2023 NFL DRAFT: TOP 5 TIGHT ENDS
Before I did my deep dive into the tight ends entering the 2023 NFL Draft, I assumed narrowing it down to a Top 5 would be pretty simple. That was not the case. This is a solid and deep group, with plenty of prospects who should hear their names read aloud from the podium before the league’s annual amateur player selection meeting wraps in Kansas City, Mo. on Sunday, April 29.
The tight end position is more valuable than ever in the NFL. Where it used to be primarily used as a sixth offensive lineman blocker and occasional third-down target, football, especially over the last two decades, has evolved in such a way as to make these guys some of the preeminent offensive players in the game. From Tony Gonzalez to Antonio Gates, to Rob Gronkowski and now Travis Kelce, the right tight end can be an offensive game changer and a match-up nightmare for NFL defenses.
While guys like Tucker Kraft (South Dakota State), Luke Schoonmaker (Michigan), Josh Whyle (Cincinnati), Brenton Strange (Penn State), Davis Allen (Clemson) and Cameron Latu (Alabama) didn’t make the cut, they’ll have ample opportunities to make an NFL roster as Day Three picks. Whyle was a tough exclusion and nearly sneaked in at No. 5. Instead, I went with a guy who missed most of last year with an injury, but was on his way to an elite season.
5. LUKE MUSGRAVE, OREGON STATE
2022: 6-6, 252 pounds, 11 receptions, 169 yards, one touchdown
Musgrave appeared in just two games in 2022 on his way to what looked like a breakout season, but did enough there and his previous campaigns to land in the Top 5. He was on pace for a 72 catch, 1,098, seven touchdown season when he went down with a knee injury in his second game. Musgrave doesn’t have the speed and hip movement of the guys I’ve listed ahead of him, but he’s a monster target with good hands and a serious blocker who should be able to help hold the edge in NFL running attacks. He could easily end up a starter later down the road, but as a rookie should be a solid TE2 on any roster and a likely Day Two or early Day Three selection.
4. SAM LAPORTA, IOWA
2022: 6-4, 249 pounds, 58 receptions, 657 yards, 1 touchdown
Laporta’s last two seasons for the Hawkeyes are as consistent as it gets. In 2021, he caught 53 passes for 670 yards and three touchdowns. While his red zone production was never elite, you have to blame that more on the playcalling. He’s got good speed, nice hands and the ability to track the ball in the air. He runs pass routes a lot like a receiver. I’m not sure how valuable he’ll be in the run game, but that’s up to his NFL coaches to fix. Like Musgrave, he’s a solid Day Two pick who should be able to contribute early.
3. DARNELL WASHINGTON, GEORGIA
2022: 6-7, 265 pounds, 28 receptions, 454 yards, two touchdowns
When you talk about ceiling, and if you read my draft analysis, you know I don’t count it much when considering a prospect, no tight end on this list has a higher one than Washington. His NBA size alone makes him a tempting target and there’s just no way he makes it past the second round. If his production troubles anyone, it’s only because the Bulldogs were so loaded, they didn’t need to feed him the ball unless it was a key first down. He’s as athletic as most running backs, he can block and the look on defense back’s faces alone when he’s coming at him at 6-7 and nearly 270 should be enough to get fans buying his jersey in droves. While I have him going early in the second, there’s a good chance he could sneak into the bottom of the first. Especially if Kansas City keeps the No. 31 pick.
2. DALTON KINCAID, UTAH
2022: 6-4, 242 pounds, 70 receptions, 890 yards, eight touchdowns
The top two guys on my list are pretty close, not only in size, but also production. Their film looks pretty much the same too, with both showing he ability to run wide receiver routes while highlighting their athleticism, ball tracking and catching skills. Kincaid gets bumped to No. 2 simply because he played at a smaller school and his highlights, though impressive, just aren’t against the same caliber of opponents as the guy I’ve listed above him. It won’t hurt his draft status as pretty much everyone expects him to go in Round 1 of April’s NFL Draft. I had him penciled in to the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 28 in my first mock.
1. MICHAEL MAYER, NOTRE DAME
2022: 6-4, 249 pounds, 67 receptions, 809 yards, nine touchdowns
Mayer not only gets the top spot because he delivered his performances against legitimate FBS opponents like Clemson, USC, South Carolina and Ohio State, but also the fact that he did it two years in a row. Mayer’s sophomore year stats are nearly identical to his junior season. He caught 71 passes for 840 yards and nine touchdowns. While some of the other tight ends on the list were left out of their team’s red zone plans, Mayer was a key factor every time the Irish got anywhere near the paint. He looks a whole lot like the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce to me, with his route running, eagerness to turn up field and take on contact, and his nose for the first down line and end zone. In my first mock draft, I had him going at No. 10 to the Philadelphia Eagles to replace a departing Dallas Goedert, but he might legitimately not last that long. Especially after what Kelce did, once again, in the Super Bowl.
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