NFL Draft Notebook: Tucker Kraft the next great FCS prospect

South Dakota State's Tucker Kraft runs the ball on Saturday, October 9, 2021, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.Sdsu Vs Si 019
South Dakota State's Tucker Kraft runs the ball on Saturday, October 9, 2021, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.Sdsu Vs Si 019 /

In last week’s NFL Draft Notebook we named our top 25 players going into the season, and the only small-school player to make the list was South Dakota State’s, Tucker Kraft. In this week’s article, we take an in-depth look at his game and highlight why he is a possible first-round pick.

In addition to breaking down Kraft’s game, this week’s article also highlights: rookie standouts, some first-year players to watch in the AFC South, and one tight end prospect who is being overrated.

FCS Player to Know: TE Tucker Kraft

Last season, the FCS produced two first-round picks in Trevor Penning, who went to the New Orleans Saints with the 19th overall pick, and Cole Strange, who went to the New England Patriots with the 29th overall selection. This year’s FCS prospect who could hear his name called in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft is South Dakota State’s, Tucker Kraft.

What stands out with Kraft is his ability to help in both the passing and running game. As a receiver, he shows consistent hands, which is one of the main reasons he was able to account for 65 receptions last year.

In addition to his soft hands, Kraft is also a physical receiver. He shows the ability to catch the ball in traffic and also the strength to break tackles after the reception. He also has ideal size for a tight end, coming in at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, which gives him the advantage over most defenders who will try and cover him.

When looking at him as a blocker, Kraft shows the skillset to be an asset as a run blocker. What stands out when it comes to blocking with Kraft is how well he sticks on his blocks. He does a good job of churning his feet when blocking and also has the mentality to stay on his blocks until the whistle blows. He shows impressive strength as well in this area, routinely holding up against defensive ends he is asked to block.

While Kraft is a well-rounded tight end, he does have some concerns with his game. The first one is his lack of speed. He lacks the ability to stretch a defense vertically due to this and will have to do most of his damage in the short to intermediate passing game.

Another concern is that he has only had one big season for the Jackrabbits. While he was one of the most productive tight ends in college football last season, he only had eight career receptions going into the 2021 season. In order to solidify himself as a possible first-round pick, he is going to need another big year in 2022.

This year will be a critical one for Kraft’s overall draft status. The first thing he will need to do is prove he can produce against NFL-caliber competition. He will get his first chance to do that this Saturday when he plays against the Iowa Hawkeyes and their strong linebacker crop. If he can prove that he should be able to get an invite to the Senior Bowl, which will be another chance for him to show he is one of the best players in college football and not just a small school standout.

However, the biggest chance he will have to quiet the critics will be at the NFL Combine. If he can run a quick 40-yard dash he will prove he is one of the best tight ends in the 2023 NFL Draft, and that he is a player who is worth a first-round pick.

NFL Draft Notebook: Rookie Stock Market

Stock Up

Malcolm Rodriguez, OLB, Detroit Lions
No other 2022 NFL Draft sixth-round pick has had a better preseason camp than Detroit Lions linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez. Rodriguez came in as a third-team linebacker but is now fighting for a starting job. What has stood out the most about him, is his nose for the ball and outstanding fundamentals.

Isaiah Likely, TE, Baltimore Ravens
While Malcolm Rodriguez will likely make the most impact of any defender drafted on day three, the offensive player who fits that role is Isaiah Likely. Likely has been a standout in Ravens camp, consistently finding ways to get open. He should see plenty of action this year when the Ravens go with multiple tight ends sets, and it would not be a surprise if he caught close to 30 balls this season.

Braxton Jones, OT, Chicago Bears
Yet another day three pick who should see plenty of time this year is Braxton Jones. Jones was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. He has since gone on to win the starting left tackle job for the Bears, and looks like a player who should have a long career in the NFL.

Tyler Goodson, RB, Green Bay Packers
One of the biggest surprises of Packers camp is running back Tyler Goodson. Goodson finished the preseason with eight catches for 60 yards and 29 carries for 107 yards. He highlighted his skillset, which includes impressive quickness and the agility to make defenders miss in the open field. These traits were put on display with Goodson’s impressive 24-yard touchdown vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.

Stock Down

Carson Strong, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Going into the 2022 NFL Draft, Nevada’s Carson Strong was widely viewed as a high day three pick, but ended up going undrafted. He then signed a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles for $320,000 guaranteed, which was the most of any undrafted free agent. However, he has had an underwhelming training camp and didn’t even make the Eagles roster.

Jalen Tolbert, WR, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are going to need Jalen Tolbert to make an impact this season with the injuries piling up at this position. Unfortunately, Tolbert has not made much of an impact so far in preseason action. In his latest game against the Seattle Seahawks, he only caught two of five passes thrown his way for nine yards.

