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2017 NFL Draft position rankings: Top 5 tight ends before the NFL Combine

We highlight and profile the top 5 draft-eligible tight ends for the 2017 NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our Post-Senior Bowl, Pre-NFL Combine, breakdown of the top 5 prospects at each position. Over the past couple weeks we highlighted quarterbacks, inside linebackers, outside linebackers, running backs, and wide receivers. Today we take a look at the tight end position.

Going into the 2017 season, the 49ers have all four of their tight ends under contract - Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Blake Bell, and Je'Ron Hamm. Although the position group may appear to be set and good to go, one huge area of concern - an issue continuously plaguing the position - are injuries.

McDonald's explosion and speed were on full display in 2016, which led to a nice contract extension; however, while the ink was still drying, he quickly found himself on Reserve/IR. And what appears to be a contagious viral injury bug infecting the group, Bell was quick to join McDonald on IR, and poor Hamm did not escape the infection breaking his leg during warmups for the final game of the season.

Injuries aside, the level of play was sporadic, and with the new regime coming into the building, we will see if any one of the current tight ends make it through the roster purge.

Free agency is definitely a possibility to bring in new blood to strengthen competition or flat out replace what the 49ers currently offer on their roster. Some potential names thrown around such as Martellus Bennet, Trey Burton (RFA), Jack Doyle, Ryan Griffin, Dion Simms, Jacob Tamme, and Levine Toilolo among others are a few of the potential free agents that may want to join Shanahan's dynamic offense (keep an eye on Atlanta's Tamme and Toilolo). However, it's the new crop of a deep and talented rookie tight end class poised to make their marks in the NFL, where the 49ers will likely do their due diligence in combing through the prospects determining if one of these pass catchers can become the premier tight end on the 49ers offense. I highlight the top 5 tight ends in play.

TE O.J. Howard, No. 88, 6'5 ½” - 249 lbs., 4.57 40 - (1st) - Alabama

Howard's 2016 season stats: 45 receptions for 595 yards averaging 13.2 yards per reception with 3 touchdowns.

TE O.J. Howard is a mismatch in the middle of the field and on the perimeter displaying an impressive combination of size (6'5 ½” - 249 lbs.), speed, explosion, 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 4.57 speed up the seam, the suddenness to separate and get away from man coverage taking advantage of his impressive length and athleticism, finds holes in zone and squares up presenting a large target and catching radius for the quarterback, and extends hands away from the body to make the catch. Along with good catching and great YAC ability, his blocking has been steadily improving as well, where he shows an excellent base, platform, and hand positioning blocking inline, and athletic ability with agility to swing his hips blocking in space when detached.

Round Projection: 1st

TE David Njoku, No. 86, 6'4" - 245 lbs., 4.49 40 - (1st) - Miami

Njoku's 2016 season stats: 43 receptions for 698 yards averaging 16.2 yards per reception with 8 touchdowns.

TE David Njoku is an athletically explosive raw talent with tremendous speed, length, agility, and athleticism. The former high school track athlete (national high-jump champion) explodes off the line of scrimmage with great burst, and with a superb combination of length and speed he's a nightmare match-up for defenders flying up the seam with athletic fluidity presenting a large catching radius (long arms). Njoku does a great job tracking balls over the shoulder extending hands away from his body to make acrobatic catches with terrific body control. The redshirt sophomore is impressive in and out of his breaks with suddenness and agility getting away from man coverage and takes full advantage of his size and reliable strong hands (some occasional focus drops) on stick routes exploding and accelerating into a phenomenal playmaker after the catch at times taking flight for extra yards (high-jump effect). Great versatility winning inline and in the slot. Shows improvement and desire in run blocking and pass protection with a good ability to block end of line at the point of attack in a three-point stance (great when detached too), as well as the burst, fluidity, and agility to the reach the next level blocking in space making great effort attacking with hands to drive defenders and elite hip flexibility to swing hips. In pass protection the athletic freak does a great job sliding laterally with a good base, platform, and solid hand positioning, although functional strength is needed at the next level to combat stronger defenders. Njoku is raw in a lot of aspects of his game (route running, technique), but he's shown the capacity to improve and boasts a very high ceiling.

