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Draft Darlings: Sam LaPorta is the best pass-catching tight end in the draft

Kansas City could make use of a tight end who could eventually take Travis Kelce’s place.

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Syndication: HawkCentral Andrew Nelles/USA TODAY NETWORK / USA TODAY NETWORK

While the Kansas City Chiefs might have bigger immediate needs in Thursday’s NFL Draft, tight end certainly stands out as a potential long-term need. Tight end Travis Kelce will be 34 this season, so the Chiefs could be in search of a replacement.

While we’d be surprised if Kansas City gets a tight end in the first round, they could be looking in Round 2 — where they could still get the draft’s best pass-catching tight end: Iowa’s Sam LaPorta.

Here’s what you need to know:


Coming out of Highland High School in Illinois, LaPorta was actually a dominating wide receiver. He ranked third in Illinois football history with 3,793 receiving yards and had 50 touchdowns in his career. A three-star wide receiver recruit, Iowa gave him his only Power 5 offer. There, he bulked up from 190 pounds to 249 pounds to play tight end.

After sitting behind tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant in his freshman season, LaPorta was the Hawkeyes’ next great tight end, playing in 46 games and starting 32. Over four seasons, he caught 153 passes for 1,786 yards and five touchdowns.

Even after bulking up in college, LaPorta checked in to the NFL Scouting Combine at 6 feet 3 3/8 and 245 pounds, which was smaller than most tight ends. But he tested as one of the position’s standouts, running a 4.59 40-yard dash (90th percentile) with a 1.62-second 10-yard split. His jumps were terrific. He posted a 10-foot-3 broad jump (90th percentile) and a 35-inch vertical jump (73rd percentile). He also had great agility drills, registering a 6.91-second 3-cone drill (88th percentile) and a 4.25-second short shuttle drill (78th percentile).

Film review

Going into 2022, Iowa had three wideouts on scholarship. So LaPorta was tasked with playing as a X receiver in the Hawkeyes’ catatonically-bad offense. He did a decent job, flashing the ability to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage, run an underneath route tree and be difficult for cornerbacks to tackle in space. While Iowa’s offense wasn’t very good, LaPorta showed he is a versatile tight end who can win at multiple positions.

As a pure tight end, LaPorta’s standout trait is what he does after the catch. An agile athlete who can make cuts in space, he also runs with impressive physicality; he’ll throw stiff-arms and shoulders into defenders to bounce off contact.

LaPorta’s route running is also good. He can win on all three levels — especially vertically. His game against Illinois — where he was consistently beating man coverage on deep intermediate routes — was the best game I saw a tight end prospect play last season. A fluid athlete who doesn’t get disrupted by contact, his wide receiver experience shows in his routes.

As a blocker, LaPorta is functional. While he lacks the ideal size or length to be a great blocker, he’s not a below average, either. While his athleticism helped him as a movement blocker, he also showed much improvement as a down blocker at Iowa. As a blocker, he runs his feet well and plays with great leverage and tenacity. He might not be able to handle the NFL’s bigger defensive ends, but LaPorta can still execute a wide variety of blocks.

How he fits with the Chiefs

LaPorta’s fit with the Chiefs could be clunky — but I’d still be optimistic about it. Kansas City doesn’t use a traditional Y tight end very often. Instead, the offense splits the responsibilities between Noah Gray, Jody Fortson, Blake Bell and even Kelce. While I don’t think LaPorta is a long-term Y tight end, I think he could do it on some snaps. The Chiefs don’t build their running scheme around a dominant blocking tight end, so I wouldn’t be too concerned there.

Where LaPorta could really help would be as a receiver. Just like Kelce, he’s a scheme-versatile weapon who can align in many different spots; there would be a lot of interesting ways to create matchups with slower defensive backs or linebackers.

Should Kelce’s snaps be limited, LaPorta can function in a similar way. As Kansas City’s star tight end reaches the twilight of his career, LaPorta could thrive by slowly taking on more receiving responsibilities.

The bottom line

Full disclosure: as an Iowa fan, I’m biased toward LaPorta. He’s one of my all-time favorite Hawkeye players. Iowa arguably possessed the nation’s worst offense during his collegiate career — but even as every defense keyed in on him, LaPorta was still productive.

His story is similar to another former Hawkeye: San Francisco 49ers’ tight end George Kittle. At Iowa, Kittle had 737 career receiving yards and fell to the fifth round of the draft — even after an elite Combine performance. Just like with LaPorta, Iowa’s offense did him no favors. Still, all of his positive traits showed up in the NFL. If LaPorta gets into a good offensive infrastructure, he’s going to thrive.

Grade: Round 1

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