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2016 NFL Draft prospects: Top 5 tight ends with O.J. Howard returning to school

Niners Nation's Greg Valerio highlights the top 5 draft-eligible tight ends for the 2016 NFL Draft.

If you are like me, you were disappointed to hear the news about the outstanding Alabama junior tight end prospect, O.J. Howard, returning to school after an impressive outing during the National Championship game (long overdue for a gifted and underutilized athlete). Don't get me wrong, I'm all for players taking advantage of their educational opportunities and relish in their college experience as long as they can, and I know Howard is excited to be utilized more in Alabama's offense next season. However, the selfish part of me was hoping to see Howard, and other talented tight end underclassmen, help fill the void in what appears to be a weak tight end draft class this year.

Oh well, it is what it is, and although the tight end class appears to be weak as a collective, there are some talented tight ends available for those NFL clubs seeking the position (could the 49ers be one of them?). It may be slim pickings, but there is still quality if you are lucky to get it. With that being said, I have listed my top five draft-eligible tight ends for the 2016 NFL Draft.

1. TE Hunter Henry, No. 84, 6'5 - 253 lbs., 4.79 40 - Arkansas (2nd)

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, Henry is one of the most talented tight ends in the country. A quarterback's best friend, Henry has a knack for getting himself open in the middle of the field with solid route running, sound awareness, 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.

2. TE Austin Hooper, No. 18, 6'4 - 248 lbs., 4.76 40 - Stanford (2nd)

Hooper is a quarterback's dream, easily capable of making the hard catches underneath and a mismatch nightmare over the top. The former defensive end has a quick release off the snap and into his excellent route running, where he uses sound awareness to find holes in the defense, impressive subtle movements (hands and head-fakes) at the top of his route to gain separation, and boxes out defenders with his large frame to win at the catch with solid strong reliable hands always extending to give the quarterback a large target.

3. TE Nick Vannett, No. 81, 6'6 - 260 lbs., 4.76 40 - Ohio State (3rd)

Vannett is a former high school basketball player who showcases the ideal combination of size, strength, and speed to be a coveted all around tight end prospect. A stout and physical player in the run game showcasing great blocking skills (specifically exterior blocking) with a few de-cleaters to his resume, Vannett also possesses a natural ability as a reliable pass catcher with his solid hands and good route running abilities making him a prime option in the middle of the field and as a redzone target. Senior Bowl invite

4. TE Tyler Higbee, No. 82, 6'6 - 250 lbs., 4.77 40 - Western Kentucky (4th)

Higbee is a converted wide receiver turned tight end, and with the continued added weight to his frame, he has maintained the same fluidity, agility, speed, and impressive route running ability he benefited from as a gifted wide receiver skilled in extending his hands to make the catch and the length providing a very large catching radius. Despite being injured a few games (knee sprain), Higbee was one of the most productive tight ends in the FBS this year (38 rec., 563 yards, 8 touchdowns), taking advantage of his size, speed, and ball skills to find open spaces in the middle of the field, where at times he looks more like a large possession receiver than a tight end. Senior Bowl invite.

5. TE Bryce Williams, No. 80, 6'6 - 258 lbs., 4.84 40 - East Carolina (4th)

Williams is a large athletically smooth tight end who is a natural receiver consistently finding open spaces in the middle of the field taking advantage of his frame and length to make catches away from his body with soft strong reliable hands. The former fullback has a toughness to his game and the versatility to line up inline, in the backfield, in the slot, and out-wide, where he has shown solid blocking ability in both run blocking and pass protection utilizing a sound base, platform, and ability to swing his hips when detached locking up defenders finishing blocks. Senior Bowl invite.