Round Projection: 1st

TE Evan Engram, No. 17, 6'3" - 236 lbs., 4.64 40 - (2nd) - Ole Miss

Engram's 2016 season stats: 65 receptions for 926 yards averaging 14.2 yards per reception with 8 touchdowns.

TE Evan Engram is extremely athletic and explosive prospect, typically lining up all over the place (split out wide, slot, in-line, H-back) in the Rebels offense, which makes him a great candidate as a move tight end at the next level. 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 match-up for any linebacker. His blocking skills are not too shabby either with good positioning and hand technique and tenacity to finish keeping his feet moving.

Round Projection: 2nd

TE Bucky Hodges, No. 7, 6'7" - 245 lbs., 4.50 40 - (2nd) - Virginia Tech

Hodges's 2016 season stats: 48 receptions for 691 yards averaging 14.4 yards per reception with 7 touchdowns.

TE Bucky Hodges is a tremendous size (6'7"), speed, and strength prospect with excellent athleticism and is essentially a large playmaking wide receiver on the field. Hodges is a nightmare match-up in the middle of the field taking advantage of his strength, agility, speed, and athleticism, and on the perimeter out jumping corners with his amazing size (huge catching radius) and physicality. A work in progress as a route runner (still raw), Hodges shows great burst off the line of scrimmage, nice speed, explosion, and the suddenness to separate from defenders. Utilizing his great catching radius, Hodges attacks the football with excellent leaping ability (an ideal redzone target) elevating to make the tough catch. Has build-up speed that can pose a vertical threat in the middle of the field. More adept in playing in the middle than on the outside, but shows the ability to win with great body control, ball skills, and strong hands (extends arms to make the catch). A fluid athlete, Hodges displays inconsistency in the blocking game with fair blocking skills (inline), but shows solid effort. He also showcases the athletic ability to flip his hips blocking in space and staying in front of defenders when detached. Will need to continue to improve blocking skills for the next level.

Round Projection: 2nd

TE Jordan Leggett, No. 16, 6'5" - 255 lbs., 4.73 40 - (2nd) - Clemson

Leggett's 2016 season stats: 46 receptions for 736 yards averaging 16.0 yards per reception with 7 touchdowns.

TE Jordan Leggett is a mismatch in the middle of the field and on the perimeter displaying an impressive combination of size (6'5" - 255 lbs.), speed, explosion, athleticism, and strength. A dangerous receiving weapon in the middle of the field, Leggett can easily take advantage of defenses with his speed up the seam running away from linebackers, and the length and size to be a difficult match-up for defensive backs. A solid underneath weapon, Leggett quickly finds holes in defenses and is a reliable pass catcher with strong hangs. He shows a great ability to block end of line at the point of attack in a three point stance using solid hand technique and leverage. Leggett shows the agility to reach the next level and block in space with a sound base, platform, and the ability to swing his hips blocking in space whether end of line or detached. Will need to improve functional strength at the next level.

Round Projection: 2nd


TE Jake Butt, No. 88, 6'6" - 250 lbs., 4.74 40 - (3rd) - Michigan

Butt's 2016 season stats: 46 receptions for 546 yards averaging 11.9 yards per reception with 4 touchdowns.

TE Jake Butt displays an athletic frame with a terrific combination of size (6'6"), speed, athleticism, and strength. Butt has deceptive sneaky speed, is fluid in his route running, showcases excellent ball skills, very strong reliable and outstanding hands, attacks the ball at its highest point, and is a decent blocker (needs improvement as an inline blocker). Butt displays outstanding awareness always finding the holes on defense and quickly squares up to make a large target for the quarterback, as well as the suddenness to separate with impressive burst from his breaks creating separation. Although he lacks consistency to block end of line at the point of attack successfully, Butt shows great ability to reach the second level and block in space with a good base and platform, and the ability to swing his hips blocking in space. Butt is an athletic reliable tight end that will be a quarterback's best friend at the next level. Butt was my second ranked tight end prospect after O.J. Howard; however, Butt suffered a torn ACL during the Orange Bowl on 12/30/16. It's an injury that will no doubt cause his draft status to fall, but once fully healed, a team will reap the benefits with is talent.

Round Projection: 3rd

Stats courtesy of College Football at Sports Reference, team pages, and 40 times are projections.