I really like this year's TE draft class. I don't expect a single TE to be drafted in the 1st round this year, there isn't a superstar TE like Kyle Pitts in this draft, but I think there are many quality prospects later on in the draft who could develop into at least solid TE2 players in the NFL.
The type of TE prospect who best fits the Rams offense is debatable. Since much of McVay's offense is based off of play action, maybe the team should get a TE who is primarily a good blocker, but who also has reliable hands and enough baseline athleticism to move around and get out on routes. A TE for the Rams will get a bunch of "system" catches and yards anyway, so even if the TE isn't a plus receiver, he'll still have a certain level of production just by getting regular snaps. In 2020, Tyler Higbee didn't play against the Bears due to injury. Johnny Mundt had 3 catches for 48 yards in that game. If you subscribe to this line of thinking, Daniel Bellinger of San Diego State fits the bill.
On the other hand, throwing the ball to the TEs is an important element in McVay's offense, particularly in 3rd down and red zone situations. So, maybe it is better to find a TE who is primarily a good receiver, but who also has good size and potentially could be developed into a solid blocker. If you prefer this strategy, I'd suggest Charlie Kolar from Iowa State as the type of TE to target.
My comp for Bellinger is Jack Doyle of the Colts, who recently retired from the NFL. Doyle was an UDFA in 2013 out of Western Kentucky, a fringe draft prospect who was expected to be either an UDFA or maybe a 7th round pick. He didn't make the roster of his first team and was claimed off of waivers by the Colts. At that time, the Colts didn't need anymore TEs. They had Coby Fleener (2nd round 2012) and Dwayne Allen (3rd round 2012), so with 2 promising and young TEs already on the roster, would Doyle ever be more than a candidate to be a 3rd string TE? Ultimately, Doyle had a better pro career than either Fleener or Allen.
Doyle was a backup in his early years and stayed with the Colts as a restricted free agent in his 4th NFL season. Fleener left in FA that year, creating an opportunity for Doyle. He played well and earned a long term deal with the Colts. There's nothing flashy about Jack Doyle. He doesn't put up huge receiving stats, he's not a phenomenal athletic TE. He's just extremely reliable. He catches about everything thrown his way, rarely dropping passes, he's an excellent blocker. Doyle was in the same draft as Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert. No one would confused Doyle with those other TEs as a draft prospect. If Doyle had been an early round pick in that draft, people would have called him a bust, because he didn't do much in his first 3 years in the league. By the end of his career, however, Doyle would have been a great 2nd round pick in that draft. Gavin Escobar and Vance McDonald were 2 of the TEs actually taken in the 2nd round that year. Escobar was projected to be a great receiving TE. He never had at least 10 catches in any season of his pro career.
My comp for Kolar is another former Western Kentucky TE, Tyler Higbee. This might even be selling Kolar short, because side by side, I think that Kolar is the better prospect compared to Higbee. Lance Zierlein's comp for Kolar is Cole Kmet from Notre Dame.
Daniel Bellinger (San Diego State)
6'5'' tall, 253 pounds, 32.5'' arms, 10 1/8'' hands, 76 5/8'' wingspan
4.63 sec (40 time), 22 bench reps, 34.5'' vert jump, 10'5'' broad jump, 4.47 sec (shuttle), 7.05 sec (3 cone)
Very limited receiving production compared to Kolar. In 2021, had 31 catches for 357 yards and 2 TDs. Over last 3 seasons had 67-761-5. Meanwhile, Kolar had 62-756-6 in just 2021 alone, so in one season Kolar nearly had the same production as Bellinger did in his career. Over 3 seasons, Kolar had over 2,000 receiving yards and 20 TDs.
Turns 22 years old in September. 2 star recruit, also was LB in HS. Studied business administration, finance.
Lance Zierlein 6.16 draft grade. Compare to Hunter Long 6.17 (3rd rd 2021), Drew Sample 6.10 (2nd rd 2019), Adam Shaheen (2nd rd 2017). LZ's grade on Bellinger would typically translate to about a 3rd round pick.
ESPN 131 overall, 9th best TE (4th rd)
Tony Pauline 105th overall, 7th best TE (3rd to 4th rd)
Ian Cummings 297th overall (UDFA)
Oliver Hodgkinson 269th overall (UDFA)
Shane Hallam 188th (6th rd)
Brian Bosarge 183rd (6th rd)
Drafttek 310th (UDFA)
Bellinger reportedly had "a phenomenal week" at the Senior Bowl, per one report. They said he was the best blocking TE down there and excelled with his route running and hands. Tony Pauline said that Bellinger kept getting open and didn't drop passes. He thought Bellinger was better as a run blocker than as a pass blocker.
I kind of understand why some experts see Bellinger as a 3rd to 4th round prospect (which could make him a candidate for the first pick by the Rams) while others see him as a late round to UDFA prospect (maybe a 7th round pick by the Rams). Bellinger's game video is "boring". One expert might come away from it and be unimpressed, because he's not a dynamic playmaker. Another might have a very different impression, saying that Bellinger is consistently doing his job play after play both as a blocker and a receiver, which is what you want from the TE position.
