INDIANAPOLIS — While sifting through a crowded position group in the NFL Draft, it can make it a little easier to find underrated talent. This year's crop of tight ends fits the bill this year in the 2019 NFL Draft.
One of those underrated players is Texas A&M's Jace Sternberger, who should quickly get into his new NFL quarterback's good graces once he gets drafted.
Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson headline this year's class of tight ends, while Alabama's Irv Smith Jr. is often ranked third. All three are expected to be gone within the first 50 picks.
Meanwhile, Sternberger is looked at as an overall Day 2 possibility — somewhere within Rounds 2 or 3. While the second or third round is an appropriate projection for Sternberger, he deserves to be in the discussion among this year's top tight ends.
Let's start with how he sets himself up before the catch.
For starters, Sternberger can line up all over the place in the formation — outside, slot, in-line and even the backfield.
Although his 4.75 40 time at the Combine only shows OK speed, his tape shows a much more fleet-footed player who has good speed and quickness before and after the catch, and who can also get downfield in a hurry. Sternberger can runs a variety of routes and is smooth and seamless in his movements, which helps him gain separation. He also isn't afraid to use his hands to gain a little extra space.
One of, if not the strongest feature of his game, is his strong hands. His catch radius is huge because of his desire to come down with the ball. If the quarterback puts it anywhere in his neighborhood, he's probably pulling it in. Sternberger shows good body control and makes difficult catches where he has to adjust his body or gets hit right after, which shows off his solid concentration in tracking the ball. Overall, he might have the best hands of any tight end in this class.
The other marquee part of Sternberger's game is his ability to pick up yards after the catch. He has some nimble feet and speed with the ball in his hands, and he has the ability to make the first guy miss, whether it's sidestepping them or hitting them with a stiff-arm.
"I've always been good running with the ball ever since a young age," Sternberger told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. "It's been one of those things that I just kind of tell myself I'm not going to let one person bring me down and just run until it's a gang tackle."
Blocking is also obviously a huge part of the tight end position, and Sternberger has proven to be more than capable in this department. He displays a strong upper body while blocking, especially in the run game.
Two areas in which Sternberger has shown to be effective still need polish, however. He could use some work on selling his routes, as he often rounds his cuts off a bit rather than taking sharp ones with his quick feet.
He also doesn't have a strong base as a pass blocker when locked up with a defender. He can get pushed back on occasion, and in the NFL that'll become more of a common theme unless it's corrected. Also while blocking, he occasionally misses his target while hunting in the open field rather than approaching with patience and squaring them up. He gives good effort as a blocker, but he needs to work on his mechanics.
Although this didn't match the tape, it still bears mentioning, but Sternberger did not have that great of a performance in testing at the Combine. His tape shows a fast, agile and overall athletic player, but his scores left a lot to be desired.
Despite his areas for improvement, Sternberger is an ascending player who is on a hot streak after Texas A&M moved into a pro-style offense in 2018.
"One-hundred percent. I feel like it completely changed my game in all aspects of mental, physically, route running, blocking, everything," Sternberger said of playing in Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher's pro-style offense last year. "I just feel like I was playing legit, big boy football."
FIT WITH THE COLTS
If you follow the Colts then you know that tight ends are featured prominently in head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni's offense. Between Mo Alie-Cox, Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Erik Swoope, guys were making plays all year in 2018, leading all NFL tight end groups in touchdowns (22).
The cupboard is packed now, but this time next year may be totally different because of free agency. The only Colts tight end currently on the roster who isn't due to become a free agent next spring is Billy Brown — that means there's a chance Doyle, Ebron, Alie-Cox, Ross Travis and Gabe Holmes may not all still be in the locker room this time next year.
Tight ends are versatile — they can line up anywhere in the formation, they block, they catch, they are mismatches in the red zone and they are they can be puzzling decoys for the defense. Therefore, the Colts often use two or three at a time. This is one reason why a team like the Colts may prefer to acquire a high-end tight end rather than a wide receiver if given the opportunity.
Something else that would allow Sternberger to fit into the Colts' locker room is his competitive nature and that he takes "no days off." He's a hard worker and will earn the playing time he's given.
"I like to run a lot. I really don't get tired," Sternberger said regarding his high motor. "It's just one of those things at practice, I try to kill myself, so it always translates over."
We've seen before what a Colts tight end can be when they can run routes, make tough catches, pick up extra yards and block, in the form of former Colts Pro Bowler Dallas Clark. Sternberger may not turn out to be as good as Clark, but his ceiling is undeniably among the highest in this class.