You don’t have to look very hard these days to find a Stanford tight end on an NFL roster.
There’s Zach Ertz in Philadelphia, Coby Fleener in New Orleans, Jim Dray in Buffalo, Ryan Hewitt in Cincinnati and Levine Toilolo in Atlanta.
“I hope I can keep the trend going,” Austin Hooper said.
By the end of next week, Hooper almost certainly will do just that. After two years as a starter, Hooper turned pro with two years of remaining eligibility. He’s considered one of the top tight ends in this year’s draft pool and a probable Day 2 selection.
So is it the system? The coaching?
Something is clicking when it comes to Stanford tight ends and the NFL.
“I’d say first off it starts with (head coach) David Shaw — the way he recruits,” Hooper said. “His players are very intelligent and passionate about the game of football. … The offense is tailored if you play tight end, you have to do a great job of blocking, you have to do a great job of running your routes and know the way our offense works.”
Not only do the Cardinal have a pro-style offense, it’s a complex playbook. So complex, in fact, that some Stanford products currently in the NFL tell Hooper it’s more complicated than their pro schemes.
“It’s a huge leg up from what the older guys have told me,” Hooper said of the Stanford training.
He has tapped into those Stanford tight ends in the NFL as a resource, preparing him for what to expect on the next level. He has even done some of his training this offseason with Ertz, who caught 75 passes for Philadelphia last season.
“He’s been giving me a few pointers, a few nuances I really need to clean up in my game,” Hooper said. “He’s just been helping me on the little things. I’m grateful for that.”
Hooper appears to be cut from the same Stanford cloth that sent Ertz to the NFL in the second round in 2013 and Fleener to Indianapolis a year earlier in Round 2. After averaging 52 catches and five touchdowns over the past three seasons for Indy, Fleener signed a five-year, $36 million free-agent contract with New Orleans that includes $18 million in guaranteed money.
“Austin Hooper is really I think a very sophisticated route runner, very much like a Zach Ertz … or a Coby Fleener,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “So I think he’s a second-round pick.”
But this tight end draft doesn’t begin or end with Hooper.
Hunter Henry of Arkansas is widely considered the best tight end prospect in the draft after catching 51 passes for 739 yards and three touchdowns last season. He didn’t drop a single pass all season and earned the John Mackey Award as college football’s top tight end.
Henry also played in a pro-style offense, which means he’s learned how to block as well as run routes and catch passes.
“I’m going to bring a dual-threat tight end that’s going to put his head in there in the run game,” Henry said. “I’m going to block. I did that in college consistently. And I’m going to create a mismatch in the passing game.”
But the most intriguing prospect at the position this year might be South Carolina’s Jerell Adams.
“Of all the tight ends in this class, he’s the best at separating from man-to-man coverage” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “And the reason he’s able to do it — first of all — the speed.”
Adams was the fastest tight end at the NFL Scouting Combine, running a 4.64 in the 40-yard dash — at 6 feet 5 and 247 pounds.
“And also, just the subtle head fakes and the crispness of his routes, and how sharp he is getting in and out of his breaks” add to his game, McShay said. “None of these other guys are as good. Hunter Henry from Arkansas is the closest. But I think Jerrell Adams may have the highest ceiling of all the tight ends in this class.”
If you’re looking for a traditional, on-the-line blocker who can catch a pass every now and then, Nick Vannett of Ohio State might be your guy.
If you’re looking for a hybrid tight end/wide receiver — or what’s referred to as a joker tight end in NFL parlance — the best bet might be Thomas Duarte of UCLA.
He lacks the height or bulk, at 6-2, 231, to do much damage blocking on the line of scrimmage. But Duarte can catch the football. In three seasons with the Bruins, he had 97 receptions for 1,626 yards and 17 TDs.