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2017 NFL draft rankings: Top 10 tight ends

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins have needed an upgrade at the tight end position for a few years now. They could address the position in free agency, but there is a lot of talent in this draft class for them to choose from.

Honorable mentions: Darrell Daniels, Washington; Pharaoh Brown, Oregon.

10. Michael Roberts, Toldedo: Roberts is likely to be a day-three project, but possesses some upside as a prospect.

He’s got below average speed, and won’t be expected to outrun any defenses, but has decent hands and an impressive catch radius. Roberts is a big, bulky guy who runs stiffly, but bulldozes defenders every time he gets the ball. He has average athleticism for a tight end, so he will likely be more of a short yardage threat. His route running is underwhelming and hesitant at times, lacking sharpness on cuts or redirections. Despite having a big body, he lacks good, consistent technique in blocking, taking poor angles on many plays. When he does take good angles, he blocks very effectively.

9. Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas: Sprinkle isn’t an elite prospect, but he has the tools to compete at the NFL level.

His blocking technique remains consistent nearly every play. He stays low, sinks his hips and drives through defenders. He’s a big, strong, well-rounded guy, who has a more proportioned frame than Roberts. He has above average athleticism for a tight end, and above average speed, but don’t expect him to outrun any defenses. Sprinkle showed off his good hands by making some nice catches in traffic on tape. He can be depended on with 50/50 balls. He’s not going to make any outstanding catches, but his strength will allow him to make secure catches as a possession receiver. His route running is decent, but has room for improvement. The routes he runs aren’t sharp, but they are smooth enough to show his upside. If he can improve his route running, he could be a good piece to an offense.

I don’t see Miami going after him because of the similarities he possesses to Dion Sims, and the Dolphins need to get more athletic at the tight end position.

8. Cole Hikutini, Louisville: Hikutini is stuck as a hybrid player. He has the qualities of a tight end, and a receiver.

He’s not a great blocker, but a willing one. He’ll need to improve his technique or he won’t see the field. He’s not as strong as you’d like a tight end to be – especially someone his size. He needs to fill out his body frame more to become a more complete tight end. His route running is decent but he shows choppy route running without sharp cuts. He needs to make his route running smoother by changing his pace throughout each route. He’s got good hands, speed and athleticism to be a great vertical threat. He’s not going to deliver contact, but he does a decent job of absorbing it, and making defenders miss. With his finesse style of play, you almost wonder if he should’ve tried to improve his stock a receiver. His combination of size, speed and athleticism, make him a valuable project if he can add weight.

He is far from a sure-thing as a prospect, and I would be surprised if the Dolphins took him as their focus at tight end. I think he goes to a team with an established tight end already on the roster.

7. Gerald Everett, South Alabama: Everett is the first guy on this list that looks smooth in sharp route running, and can be depended on to consistently get open.

You never see him aimlessly jogging routes. He’s confident in his route running, and wants the ball in his hands. He’s a more refined offensive weapon than Hikutini, but he lacks the strength required to be a good blocker in the NFL. His technique is good – the effort is there – but he struggles to maintain it versus bigger guys. He also lacks instinct on what angle to take when blocking rush from the edge in the backfield. He’ll need to fill out his body frame to be a consistent blocker. Everett has great hands and athleticism. You can count on him to make tough catches in traffic. Like others in this class, he can be trusted as a receiver on the outside or slot. Despite his good speed, you’d like to see him develop a second gear or breakaway speed.

It’ll be interesting to see how he does at the combine. If he tests well, he could find himself selected in the early third round. His offensive skill set alone is intriguing, but if he can add weight without losing a step, he becomes an all-around tight end gem.

He’s flying under the radar in this draft because of the small school he played for, but he’s a nice risk-reward option if the Dolphins don’t address tight end sooner than the fourth round.

6. Jordan Leggett, Clemson: Leggett is a project that many teams should be willing to take a chance on.

He’s a natural route runner due to his athleticism, but he needs to develop more explosion and sharpness out of his cuts. He occasionally telegraphs his routes, making it difficult for him to create separation. He’s got good speed, but not enough outrun many defensive backs.

Leggett isn’t much of a bruiser; he tries to beat competition with athleticism rather than strength. He’ll need to add weight and get stronger to compete at the NFL level. His blocking is subpar, and he is often knocked back by defenders, rather than driving forward. He must improve his technique and physicality to be successful as a complete tight end. Leggett has outstanding hands for a tight end. He makes receiver-like catches in traffic, and grabs the ball at the highest point on fade routes. He does a great job of contorting his body on throws that are inaccurate. He will occasionally jog through the plays he knows he’s not getting the ball. He must drop that habit and show enough effort to at least keep the defense honest.

He’s got all the offensive traits you want in a tight end, but he needs to become more physical and improve in certain areas. He’s considered a project, but he has playmaking qualities that you can’t teach. There’s a chance the Dolphins look into him as an option.

5. Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram’s stock is rising daily.

