Zach Wilson at the helm of the BYU offense this season, as he was saddled with Tanner Mangum for his first two years in Provo. He is a poor run blocker that struggles to hold the point of attack against athletic EDGE defenders. Projects as primarily a passing down flex tight end at the NFL level. 

Bushman has one of the larger ranges in the tight end group when it comes to his draftnik evaluations. He is ranked as TE22 by Tony Pauline and TE20 by The Draft Network, while Mel Kiper doesn’t have him rated as a top-10 tight end and PFF pegs him as TE12. However Todd McShay places Bushman as the 5th best TE in the class based on his exceptional receiving acumen. I rank Bushman as the 7th best tight end in the 2021 NFL Draft class and feel like he has upside that isn’t being accounted for by the draft community.

 

Pro Wells, TCU

A two-sport basketball/football standout from Dixie Hollins High School in Saint Petersburg, FL, Wells attended Northwest Mississippi JC before transferring as a JUCO to TCU prior to the 2018 season. A three-star prospect, he was rated as the fourth best JUCO tight end and 59th overall player in the nation. 

He dipped his toes in the water getting acclimated to the collegiate level in 2018, maintaining his redshirt while still logging 14 snaps in four games. He broke out with an All-Big 12 worthy 2019, reeling in 17-of-28 passes for 196 yards, 61% catch rate, 11.5 YPC and five touchdowns.

He had issues with drops in 2019 however - posting 4 in 2` catch opportunities in 2019. But straightened out those issues by reeling in all 13 catchable pass opportunities this season, earning an excellent 82.3 hands grade from PFF for his 2020 showing. Ran 83% of routes from the slot, but was competent in pass protection when called upon, receiving pass block grades of 70.1 in 2019 and 73.1 in 2020 according to PFF.

In 2020 Wells improved his production across the board on a per-down basis, catching 13-of-20 passes for 195 yards, 65% catch rate, 15.0 YPC and three touchdowns while playing in 10 games for the Horned Frogs. His average target depth was an impressive 13.2 yards last year and 12.6 in 2019, showing he wasn’t just used as a check down option for TCU’s accuracy-challenged QB Max Duggan. He paid off those down field looks with big gains and acrobatic catches.

The stocky tight end showed out against good competition - vs. OU, he beat Delarrin Turner-Yell on a post before reeling in a nice catch and absorbing a heavy shot from converging S Justin Broiles who, despite a head of steam, bounced right off of the massive Wells allowing the Horned Frogs’ tight end to rumble for another 40 yards before finally being pulled down. This data point belies a greater trend of Wells being difficult to pull down, as he broke five tackles in only 13 tackles.

His 115.6 Passer Rating when targeted reflects his ability to make plays when called upon. In a more volume based passing attack, Wells would have turned more looks into greater production. However HC Gary Patterson’s system preferred to utilize Wells as an up-the seam weapon to deploy against smaller slot corners or slower linebackers when the matchup was favorable. 

Wells has several upper echelon traits that standout out on film. His bull-like strength makes it difficult to bring him down once the ball is in his hands, while still possessing enough vertical to go up and get jump balls in the end zone and over the middle. His high school basketball tape is a sight to behold, as his multiple windmill dunk highlights foreshadow his ultra-athletic NFL profile. For perspective, eight of his 32 career catches went for touchdowns. Fast enough to stretch the field up the seam, while being stout enough to take a shot and still hold onto the ball. 

Most NFL draft evaluators have Wells in the TE10-13 range, which is understandable given his lack of high volume usage. However I feel his upside and athleticism could vault him into fantasy relevance sooner rather than later, and for the very reasonable price of a fifth/sixth round selection.

 

Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss

Yeboah attended Parkland Senior High in Allentown, PA where he played wide receiver and defensive back in addition to handling all kicking duties. Only a lowly rated two-star recruit coming out of high school, Temple was the only FBS school to offer Yeboah a scholarship. He rewarded the Owls’ faith by catching 47-of-74 passes for 538 yards and six touchdowns over his four year tenure. 

Yeboah took a backseat in the down field passing game since the Owls had a pair of excellent wideouts in Jadan Blue and Branden Mack, both of whom received over 100 targets and eclipsed the 900-yard plateau in 2019. This trend is evident in his average target depth of 7.4 yards over his four years at Temple. Despite a relative dearth of opportunities in 2019, Yeboah cashed in five of his 19 receptions for touchdowns while every one of his other 14 receptions went for first downs. His efficiency and dependability bear out in his excellent 136.3 passer rating when targeted and 70% catch rate. 

Ole Miss HC Lane Kiffin’s offense is known for prioritizing the tight end position in the passing game at FAU. In 2019 he helped make Harrison Bryant become the only tight end in the country to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark. His outsized production put him firmly on the NFL radar and led Bryant to earn a roster spot with the Cleveland Browns where he recorded 24 catches for 238 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie year. 

