Not So Fast
It is debatable whether the level of need for the Rams to add another TE this year is zero, low or medium. Depends on how you feel about the current TE room. Higbee is a decent player when he's healthy, but he tends to get beat up with injuries. Higbee is under contract for the next 2 seasons, but the way his deal is structured he could be a candidate to be a cap casualty or a trade in 2023. Jacob Harris got injured and even if he returns he projects to be the flex TE as opposed to being able to play Higbee's spot. Blanton and Hopkins are wild cards. Both have some receiving ability, but neither have proven themselves to be reliable blockers. In his first 2 years in the NFL, Hopkins has a grand total of one regular season catch for 9 yards. Not exactly exploding out of the gate.
Tight End is a difficult position to learn in the NFL, so often it is difficult to tell if a young TE is about to have a breakout season or if he's hit his ceiling as a player. To illustrate this, consider the careers of Drew Sample of the Bengals and Dalton Schultz of the Cowboys.
Sample was a 2nd round pick in 2019. I had him as about a 5th round prospect and most fans and draft experts were stunned when Sample was drafted so early. Lance Zierlein had a round 4 projection and a 6.10 draft grade on Sample. While Sample had good size, intelligence and was an excellent blocker, he had limited production as a receiver.
At the very beginning of Sample's 2nd NFL season, CJ Uzomah, the starting TE for the Bengals, suffered a season ending injury. Sample had to step up and play most of the snaps. His performance was described as inconsistent. His blocking was good, but he had a few dropped passes. Both his receiving production (40 catches for 349 yards) and PFF grade (61.4) were modest. Still, he played well enough that PFF named Sample as the likely breakout candidate for the Bengals in 2021 and fans were eager to see if he could take the next step.
Instead, Sample's 3rd season was disappointing and the bust label has been attached to Sample's name. Probably unfair, because the player doesn't control which round he gets drafted. If Sample had been a 5th round pick, he'd be doing just fine for that draft slot. Instead, the fans give him grief, because he was drafted so early. Just part of the business. There is still time for Sample to breakout, but it is fair to wonder if the Bengals tried to be too cute and missed on their scouting evaluation.
In contrast, the NFL stock for Dalton Schultz was much lower than Sample's heading into his 3rd NFL season. Schultz was a 4th round pick in 2018. Brycen Hopkins was the 136th overall pick in 2020. Schultz was taken 137th overall (one slot later compared to Hopkins) in 2018, so the 2 TEs were taken at virtually the same spot in the draft. Lance Zierlein had a round 3 projection and 6.20 draft grade on Schultz. Playing for Stanford, Schultz was considered a tough and fundamentally sound blocker, but who lad limited receiving production, lacking speed and ability to separate as a receiver. He only ran 4.75 sec in the 40.
Schultz had very limited production his first 2 seasons. He was essentially the 3rd TE for Dallas and only played 10% of their offensive snaps in his 2nd year. You might say that he was similar to Hopkins at the same point in their respective careers. Entering year 3, Schultz was expected to battle in training camp for the 2nd string TE job with cheap FA addition, Blake Bell. The new starting TE (replacing Witten) was going to be Blake Jarwin, who Dallas that offseason had signed to a new 3 year contract for about $24 million. Observers suggested that if Bell beat out Schultz for the backup job, the role for Schultz on the roster would become murky. Would Schultz become a wasted draft pick? Instead, Schultz had a good training camp and solidified his spot as the 2nd string TE.
In the very first regular season game of 2020, the Cowboys played the Rams. Jarwin tore his ACL in that game, ending his season, forcing Schultz to step up. Schultz seized his opportunity and... faceplanted. Against the Rams, Schultz had 2 costly dropped passes. He was also blamed for running a poor route on a critical 4th quarter 4th down play in the red zone, where Jordan Fuller tackles Lamb short of the marker, helping the Rams hold on for a narrow victory. In my opinion, the media was too harsh on Schultz for that play, I think the WR was more at fault, but this is just another example of how people can watch the same play and have different opinions about what happened (and by extension how PFF's grading system has an element of subjectivity and arbitrary elements that cannot be eliminated.)
Despite that shaky start, Schultz went on to have what was considered to be a breakout 3rd NFL season in 2020. He built on that momentum with an even better 2021 campaign, with 78 catches for 808 yards and 8 TDs, plus a good performance in the playoffs. Schultz had a 78.1 PFF grade last season. Currently, Schultz is expected to either get franchise tagged by Dallas or get a lucrative FA contract on the open market. Really good for a TE who just 2 years prior was considered to be just a middling backup.
