Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of injuries, poor pre-draft workouts or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.
43. South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst
6-foot-4, 250 pounds
Key stat: Hurst set school TE records for catches (48) and yards (616) in a season in 2016 and ended up breaking career TE receptions mark in 2017 — one that had stood for 30 years.
The skinny: Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in eighth grade, Hurst emerged as an elite prep baseball prospect after leading his team to two state titles. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 Major League Draft as a pitcher, Hurst gave up a baseball scholarship offer at Florida State to play pro ball. Spent 2013 as a pitcher (five walks, two wild pitches in 0.1 innings) and 2014 as a first baseman (.245 average, 26 K in 53 AB) in rookie-level ball in the Gulf Coast League before switching back to football, which he also played as a prep.
Walked on at South Carolina in summer of 2015 and played in all 12 games (one start) as a tight end and wide receiver, catching eight passes for 106 yards, including a 47-yard grab. Also contributed heavily on special teams. Named captain as a 23-year-old sophomore in 2016 — the first sophomore captain in Gamecocks history — and started all 13 games at tight end. In 2017, Hurst was named first-team All-SEC, catching 44 passes for 559 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed nine times for 37 yards and a touchdown and was 0-for-1 passing.
Hurst declared early for the 2017 NFL draft and will turn 25 years old during the preseason. He performed every drill at the NFL scouting combine except for the bench press.
Upside: Well-built, nicely proportioned athlete. Fast and surprisingly explosive. Gets out of his stance quickly and gears up well when running routes. Looks surprisingly polished for player who has limited football background. Changes direction well and has some decent precision in his route running. Eats up zone coverages and can beat linebackers in man to man. Good hands with extremely low drop rate (coaches had him with one career dropped pass on more than 150 targets). Catches what he should — and does so in stride.
Mature and grounded. Highly respected by teammates and coaches alike. Served as mentor for younger players and well-regarded worker who puts in the time. Plays with intensity. Flashes some power and feistiness both as a blocker and after the catch. Seems to love football after failed baseball career. Impressed teams in combine interviews with what he called his second lease on life with shot at NFL. Has a pro’s mentality and approach and will be ready to contribute in some form right away. Made touchdown-saving tackle and forced fumble at own 1-yard line following interception against Florida.
Lined up all over the field, even used as a change-up runner. Watch as Hurst makes one man miss on and then powers through a few would-be Mizzou tacklers on the TE sweep:
Downside: Hand size and arm length are pushing the position minimums for some teams. Good athlete but perhaps possessing few special athletic traits. Testing numbers were in some cases below average. Not yet a sophisticated route runner coming from relatively simplistic passing game. Had trouble separating from quicker safeties. Not going to draw extra coverage or be a true mismatch piece.
Age (turns 25 as rookie) is a problem for some teams. Some feel he has hit his peak in terms of growth, strength and athleticism. Despite good effort and improved technique, he might never be a truly dominant blocker in the NFL. Hand use can improve in both in-line blocking and on gaining releases close to the line of scrimmage.
Here’s Hurst lined up in an offset I-formation, and he struggles to get low enough and take on his man (280-pound Michigan DL Rashan Gary) one on one in the short-yardage run play:
Best-suited destination: Hurst figures to be a chess piece for a team that uses its tight ends creatively — in-line, split out wide, in the slot, in motion and even in the backfield. That includes teams such as the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles.
Quotable: “Hard not to like him. We had a good visit [with Hurst at the combine] — you can just tell he wants to make the most of his chance. Good player who could be really good with the right quarterback [and] right system. Move him around, play him on special teams and he’ll catch 50-60 balls for you and work his [tail] off.” — NFC area scout
Player comp: Dallas Clark
Expected draft range: Round 2