Top 3 tight ends at NFL scouting combine bring defensive mentality to draft

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Cade Stover plays tight end with a linebacker’s ferociousness.

He’s aggressive, relentless and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. When other NFL draft prospects opted out of bowl games rather than risk injury, Stover defied his agents and bucked the trend by playing in the Cotton Bowl. And he’d prefer being paid in tractors rather than NIL cash.

This is how Stover views football — hard and tough with no place for those who’d rather turn down a challenge. See, he’s still a defensive player at heart.

“They’ve asked if I’m capable of helping defensively and there’s no doubt about it, I can help wherever you want me to help,” Stover said Thursday at the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I love playing tight end, but then again I’m there to do whatever we need to win a ballgame.”

The truth is Ohio State wanted the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder to play linebacker. But once he arrived on campus, the Buckeyes started experimenting with other positions.

First, they tried him at defensive end. For spring football in 2020, he moved to tight end. In January 2022, with the Buckeyes depleted by injuries and opt-outs, they asked him to play linebacker and he had six tackles in a 48-45 Rose Bowl victory over Utah before finally finding his calling at tight end.

Over those final two seasons, Stover emerged as one of the most athletic and productive tight ends in school history and now he’s one of the position’s top three draft prospects.

Not everyone is as versatile as Stover. But Brock Bowers of Georgia, Ja’Tavion Sanders of Texas and Stover do have one thing in common — each was once considered a future defensive star.

Playing for winless Napa High School as a sophomore, Bowers was lightly recruited. He had only one FBS scholarship offer, Nevada, before one of his coaches fought hard for him to be included at a Nike camp. There, he was so good, the offers started pouring in, including one from Notre Dame to play linebacker.

Eventually, the Fighting Irish changed course and asked Bowers to play tight end. The problem for Notre Dame was that Bowers dreamed of playing football in the South and took advantage of his opportunity in 2021 when Darnell Washington was injured.

A year later, Bowers beat out Notre Dame star Michael Mayer for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end and last season, despite his own battle with an ankle injury, he repeated as the Mackey Award winner.

Yes, he patterns his style after four-time Super Bowl champ Rob Gronkowski and, yes, the guy likely to be the first tight end selected in April’s draft has drawn comparisons to George Kittle and Travis Kelce. Each of the three thrived after contact, and Bowers thinks he has a similar style.

“I feel like I’m yards after the catch and just being able to make people miss. Just turn good plays into great plays,” Bowers said. “You have to have a good relationship with the quarterback, build trust. That kind of comes through reps at practice, and I’ll try to work on that the first place I go.”

Sanders took a different path to the draft.

A two-sport athlete at Billy Runyan High School in Denton, Texas, he also was a prep star as a receiver and defensive end. How good was he? Sanders was a finalist for the 2020 Texas Mr. Football Award.

The Longhorns thought he could play both sides, too, so when he arrived on campus that’s how he practiced. Things changed quick when Steve Sarkisian took the Texas job in 2021.

He got his first big break in 2022 when Jahleel Billingsley, the Longhorns’ projected starter, was suspended for the first six games, and once Sanders had the job, he never let it go. Instead, he started breaking school records as he found a perfect fit at tight end.

“Coming off that big national championship win (for Alabama where Sarkisian was the offensive coordinator before going to Texas), I knew I was too big to be a wide receiver in his offense,” Sanders said. “But I was just big enough to be a tight end, so I knew I was going to be a tight end.”

And does that defensive moniker still fit? Well, Sanders said he’s aware defenders are wary of the spin move he once used to bother quarterbacks.

Stover, who spent his teenage years bailing hay and raising cattle on his parents’ Ohio farm, is far from a finished product, too. And with his mentality, Stover could make one team a big winner come draft weekend.

“I don’t think you can measure what’s inside of me, I don’t think you can measure the kind of person I am, and I don’t think you can measure how good of a football player I can be because I’m just scratching the surface,” said Stover, who intends to work out this weekend. “I’m going to do everything you want me to do, exactly how it should be done, every single time with everything I’ve got.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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