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As combine opens, Hockenson, Fant catch attention

March 1, 2019 GMT

NFL draft analysts find a lot to like about Iowa tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant.

Among four Hawkeyes who will participate in the NFL Scouting Combine that begins today in Indianapolis, the overall skill set of the two underclassmen and Iowa’s history of producing NFL tight ends helps separate them from others in a deep pool of prospects at the position.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah labels Hockenson “the safest pick in the draft,” and believes both Hawkeyes won’t have to wait long to be selected when the draft arrives in April.

“I think both these guys would be first-round picks, day-one starters and big-time impact guys,” Jeremiah said.

They’ll get a chance to demonstrate why this weekend as the scouting combine brings together the top prospects in this year’s draft field.

Hockenson and Fant are among tight ends who are scheduled to participate in on-field workouts on Saturday, while Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson will take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday and defensive back Amani Hooker is scheduled to participate on Monday.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said the depth of Hockenson’s skill set makes a difference as NFL teams look at potential.

“I think he’s going to skyrocket,” Kiper said. “You can’t look at him as a one-dimensional player. He’s a multi-dimensional tight end who can do everything you want.”

Jeremiah sees that as part of the value that Iowa tight ends bring to NFL organizations.

“You know you’re going to be getting somebody that’s been coached hard, that’s tough and that can play in line. They’re not just flexed out all the time,” Jeremiah said during a conference call this week. “They have the ability to put their hand on the ground, and they’ve had quite a track record.”

Hockenson and Fant both opted to leave Iowa early following productive seasons, Hockenson as a redshirt sophomore and Fant as a junior.

As Iowa compiled a 9-4 record in 2018, Hockenson caught 49 passes for 760 yards and six touchdowns and Fant recorded 39 receptions covering 519 yards and reached the end zone seven times.

Both bring a blend of size and speed to the position.

Jeremiah likes more than the blocking ability and the way he uses his hands as he studies Hockenson.

He also likes the attitude that Hockenson plays with in the run game, comparing it to what he sees as he watches the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski compete.

“I don’t compare anybody to Gronk, he’s on a whole different level in terms of what he can do, but I see (Hockenson) with that same temperament and nastiness in the run game and controlling the run game,” Jeremiah said. “Then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him.”

In analyzing Fant, Jeremiah sees a lot of the same, but considers him “a more athletic version” of Hockenson.

“He’s more explosive. You can get by him. He’s not deficient, but he’s not the killer that Hockenson is. That would be the difference there,” Jeremiah said.

“I think Hockenson has a little bit more natural hands. With Fant, he’s got a bit of a habit for jumping for balls that are on his body. Sometimes, that shows you a guy who doesn’t have total confidence there in his hands.”

Kiper and Jeremiah list both Iowa tight ends as probable first-round selections in their most recent mock drafts, with Jeremiah projecting that Hockenson could go as high as eighth where Detroit may be looking for a player at the position.

Only eight tight ends have been chosen in the opening round of the last 10 NFL drafts, but Jeremiah considers this year’s group to be unique.

“It’s one of the better drafts we’ve had in a while with premier top-end guys as well as a lot of depth all the way through,” he said.

Nelson and Hooker are among players who can help their draft position with their work in Indianapolis this weekend.

Jeremiah sees Nelson as a good fit for teams which play with big, five-technique ends, currently projecting him as a fourth-round prospect in a defensive line class that ranks among the most talent-rich areas of this year’s draft.

“He doesn’t have that elite burst, plays up on his toes a little bit, but when you play with a big five-technique end, you want to hold the point of attack and hopefully you get some upside there with him giving you a little bit of a pass rush,” Jeremiah said. “That’s what he brings to the table.”

Hooker, who split time between strong safety and hybrid linebacker role for Iowa last season, intrigues Jeremiah.

He sees multiple roles for the Big Ten defensive back of the year, both on special teams and as a nickel back.

“He’s at his best when you let him float and he can just use his instincts and make plays,” Jeremiah said. “I wrote in my notes that he almost looks bored when he’s playing as the high safety. It looks like he likes to be down there in the action and mix it up and get involved in the run game.”