Gopher tight end Maxx Williams has declared for this spring's NFL Draft, but what hat will Roger Goodell hand him on draft day?
Update: Read our NFL Draft scouting reports 2015 for the top prospects.
As only as redshirt sophomore, Williams had not received much love from NFL draft prognosticators up to this point, mostly because many figured he would stay at least another year. Even in our season preview, I wrote that Williams will eventually play on Sundays, guessing that he could make the jump after his junior year. But as Williams showed in the Citrus Bowl, there wasn't much left for him to prove at the collegiate level.
Renown NFL scout and NFL Media Senior Analyst Gil Brandt recently listed the top three needs of every team heading into this year's draft, singling out the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks as teams needing a tight end. Brandt also mentioned the Denver Broncos as possibly needing a TE and/or WR, since both tight end Julius Thomas and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas are entering contract option years.
At this point, it's unclear what other underclassmen could declare for the NFL Draft, but Williams figures to be inside the top three prospects at the position, if not the best overall.
In his two years with Minnesota, Williams displayed soft hands along with astonishing body control at full speed for a player weighing 250 pounds. Deadspin called his sideline catch against the Hawkeyes "one of the best all season," while his double hurdle in the Citrus Bowl and one-handed grab against Michigan were two of his more gif ready catches in a season full of them.
As patently meaningless as Mock Drafts are on Jan. 2, feel free to ignore that ESPN's Todd McShay listed only one Big Ten TE in his mock draft: Michigan tight end/wide receiver Devin Funchess at No. 15. For what it's worth - again, not much - ESPN's Mel Kiper previously ranked John Mackey Award winner Nick O'Leary of Florida State as the top TE prospect.
Meanwhile, as the news of Williams's announcement broke on Friday, NBC Sports' Rotoworld suggested that Williams could rise as high as 15th overall and BTN TV analyst and former Gopher head coach Glen Mason called Williams to the best TE in the country, during a regular segment on Dan Barreiro's KFAN radio show.
In the 2014 NFL Draft, 10 tight ends were selected, one in the first round, three in the second and three in the third. In 2013, 16 tight ends were selected, one in the first round, three in the second round and two in the third round.
At any rate, it might be a slight surprise to see Williams get nabbed as high as the 15th overall pick, but it would be an even bigger surprise to see his name still on the board at the end of the second round. We can reasonably ascertain that Williams is seen as at the very least a top three talent at the position and that teams are willing to select a tight end during the first two rounds.
Other than that, let's cue up our old school, "Who the hell is Mel Kiper, Jr.?!" YouTube videos, and enjoy some rampant speculation with the teams listed by Brandt as needing tight end help.
The Falcons have failed to replace the production of Tony Gonzalez, as 2013 late-round pick Levine Toilolo totaled only 238 yards this season. But the Falcons are a 6-10 team that has some major issues defensively. With a new coach on the horizon and a lot of talent already on offense, it would be shocking to see them grab Williams at No. 8.
If the Falcons could trade down, it might make more sense.
For Williams though, Atlanta could be a great situation personnel-wise. Playing next to Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White would allow him to fit in naturally as he continues to grow into his NFL-ready frame.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers makes a lot of OK guys look good, and a lot of good guys look great. Another No. 88, Jermichael Finley, had problems staying healthy during his time in Green Bay, but when healthy provided the Packer offense with a dangerous option. Williams could provide that same spark and potentially, much more.
The Packers drafted tight end Richard Rodgers in the third round last year and Andrew Quarless is suitable, but the depth chart is nowhere near stable enough to not consider Williams if he had not been drafted by that point. If they pass on Williams, one would guess that they had more pressing needs to fill defensively.
Ask any Viking fan how they would feel about seeing a Rodgers-led offense with Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Maxx Williams flooding the flats and middle of the field.
They wouldn't be happy.
Also, feel free to make the lazy, "He could be like another Gopher great to play for the Pack, remember Darrell Thompson?!" reference now.
While it's true the Seahawks don't have much of note at tight end, that might be by design.
The Seahawks haven't had a tight end crack more than 400 yards since 2011, and no tight end has totaled more than 500 yards since head coach Pete Carroll came to Seattle before the 2010 season. No Seattle receiver has cracked 1,000 yards under Carroll; the Seahawks ranked 27th in passing yards in 2014.
They just don't throw that much. They run the ball and with everyone expecting this year to be Marshawn Lynch's last in Seattle, they will have more pressing needs in the draft than a pass-catching tight end.
Brandt listed the Denver Broncos potentially needing a tight end with Julius Thomas in an option year, but unless Peyton Manning suddenly retires and they re-haul the roster for whatever reason, it would be shocking to see them go in another direction.
Many Gopher fans would love to see Williams stay in Minnesota and wear purple, but the Vikings' turnstile offensive line needs to be improved if Teddy Bridgewater has any hope of enjoying a successful NFL career.
Williams could have been a great fit for Brian Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles, but the high draft selection of Zach Ertz in 2013 makes it unlikely that they would feel the need to again grab another TE that high.
This would be another long shot, but how great could Williams be playing in New England as part of Bill Belichick's two TE scheme? Pairing him with Rob Gronkowski could allow the Patriots to run more twin-tight end sets like in previous years and also give them a safeguard against Gronkowski's injury history. The Patriots would likely need to draft a defensive lineman first, though.
Elliot Mann is a Minnesota-based writer who contributes to The Daily Gopher. Follow his thoughts about Gopher football, why the Timberwolves are blowing it by failing to sell an Andrew Wiggins jersey with the original T-Wolves colors and other inane ramblings at twitter.com/elliotmann.