Can the Vikings pass up Iowa’s Noah Fant or T.J. Hockenson at pick 18?

(Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images) Noah Fant
(Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images) Noah Fant /

Two superlative tight ends from Iowa may be available at pick 18 in the 2019NFL Draft. Are T. J. Hockenson and Noah Fant so talented that one of them should become the first round pick of the Minnesota Vikings?

We must begin this article telling the story of George Kittle. Kittle is also a tight end from Iowa, who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers.

In his rookie year (2017), drafted in the fifth round (146th), Kittle played 15 games on the league’s worst team in the league, the Niners. He ended his freshman campaign with 43 receptions for 515 yards and two touchdowns, working with quarterbacks Brian Hoyer, C. J. Beathard and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Yeah. Meh.

But in 2018, something crazy happened with George Kittle, and it had nothing to do with Jimmy Garoppolo. The guy absolutely shocked the NFL from the tight end position on a 4-12 team, becoming a Pro Bowler, second-team All-Pro, and leading the league in receiving yards (1377), with an amazing yards per catch average of 15.7.

His quarterbacks were Nick Mullens, C. J. Beathard, and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Meanwhile, an extremely rare tandem of tight ends from his alma mater, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, had dominating seasons in the Big Ten. Both have declared for the 2019 draft and are expected to be selected in the first round.

Kittle came onto the NFL with zero fanfare and was not even expected to start on the Niners as a rookie in 2017. Both Hockenson and Fant are media darlings and have had top billing for months. Hockenson as a bruising workhorse with great hands and deceptive speed, and Fant as a potentially more polished version of a young Jimmy Graham.

Mock drafts have Hockenson and Fant in many different positions of Round 1. One guess that is being repeated is the Green Bay Packers at pick number 12.  A big, athletic tight end would greatly behoove Aaron Rodgers and first-year coach Matt LaFleur as they prepare to play the two best defenses in the NFL over four games in 2019.

Other teams continue to swirl in the prognostication of that first-round.  One might imagine that each team would easily throw in their second rounders if they could be guaranteed that either Hockenson or Fant would put up numbers that Kittle did in 2018.

Among these other teams is the Minnesota Vikings, whose starting tight end, Kyle Rudolph, trailed the 49ers’ Kittle by 734 yards in receiving and nearly six yards on average reception last season, even while playing with the NFL’s prize free-agent quarterback acquisition in Kirk Cousins.

Hawkeyes With A Bullet

Recently, when Kittle was asked about whether he could decipher underclassmen Hockenson and Fant’s talents in his time at Iowa, the tight end said: “One week into fall camp (of) my senior year, I literally said out loud: ‘I am so happy I’m graduating because both those guys would have taken my spot.'”

So—seriously, now, can the Vikings, with their “desperate” need at offensive line, pass up one of these embryonic monsters?  Rudolph will be 30 in November, no doubt on the back-end of his career, and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2020. Many dislike his big contract now, and a changing of the guard seems imminent.

But could it happen even faster than expected?  Looking at the numbers of Fant and Hockenson at Iowa and the NFL Combine reveal two guys distinctly able to produce at the pro level like their former senior teammate at Iowa.

Noah Fant, Iowa (Junior) – 6’5, 241 lbs

  • 2017: 30 catches, 494 yards, 16.5 average, 11 touchdowns
  • 2018: 39 catches, 519 yards, 13.3 average, 7 touchdowns
  • 2019 NFL Combine: 40-yard dash (4.5), bench press (20), vertical leap (37.5)

T. J. Hockenson, Iowa (sophomore) – 6′ 5, 250 lbs

  • 2017: 24 catches, 320 yards, 13.3 average, 3 touchdowns
  • 2018: 49 catches, 760 yards, 15.5 average, 6 touchdowns
  • 2019 NFL Combine: 40-yard dash (4.7), bench press (17), vertical leap (37.5)

George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers (two seasons) –  6′ 4, 250 lbs

  • 2015 (at Iowa) 20 catches, 290 yards, 14.5 average, 6 touchdowns
  • 2016: (at Iowa): 22 catches, 314 yards, 14.3 average, 4 touchdowns
  • 2017 NFL Combine: 40-yard dash (4.52), bench press (18), vertical leap (35.0)

Role Players Vs. Gamebreakers

In Denver’s 2015 season, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak used a platoon of tight ends in Owen Daniels, Vernon Davis, Virgil Green, and Jeff Heuerman to win a Super Bowl.

This fact may sound defeating to the argument of lunging after Hockenson or Fant when the Vikings have a variety of needs, but even the most seasoned of coaches are swayed by the “best player available” proposition at times. This may be one of them.  Hockenson and Fant have shown clear evidence that they could both prove to the equal–or superior–to George Kittle on the NFL football field.

If you need more convincing at their readiness to rock the league, take a look at Iowa Hawkeye offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.  Before coaching under his father, Kirk Ferentz, and producing such rare athletes as Kittle, Hockenson, and Fant, Ferentz was also an offensive assistant and coach under Bill Belichick in New England from 2009-2011.

In 2009, the Patriots did a thing called 16-0.  In 2011, after Ferentz was given the job as tight ends coach, the Patriot tandem of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski set NFL records for receptions, yards, and touchdowns at that position, and Gronkowski became the first tight end in NFL history to lead the league in touchdown receptions.

Related Story. 5 tight ends the Vikings could draft. light

That’s rubber hitting the road.  George Kittle’s success has come from superior college coaching and solid athletic talent.  Both Hockenson and Fant come from the same coaching cloth and appear to be even more physically gifted.  The more you watch them, the more you consider their plausible role in the regeneration of the Vikings’ offense.

A not so tough call to make if either remain available at pick 18.