Last season, the Raiders leading receiver was tight end Jared Cook, who signed with New Orleans in the offseason and while recently signed wide receiver Antonio Brown will step in as the number one option in 2019, Oakland is left with a need at tight end. Signing Luke Wilson, who will be on his third team in three years, does not fill the gap Cook left behind.
The Raiders tight end room consists of the following: the aforementioned Wilson, Lee Smith, Derek Carrier, Darren Waller and Paul Butler. Smith is more of a blocking tight end and Carrier, Waller and Butler have combined for 572 receiving yards in nine seasons. Needless to say, Oakland needs help and will be looking forward to the 2019 NFL Draft to fill said need.
I wrote an article about how the Raiders should use their first two picks on pass rushers and I’m sticking to it. Thus, the earliest Oakland should be looking for a tight end is pick 27. That would likely mean Iowa standouts, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, are off the board. Below are five prospects and my pick on who the best and most realistic options for the Raiders.
Rankings are derived from The Draft Network and all rankings below are overall.
Irv Smith, Alabama, Rank: 33rd
Smith is certainly the biggest name on this list and is the only potential first round pick. He is a viable option for the Raiders at pick 27 or 35 and would be a good scheme fit. As a blocker, he was primarily utilized in zone running schemes and Gruden loves to run zone. Smith is also very good at taking on second level defenders, which is what he will primarily be asked to do at the next level.
Smith is a legitimate threat in the passing game. He runs crisp routes and has good awareness against zone coverage. After the catch, Smith can score from just about anywhere on the field. Combining his route running ability and speed resulted in 58 catches, 838 yards and 10 touchdowns in his 24 games at Alabama. If Smith is still on the board at pick 35, it’s hard to see Gruden passing.
Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M, Rank: 48th
The Texas A&M product brings a lot to the table in the passing game, but leaves something to be desired as a run blocker. Far too often, Sternberger’s man makes the play and sometimes it looks like he blocks the wrong defender. He is a good enough blocker to stalemate defenders, but will get pushed around by more physical linebackers. Ultimately, you can’t rely on him as a run blocker.
While he has deficiencies as a run blocker, Sternberger excels as a pass catcher. Similar to Smith, Sternberger is very good after the catch and does not go down easy. He is always a threat to make a big play, possesses great hands and catches the ball in traffic well. If he can learn to vary his speed and improve his awareness when running routes, he could be a valuable offensive weapon.
Kaden Smith, Stanford, Rank: 132nd
Similar to Sternberger, Kaden Smith needs to improve as a run blocker. Smith is a decent second level blocker, but is not very physical at the point of attack and catches defenders more than he blocks them. I worry that NFL linebackers will take advantage of this and be able to run through him to make the play. However, he did show the ability to counter physical linebackers and stay in front of them. The question is if will this hold up in the NFL.
Smith mixes up his speeds when running routes, which allows him to break away from coverage and get open. Out of all the tight ends listed, he is the most diverse route runner and showed decent ability to run double moves. He also has great hands and can just pluck the ball right out of the air. Against bigger and more physical defenders, he needs to use his body more to get open. He lets defenders hang on to him for too long and needs to learn how to use his size and strength to shake defenders off. He was in attendance at the Raiders’ local pro day, so the team seems to be interested in him. He could be an option with picks 106 (fourth round) or 140 (fifth round).
Isaac Nauta, Georgia, Rank: 133rd
Nauta is probably the most complete tight end in this list. He is a physical blocker and can be a threat in the passing game. He is effective at blocking both defensive linemen and linebackers. He also has a great motor and looks to make a second block that springs running plays. From time to time though, he will stop his feet when blocking, but this doesn’t seem to be a perpetual issue.
Nauta showed the ability to mix up speeds in his route running and this allowed him to make big plays for Georgia. He is also a great hands catcher who showed the ability to adjust to the ball and make back shoulder catches. He does need to learn when to turn his head around/look for the ball against zone coverage and overall he can improve on his awareness when running routes. If he is still on the board at pick 140, he could be exactly what Jon Gruden is looking for.
Kahale Warring, San Diego State, Rank: 144th
The former Senora High School Water Polo and Basketball player Kahale Warring didn’t start playing football until his senior year of high school. At 6’5” and 250 pounds, he certainly has the right frame for the NFL. However, his inexperience as a football player makes him a long term project.
Warring excels when he is able to use his athleticism as a blocker. However, when he is required to block defenders using more brute strength, his pad level is too high and he isn’t as effective. Warring’s athleticism is best seen in his abilities as a receiver as has great hands and can make plays after the catch. For still being rather new to the game, he has good instincts as a receiver and finds the open zone against zone coverage. This could come with time and experience, but Warring didn’t show the ability to run a wide range of routes. He also needs to run his routes with lower pad level, so that linebackers and safeties have less surface area when trying to get their hands on him. If the Raiders were to select Warring with pick 140, it might be a year or two before he grows into his own, but the potential is certainly there.
My Pick: Kaden Smith
In recent years, Stanford has produced some quality NFL tight ends: Zach Ertz, Austin Hooper and Coby Fleener to name a few. I think Smith will eventually be another name we can add to that list. I would like to seem him improve as a run blocker, but he can be a difference maker immediately in the passing game. I would have no problem with Oakland reaching and taking him with pick 106. Waiting until the forth round to take a tight end like Kaden Smith would allow the Raiders to address other needs or accumulate the best players available and still get a playmaker at tight end. Granted, Irv Smith could be the best player available at pick 35, but I get the feeling he will sneak into the end of round one. On draft day, Kaden Smith will give Oakland the most bang for their buck.