So when Yeboah entered the transfer portal, Kiffin wasted little time bringing the former-Owl into the fold. The results speak for themselves, as Yeboah caught 82% of his turrets for 524 yards, a robust 19.4 YPC and six touchdowns for the Rebels. His yards per route increased to a very solid 2.09 while his average target depth drastically jumped by almost four yards, from 7.4 at Temple to 11.3 yards at Ole Miss.

Yeboah earned a flawless 158.3 passer rating when targeted while his superior strength and contact balance allowed the sturdy tight end to accrue 9.0 yards after catch on the year which he converted into 21 first downs. He lined up in line on 74% of snaps at Temple, but that metric dropped to 42% in-line with Ole Miss as he took on an increased role in the receiving game. Responded well to the increased level of competition at the SEC level, torching Alabama by catching 7-of-7 targets for 181 yards and two touchdowns. It was a complete performance in all aspects of the game, as Yeboah consistently worked over Bama LB Christopher Allen on running plays. 

Yeboah’s season was derailed when he injured his hip flexor/groin against South Carolina. He followed up the injury by contracting COVID, which prompted the Rebels’ tight end to opt out for the remainder of the season to help regain his strength and allow his injury to heal in time for the Senior Bowl. 

Yeboah accelerates well off the line and plays fast when he gets moving allowing him to get on top of linebackers. Has a knack for making difficult catches and can elevate over defenders in traffic while displaying NFL level ball skills. Natural feel for space against zone coverages, but can be undisciplined with routes against man-to-man, breaking off his routes at the wrong time.

Tony Pauline is the highest on Yeboah, ranking the Allentown product as his TE4, while Kiper is also bullish on his pro-prospects by ranking him as TE6. McShay isn’t so impressed, ranking him as the 10th best tight end while PFF aren’t buying his next level skills, putting him at TE16. I have Yeboah ranked as my TE6, simpatico with ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

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Noah Gray - Duke

A former high school quarterback and varsity basketball player from Leominster, Massachusetts, Gray was considered a three-star prospect and the 70th best tight end recruit in the country according to 247Sports. As a true freshman he rotated behind upperclassmen tight ends Davis Koppenhaver and Daniel Helm, forming the only tight end group in the ACC to have three TEs with multiple touchdowns receptions. Gray caught all five of his targets for 37 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

Gray increased his workload as a sophomore, playing in all 13 games and efficiently racking up 20 receptions in 24 targets for 234 yards, an 83% catch rate, 234 yards, 11.7 YPC and a touchdown while working alongside Koppenhaver and Helm to record 10 receiving touchdowns between the three of them which was the top mark in the ACC for a TE group. 

It wasn’t until 2019 when Gray took over primary tight end duties, ranking 13th in the ACC with 4.25 receptions per game en route to earning second team All-ACC accolades. His 50 receptions in 69 targets set the all-time Duke program record for catches by a tight end. In total, he posed a 73% catch rate, 388 yards, 7.8 YPC and three touchdowns. He was a consistent force in HC David Cutcliffe’s offense, recording at least five receptions in six of 11 starts and zero drops despite the heavy target share. 

As a senior he once again excelled in the passing game, breaking the all-time career mark for receptions by a tight end and finishing off his Duke tenure by catching at least one pass in every one of his last 26 games. He caught 29-of-43 targets for 285 yards, a 67% catch rate, 9.8 YPC and two touchdowns for a pretty underwhelming Duke offense that averaged only 24.6 points per game. 

Gray was very productive against upper echelon opponents such as Notre Dame and Alabama, securing five-of-six targets for 68 yards against ND and five-of-five looks for 45 yards against the Crimson Tide. A team captain and workhorse, he logged 584 snaps in 2020 and only missed one game in four years with the program. Average target depth of 9.1 yards last year backs up his value as a chain mover, as 16 of his 29 receptions went for first downs. 

Gray is the classic reliable tight end archetype who catches any and everything inside of his frame, dropping only three passes in 104 reception opportunities in his collegiate career. Frequently used as a blocker, both as a lead FB and to chip on edge while lining up at H-Back. He even handled Notre Dame first-round caliber talent Jeremiah Owusu-Kommurah well in pass protection and is a good technical blocker, but doesn’t have enough size to handle consistent in-line reps.

Gray uses leverage well and is a technically proficient tight end who excels as a checkdown, safety valve passing game option. Good feet, disguises routes well for a big guy, breaks down quickly and accelerates out of cuts. Has short area quickness but lacks any semblance of long speed, as his career long reception of only 26 yards can attest. He understands how to use his thick frame to shield smaller defenders from the catch point. 

Cuts are sharp and his routes are precise, specifically against zone coverage where one step in either direction can be the difference between a first down and an incompletion. Was invited to both the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, showing NFL teams have interest.

Gray is another talented tight end prospect who draftniks differ on, as Kiper and Pauline both rank him as the TE9, while McShay is the highest on him at TE6. PFF and The Draft Network are on the other end of the spectrum, with both pegging Gray as the TE17 from the 2021 NFL Draft class. I’m in between Pauline/Kiper and McShay, rating Duke’s star tight end as the eighth best TE in the draft.