INDIANAPOLIS — The big names and deep numbers didn’t scare off Miami’s David Njoku. Knowing very well that this year’s draft class for tight ends could be one of the best ever, he wanted in.
“That’s what made me declare: people telling me to stay because of the big tight-end class,” Njoku, a redshirt sophomore, said during the NFL Scouting Combine.
“I love competing, so once people told me to stay, that made me want to declare even more because I want to go against the greats.”
The depth and quality of the class bode well for the Bears, who can count tight end as one of their needs to address.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock described the tight-end class as the best he has seen in years, starting with Njoku and Alabama’s O.J. Howard.
Beyond Zach Miller, who didn’t finish last season because of a broken right foot, the Bears have several young players with a lot to prove.
The deep draft class also helps the Bears with their free-agency pursuits. Big money can be spent elsewhere, especially if Martellus Bennett is the top tight end available on the free-agent market.
“You have to look at the big picture,” general manager Ryan Pace said at the Indiana Convention Center. “It’s good to have a clear understanding of where free agency is strong and weak and where the draft is strong and weak, and you can balance that out a little bit.
“I know in free agency we might not get this position, but [it’s]: ‘Hey, it’s really, really deep in the draft, so we’re going to take the best player available, but I think we have a good chance of getting this player in the draft because this position is abnormally deep this year.’ ”
Again, tight end fits that mold. Last year, it didn’t. Arkansas’ Hunter Henry (Chargers) was the only one taken in the first two rounds of the 2016 draft.
The Bears got a good look at three of the best tight ends at the Senior Bowl. Howard, Ole Miss’ Evan Engram and South Alabama’s Gerald Everett played for the opposing South team, which was coached by the Browns.
At the combine, the tight ends, as a group, put up head-turning numbers. It started with the 40-yard dash. Engram (4.42 seconds), Howard (4.51), Iowa’s George Kittle (4.52) and Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges (4.57) were impressive. Njoku wasn’t too far behind at 4.64.
Other highly regarded tight ends include Jake Butt (Michigan), Adam Shaheen (Ashland) and Jordan Leggett (Clemson).
The tight ends genuinely seem to be motivated by each other in the class.
“I have a lot of respect for the guys in the tight-end class,” Howard said. “We have a deep class, a lot of great talent. To be the first guy off the board would be a tremendous accomplishment. But I’m far from that. I have a lot of work to do.”
BEST OF THE BEST
O.J. Howard, Alabama
A big-play option, Howard (6-6, 249 pounds) was underused in college, earning third-team All-America honors last year. But he was the best player at the Senior Bowl and showed off his athleticism at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“A guy I’d compare myself to right now would be Greg Olsen of the Panthers,” Howard said. “Greg does a great job of blocking. He’s a three-down tight end. He runs great routes. He has great hands. He’s a guy I studied a lot on film in college.”
David Njoku, Miami
A high-jump champion in high school, Njoku (6-4, 245 pounds) didn’t have the eye-popping combine numbers many expected him to have, but he still projects well. He’s only 20.
“I didn’t perfect anything,” Njoku said. “I’m trying to better myself in every aspect with blocking and even speed, strength, route-running or my hands. I don’t think I did anything to perfect anything, so I’m still working. If I continue to work, that’ll take me a long way.”
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
At 6-3 and 236 pounds, Engram doesn’t fit the prototypical mold for tight ends. But he’s an explosive threat. He led all tight ends by running the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds.
“This class is so deep,” Engram said. “For myself, just being able to do anything — be split out, flexed out, get downfield in the vertical game and then have the tenacity to get in and get physical — I definitely see myself as a total package.”