We don't know if any of the relatively young TEs for the Rams will breakout in 2022. It is entirely possible that none of them will ever develop into good starters. While the Rams don't need to force a TE draft pick this year, it would be costly for them to pass on a good one. Is Cade Otton the next Dalton Schultz? Or is he not as good as Drew Sample?
Name: Cade Otton
Size: Listed at 6'5'' tall, 250 pounds
Age: Turns 23 in April. 5th year redshirt junior who could have played another year in college due to covid rules, but declared for draft instead.
Grandfather and dad were high school football coaches. Played basketball, soccer and baseball in high school. Was TE, LB and also long snapper in HS. 3 star recruit. Entrepreneurship major, named to academic honor rolls. Mature, professional attitude in interviews. Married to middle school sweetheart, couple has been together since age 12.
In shortened 2020 season, played in 4 games. Had season ending left ankle injury in 2021, also missed multiple games in 2021 due to covid issues. Effectively played in 7.5 games in 2021. Was expected to breakout in 2020, so circumstances threw a wrench in his college career. At first, his receiving stats might not look impressive, but they are a bit better if we combine the last 2 years.
Tyler Higbee (15 games in 2021) 61 rec, 560 yards, 5 TDs.
Cade Otton (11.5 games in 2020 to 2021) 46 rec, 508 yards, 4 TDs.
Lance Zierlein 6.33 draft grade (notice this is higher than LZ's grade on Schultz). LZ calls him an instinctive route runner with agile feet. Changes speeds inside route, reliable hands, adequate technique as blocker. Ascending talent who should be more productive in NFL compared to college. Separates from coverage at break point. Can become adequate blocker in NFL. Bothered by contact in route. Needs more play strength, average YAC ability. Out-muscled as blocker, lacks core strength. Average reliability making backside blocks on outside zone running plays.
PFF 121st overall (4th round)
CBSSports, 5th TE, 83rd overall (3rd round)
PFN (Tony Pauline) 8th TE, 100th overall, 4th round projection
Draft Countdown 179th overall (Shane, late 5th round), 108th overall (Brian, 4th round), consensus 143 overall and 7th TE (compensatory 4th round range)
Drafttek 3rd TE, 75th overall
PFN says he has good short area burst, natural quickness, smooth mover with lateral twitch. Fights through contact to get open, uses head fakes, has spatial awareness, reliable hands, combative as blocker. Can be out-muscled as blocker, inconsistent balance blocking, rounds out of breaks, lacks long speed, questionable upside, had focus drops in 2021, unspectacular 2021 season.
A couple of the draft boards have Otton ranked high enough to be gone by the time the Rams pick, but others have him in range as potentially one of the BPA when the Rams pick near the end of the 3rd round and even better value if he's still on the board near the end of the 4th round. Keep in mind that Brycen Hopkins was a late 4th round pick.
Good footwork at blocker. Maintains base with feet at proper width, good stance. Moves feet to sustain. Consistently gives good effort when blocking. Sound technique. Displays proper use of shoulder to make backside seal blocks on wide zone running plays. Finds smart blocking angles. Patient and disciplined as a blocker, doesn't wildly lunge or get out of position. A reliable blocker in space, which impressed me. On combo blocks and when helping, able to lean over and hit defender in hip area. Good hand placements as blocker. Adjusts well as move blocker to moving defenders.
Used in variety of blocking roles. In-line blocker attached to offensive line, move blocker coming in motion across the formation, lead FB leading the way for the RB, blocking out in space on WR screens or wide runs, solo pass blocking.
Slides his feet well laterally to sustain solo pass block.
As lead FB, made nice block on edge defender to secure point of attack for RB. Displays good potential to be used as part time FB. Solid change of direction ability as move blocker.
Had what might have been counted as a drop where I thought it was the QB's fault for throwing the ball too hard and slightly off target on a short pass, not as much on the TE.
Has feel for finding open area and making himself available when the QB moves around inside or out of the pocket.
QB simply missed him with poor accuracy on some throws where he was open.
Crafty and deceptive head fakes to get open. Head fake makes it look like he's about to turn around (say for a curl route or to make a block at the line), then he slips past the defender, running a deeper route. Head fake right after snap made it look like he was blocking, then immediately releases into route and the surprised defender grabs him.
