NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Talk about a culture change.
Not long ago, drafting a tight end in the first round was taboo for NFL teams. On Thursday night, two might go extraordinarily high — and they come from the same school.
T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant of Iowa are projected to go early, and it is not just because they are versatile, talented players. Or that the Hawkeyes have turned into a college mecca for the position: 10 of them in the pros since 2000, including Dallas Clark, who helped the Colts win a Super Bowl, and George Kittle, who set records for the position with the 49ers last year.
With the emphasis on more passing and a shift toward more open offenses, the tight end spot has become a critical component of NFL attacks.
“The tight end is the eraser for the quarterback,” Fant said Wednesday as 21 potential first-rounders spoke at Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans. “That’s where being a dynamic tight end comes into play.”
Neither likely will go in the top half a dozen selections, which figure to be dominated by defensive players. Both are expected to be gone in the top 20 picks or so.
That would be a rare occurrence. Since the NFL went to 32 teams in 2002, a pair of tight ends has not gone in the first 20.
But pro teams have changed their tunes most recently. Two years ago, three tight ends were taken in the opening round: O.J. Howard by Tampa at 19, Evan Engram by the Giants at 23 and David Njoku at 29 by Cleveland.
Now come Hockenson and Fant, who say they have no clue where they will land.