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Chiefs draft profile: Tight end Tucker Kraft could be a small-school gem

The South Dakota State tight end shows major big-play potential — and could be on Kansas City’s radar

If they want to attract the attention of NFL teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, players from Missouri Valley Conference schools have a disadvantage. Games played by Power Five colleges are on ESPN week after week. Meanwhile, matchups from this small Midwestern conference are carried on local stations — if at all.

Still, some MVC players have been drafted into the NFL. Aside from notable top-5 quarterbacks like Carson Wentz and Trey Lance, they tend to be offensive (or defensive) linemen or linebackers. Only a very few have been considered “explosive playmakers.”

But South Dakota State tight end Tucker Kraft might be added to that short list.

Racking up 65 receptions for 773 yards and six touchdowns in 2021 (along with 27 receptions for 348 yards and two touchdowns last season), Kraft did not have spectacular collegiate production — but his film shows all the traits that can make him a highly-touted NFL Draft prospect.

Wow plays

Kraft has an over route on this snap — but pressure in the pocket forces the quarterback to scramble. Noticing this, Kraft keeps heading toward the sideline. The quarterback sees a wide receiver near Kraft and fires the ball — but the ball is long, so the tight end redirects his body to make an acrobatic grab. The catch is sensational on its own — but with the end zone in his sights, Kraft rumbles ahead, slipping tackles and diving in for six points.

These kinds of plays litter Kraft’s tape, which displays his great hands and concentration and his impressive ability to get yards after the catch.

Yards after catch

During the 2022 season, Kraft averaged 11.9 yards per reception, including catches of 57, 36 and 32 yards. SDSU doesn’t run a complicated passing scheme. It’s based on short passes to targets who operate underneath. Given his YAC ability, this worked particularly well for Kraft.

On this simple run-action rollout play, Kraft runs a common flat route. The quarterback gets him the ball. Then as the defensive back comes back to bring him down, Kraft’s simple juke creates a missed tackle, giving him extra yards and a first down.

The way he moves with grace and poise in the open field, it is easy to see Kraft’s background; he came to SDSU as a running back in 2019. So he comes by his open-field vision and quick-cutting ability quite honestly.

Here we see Kraft run a drag route across the middle, staying below the coverage and making an easy reception. Then he turns to take it upfield — and in one fluid motion, jukes a defender while pressing to the outside. Eventually, he turns the corner to get close to the first down.

Deep threat

While the Jackrabbits don’t pass at a high rate, the SDSU offense sometimes utilizes deep shots downfield. Kraft found himself on the receiving end of a number of these.

On this play, Kraft remains in his stance while another tight end motions over. The run-action pass pulls the safety toward the tackle box, giving Kraft a free seam to run downfield. While the ball is slightly underthrown, Kraft tracks it well. The responsible defender is slow to react, allowing the tight end to haul in the long ball for a touchdown.

Fit with the Chiefs

At 6’5” and 254 pounds, Kraft possesses the size that NFL teams typically require in tight ends. He has also demonstrated that he has the downfield strength that he will need. But for him to see the field very often at the next level, he must develop consistency as an inline blocker, where he has struggled. He is often unable to create much downfield movement.

He will need skills as both a receiver and a blocker to be successful in an offense like Kansas City’s, which values multiple tight end sets. Should the Chiefs select him, he would likely be “redshirted” on the active roster for a year, being made inactive on game days. This would give him time to learn the playbook — but perhaps more importantly, continue to develop his strength for run blocking and route running.

He would still need to diversify his route tree — especially in head coach Andy Reid’s offense — but his ability to run over routes, screens and flats could be utilized as soon as he sees the field.

The bottom line

For having played tight end for just his three years at SDSU, Kraft’s ability to run different routes, track balls in the air and secure downfield catches is impressive. This is likely the area of his game where scouts will believe he has the potential to create real problems against NFL defenses. As a plus athlete in space, his yards-after-catch ability has driven his draft stock upward.

Should he come to Kansas City, playing behind a future Hall of Famer Travis Kelce — and solid reserves like Jody Fortson and Noah Gray — there will be little pressure for Kraft to perform immediately. But out of college, he projects as a much better receiver than either Fortson or Gray; he has more natural ability than both of them. Even in his first season, he could gain experience by coming into games to make some catches from the slot.

While no one will ever truly replace Kelce, Kraft could provide quality insurance — and add another level of depth to the Chiefs’ offense.

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