Six tight ends under age 25 poised to become stars

As a rookie, Evan Engram had 722 receiving yards -- fifth among all tight ends last season. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

As NFL offenses change, so does the tight end position. The classic two-way tight ends who spend a majority of their time in-line and are equally adept at catching the football and blocking are on their way to extinction with Jason Witten retired, Antonio Gates' future unclear and speculation that Rob Gronkowski might retire soon.

In their place are primarily the new breeds whose top skills are getting downfield quickly and catching the football, with New York Giants tight end Evan Engram leading the way. Engram is a glorified slot receiver/H-back with 4.4 speed in a wide receiver's body. Blocking is not his strength.

This is the new-age tight end following in the footsteps of the Jimmy Grahams, Jordan Reeds and Zach Ertzes who have already paved the way. They run like gazelles and catch everything and anything in their vicinity. They don’t always excel as pass-blockers. Instead, they get lined up all over the formation in order to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties who can’t stick with them. On one play, they can be lined up in the slot. On the next, they can be motioned out as a wide receiver. Later they might surface in the backfield or on the line.

It’s the beauty of today’s talent at the position. The move tight end is en vogue, as evidenced by the top tight ends under age 25.

Evan Engram, New York Giants

2018 projections: 69.6 receptions, 758.3 yards, 6.1 touchdowns

Assets: The physical skills are there. Engram runs in the 4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash and does it now at upward of 240 pounds. He has the ability to make plays in the air and yards after the catch. He’s an offensive weapon. Engram was fourth in the NFL with 299 yards after the catch as a rookie. He led all rookies with 722 receiving yards, the third-highest total for a first-year tight end over the past 30 years. Only Keith Jackson (1988) and Jeremy Shockey (2002) produced more as rookies from that position. At 23 ahead of his second professional season, Engram’s future is bright.

Obstacles: Engram plays on a talented offense. That could limit his production, especially with Odell Beckham Jr. returning after missing most of last season with a broken ankle. Engram also needs to show more consistent hands. His six drops last season tied him for second most among all tight ends. That could prove to be his Achilles' heel. -- Jordan Raanan

Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers

2018 projections: N/A (out for the season due to torn ACL)

Assets: The Chargers selected the Arkansas product in the second round of the 2016 draft as the heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Gates. So far, Henry, 23, has lived up to the billing. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Henry is tied with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for the fourth-most receiving touchdowns among tight ends, with 12, over the past two seasons. Henry finished with 45 catches for 579 receiving yards and four scores in 2017. The Chargers were 7-1 in games when Henry was targeted at least five times last season, and 0-6 in games he was not. One of the things that’s appealing for the Chargers in Henry is that he’s a complete tight end: capable of setting the edge in the running game and also making explosive plays down the field in the passing game.

Obstacles: Henry has had trouble staying on the field. He suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the first day of organized team activities in May, ending his 2018 campaign. Henry also suffered a lacerated kidney that forced him to miss the final two games of the 2017 season, and he missed a game his rookie year in 2016 due to a knee injury. -- Eric D. Williams

Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons

2018 projections: 45 catches, 497.2 yards, 4.1 touchdowns

Assets: Coach Dan Quinn said he's "pumped" about Hooper's potential as he heads into his third NFL season. The Falcons certainly could use Hooper as a force in the red zone, where he's caught 10 passes on 14 targets with four touchdowns and six first downs in his career. "I think I can be a red zone threat," Hooper said. "I just have to put in the work so I can get the opportunities in the red zone." Hooper, from California, stayed in Atlanta this offseason to be readily available to work out with Matt Ryan, a testament to his desire to elevate his game.

Obstacles: Hooper, more known as a pass-catching tight end, took some criticism for a couple of costly drops last season, but he's intent on showing he can be a reliable threat for Ryan in what should be a high-powered offense. Consistency is the key for Hooper, something tight ends coach Wade Harman has harped on him about. -- Vaughn McClure

O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2018 projections: 33.1 catches, 441.9 yards, 3.1 touchdowns

Assets: When he was selected with the 19th overall pick in the 2017 draft, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Howard was arguably the most complete tight end of the group -- he’d already honed his skills as a blocker in Alabama’s run-first offense and had three touchdown catches in a pair of national title games. There were glimpses of that electrifying playmaking with the Bucs, too, including a two-touchdown performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7.

Obstacles: Nearly one-third of Howard’s 26 catches last season were on passes of 15-plus air yards, fifth in the league. Also, 14 of his 39 targets came on such throws. He needs quarterback Jameis Winston to be more accurate with the deep ball. There’s also a question of opportunity; teammate Cameron Brate has become one of the better tight ends (his 15 receiving touchdowns since 2016 are third at the position). Thankfully for Howard, there are still chances to be had. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Bucs played 378 snaps last season with two or more tight ends (No. 7 in the NFL). They also targeted the tight end position 125 times last season (No. 10). -- Jenna Laine

George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers

2018 projections: 46.9 catches, 537.2 yards, 4 touchdowns

Assets: Despite entering the league as a fifth-round pick, Kittle made an instant impact in his rookie season. He finished with 43 receptions for 515 yards and two touchdowns after winning a starting job right away. Kittle’s ability as a pass-catcher and a blocker means he will have no shortage of opportunities in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense and, with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, Kittle will have a better, more accurate passer throwing him the ball.

Obstacles: The biggest issue Kittle faced as a rookie and will face moving forward is injuries. At various points last season, Kittle dealt with hip, ankle, chest, elbow, back and leg injuries. Some were more serious than others and he missed only one game, but those ailments contributed to his fluctuating usage in the offense. Kittle also struggled with drops, (his five were tied for 13th-most in the league), and though his hands became more consistent as the season went along, he’ll need to maintain that consistency to reach his potential. -- Nick Wagoner

David Njoku, Cleveland Browns

2018 projections: 44.4 receptions, 514.9 yards, 5.2 touchdowns

Assets: The Browns have big plans and high hopes for Njoku, the tight end they traded up to draft late in the first round in 2017. Njoku is 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds and can run like a gazelle. By season's end, he had developed into the Browns' best blocking tight end, a skill he had to learn from the get-go as a rookie.

Obstacles: Njoku had an inconsistent rookie season with just 32 catches and some big drops, but the Browns viewed that as a growing season for a guy not used to the physical requirements of the position in the NFL. Coach Hue Jackson likes Njoku's athleticism, and hopes hard work will help with his dropped passes (ESPN Stats & Info gave him three, 5.2 percent of his catch ratio). -- Pat McManamon