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2016 NFL Draft position watch list: Hunter Henry, Nick Vannett, and a really big dude, among tight ends to watch

The 2016 NFL Draft is a long way off, but with college football getting started in a couple weeks, it is time to figure out who we should be watching. We have looked at quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. Today we move on to running backs.

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The San Francisco 49ers are only midway through their 2015 preseason schedule, leaving them two preseason games and 16 regular season games (and hopefully some playoff games!) until we reach the next offseason. While the NFL season is only just beginning, it is never too soon to start draft coverage! In the past, we have put together weekly prospect reports for college games on a given weekend. We have also done some work with prospect rankings later in the season.

This year, we're adding something new. I thought it would be helpful to come up with a preseason watch list for each of the main positions on both sides of the ball. We still don't even know what the 49ers roster will look like in two months, let alone next offseason. However, some folks are already going to be looking at next year's draft. And so, I wanted to get started with some top prospects at each position.

We're back today with wide receivers (other positions linked above). Greg Valerio has a look at four tight ends of note, and one intriguing big fella heading into the 2015 college football season. The list of names is not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather some of the big names to help get things started. Additionally, this depends on some of the players declaring for the draft, so again, it is just looking at some potential top options at each position.

The 49ers drafted two tight ends this past year, adding Blake Bell in the fourth round and Busta Anderson in the seventh round. The 49ers entered training camp with eight tight ends, but traded Derek Carrier and Asante Cleveland. Vernon Davis is a free agent next year, and Vance McDonald still has a lot to prove, so the team might very well add tight ends to the depth chart in the spring.

Hunter Henry

Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

#84  |  Junior  |  Arkansas Razorbacks
Height: 6'5" |  Weight: 253 lbs.  |  40 Time: 4.79  |  Age: 20
2014 Stats: 37 REC 513 YDS 13.9 AVG 2 TD
Preseason Second-Team All-SEC in 2015

Strengths: One of the most talented tight ends in the country, Henry is a true dual-threat tight end showcasing an impressive skill-set as an in-line blocker and an extremely reliable option in the passing game. He is solid at the point of attack, eagerly engaging defenders with quality blocking fundamentals. Coming from a spread offense in high school, Henry has adapted quite well in sticking his hand in the dirt and excelling, a trait the NFL will absolutely love. A quarterbacks best friend, Henry has a knack for getting himself open in the middle of the field with solid route running, great body control, reliable hands he extends to pluck balls out of the air, impressive catch radius, and the willingness to take the big hits in traffic making the tough grab. 78.5% of his catches resulted in first downs or touchdowns. Shows good athleticism and the ideal NFL frame for the position.

Weaknesses: Hunter is relatively still somewhat new to the blocking game (spread guy in high school), so there is definitely room for improvement in that regard, which he will continue to develop in Arkansas' power-rushing attack. He is also not necessarily a burner; therefore, look for him as a chain mover, but could also improve upon his run after the catch ability.

Conclusion: Likely to be the best tight end in this years' class, it is difficult to predict whether Henry will forgo his senior year and enter the draft. He may not produce earth-shattering numbers, but in my mind, he is the Razorback's best option in the passing game. Moreover, his continued growth in the blocking scheme will only improve his draft status. I currently see him as a second round prospect.

Evan Engram

Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

#17  |  Junior  |  Ole Miss Rebels
Height: 6'3" |  Weight: 223 lbs.  |  40 Time: 4.64  |  Age: 20 (turns 21 in September)
2014 Stats: 38 REC 662 YDS 17.4 AVG 2 TD
Preseason First-Team All-SEC in 2015

Strengths: Delanie Walker 2.0? Well, maybe a little taller and a tiny bit slower version of the former 49er many still lament over his leaving (oy vey). Engram is athletic and explosive, typically lined up all over the place (split out wide, slot, in-line, H-back) in the Rebels multiple offense. The hybrid tight end showcases tremendous burst off the line of scrimmage, fluidity in route running, quickness in-and-out of breaks, amazing ball skills, impressive hands, explosiveness after the catch, and a nightmare matchup for any line backer. His blocking skills are not too shabby either with good positioning and hand technique and tenacity to finish keeping his feet moving.

Weaknesses: The lack of size and bulk will be an issue at the next level. Although he does well as an H-back in terms of blocking, his blocking in-line will need to improve. He will need to gain strength in order to be a dominate run blocker in the NFL.

Conclusion: There will be questions on whether Evan Engram is more of a bigger wide receiver rather than a smaller tight end at the next level. As a matchup threat, Engram definitely has the skill-set to be a great move tight end in the NFL, but I can also envision him going the Devin Funchess route. Nevertheless, with his impressive athleticism, receiving skills, explosion, and speed, he brings tremendous value in an ever increasing passing league. I currently see him as a second round prospect.

O.J. Howard

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

#88  |  Junior  |  Alabama Crimson Tide
Height: 6'6" |  Weight: 242 lbs.  |  40 Time: 4.59  |  Age: 20
2014 Stats: 17 REC 260 YDS 15.3 AVG 0 TD
Preseason Third-Team All-SEC in 2015

Strengths: So, if Jimbo Tomsula likes to call DeAndrew White "Alabama", and Quinton Dial "Alabama A..hole", I wonder what the Sound of Music loving 49ers head coach would call the Alabama tight end prospect, O.J. Howard? Alabama Edelweiss? It is quite apparent my nicknaming skills need to be shown below in the next category, but I digress. A mismatch in the middle of the field, Howard displays an impressive combination of size, speed, athleticism, and strength (benches 405 pounds and squats 500 pounds). A dangerous receiving weapon in the middle of the field, Howard can easily take advantage of defenses with his 4.59 speed up the seem and his impressive length and athleticism. Along with good catching and great YAC ability, his blocking has been steadily improving as well.