Josh Paschal, DE, Detroit Lions
While the Detroit Lions have been pleased with the play of Malcolm Rodriguez, the same can’t be said for second-round pick, Josh Paschal. He has missed all of preseason camp with a sports hernia, which will also cause him to miss at least the first four games of the season. Hopefully when he does recover, he can play up to the team’s expectations they had for him when they took him with the No. 46 pick overall.

Matt Araiza, P, Buffalo Bills
While former Buffalo Bills punter Matt Araiza looked solid on the field, his issues came off the field. He was recently accused of taking part in the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl back in late 2021. This accusation caused the team to release him on Saturday night.

AFC South Rookies to Watch

Houston Texans
Going into the 2022 NFL Draft, Dameon Pierce was rated as the biggest sleeper at the running back position. So far he has lived up to this billing, since he is likely to earn a starting job this season. What stands out about Pierce is his physical running style and his ability to quickly hit the hole. It would not be a shock if he is the most productive rookie running back this season.

Indianapolis Colts
Colts wide receiver Alec Pierce had some work to do going into training camp, but he has picked up on the intricacies of the position so far. His biggest area he needed to improve on was his route running and in the last couple of weeks, he has looked much improved in this area. If he can continue this progression, he should see plenty of time this year.

Jacksonville Jaguars
The rookie that has all eyes on him is the 2022 first overall pick, Travon Walker. Walker has shown flashes of dominance in the preseason so far, especially when it comes to getting after the passer. If he can continue to improve his get-off the ball, he should easily be able to at least duplicate the six sacks he had for Georgia last season.

Tennesse Titans
While quarterback Malik Willis will not see much playing time this year, he is still a rookie to keep an eye on. It will be interesting to see if Tennessee develops some packages for Willis this season to see if he is capable of developing into a starter in 2022. One area he will need to improve on this season, though, is going through his reads quicker and looking more comfortable in the pocket.

2023 NFL Draft Scouting Notes

•While I am not as high on him as Pro Football Network’s Cam Mellor, Alabama offensive guard Emil Ekiyor is someone who should be starting in the NFL next year. Ekiyor is a complete player who holds up well as both a run and pass blocker. In the run game, he shows the strength to move his defender off the ball and the agility to pull. In pass protection, he has the feet to slide with even the most athletic defensive tackles and also possesses the awareness to pick up stunts or blitzing linebackers.

The only real downfall with him is his lack of ideal height as he will likely measure in around 6-foot-2.

•An offensive guard, who team’s with zone blocking schemes will be keeping an eye on this year, is Caleb Chandler of Louisville. Chandler is one of the better athletes in the offensive guard class, and does a great job of getting to the second level or executing a reach block. He also shows quick feet in pass protection and should be able to keep up with athletic pass-rushing defensive tackles.

One downfall with the 297-pound lineman, though, is his lack of strength. In this area, he is susceptible to the bull rush and also doesn’t get the push in the run game some bigger guards get.

•While South Dakota State’s tight end Tucker Kraft is being underrated, a tight end who is being overrated is Arik Gilbert. Gilbert was recently rated as the 19th best player in the 2023 NFL Draft by Dane Brugler, which is too high for a player with so many red flags.

The biggest red flag with him centers around his character. He missed all of 2021 with personal issues and some concerns have been raised about his work ethic. In addition to the character concerns, he will likely serve as a backup this season, which will hurt his production.

On the positive side he is a player with the raw tools to develop into a solid NFL tight end. His biggest asset is his overall power. He uses his strength in the passing game to break tackles after the catch and in the run game, he is a good blocker who shows the power to run block at the next level.

•One player who stood out in week zero of college football was Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson. In the first half he looked like he could be a player who rises up the draft board to be a possibile 2023 NFL Draft pick. He showed impressive accuracy on his ball and the ability to move around in the pocket during this half.

However, in the second half he looked like a player who should not even be starting in the Big Ten. He looked flustered in the second half, his accuracy was significantly worse, and at times he looked like he was forcing things. This season will be an interesting one for Thompson.

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost is going to need Thompson to play like he did in the first half the rest of the season if he wants to be back in Lincoln next year.

•Last year we saw Chattnooga produce an offensive lineman who went in the first round, and this year they should see another player on their offensive line get drafted. This year’s prospect is McClendon Curtis, who will be more of a day three prospect. Curtis made the All-SoCon team in both 2020 and 2021, in addition to making the Shrine Bowl and Senior Bowl watch list going into this season.

A couple of positive traits stick out when watching Curtis with the first one being his tenacity. He consistently blocks to the whistle and is always looking for someone to hit if he is a free blocker. Another positive with him is his 6-foot-6, 328-pound size, although you would like to see him have a little more strength for a player his size.

Quote of the Week

“This kids got a special talent, a special skill level.”

– NBC analyst Matt Cassel on Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis