As of this very moment with the New Orleans Saints having addressed most of their team "needs" in NFL Free Agency within the past week, the prevailing thought among many analysts is that the team will most likely look at taking a tight end with their first pick (#27 overall) in next month's 2018 NFL Draft.
But — do they actually HAVE TO take one at that spot?
Do they have the option of simply taking the 'BPA' (best player available) at #27 regardless of position; while waiting until Day 3 of the Draft during the middle-to-later rounds (Rounds 4 thru 7) to select from among a handful of underrated players at the tight end spot?
The answer is "yes" — and this morning, the Saints News Network gives you a few of them, starting with......
TROY FUMAGALLI, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN
A former walk-on who eventually "blossomed" into a Mackey Award finalist (for the nation's top tight end) in 2017, Fumagalli actually 'broke out' as a junior during the 2016 regular season; recording 47 receptions for 580 yards, and two touchdowns. He put himself on the map with a seven-catch, 100-yard performance in a season opening win over then No. 5-ranked LSU (as many Saints fans that also are fans of LSU would like to forget about), and hasn't ever looked back since.
Compared often to former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura, last year as a senior Fumagalli put up similar numbers; catching 46 balls for 547 yards and four scores en route to being named first-team All-Big Ten (coaches) and second-team Associated Press All-American in 2017. Fumagalli ranks No. 13 all-time in school history with 1,627 receiving yards.
The 6-foot-6, 250 pound Fumagalli — who lost a finger on his left hand from a birth defect that forced an amputation the day after he was born — is a hard-nosed tight end who is just as effective as a road grader in the run game as he is a dangerous weapon as a receiver. Even more impressive is his blocking ability, which Saints head coach Sean Payton would undoubtedly find to be a quality trait.
Saturday Blitz NFL Draft analyst Trevor Jossart says that one thing that will be in question for Fumagalli in the NFL is his speed and whether or not he will be able to utilize his route running skills in a much faster game. With much faster athletes in the professional setting, Jossart notes that Fumagalli will need to prove he has the speed to match his other attributes. Nevertheless with Fumagalli still currently rising up many draft boards, don't be shocked when some team (like the Saints, maybe?) takes him as early as Day 2 (in Round 3).
IAN THOMAS, INDIANA UNIVERSITY
Another "late bloomer" and easily one of this year’s more intriguing tight end prospects, Thomas proved to be a valuable big-play threat for the Hoosiers in 2017, averaging 15 yards per catch and hauling in a touchdown every five receptions. He spent the first two seasons of his career at Nassau Community College; where he caught 27 passes before transferring to the Hoosiers.
He played sparingly as a junior in 2016, but last year caught 25 passes for 376 yards and five touchdowns on his way to being named All-Big Ten honorable mention. In all, he played for three head coaches and three offensive coordinators during his college career. USA TODAY / The Draft Wire NFL Draft analyst Luke Easterling notes that with a big frame that could still add some quality bulk, and an impressive catch radius, the 6-foot-4, 260 pound Thomas has all the physical tools to create mismatches at the next level.
Compared often to former University of Oklahoma and former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham, the 21-year old Thomas is considered a raw prospect, which means he’s not totally refined but also has a much higher potential ceiling. NFL.com's Chris Trapasso says that Thomas is the most fluid athlete in this tight end class. He says that Thomas glides in an out of his breaks without losing much speed, and believes that he'll be a productive player on option routes over the middle.
Thomas' biggest weaknesses (and the reason why he'll still likely be available on Day 3) are his blocking ability and route-running, which isn't that surprising for a "raw" player who's still essentially learning HOW to play the position. But his "upside" is that scouts believe that he will be a legitimate threat in the receiving game and can develop the traits that he lacks, with the proper amount of coaching at the next level.
DEON YELDER, WESTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY
Another former walk-on just like Troy Fumagalli of Wisconsin, Yelder did not receive a scholarship or tally any receiving statistics prior to his senior campaign in 2017. But Yelder exploded onto the scene by leading WKU with 52 catches and 688 yards and 7 TD's, thanks in part to the fact that a new coaching staff led by first-time head coach Mike Sanford wanted to run an offense that features the tight end position.
Primarily used as a special teams player, the 6-foot-4, 255 pound Yelder made the most of the opportunities given to him as a redshirt senior. The Louisville native’s yardage mark set a single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end, and his versatility allowed him to finished ranked fourth in receptions and third in receiving yards among all tight ends across the nation.
NFL.com Draft analyst Chris Trapasso says that Yelder isn't a tight end you want running intricate routes, yet he showed a knack to get open in simple, high-percentage throws in the 7-10 yard range in college. Yelder has also shown the ability to be very coachable, and drew praise at the Senior Bowl for sharpening his blocking technique (considered his biggest weakness) immensely while showing off his unique blend of size, athleticism and hands.
Yelder is similar to many of the mid-to-late round prospects in that he needs a lot of "refinement" at the NFL level, but as Hilltoppers head coach Mike Sanford showed everyone last season: a creative head coach (perhaps like Sean Payton) can utilize Yelder as a "weapon" — something that the Saints clearly lack at the moment. If New Orleans still hasn't addressed the TE position by Round 4, keep Yelder's name in mind when the Saints are picking on Day 3.
CAM SERIGNE, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY
Last but certainly not the least, Serigne (pronounced SAIR-in-yay) was named 1st Team All-ACC and was a "go-to target" for the Demon Deacons last season. After snatching a career-high eight touchdown receptions as a senior, the 6-3, 240-pounder is considered one of this year's biggest "sleeper" prospects and should quickly become a favorite of whichever NFL quarterback gets the pleasure of adding him to his huddle in 2018.
A 5th-year / redshirt senior, Serigne played an important starting role for four years and shattered Wake Forest’s record books. He broke the school record for tight end receptions and touchdowns after just his first two seasons at the school. In his entire career at Wake Forest, Serigne hauled in 174 receptions for 2,075 yards and 21 TD's.
Saints fans won't be able to ignore the obvious Jimmy Graham comparisons for Serigne, who like Graham is considered a top-notch receiver but not all that effective as an in-line blocker either in the running game or in pass protection. Sporting News NFL Draft analyst Eric Galko says that Serigne shows a good feel for space and how to get open. He's a smooth, agile player who can weave in and out of zone coverages, as well as make some acrobatic catches in traffic.
Galko does caution however that Serigne isn't an overly physical player, but he is an athlete with an aggressive mindset. Additionally, he also notes that Serigne is not a hulking blocker, but he can quickly get to his mark, and he has the tenacity to get after defenders.
As with most of these tight end prospects, projecting how any of them will eventually turn out to be as professionals is a bit of a 'crapshoot'; but for a team like the Saints that needs more production from this position, Serigne is just one of a few undderated TE prospects that New Orleans can consider worthy of targeting, in the 2018 NFL Draft mid-to-later rounds......