NCAA Football: Iowa at Indiana
© Brian Spurlock | 2018 Oct 13
NCAA Football: Iowa at Indiana © Brian Spurlock | 2018 Oct 13

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Only one tight end has cracked the top 10 picks of the past 12 NFL drafts, and only a dozen tight ends have landed in that range since the NFL’s merger in 1970.

Don’t count out Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson possibly joining that rare TE air this April.

Only a redshirt sophomore, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hockenson’s stock has soared over the past several months because of his two-way game as a feisty blocker with receiving chops following a 49-catch, 760-yard, six-TD season for the Hawkeyes.

Entering last season, fellow Iowa TE Noah Fant was the one getting all the attention nationally — and for good reason. Fant might not have had quite the season some expected, but he improved his 2017 totals with 39 catches for 518 yards, and he had more TDs (seven) than Hockenson.

Fant still has a chance to go high — perhaps also in the first round. If that happens, it would be the first time in the NFL’s modern era that one school produced two first-round tight ends. That’s because, barring some unforeseen developments, Hockenson is a Round 1 certainty.

“If [Eric] Ebron can go 10th overall, [Hockenson] can too,” a college scouting director told us at the Senior Bowl.

It’s a really good year for tight ends overall, but Hockenson appears to be the most exciting prospect and the one who could end up surprising people with how high he goes.

Riley Odoms, who went fifth overall in 1972, was the highest-drafted tight end in the modern era. Since then, three other tight ends have been drafted sixth overall: Charlie Young (1973), Kellen Winslow (2004) and Vernon Davis (2006). Cracking that area could be tough for Hockenson without a Davis-esque showcase at the combine.

Interestingly, the director said he thinks Fant could have bigger workout numbers (as could a few other tight ends, such as Georgia’s Isaac Nauta) than his teammate, for what that’s worth. Fant appears to have a shade more burst and more straight-line speed than Hockenson, although both run very well.

Where Hockenson will win evaluators over is how polished and well-rounded his game is — especially for such a young player. We seldom see redshirt sophomores look this poised and developed at tight end, so his decision to enter the draft was not a hasty or ill-fated call. It absolutely was the right one.

Watching his tape, it’s easy to see quickly why many people have compared Hockenson to his former college teammate, George Kittle. The 49ers got an absolute steal with Kittle in the fifth round two years ago, but chronic college injuries clearly played a role in that. Kittle truly is an elite athlete for the position, a ceiling Hockenson might not quite match, but their unbridled effort as blockers and after the catch are facsimiles. Both players can run past people, but they have few issues running through tackle attempts, too.

In fact, Hockenson is so intriguing — and the other skill positions so unclear at the top — that it would not be completely stunning if he’s the top one drafted. Yes, a tight end could be off the board before the first running back or wide receiver goes. At this point, we feel pretty comfortable saying that the top half of Round 1 would not be a stretch whatsoever.

"If you liked [Ravens 2018 first-rounder Hayden Hurst], you're going to love [Hockenson] a whole lot more," the director said. "Three, four years younger, better athlete, better blocker. And with room to get better. He's a freaky talent."