At NFL combine in Indy, Michigan’s Zach Gentry explains why he declared early for draft, and how he can stand out in deep TE class. March 1, 2019.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Isaac Nauta looked at T.J. Hockenson on the riser to his right, then at Irv Smith on the riser to his left.

“Yeah,” Nauta said Friday at the NFL combine. “There’s a lot of dudes on this stage for sure.”

Hockenson, Smith and Nauta are three “dudes” in a loaded class of tight ends that could yield as many as three first-round picks and should provide depth well into Day 3 of April’s draft.

Hockenson, the Mackey Award winner as college football’s best tight end, is widely regarded as the top tight end in the draft for his versatility as a blocker and receiver.

Smith, the son of the former NFL tight end by the same name, had 44 catches for 710 yards for national runner-up Alabama last season. And Noah Fant, Hockenson’s teammate at Iowa, said Friday he believes he’s deserving of being the first tight end selected.

More: Former Michigan TE Zach Gentry says he’s ‘faster than everybody thinks I’m going to be’

Nauta, who left Georgia after three seasons, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger and Stanford’s Kaden Smith are among the Day 2 possibilities.

Smith said he had a formal interview with the tight end-needy Detroit Lions on Thursday night, and Nauta, Fant and Smith were among the tight ends who had formal interviews scheduled with the team on Friday.

“I would say now is the time, if any, to come into the NFL, with the way they’re using tight ends, the way they’re using them more in the pass game but also in the run game,” Fant said. “The NFL is transitioning into a lot more pass, and with guys like Travis Kelce and Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowksi who are catching a lot of passes. George Kittle, for example, having the most receiving yards for a tight end. That’s pretty impressive and it’s pretty special to come in at this time with that being one of my heavy skillsets.”


Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson discusses his strengths at tight end and his love for blocking and route running.
Olivia Reiner, PackersNews

Hockenson and Fant could be the first ever set of tight-end teammates to go in the first round, and they’re part of a long-standing Iowa tight-end pipeline that includes Kittle, Scott Chandler and Dallas Clark.

Hockenson, a player who’s drawn comparisons to Rob Gronkowski, is considered the better blocker of the two, while Fant, who was selected first-team all-Big Ten over his teammate, is considered the more athletic player.

“He’s more explosive,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said in a conference call this week. “He’s functional in the run game. He’s OK. You can get by with him there, no problem. He’s not deficient, but he’s not the killer that Hockenson is.”

Jeremiah said he thinks both Hockenson and Fant are “first-round picks, Day 1 starters and big-time impact guys,” and Fant said the fact that he and Hockenson have competed against each other as teammates the past three years has helped them get to this point.

More: How Michigan State’s Felton Davis found the light after tearing Achilles

Hockenson redshirted in 2016, when Fant caught nine passes as a true freshman, and both played extensively the last two seasons.

“It would be a special thing (to both go in the first round),” Fant said. “More than anything, I’m worried about being the first tight end taken. That’s a big accomplishment. Obviously, I want both me and T.J. to go in the first round. He’s a great player and it’s going to be fun to compete out here on the field.”

Hockenson is more likely to be the first tight end drafted, and has been a popular mock draft choice for the Lions at No. 8 overall.

He said Friday that talk of him being a top-10 pick is “flattering,” but he’s trying his best to tune out the noise.

“No one knows what’s going to happen till draft day —nobody,” Hockenson said. “I mean, you don’t get your hopes up in this process. You go to work. And that’s what I’ve done, and continue to do. It’s definitely a blessing to be here and to possibly do that.”

As for the possibility of becoming the first tight-end teammates to go in Round 1, Hockenson said that’d be “something special” for him, Fant and the Iowa program.

“This is a great tight end class,” Hockenson said. “There are some great people in this class. To be evaluated as one of the top guys, that means a lot. But again, no one knows what’s going to happen. No one knows what’s going to come between now and draft day. You just have to keep your head down and do the work.”

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