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Notre Dame Football

An Unexpected Debate: Is Michael Mayer the No. 1 Tight End in the 2023 NFL Draft?

March 4, 2023

* This story was updated to include results from the 2023 NFL Combine on Saturday evening.

A surprising debate among NFL Draft analysts has raged in recent weeks: Who’s the best tight end in the 2023 NFL Draft? 

Three months ago, such deliberation would have seemed ineffectual. Throughout the 2022 college football season, Michael Mayer was unanimously considered the top tight end in his draft class. 

All four of ESPN’s draft analysts still rank Mayer as the top tight end in the class, but other respected talent evaluators now see the board much differently.

The NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah  — a former scout with the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns — recently ranked Mayer as the No. 3 tight end behind Utah’s Dalton Kincaid and Georgia’s Darnell Washington.

Jeremiah could also see Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave, who played two games in 2022, going ahead of Mayer.

“I don't think there's a uniform TE-1 in this draft,” Jeremiah said. “When you talk to teams around the league, you'll hear different names mentioned. Usually, it's Kincaid, it's Mayer, it's Musgrave and it's Washington. Those are kind of the four that get mentioned. I would say [based on] the feedback I've got back, most teams I talked to have Kincaid No. 1 because of the passing game value, but Mayer has his sponsors around the league as well.”

Why the sudden change? 

The prevailing consensus is that Mayer resembles the now-retired Rob Gronkowski pounds more than he does the slimmer Travis Kelce, who just won his second Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs and is considered a dynamo in the passing game. 

“You've got Mayer who is just an all-around tight end, not going to be real dynamic, out of Notre Dame,” Jeremiah said. “But he is kind of the king of the combat catches. He has a good feel on option routes, just keeping guys on his back and kind of walling them off and making plays. A good overall tight end, a good blocker.”

It’s true, Mayer led FBS tight ends with 17 contested catches in 2022, but Jeremiah’s assessment of Mayer is far from a ringing endorsement. It’s as if Mayer’s production primarily stemmed from his ability to box out smaller defenders. 

Tight End College 40-Time
Will Mallory Miami 4.54
Zack Kuntz Old Dominion 4.55
Sam LaPorta Iowa 4.59
Luke Musgrave Oregon State 4.61
Luke Schoonmaker Michigan 4.63
Darnell Washington Georgia 4.64
Tucker Kraft South Dakota St. 4.69
Josh Whyle Cincinnati 4.69
Brenton Strange Penn State 4.70
Blake Whiteheart Wake Forest 4.70
Michael Mayer Notre Dame 4.70
Davis Allen Clemson 4.84
Payne Durham Purdue 4.87

Mayer’s 4.70 official 40-time at the NFL Combine tied him for ninth out of the 13 tight ends who participated in the drill. He’s likely a bit disappointed after weighing 249 pounds on Saturday morning, 16 pounds lighter than his listed weight at Notre Dame last fall.

That gives him near-identical speed and size to Minnesota Viking's tight end T.J. Hockenson, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2019 draft and a two-time Pro Bowler.

Still, Jeremiah believes teams are now justified in overlooking Mayer’s 138 catches for 1,649 yards and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons in favor of faster tight ends. 

“The production doesn’t translate as smoothly at that position to the next level,” Jeremiah said. “You've got to have those traits.”

His argument has merit. Tight ends like George Kittle and Jimmy Graham weren’t the most productive players in college, but they produced 4.5-second 40s and went on to Pro Bowl careers in the NFL. 

At the same time, production still remains a significant component in how teams evaluate first-round tight ends. The New Orleans Saints drafted Graham in the third round, while Kittle fell to the San Francisco 49ers in round No. 5.

Over the last decade, nine tight ends were selected in the first round. Of those, seven put up numbers similar to Mayer’s production in 2022. The only two who didn’t were Alabama’s O.J. Howard and South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, both of whom still accounted for just under 600 yards and 3 scores in their final seasons. It’s also worth noting that neither has set the NFL on fire. 

If you ask Detroit Lions’ coach Dan Campbell, the trait he most cares about is the “It-Factor” — those players so juiced about football they can’t sit still during interviews. It’s unclear if Mayer has spoken with Campbell yet, but it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t have “it” given Mayer's disposition and the buzz surrounding his team interviews thus far. 

“I’m intense about the game of football,” Mayer said. “I love the game of football. For me, it’s going in there and not being any fake person or anybody else, explaining how I play the game of football, how I attack the game, how I prepare for the game and things like that.”  

Mayer’s 40-time on Saturday likely failed to quiet his detractors, but it ultimately comes down to how fast he is with pads on.

Safety Brandon Joseph covered both LaPorta and Schoonmaker — tight ends with top 40-times at the 2023 NFL Combine — while playing for Northwestern in 2021. He transferred to Notre Dame last offseason and quickly realized Mayer was on another level.

“His speed in route running is something I hadn't guarded before,” Joseph said.

Mayer’s extra gear was on display as he went through the gauntlet drill on Saturday.

Mayer doesn’t seem worried about proving his doubter wrong. In the end, even the opinion of the most respected analyst won’t dictate the order of an NFL team’s draft board.

“These teams know how I play football,” Mayer said. “They know I can play football. I know I can play football. I know what I can do. These teams know what I can do. I’m not worried about what anybody’s saying on the outside at all.”

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