Weaknesses: Although Howard showcases a unique skill-set to be a dominating force at the next level, there is a lot of room for growth and one aspect appears to be missing, Physicality! No doubt he is a very strong player, but I would like to see the dominating strength translate onto the field. He needs to do a better job attacking the football in the air, and showcase more physicality in the run game. The lackluster route running also needs to be improved, and it seems like a good dosage of Jimbo's fired up bludgeon speech (ahem, product placement) is in order to help rile up the competitive spirit.

Conclusion: The extremely talented and underutilized tight end is looking for a breakout season hoping to get more options thrown his way now that Amari Cooper is no longer bogarting all the receptions. It behooves Howard to stay for his senior year and become more consistent with his game; however, if Lane Kiffin finds a way to highlight and take advantage of Howard's potential, an impressive showing this season will launch him up draft boards. If he declares, I see Howard as a second round prospect.

Nick Vannett

Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

#84  |  Senior  |  Ohio State Buckeyes
Height: 6'5" |  Weight: 250 lbs.  |  40 Time: 4.76  |  Age: 21
2014 Stats: 19 REC 220 YDS 11.6 AVG 5 TD
Preseason Mackey Award List for 2015

Strengths: To say the Buckeye's roster is loaded with talent is an understatement. Moreover, with a plethora of draft-eligible Buckeyes talent enticing GMs to select them in next April's draft, the possibility of the 49ers (with their likely 12 draft picks in hand) landing one of The Ohio State Universities' prospects is a strong possibility. The former high school basketball player, Nick Vannett, showcases the ideal combination of size, strength, and sneaky speed to be a coveted all around tight end prospect. Vannett is a stout and physical player in the run game and shows great blocking skills (specifically exterior blocking) with a few de-cleaters to his resume. With his solid hands and route running, and natural ability as a reliable pass catcher, Vannett is a prime option in the middle of the field and as a redzone target. Solid durability with 40 games played over the past three seasons.

Weaknesses: Vannett needs to continue to improve upon his blocking technique, specifically in the interior game. The blocking aspect of his game should be his bread and butter at the next level. I think with more reps as the top tight end for the Buckeyes this year, the mastery of his blocking will only increase his draft status at the next level. Moreover, I would like to see Vannett step out of the shadow of last years' highly touted Buckeye's tight end, Jeff Heuerman, and take on the leadership role.

Conclusion: Nick Vannett is destined to take over the proverbial reins from last years' talented tight end and current Denver Broncos rookie, Jeff Heuerman. As a fierce blocking tight end and reliable pass catcher, Vannett's skill-set will no doubt be on NFL teams' radars. Could he be a fit in the 49ers scheme? It is definitely a possibility, since the blocking skill-set may become void if Vernon Davis and Garrett Celek (final years of their respective contracts) are no longer with the team in 2016. I think there is a lot more to Vannett than what he can do in Ohio State's offense; therefore, I look for him to be a much better pro prospect. With that being said, I see Vannett as a third-to-fourth round pick in the 2016 Draft.

LaQuan McGowan

Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

#80  |  Senior  |  Baylor Bears
Height: 6'7" |  Weight: 410 lbs.  |  40 Time: 5.42  |  Age: 22
2014 Stats: 1 REC 18 YDS 18.0 AVG 1 TD
Sports Illustrated All-Bowl Team

Strengths: The whole point of this article is to provide the top five draft-eligible prospects at the tight end position; however, with this last prospect I am taking the liberty to stray away from the expected, and fill your minds up with the shockingly intriguing. It is the wildly amusing part of football that turns heads and makes fans, coaches, and players alike jump around like giddy school children when they see that certain player do their thing. This my friends is what LaQuan McGowan offers. The former guard turned tight end shocked the nation during last season's Cotton Bowl when the 6'7" 400 pound lineman, donning a No. 80 jersey, scored on a pass catching touchdown against the vaunted Michigan State defense (ran right by 49ers Marcus Rush).

Novelty you say? Not according to Baylor's head coach Art Briles who is adamant in giving McGowan the opportunity at tight end and the H-back role. McGowan showcases impressive athleticism and quick feet for a man his size. Extremely strong, McGowan bench presses 500 pounds and has done 37 reps at 225 pounds. Along with his deceiving speed, agility, and quickness, McGowan possesses one of the most softest (and incredibly large) hands in the game, and makes shockingly one-handed grabs look like he is he catching baseballs with a catchers mitt; eat your heart out Odell Beckham Jr.

Weaknesses: Obviously, McGowan is terribly raw as a tight end prospect. Right now he appears to be one-dimensional and will be utilized in goal-line and short-yardage situations, in-line and slot in running situations, and as a backfield blocker. He will need to lose weight at the next level.

Conclusion: It is definitely going to be exciting to see how LaQuan McGowan's journey as a tight end plays out this season. Will he be drafted? The likely answer is no, but if he can shake off the novelty perception placed upon him and show a unique talented upside for the position, plenty of teams will definitely give him a call as a priority undrafted free agent rookie. I see McGowan as a project player, hopefully willing to take off the weight in order to end up being a chiseled down, extremely athletic, reliable pass catching tight end with the strength to be a dominant force in the run game. Baalke does have a flair for projects. I see McGowan as a priority undrafted free agent in the 2016 Draft.