Third down in the short red zone. Lined up in the slot, TE gives head fake to outside at top of route, then cuts inside and wins leverage on the DB, who appears to reach out and grab the TE from behind. This play should result a TD, but QB makes a bad pass and it is incomplete.
Nice fake in goalline situation, was wide open in end zone, but QB misses him with bad pass.
Deceptive fake block, then caught TE screen pass in flat.
Solid footwork running routes, doesn't have wasted steps or movement.
Confident, solid hands catching the ball. Good size and presents large target for the QB.
Enough speed to run up the seam or on post routes.
Team's offensive scheme rarely targeted him as a receiver. Most of his job was to block. Would have had better stats if he had played in more wide open system.
Good intelligence and intangibles, seems to have reliable character.
Limited bulk and strength as blocker. Narrow build. Plays narrow, lacking pop and strength as blocker. Struggles to hold his ground when blocking, whether at point of attack or when trying to seal on backside. Unlocks his hips into blocks, but doesn't have lower body drive to move defenders and push them around. Lacks grip strength to control defenders and stay attached. Blocks like a player who has shorter arms.
Gets stacked and shed too easily by defenders. His willingness to block is greater than his effectiveness and strength as a blocker. He'll always try, but sometimes he'll fail. 4th&1 run, the DE stacks and sheds him easily and stuffs the RB for a TFL. Gets overpowered and thrown off by OLB. Better when blocking half the defender from an angle. When he's faced up and has to make a man to man power block, more likely to get overpowered and shed. Very quickly stacked and shed trying to make solo run block heads up on defender. Probably better suited for zone scheme running teams.
Doesn't generate movement on double team and combo blocks.
While he fights hard to try to sustain blocks, he rarely "finishes off" blocks and buries the defender. Just a "get in the way" type of blocker. Ability to recover on blocks is just okay.
Dropped easy pass that was perfectly into his chest.
Gets redirected and delayed by strong jams near the LOS. Not quick to regain his balance and maintain tempo on route. Lost his balance when grabbed by defender coming off line.
Not a sudden athlete at the top of the route. Doesn't create his own separation well. Dull coming out of breaks and when making cuts. Not explosive on pivot routes. Lacks burst out of break to separate from defender.
Had a couple plays where it looked like maybe he made a mental error on figuring out which defender to block, but it is hard to be sure.
I didn't see any plays in the games I watched where he had to make difficult contested catches, so his ability in that department is unknown. Targeted over middle and in short area of field, not asked to run complicated route tree or attack deeper areas of the field.
Could have limited upside. A consistent player who is solid in all phases of the game, but isn't spectacular at anything. Not a great athlete and doesn't have elite size or strength. Solid, but doesn't project to be a star at the NFL level.
Pro Comparison and Draft Grade
Dalton Schultz (4th round 2018, Dallas Cowboys, Stanford), 4th round grade.
I went back and watched Schultz at Stanford to compare. Overall, I'd say the 2 prospects are rather similar. Like Otton, Schultz was very well taught at Stanford (which has become something of a "TE U" in producing NFL TE talent) and had good fundamentals as a blocker, but he also got thrown around and overpowered quite a bit by bigger and stronger defenders. Schultz is a smart football player and is willing to do the dirty work on the field, but he's not explosive as a route runner or great at creating separation.
Without the benefit of hindsight, I'd characterize Schultz as a draft prospect the same way I described Otton. Coming out of Stanford, Schultz looked like a "blah" player, someone who could be a solid NFL player, because he did a variety of things pretty well, but who was nothing special. Not worth drafting early, but similar to a number of former NFL TEs we've seen have some success as pros.
In my opinion, Otton is a better prospect compared to Brycen Hopkins. When the Rams drafted Hopkins, I said they took him too early. Otton is a "boring" prospect compared to the very athletic, but raw Jacob Harris. Otton doesn't have as much size as Kendall Blanton, but Otton has the more well rounded and balanced game.
Otton isn't a sexy draft pick with a flashy highlight reel. The reason he could make sense for the Rams, however, is because I think he fits the system. He's suited for the combo TE position. Snead and McVay have tried for more flashy TEs when they drafted GE, Hopkins and Harris. We haven't yet to see any of those picks pay off big. Instead of swinging for the fences, maybe trying to drive one in the gap for a solid double would produce a better result.