The Iowa Hawkeyes are known for several things, but close to the top of the list is pumping out NFL-quality tight ends. From Dallas Clark to TJ Hockenson and nearly a dozen others in between, the Hawkeyes know how to scout and develop tight ends the NFL covets. Next in that long line of success appears to be Illinois native Sam LaPorta.
Production and Consistency
During his career at the University of Iowa, Sam LaPorta showcased his skills as a reliable and productive tight end. That’s perhaps an understatement as LaPorta’s stat line speaks for itself. He departs Iowa City as the career reception leader among tight ends. You read that correctly: LaPorta is the tight end career reception leader at Tight End U.
He amassed a total of 153 receptions for 1,786 yards and 5 touchdowns in 39 games over his four year career for the Hawkeyes. That started in a complementary role early on in his career, but steadily built over the years. As a sophomore, LaPorta earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors after leading the team in receptions (27) in the shortened season. He backed that up as a junior by leading the team in both receptions (53), receiving yards (670) and receiving TDs (3), earning Third Team All-Big Ten honors. As a senior, he capped off a prestigious career by again leading the team in receptions (58) and yards (653) while being named the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year.
His consistent production and ability to make plays in both the passing and blocking game make him a valuable asset for any NFL team in need of a reliable tight end.
Versatility, Hands and Blocking Ability
One of LaPorta’s notable strengths is his versatility as a tight end. He has shown the ability to line up in various formations, including in-line as a traditional tight end, in the slot as a receiver, and even as an H-back in the backfield (recall LaPorta also had a pair of carries for 6 yards in Iowa’s bowl win over Kentucky). That’s a definite strength heading into the NFL where teams use tight ends in various ways. Regardless of scheme, LaPorta is amiable enough to fit just about anywhere.
He also possesses excellent hands, with a natural ability to catch passes in contested situations and make difficult catches. While he may not have elite speed or power like some of the other top prospects in the class, LaPorta has a highlight reel full diving catches, catches in traffic and vertical routes up the seem or down the sideline.
With the ball in his hands, he also has NFL-caliber elusiveness. While not the fastest player in the class, he has an ability to shed tacklers and fight through contact to rack up yards after the catch.
Beyond his abilities as a receiver, LaPorta has developed into a solid blocker, showcasing his ability to contribute in both the running and passing game as a tight end. That’s vital for anyone other than the truly elite athletes at the position who will be asked to play both in line and split out. LaPorta is capable of doing it all.
What’s Holding Him Back?
While LaPorta has many strengths, he lacks elite level athleticism for the position, which will hold him out of the first round. At 6’3” and 245 pounds, put together an 83 athleticism score at the NFL Combine, ranking third in the class. While it was a quality showing, and his 40 time at 4.59 was actually better than a few of the tight ends expected to be drafted ahead of him, he lacks elite explosion and top-end speed typically associated with 1st round choices.
Additionally, LaPorta’s route running could be refined, as he can sometimes struggle to create separation with his routes, likely due to the lack of short burst explosion, which may impact his effectiveness as a pass-catcher against more athletic defenders in the NFL.
Here’s what NFL draft analyst Lance Zerlein had to say about LaPorta as a pro prospect:
Highly targeted tight end whose playing style and physical abilities land somewhere between a connected (in-line or wing) and move tight end. LaPorta has the ability to threaten zone coverage and will make the basic catches. However, he lacks the desired elusiveness and ball skills to come away with the more challenging catches. LaPorta takes on run-blocking chores with inconsistent positioning but has the potential to improve with more work in that phase of the game. His catch production is splashy, but he appears to have average-starter potential at the next level.
Projected Landing Spot
LaPorta’s skill set as a versatile tight end with reliable hands and blocking ability could be valuable to several NFL teams. In a class with a pair of projected first round tight ends and a handful of others expected to go in the second, there’s a bit of variability in terms of where LaPorta could land.
Currently, he’s projected as a consensus 2nd round selection with the consolidated board projecting him at 45th overall to the Green Bay Packers over at NFL Mock Draft Database. That would make him the fifth TE off the board behind Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, Utah’s Dalton Kincaid, Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave and Georgia’s Darnell Washington.
Despite the lack of elite level explosion and generally being considered a second round pick, there have been multiple “experts” who have projected LaPorta to go in the 1st round, including as high as 15th overall to the Packers (note the Pack have since traded that pick to the Jets in exchange for the 13th pick) according to Ryan Wilson at CBS.
The most common landing spots for LaPorta in mock drafts have been the Dallas Cowboys (at 26th overall), the aforementioned Packers, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals and LA Chargers. Other potential fits would be any of the teams that utilize multiple tight end sets and prioritize versatility in their offensive schemes, such as the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, and Tennessee Titans.
Wherever LaPorta lands, betting against him to be a serviceable contributor at the NFL level is a bad bet. Tight End U is set to have another in their long line of draftees turned NFL success story.