INDIANAPOLIS — In today’s NFL, positional definition is becoming a thing of the past in many systems. This is the case for the Indianapolis Colts, whose version of the tight end isn’t your father’s definition of the tight end.
Guys who play almost exclusively at the end of the offensive line and block while also peeling off to catch passes are almost a distant memory. The Colts want versatility.
When scanning their roster, you see tight ends who can still block but who can also catch passes while lining up in the backfield, on the line, in the slot or split out wide.
The 2019 NFL Draft class is rich with versatile tight ends, and one school is providing two such players in Iowa tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, both of whom are expected to go within the top 50 selections in April.
Today, we focus on Fant.
He can be a little overshadowed by Hockenson, but Fant is a well-rounded player in his own right, capable of doing everything a tight end should do.
"More than anything, I'm worried about being the first tight end taken. It's a big accomplishment,” Fant told reporters at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine this week. “Obviously I want both of us, me and T.J., to both go in the first round. He's a great player, and it's gonna be fun to compete out here on the field."
While his primary threat is as a playmaking pass-catcher, Fant has some power and can block on the move in space and while on the line. In the run game, he drives his man out of the way, creating space for his runner to move through.
What you’re really drafting Fant for is his receiving prowess, though. For starters, he lines up everywhere — outside, in the slot or in-line. He’s got a fit, athletic frame, and he looks and plays like a huge receiver in the passing game.
Fant runs good routes, featuring quick feet and fluid hips to change direction and adjust to passes. Overall, he has quality hands. He will have some concentration drops like anyone else, but he catches the ball naturally.
One of Fant’s best qualities is his speed and ability to stretch the defense as a tight end. He also shows the ability to pickup extra yards after the catch, so defenders must respect the threat of his game from snap to whistle.
And of course, a person with Fant’s receiving ability and frame should be a threat in the red zone. He checks that box off as well. He’s shown the ability to use his body to box out defenders, but he’s also got a nose for the end zone if he has the ball before he hits paydirt.
For those that may underrate Fant, he is set on proving his capabilities on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium during the Combine.
"In my opinion, I feel like I'm a great overall tight end,” Fant said. “I feel like, after my field workout, people will really get to see my speed and really get to see my jumping ability. After the bench, they'll get to see my power. People really haven't gotten to see all that yet, so I'm hoping to put up big numbers."
Now, one big reason many people rank Hockenson above Fant is the former’s bulldog mentality as a blocker.
Fant is still a very capable blocker but could use better technique, especially in pass protection. He doesn’t always square up his man and mirror them, and rather than finishing the block, he sometimes just kind of pushes them.
The NFL hopeful knows that blocking may be teams’ primary “concern” with him if there is one to have, but Fant has taken great strides to improve in that area.
"I've improved tremendously, in my eyes. I've put on weight, I've put on strength, and I feel like those are the biggest things as I progress through my career,” Fant said. “I came in at 220 and now I'm 250, so it's been a good transition. I've put all lean muscle mass on — I think my body fat percentage was like 12 percent — so it's not fat, it's all good muscle."
FIT WITH THE COLTS
It’s not hard to convince anybody the Colts’ passion for tight ends. They had the best tight end group in the NFL in 2018, and Fant could certainly build on that and create a tradition.
All seven tight ends currently with the Colts were acquired in their current contract by general manager Chris Ballard, so some of their shared traits are worth noting.
All are between 6-4 and 6-6 (average 6-4 and 9/10) and 248-267 pounds (average 256.4). Fant fits right in at 6-4, 249.
For what it’s worth, Lance Zierlein of NFL.com compared Fant to Colts Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron, fittingly enough.
This offseason, Ballard has been asked about the Colts’ need for more help at receiver. In each instance, his response has circled around to at least mentioning their tight end group and how their versatility helps make up for anything the Colts might lack among their receiver corps.
“Somebody that allows you, that if T.Y.’s getting doubled, he can win the single, he can win the one-on-one on the other side consistently,” Ballard said when asked what makes a good second receiver. “That came out of the tight end position for us this year; that was Ebron. So if you’re gonna put two on T.Y., good; well then we’re gonna hurt you with our tight end position.
“So everybody — you hear talk about wanting another wideout but then we got Eric Ebron who scored 14 touchdowns. Not many (number) two wideouts score 14 touchdowns,” Ballard stated at his end-of-season press conference. “That is an excellent job of coaching, an excellent job by Eric Ebron. We’ve got to find out places of where you are going to get that production from.”
So, as you can see, needing better receiving depth doesn’t mean it has to be a literal wide receiver. Tight ends like Jack Doyle, Ebron or Fant can present matchup issues for opponents that a lot of receivers don’t have as a threat.
"It helps out a lot,” Fant said in regard to his versatility. “In that scenario, who are you gonna flex out to put on me, or any player for that matter? It's not just me, we have a lot of versatile tight ends in this class.
“You put a corner out there, he might be too small. You put a strong safety, he might be too slow. You put a linebacker, he might be too slow,” Fant continued. “So, it's one of those things where, if you get the right matchup, it could be pretty special."
Fant is a multi-use tight end that can stay on the field all three downs. If he makes plays on the ball like he did with the Hawkeyes then he could be one of the NFL’s next bright, young Pro Bowl tight ends.