INDIANAPOLIS – It’s not just hype, but history, when it comes to Iowa’s tight ends.
T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are both projected as first-round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. Not only would it be unusual for two tight ends to go in the first round – it’s happened just once in the last dozen years, when three tight ends were first-rounders in 2017 – but two tight ends from the same school have never been taken in the first round the same year.
“I would take a lot of pride in that,” Fant said at the scouting combine on Friday. “That would be a special thing. More than anything, I’m worried about being the first tight end taken.”
The competitive nature here is no joke. Hockenson (6-5, 251) is the one being touted as a possible top 10 overall pick, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear Fant (6-4, 249) express a desire to be thought of the same way. He hopes his on-field workout on Saturday will push him higher up draft boards, many of which also include Alabama’s Irv Smith as a top prospect at the position.
Overall athleticism and potential upside is where Fant has the edge with some evaluators. Hockenson is reportedly the most NFL-ready now, a plug-and-play prospect.
Both are seen as complete players – receivers who can line up anywhere, and blockers who can do some dirty work. They credit the Iowa program under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz for that.
“It’s the culture at Iowa,” Hockenson said. “If you want to play at Iowa, you have to come to work every day and you’re going to have to block people, especially at tight end.”
Added Fant: “It’s not just run routes or catch balls. You have to put your hand in the dirt. You have to split out. It’s definitely a versatile place and they develop their guys.”
The Packers have an obvious need at tight end, and must address the future of the position sooner than later, so it’s a given they’ve studied Hockenson and Fant.
The University of Iowa has been pretty good to Green Bay in the draft, too, going back to defensive end Aaron Kampman (2002) and more recently including offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (’10), defensive tackle Mike Daniels (’12), defensive back Micah Hyde (’13) and cornerback Josh Jackson (’18).
There’s no telling how it’ll shake out come late April, but any young tight end the Packers bring in will get an opportunity to be tutored by veteran Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham, a worthwhile plus.
Former Iowa tight end George Kittle’s monster season in 2018 has many wondering about the future possibilities with Hockenson and Fant as well.
Just a fifth-round pick by San Francisco two years ago, Kittle took the league by storm last season with 88 receptions for 1,377 yards and five TDs. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s connections to new Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur aren’t lost on those looking for a possible match, either.
Last season, Hockenson recorded 49 catches for 760 yards and six TDs, a big jump from the prior year (24-320-3). Meanwhile Fant’s numbers last year (39-519-7) were pretty similar to the year before (30-494-11).
Fant admitted it wasn’t easy to see his reps decrease in 2018 as Hockenson’s stock rose, and Fant’s older brother, Chris, caused a bit of a stir on social media, complaining the Iowa coaches weren’t using him enough.
All that has blown over now, and having added plenty of lean muscle mass to go from 220 pounds as a college freshman to 250 now, Fant’s focus is on the future.
“It was frustrating, and it was hard for me, but I had to grow up as a man and say, OK, what am I going to do from here?” he said. “I went and talked to coaches, had those conversations, and those were good conversations. Got feedback from them, and just kept working, kept pressing forward.”
Both players declared for the draft early, with Fant, a junior, even skipping Iowa’s bowl game to begin preparing for the NFL.
Hockenson, a redshirt sophomore, waited until after the bowl game to declare, the “hardest decision” of his life. He got a tad emotional during his combine press conference discussing what the Iowa program has meant to him.
The mood was a little lighter when Hockenson was asked which he enjoys more – making a big play in the passing game or flattening an opponent in the running game.
“I mean, they’re both pretty fun,” he said, smiling. “Honestly, I love to block. I love to run routes. I just really pride myself that I can do both, that I can do everything the job requires as a tight end.”
The immediate-impact expectations placed on Hockenson have him in the top 10 discussion. Going that high would be rare in itself, as only Eric Ebron (No. 10 to Detroit in ’14), Vernon Davis (No. 6 to San Francisco in ’06), and Kellen Winslow Jr. (No. 6 to Cleveland in ’04) are the only top 10 tight ends this century.
In fact, just eight tight ends total have been drafted in the first round in the past decade, providing further context to the potential history Hockenson and Fant could make as the first teammate duo so honored.
“It’s flattering, it is,” Hockenson said of his own status, though the comments apply to the pair as well. “No one knows what’s going to happen until draft day. Nobody. You don’t get your hopes up in this process, you go to work, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s a blessing to be here and to possibly do that.”