2020 NFL scouting combine preview: Tight ends

The NFL scouting combine is essentially boiled down to four key phases: medical evaluation, interview, athletic testing and positional workouts.

This year, in previewing the 2020 combine, we decided to highlight one prospect at each position who needs to nail (at least) one phase of the combine.

We also wanted to highlight one smaller-program prospect at each position who could make bigger names for themselves with strong performances in Indianapolis.

The NFL scouting combine workouts begin on Thursday, Feb. 27 and run through Sunday, March 1.

Previous combine previews: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers

Tight end overview

It’s not expected to be a banner year at the position, with no clear-cut first-round prospect. Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet might have the best shot of any player to land inside the first 32 selections, but that likely would only happen with a standout performance in Indy.

The more time we’ve studied this TE group, the more we’ve slightly warmed to it. Washington’s Hunter Bryant might be the next in line on teams’ board, and he could crack the top 60 with strong workouts and a clean medical evaluation. But the bulk of the draft picks at the position, we believe, will end up being on Day 3.

There were 20 tight ends invited to the 2020 NFL combine, which is just behind last year’s total (21) and slightly ahead of the 2018 (17) and 2017 (19) classes at the position. This year’s class reminds us a bit of the 2018 crop that saw Hayden Hurst as the top pick — a reach at 25 — and 12 of the 15 drafted tight ends being picked after the 85th selection.

Who needs to nail the medical evaluation

Hunter Bryant

The 6-foot-2, 239-pound Bryant reads more like a jacked-up wide receiver than a true in-line, “Y” tight end. Assuming he’s healthy for the event, Bryant is expected to turn heads with his athletic testing portion of the combine. He might not grade out athletically as well as similarly sized Evan Engram or Noah Fant have the past two years, but Bryant likely will test better than Irv Smith Jr., the 50th overall pick of the Minnesota Vikings last year.

Washington TE Hunter Bryant has terrific receiving potential, but his medical concerns must be answered. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

But the questions with Bryant are largely medical. His injury history is rather lengthy. Bryant suffered a knee injury in October 2017 and aggravated it the following summer, finally having surgery on it in June 2018. He returned for the final five games of 2018, not taking a medical redshirt. 

Bryant was able to stay healthy in 2018, playing in the Huskies’ first 12 games before sitting out the bowl to begin his draft preparation. But the staff also limited his usage a bit, playing fewer snaps than fellow TE Cade Otton, and questions about Bryant’s durability are ultimately going to decide his draft fate.

Who needs to nail the interviews

Cheyenne (C.J.) O’Grady, Arkansas

The 6-4, 256-pound O’Grady was suspended for the duration of the season in November — the last of his three suspensions in his five years of school — following a string of setbacks and disagreements with the former coaching staff in what was a disappointing final season. He’s among the more gifted tight ends in this year’s class, but multiple minor injuries (knee and back) in August got him off to a slow start; O’Grady also was demoted to second team in camp at one point.

The character questions must be answered. Sources have said that O’Grady has suffered from immaturity, which is disappointing for a player who turns 24 years old in September. But observers have noted that the loss of his father, a lack of instilled discipline in the program the past two seasons and the fact that he hasn’t ever really left the Fayetteville cocoon.

O’Grady’s talent is fascinating. He flashed some grit and skill in what was a mostly dreadful Razorbacks passing game the past two years. If O’Grady can win over decision makers and convince them he can mature and integrate into a more structured NFL environment, there’s a lot of talent to be developed.

Who needs to nail the athletic testing

Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri

A smooth mover, Okwuegbunam doesn’t exactly look like an explosive or dynamic athlete on tape. He glides but doesn’t burst. Even for an impressive physical specimen, there’s a fear that Okwuegbunam’s speed is more of the build-up variety than the hot-out-of-the-gates sort.

At 6-5 and 255 pounds with a long wingspan, Okwuegbunam should shine in the weigh-in. He might also look good catching passes in the positional drills, although concentration drops can be seen on tape in each of his three college seasons. We also believe the interview portion will matter greatly, as some scouts have wondered how much the game matters to Okwuegbunam.

But we also want to know: How well does he perform in the 3-cone drill? Okwuegbunam’s lateral quickness appears average at best. How well does he show out in the jumping drills? That could explain that perceived lack of explosion. His underwhelming blocking projects Okwuegbunam to more of a detached “F” tight end role, so his workouts must be on point.

The buzz on Okwuegbunam has cooled considerably, and his 2019 tape doesn’t look much different than his 2017, suggesting a lack of development. A strong combine performance can help reignite his draft stock.

Who needs to nail the positional workouts

Cole Kmet, Notre Dame

Really, we could have flip-flopped Okwuegbunam and Kmet in these last two categories. The 6-6, 258-pound Kmet has exciting potential, but he’s a tricky study with only one-plus year of tape to truly evaluate and some lingering questions about his refinement as a player.

Kmet possesses a big, natural frame and can be seen showing nice potential as a red-zone threat and pass blocker. But he also has struggled as a run blocker, doesn’t separate easily and is not yet close to a finished product as a route runner.

His athletic testing will be highly scrutinized, but we also feel that Kmet’s performance in the receiving and positional drills are crucial to his evaluation. These drills tend to carry a little more weight for players such as Kmet, who started only 11 games this season after suffering a broken collarbone in August.

If Kmet can display more nuance and savvy in his route running and in the blocking drills, it could help his cause as being TE1 in this class.

Small-school standout

Adam Trautman, Dayton

At the Senior Bowl, Trautman proved that the hype was real. He stood out as both a receiver and blocker there against far better, bigger and faster players than Trautman ever saw on the Division III level. That was a crucial step toward him possibly becoming the highest-drafted senior tight end behind underclassmen Kmet and Bryant.

If Trautman continues to show out at the combine, we could be talking about whether he deserves to be a second-round prospect, perhaps even cracking the draft’s top 50 picks. Not bad for a school that hasn’t produced an NFL draft pick since 1977, nor a skill-position player in the league at all since 1975.

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