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The SEC’s top returning tight ends for 2017

(Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

The past couple of seasons has been good ones for tight ends in the SEC. Evan Engram and O.J Howard are the top NFL prospects at the position, but they’re far from alone. Jerell Adams, Jason Croom, Sean Culkin, Hunter Henry, Jake McGee, Steven Scheu and Jeremy Sprinkle are just some of the excellent contributors who left after either the 2015 or 2016 seasons.

Though the league has lost a lot of its star power at the position, there are still some great options who will produce this fall.

10. Miller Forristall, Alabama
2016: five receptions, 73 yards (14.6 yards per catch)

No Tide tight end was going to take receptions away from Howard last fall, but Forristall made a name for himself with his blocking acumen. With Howard now off to play on Sundays, Forristall will have a chance to get some of those receptions. He’s not the athletic specimen that Howard is, but he’ll be an important part of the new-look Bama offense.

9. Foster Moreau, LSU
2016: six receptions, 79 yards (13.2 per catch), one touchdown

Moreau wasn’t 100 percent throughout last fall, and it didn’t matter a lot with seniors DeSean Smith and Colin Jeter ahead of him on the depth chart. The starting gig will be the rising junior’s now, though, and he should get opportunities in Matt Canada’s offense. He’s also a better-than-90 percent pass blocker, making him an asset in both jobs of the position.

8. Kendall Blanton, Missouri
2016: 16 receptions, 161 yards (10.0 per catch), three touchdowns

Blanton is a huge tight end, and appropriately he actually plays a lot more true tight end than he does H-back. Even though he’s a good mauler at the line, he also has the ability to make highlight catches. With Culkin having graduated, he and fellow tight end Jason Reese—who just missed the list—will have chances for more production in the Tigers’ high-powered offense. He came on well late last fall, logging at least one reception in each of the team’s final four games after catching a pass in only three previous contests.

7. Jared Pinkney, Vanderbilt
2016: 22 receptions, 274 yards (12.5 per catch), two touchdowns

Listed as a wideout as a recruit, Pinkney grew into the tight end spot and is more of a natural receiver than any of the guys covered so far. He emerged as a reliable target last year as a redshirt freshman, hauling in a reception in nine games for the ‘Dores. He’ll be fighting for catches with a veteran group of receivers, but if Kyle Shurmur reaches the potential he showed flashes of last season, Pinkney will have plenty of chances to make an impact.

6. Austin Cantrell, Arkansas
2016: 13 receptions, 120 yards (9.2 per catch), two touchdowns

Cantrell had a good redshirt freshman campaign backing up Sprinkle in 2016, and like Moreau and Forristall, he has a chance in 2017 to step up to the starter’s role. He was a diamond in the rough that Bret Bielema’s staff found early, and he stayed with his commitment as he rocketed up the recruiting rankings. He has the bulk to block for Arkansas’s power run game but still runs good routes, and I may be underselling his potential only putting him at sixth on this list.

5. Ethan Wolf, Tennessee
2016: 21 receptions, 239 yards (11.4 per catch), two touchdowns

The Tennessee offense doesn’t use tight ends as much as some others around the league, but everything is lining up for Wolf to have a huge 2017. He’s already a guy who loves to make contact at the line and is an adept pass blocker, and there will always be a place for that in the SEC. His top competition for targets last year was Croom, who has graduated, and two of the other three guys ahead of him on the receptions list declared for the draft. Whoever ends up winning the quarterback job will certainly lean on the rising senior Wolf both to give him time and to make catches down the field.

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 30: Tennessee Volunteers tight end Ethan Wolf (82) runs the ball during the second half of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl game between Tennessee and Nebraska on December 30, 2016, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire)

NASHVILLE, TN – DECEMBER 30: Tennessee Volunteers tight end Ethan Wolf (82) runs the ball during the second half of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl game between Tennessee and Nebraska on December 30, 2016, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire)

4. C.J. Conrad, Kentucky
2016: 19 catches, 262 yards (13.8 per catch), four touchdowns

Like Wolf, Conrad had a clearing out ahead of him on his team’s receiving list. What sets Conrad apart is that he is the top returning SEC tight end for yards per catch (among those with at least ten receptions) and in touchdowns. More than one in five of his snags in 2016 went for six, making him an efficient scoring machine. As he moves up to an upperclassman’s leadership role, look for him to have a breakout role in the fall.

3. Isaac Nauta, Georgia
2016: 29 receptions, 362 yards (12.5 per catch), three touchdowns

Last fall Nauta established a good rapport with fellow freshman Jacob Eason. Nauta ended up third in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns despite not coming up with any receptions in UGA’s first two games. He showed some flashes of brilliance to go along with his consistency, including a 50-yard touchdown catch against Tennessee. With Isaiah McKenzie off to the NFL, there are plenty of catches up for grabs in next year’s offense. Nauta will come down with a lot of them.

2. DeAndre Goolsby, Florida
2016: 38 receptions, 342 yards (nine per catch), three touchdowns

While no one will ever accuse Goolsby of being an elite blocker, he’s one of the best pure receiving tight ends in the conference. He had an up-and-down year last fall as the quarterbacks in Gainesville rotated, as he had a better connection with Luke Del Rio than with Austin Appleby for a time. Then, he exploded with seven catches for 91 yards and an easy wheel route touchdown from Appleby against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. If the quarterback position for UF can finally get settled this year, Goolsby will be one of the biggest beneficiaries.

1. Hayden Hurst, South Carolina
2016: 48 receptions, 616 yards (12.8 per catch), one touchdown

The former minor league baseball player Hurst has easily the most returning production of any SEC tight end. Though it took until the bowl game for him to find the end zone, he was a reliable target all year on his way to finishing as the team’s second-leading receiver. He improved as a blocker as well, even helping out with Derek Barnett in the Gamecocks’ breakthrough win over Tennessee. He wasn’t a household name around the SEC last year, but he should be this year.

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