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2018 NFL Combine Watch List: Tight end draft boards are still uncertain

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This year’s TE class in Indy is a weird one, with few sure things at the position.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The group of tight end prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft is a batch of players with diverse skill sets, sizes, and levels of experience, making it perhaps the toughest position for which to put together a draft board this spring.

While you have plenty of conventional tight ends out of the Big Ten conference — no surprise there — you also have oddities. One player attending the 2018 Scouting Combine as a tight end is built like a running back, while another is more in the mold of an offensive tackle but played wide receiver as a senior.

Again, it’s a weird group.

Here are a look at a few players in the tight end group at next week’s Scouting Combine who we at Acme Packing Company will be keeping a close eye on.

Day One or Two Possibilities

Ian Thomas, Indiana

According to Tony Pauline of DraftAnalyst.com, Thomas is actually one of the top three tight ends on many teams’ boards at present. A junior college transfer in 2016, Thomas had a junior year in 2016, only seeing action in two games for the Hoosiers and catching just three passes. His senior season saw him take over as the starting tight end, and his production was just okay with 25 receptions for 376 yards and five touchdowns.

So why is Thomas considered one of the top players at the position this year? That’s simple: potential and athletic ability. He’s still learning the position and can fill out a bit should his NFL team decide he needs to put on weight. He also played primarily in-line at Indiana, a rarity for tight end prospects in this day and age. If he tests well, some NFL team should snap him up early on the second day of the draft with an eye on developing him over the next couple of seasons.

Hayden Hurst, South Carolina

According to Pauline, Hurst joins Thomas and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert in the top group of tight ends, and he’s the top-ranked player at the position by Walter Football. Like Thomas, he has a good frame at around 6’5” and 250 pounds. However, one concern is that he’s an older prospect, turning 25 in August; he played two years of baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system prior to walking on for the Gamecocks.

On the field, though, Hurst may be the most complete and is probably the most pro-ready tight end in this year’s class. He has back-to-back 550-yard receiving seasons, and should be in the conversation for the top tight end drafted in April.

Mike Gesicki, Penn State

It’s easy to see the volleyball background that originally put Gesicki on the radar of the Penn State athletic department; he looks a bit taller and skinnier than some of his counterparts, but still weighs in over 250 pounds. Gesicki was a terrific receiver who has both big-play ability up the seam and the ability to take hits over the middle. His leaping ability is also a plus as a red zone option.

Blocking will be the big question for Gesicki, as he was flexed out frequently in the slot or split wide. Still, he should come off the board in the first 100 picks and should impress in the vertical and broad jumps in Indy.

Third-Day Prospects

Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin

While Fumagalli had a very productive career in Madison, don’t expect a great workout in Indianapolis. Consider this a hedge against being frustrated if he runs a slow 40 time. Where Fumagalli excelled as a receiver was in contested catches; he didn’t often gain much separation, but had plenty of success making catches in traffic and over the middle of the field.

Instead of his 40, watch to see if his agility drills test out well. That, plus good effort as a blocker and experience in an old-school running offense should make him a useful depth piece, perhaps a second or third tight end as a rookie with the potential to be a good safety valve receiver.

Marcus Baugh, Ohio State

Sensing a theme here? Big Ten tight ends are all the rage this year, and there’s a good mix of receiving and blocking chops. Baugh was certainly used more in the latter area for the Buckeyes’ spread offense that relied heavily on J.T. Barrett running the zone read. Ohio State had become notorious for not using their tight ends much in the passing game in the past, but recent draft picks Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are starting to turn that argument around a bit. Baugh himself managed more than 20 receptions each of the past two seasons.

However, Baugh should find a spot on an NFL team as a TE3 and special teams contributor and his tape shows promise athletically. A good workout would be necessary for Baugh to assure himself of being drafted.

Jaylen Samuels, NC State

The fact that Samuels is officially classified as a tight end at the Combine is a sign that the NFL isn’t sure what they’re going to do with the 5’11”, 223-pound Swiss Army knife. He’s too small to play tight end in the NFL, he’s too effective as a receiver to have to line up at tailback all the time, and he has too wide a skill set to play fullback.

So what do you do with this guy? Workout results will probably give NFL coaching staffs better ideas of how they can use him, and he would be wise to go through running back drills in addition to working with the tight ends. He’ll need to land with a truly innovative offensive coach who can find the right uses for him in 15-20 snaps per game to start, and he will be a fascinating player to watch in Indianapolis.

Jordan Thomas, Mississippi State

Thomas is in the physical mold of Adam Shaheen of Ashland College, who went to the Bears in the second round last year; Thomas is expected to measure in around 6’6” and a whopping 280 pounds. However, he should have the athleticism necessary to play tight end even at that size.

Maybe he’s a blocker at the next level. Maybe a team would be inclined to develop him into an offensive tackle or defensive lineman on a practice squad. But stunningly, Thomas moved from tight end to line up as a boundary receiver for the Bulldogs in 2017. He had just 22 receptions for 263 yards, but showed enough athleticism for teams to give him a look as at least an in-line tight end. He’ll just need to back that up with a good workout.