NFL draft preview: Iowa tight end duo expected to make history

At some point on April 25, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant will make NFL draft history.

Tight ends from the same school have never been selected in the first round of the same draft, but that is expected to change for the duo from Iowa.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Fant said. “Obviously, it would be a special thing.”

Hockenson and Fant lead what projects as a special tight end class, players up and down the board who are athletic enough to make an instant impact in the passing game and physical enough to handle themselves as run blockers.

“I can find you tight ends in every round of this draft,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

The Broncos re-signed Jeff Heuerman last month and return Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli from injury. But at No. 10, Hockenson could be on their radar. In addition to Hockenson and Fant, Alabama’s Irv Smith could be a first-round pick. There have been only eight first-round tight ends in the last decade, including none in 2011-12 and 2015-16.

If Jacksonville at No. 7, out of the quarterback derby after signing Nick Foles, goes with Hockenson, he would be only the seventh tight end since the 1970 merger to be among the top seven picks.

Hockenson redshirted at Iowa in 2016 and then caught 73 passes for 1,080 yards and nine touchdowns in 26 games over the next two years. At 6-foot-5 and 251 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.70 seconds at the Combine.

“He’s the safest player in the draft,” Jeremiah said. “I don’t compare anybody to (retired New England tight end Rob Gronkowski), but I saw (Hockenson) with the same temperament and nastiness in the run game and then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him.”

Hockenson had seven catches of at least 30 yards last year.

“I could have stayed at Iowa and I would have loved every second of it,” he said. “But on the same hand, I wanted to push myself to be a better player. …  It’s flattering (to be in the top 10 discussion). No one knows what’s going to happen until draft day — nobody. You don’t get your hopes up in this process.”

Entering 2018, Fant was the more well-known tight end after a sophomore year in which he averaged 16.5 yards per catch and had 11 touchdowns, most among all FBS tight ends. Fant followed that with more catches (39, up from 30) and yards (519, up from 494), but fewer touchdowns (seven, which still led the Hawkeyes). He was first-team all-Big Ten.

Fant is expected to make a bigger impact as a receiver.

“He’s more explosive (than Hockenson),” Jeremiah said. “He’s functional in the run game; you can get by with him there no problem.”

Fant (6-4/249) ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds at the Combine.

Hockenson and Fant hope to follow the lead established by San Francisco’s George Kittle, a former Hawkeye.

“(Iowa is) so good with tight ends because they develop them,” Fant said. “It’s not just a program where you run routes and catch balls. You have to put your hand in the dirt and you have to split out wide.”

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