Reliable hands. Attention to detail in his movements and execution of assignments on the field. Disciplined footwork and stance as a blocker. Appropriately adjusts his blocking assignment to defensive moments, locates and locks onto his blocking target. Technical. At times Bellinger was used as a lead fullback. Lined up as Y tight end and other times in slot or split wide, reliable move blocker. Makes himself available to QB in scramble drill by moving and trying to uncover.
Not always properly centered on block. Runs dull routes, doesn't burst off of the line or in and out of breaks. Not a wide body or a bigger TE, has narrow build and average length. Needs to get stronger. Won't be able to sustain blocks well against stronger NFL defenders. Got jacked backwards occasionally. Not fluid or elusive as a receiver.
I'm not excited about needing to use a 3rd round pick on Daniel Bellinger, but in a deep TE class if he's still available late in the draft, I think he could be a draft steal. He's very similar to Jack Doyle. Just as Doyle didn't break out until his 4th NFL season, Bellinger might not be anything more than a backup early on in the NFL, but I think that eventually he could develop into a reliable starter.
Charlie Kolar (Iowa State)
6'6.5'' tall, 252 pounds, 34.5'' arms, 10'' hands, 81 1/8'' wingspan.
If the ultra-competitive Kolar (said to be such a sore loser that he breaks pool sticks if he loses at pool and kept hounding his HC for a rematch after losing at a game of pickeball in the driveway) claims to be the smartest player in the 2022 draft, I wouldn't argue with him. Won the Campbell Trophy (the Academic Heisman) and won the Academic All American Player of the Year award. Had 3.99 GPA in mechanical engineering. Grad student in finance.
In 2021, had 62-756-6. Last 3 seasons combined 157 catches for 2,044 yards and 20 TDs.
23 years old. Parents professors at Oklahoma. Played on HS basketball team with Trae Young in Norman, OK. Older brother was college QB. 3 star recruit.
Lance Zierlein 6.22 draft grade. Quoted AFC exec who said he could be another Mark Andrews (6.20 draft grade, 2nd rd 2018). Compare also Austin Hooper 6.20 (2nd rd 2016). LZ says Kolar has sticky and automatic hands, projects as a solid move TE in the NFL as a Day 2 selection, gets open, not dynamic after catch. Not effective as a blocker at the point of attack. Compared to Cole Kmet.
ESPN 135th overall, 10th ranked TE (4th rd)
Tony Pauline 102nd, 6th ranked TE (late 3rd)
Ian Cummings 227th (7th rd)
Oliver Hodgkinson 239th (7th rd)
Shane Hallam 172nd (late 5th)
Brian Bosarge 159th (5th)
Drafttek 94th, 5th TE (late 3rd rd)
Tony Pauline watching the Senior Bowl practices said that Kolar "broke defenders spirits" with his strength and hands at the catch point and displayed strength both as a blocker and a pass catcher. Struggled to get open against man coverage on Day 3.
Missed game in 2020 due to lower body injury. Missed game in 2021 due to right ankle injury, which limited him in following game as well.
Has wiggle, fluid runner at the top of the route and into his breaks. Ran good pivot route. Very soft, quiet, confident hands catching the ball, nice hand eye coordination, composed when crowded at catch point. Has upside potential as blocker, because he has good size and length. Crazy intelligent.
Plays high as a blocker. Not physical or aggressive blocking, can get overpowered.
Tyler Higbee in his draft wasn't quite as big physically as Kolar (height, weight, arm length, wingspan, all slightly smaller). Higbee had a bunch of injuries in college, had some work ethic and character questions. If they were in the same draft, I'd select Kolar ahead of Higbee.
Which TE would be better for the Rams? Harris and Hopkins are better suited for a flex TE role, so adding a bigger, more physical TE to groom for Higbee's spot makes some sense. Higbee could be a candidate for a cap casualty in 2023. He'll be in the final year of his contract and has a relatively low dead cap hit that year. He'll also be 30 years old. Higbee has been a solid player for the Rams, but he also tends to get injured and the Rams might decide to try to get younger and cheaper at that spot instead of paying whatever it could cost to keep Higbee into his 30's. Tight end isn't an easy position to learn in the NFL, so just as the Rams planned ahead for GE leaving in FA, if they have any thoughts about parting ways with Higbee down the road, this could be the time to start looking for a potential replacement. Maybe the Rams already intend to use Hopkins for the job, but I'm not confident that would work. Hopkins has unreliable hands and is underpowered as a blocker. In college, he was typically split out in the slot like a WR. I think the Rams need a TE who is more comfortable being in-line as a Y tight end.
If some of the draft boards (and LZ's grade) are correct, Charlie Kolar might already be gone and off the board by the time the Rams pick. If he's still there, would he be worth taking, whether in the 3rd or 4th round? How does he rank compared to some of the other TEs, such as Cade Otton, who I wrote about previously? One advantage with Bellinger is that he doesn't seem to be ranked as high, so he might still be available well after Kolar gets drafted. If the Rams would prefer to focus on other team needs first and look for a TE with a later pick, he could be a fall back option. There are other potential Day 3 TEs that also have potential. I chose Bellinger for this comparison, because I think he's the best blocker, while some of the other guys project to be "poor man" versions of Kolar, more receiving oriented TEs.