Notre Dame has produced a great deal of NFL Draft prospects in recent years but tight end has been their calling card over the past decade. Not only do they produce tight ends, but they are typically able to produce tight ends that can be a threat catching the ball but can help as a blocker as well. Troy Niklas might be the biggest one they have produced even if he is not quite the most polished.
For the NFL, Niklas is an exciting physical prospect whose best football may still be in front of him. Niklas has the size, strength and athleticism to be a huge mismatch for opponents both in his ability to catch the football as well as blocking. He has shown a great deal of ability in both but is still refining his technique in each. Niklas still has to work to maximize his ability to catch the football and reduce the amount of lunging he needs to do as a run blocker. As a result, Niklas warrants a top 75 pick but could be gone in the top 50 picks with an outside chance of going in the first round.
Vitals & Build
Niklas is listed at 6’6 ½” 270lbs and has a great build for the position. He does not appear to be carrying much fat and looks the part of a good athlete. Niklas has good burst, acceleration and quickness with solid but unspectacular top end speed. He has shown he has impressive strength but can have trouble and use some questionable habits to maximize it. There is no telling how far he can go physically, but getting better at playing low and bending would do as much as anything for him in the future.
Route Running & Technique
Niklas has three different stances he uses depending on the situation. Two of them are good and one is a little perplexing. Inline, Niklas has an effificient, balanced stance that allows him to fire off of the line with his weight going forward, giving him a good burst with his first step.
Lined up in space, he will use a wide receiver stance as well as a two point stance that makes him look like a tackle playing a bastard split. His stance as a receiver is pretty solid with good balance. Niklas is able to have all of his momentum going forward, allowing to get a good burst while still being able to absorb contact or shift into a block if need be.
The bastard split tackle move is definitely unique. He tends to use it when he is going to block, which is somewhat of a giveaway but where he will block is still unclear. It is unlikely he will be using this much if ever after he leaves South Bend.
As a route runner, Niklas has a lot of experience running a number of different routes from a pro-style route tree adapted to the offense run by the Fighting Irish. Most of what he does revolves around one concept, which has him run directly at a defender and then either keep going down the field, use 90 degree cuts to go in or outside, running a flag route or a hitch where he just turns around and looks for the ball.
Niklas tends to play a little off balance with his weight leaning forward, so he can have trouble stopping quickly to shift into his routes. As a result, Niklas uses the defender as a counter balance, hitting them, having their mass help slow him down quickly and then making the appropriate cut. It is great when it works, operating as a nice clear out with his size and strength while also giving him space to create separation when he goes into his route. The times when a defender realizes what he is doing and does not take that contact, Niklas can be a little more awkward.
The consistency Niklas runs these route concepts makes him deadly, because they all look the same from the start and there appears to have some option routes built in that allow him to go based on reading the defense. If no one is there or they are in a zone that avoids the contact, he often just keeps running down the seam that can be a huge play going down the field.
Niklas has more than enough speed to stretch the field, which makes him tough to account and defend. He has the ability to attack defenses in a number of areas and has shown that if defenses are not keying on him, he can run right by players and put pressure on the back end of a defense.
Niklas has a big catch radius but he is still working to consistently use it effectively. His frame and his arms allow him to catch the ball over a wide area.
The consistency when it comes to catching the ball is not always there and he is still working to be able to take full advantage of his range. He has shown he can make some big catches but needs to continue working to avoid some of the drops he has trying to locate the ball in the air.
Niklas does take advantage of his body to box out opponents and keep them away from the play. He has shown he can do it both coming back to the football as well as going down the field. As a result, he can be a nightmare in the red zone and when it comes to picking up first downs.
Run After Catch
Niklas is not a burner but he is certainly able to get yards after the catch. He has enough speed where if he can get into the second level, he can outrun linebackers and is strong enough to simply overpower a lot of defensive backs.
Niklas needs to continue working on making a good transition from pass catcher to run after the catch, but shows a solid amount of potential there. He also flashes a nasty stiff arm and can beat up opponents trying to tackle him as well as simply lowering his shoulder and making them pay for hitting him.
If he catches the ball with space, he can make a team pay for it and while he is not likely to break many 50+ yard runs after the catch, he is the type of guy who can catch the ball in or near the red zone and cash it in for the touchdown.
Niklas has shown he can be a devastatingly effective blocker but how he does it can be risky. Inline, Niklas tends to lunge and rely on hitting the opponent and using them to help him balance himself. When that happens, he can take over and run them out of the play. The times he misses, he is overextended and can either end up on the ground or simply thrown out of the way.
Some of this is Niklas trying to effectively take advantage of his leverage but it also works to exaggerate his strength at times. There have been a number of highlight blocks where he does this and either pancakes a linebacker or blocks down and clears out the defensive line. Opponents who can push pull him or simply get out of the way can make him miss and get past him.
When Niklas is lined up outside, he is forced to block more upright. In these situations, he tends to show off more actual strength. He can move opponents off of the spot or simply shield them off from the play and give them a lane that is out of danger. Niklas moves well and can get in position effectively, able to adjust his aiming point.
He does a nice job with his hands and when he gets on a block, he does a good job of controlling it and not getting beat. There are times when he is not quite sure if he can legally block someone and will pull up in hopes of avoiding a penalty. Niklas has shown he can land a block and get out to make another one down the field. There are some examples where Niklas appears to think the play is over earlier than it is.
Niklas has shown a great deal of ability and potential as a blocker, but if he does not work to bend more effectively, so he can reduce or eliminate the lunging, he could be a little too much of a feast or famine type blocker. If he can be satisfied with making the right block as opposed to the overpowering one, he might have a higher blocking percentage.
Niklas’s best fit is inline where he has shown he can not only block but release into routes effectively. Nevertheless, he is able to line up in space and make plays or block from that position for a different look.
Niklas looks like he should be able to contribute immediately for a team but might be best suited as a second tight end while he develops into a frontline, full service threat, which should not take a great deal of time.
Nikas’s game is similar to that of Jermaine Gresham of the Cincinnati Bengals. Gresham was drafted in the first round to be a franchise tight end and has all of the tools to do it, but there is something missing. He is good, but not great. That is where Niklas is right now as a prospect. The upside is there for Niklas yet to be reached, so he could outperform Gresham, but there are plenty of teams that would a player like Gresham on their team.
Troy Niklas is extremely talented both athletically and what he can do for a team, but needs to keep refining his game. If he can, he has the raw ability to be a big time tight end in the NFL, which could cause him to be overdrafted. All the tools are there, but he just needs to keep going and eliminate the mistakes with his hands and do a better job when it comes to consistently blocking with good leverage. As a player right now, Niklas warrants a top 75 pick with substantial upside.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com