He plays like Leggett with his athletic, fast playstyle, and could easily be used as a wide receiver with his impressive leaping ability. He may run the best 40-time out of any tight end at the combine. Engram is physical over the middle, and doesn’t shy away from contact, but dropped a few contested catches. He needs to sink his hips and use more of his lower body when blocking. If he can improve his technique, he will find more consistent balance in his blocks. He has reliable hands, and runs sharp, crisp routes.

He’s not a guy who will run you over, but he can break many tackles. When he has the ball, he does a nice job of using his athleticism to juke linebackers out of their shoes.

Engram has all the tools to be a weapon for a team, but he needs to do a better job of using his body effectively. Little things like shielding his defenders from throws, and working back to the ball on comeback throws.

The Dolphins will definitely target him in the second round, and I can’t imagine he’ll fall to the third round unless something drastically changes his stock.

4. Jake Butt, Michigan: The All-American tight end had his season end with an ACL injury.

He has prototypical size and strength for an NFL tight end. He’s a powerful, physical tight end with speed, who gives 100 percent effort on every play. He’s a tough, emotional leader on the field who will set the tone for your offense as a security blanket. He’s a willing blocker who shows great technique, and does well with picking up blitzes, but will have to work on anticipation with picking up defensive ends – especially the quicker ones. Butt is a smooth route runner who shows good acceleration from the snap. He makes up for his average athleticism with the ability to beat defensive backs with sharp cuts on his route running. He has great hands and a big catch radius.

He shows it here too.

It’ll be tough for defenders to knock the ball the away from him on 50-50 balls. He had an incredible touchdown reception against Utah in 2015 that showed his true potential as a weapon at the next level.

Teams should be weary of rushing him back, but if he fully recovers, he’ll be a top 10 tight end in the NFL. It’s hard to project where he’ll slide down the draft board coming off his injury, but if he’s there in the second round, the Dolphins will have a tough decision. Do they take the risk on selecting a great talent coming off of a serious injury?

3. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech: Hodges will be a mismatch for NFL defenses.

He has great route running skills for a tight end, and is smart about disguising what route he’s running. While he’s not completely polished as a route runner yet, he is close.

Hodges is a violent blocker, looking to knock someone on their back. He has to refine his technique, but the commitment is there. For a tight end, he has rare speed on tape, but I’m curious to see how fast he actually is. The combine could do wonders for him. If he combines a fast 40-time with his size and strength, he could possibly push himself into the late first round. He has a better catch radius than many wide receivers in this draft. Once he gets the ball, he’s a threat to take it all the way with his vision and agility. Hodges has good hands – made some outstanding catches – but occasionally gets caught trying to use his body instead of his hands.

Occasionally tried trapping throws against his body and double catching it. Fans saw some dropped passes that should’ve been catches by Hodges. It’s harsh to say that because there were only a few examples, but for that reason I put him at third for now.

My gut feeling is that he will be slightly over-drafted because of his physical and athletic tools. I think you’ll see him drafted in the early second round, missing the Dolphins’ window for opportunity. Nonetheless, the Dolphins must add him to their big board since you never can predict what will happen draft night.

2. David Njoku, Miami (Fla.): Njoku flew under the radar for the first half of the season, but saw his stock soar toward the end of the season.

He’s a willing blocker, but relies on his hands a little too much. He needs to maintain his core strength and balance to drive through his defender when blocking. Njoku is incredibly athletic, with exceptional speed and great hands. He has exceptional size and strength; defenders bounce off him.

He will be a dangerous offensive weapon – could be the focal point your offense. Think of the great tight ends over the last decade who were the most feared athletes out of anyone on the roster – that could be Njoku. He’s a good route runner who was open on nearly every vertical play. He will occasionally have lapses in concentration – especially on screen routes. He has exceptional body control when readjusting to the ball in the air, giving him the ability to out-leap many defenders. He’s the most hyped tight end prospect to come out of UM since Greg Olsen in 2007.

He would be an excellent first round pick for the Dolphins, depending on what they do in free agency.

1. O.J. Howard, Alabama: Howard is an elite talent.

He’s the most polished blocker out of any tight end in the class. He appears slightly unaggressive at times as a player. Howard maintains strength in his base, but needs to improve hand strength to have more consistency in blocking. Despite being a smooth route runner with great acceleration, he lacks that explosion to keep defenders guessing. He runs fast for a guy his size, and has quickness to turn short routes into a big play.

He’s a raw, athletic freak who is a star in the making. An overall elite talent. He shows toughness over the middle, and bulldozes his way over defenders. His massive hands and gifted athleticism allows him to make any catch in his radius. Linebackers will struggle against him; most defenses will require a safety on him. He needs to show more elusiveness after the catch. Despite his big play potential, his vision needs improvement to make more defenders miss more often.

If he can, you’ll see more of this:

There’s not much more to be said about Howard. He should be one of the most feared offensive weapons in the NFL for years to come. The Dolphins will walk away with a star if they choose him with their first pick.