NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, NEPatriotsDraft.com will profile college prospects that potentially fit the needs and draft seating of the New England Patriots. In this 10th installment, we will take a closer look at the film behind Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas.
Troy Niklas has football bloodlines. He has experience playing all over the field. And he also has the size, strength and athleticism to never leave the field.
But as a tight end who carries traits that cannot be taught, his development will hinge on what can be.
After all, as the nephew of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, the cousin of current NFL linebackers Clay and Casey Matthews, and the brother of former Air Force linebacker Austin Niklas, the 6’6”, 270-pound Niklas has done more than catch passes since his days at Servite High School.
Up through his junior season in Anaheim, Calif., Niklas was a tight end. He wasn’t fused to that position, though; he battled on both sides of the ball. And as a senior in 2010, he converted to offensive guard while also forging ahead from the defensive tackle spot.
The Friars went 14-1 that season and won a second-consecutive CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division championship. Niklas, meanwhile, was named Los Angeles Times lineman of the year, a CalHiSports.com first-team all-state offensive lineman and an Orange County Register all-CIF Southern Section Pac-5 defensive lineman.
He found himself a four-star recruit, a member of the Rivals.com top-250, and on nearby USC’s radar. Yet on national signing day, the west-coast recruit decided to head east, signing his letter of intent with the University of Notre Dame.
Niklas arrived in South Bend, Ind., and carved a purpose early on. As a true freshman transitioning to outside linebacker, he played in 12 games and started one. He recorded 20 tackles, .5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery in the process.
A change of scenery came along with the 2012 season, however, as the sophomore moved from the defensive edge to the offensive edge during spring practice.
He traded in his No. 58 jersey for a No. 85 jersey. Then he went on to participate in seven contests behind future first-round tight end Tyler Eifert, registering five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown by year’s end.
But as Eifert departed for the Cincinnati Bengals and the fall of 2013 rolled around, the junior became the starter. Niklas made the most of the title, playing in all 13 games to amass 32 receptions for 498 yards and five scores.
He functioned as an every-down tight end. He garnered recognition as a first-team All-Independent pick and a John Mackey Award semifinalist in result. And not long after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL Advisory Committee, the 21-year-old declared for the 2014 draft.
The underclassman will have his share of suitors anywhere from late Round 1 to early Round 3 this May. And while it remains to be seen where Niklas will land, courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com, we can see where he left his mark.
An Inconsistent But Active, Powerful, All-Purpose Blocker
In a four-game sample size from last season, Niklas was deployed as a run-blocker for 122 snaps and stayed in as a pass-blocker or chip-blocker for 49 snaps. Those totals may strike semblance to a different age of tight ends, but that was how Irish head coach Brian Kelly elected to use his strengths in the offense.
Predominantly as an inline player, a seam player and sparsely as an “F” tight end, Niklas was trusted to control the corner as a run-paver. It was because he’s adept at it.
On run plays, Niklas is smooth transitioning between opponents and combination blocks. He can hold his ground at the point of attack; he can also drive, follow through and chase his assignments until they’re on the ground or out of bounds. He is effective in squaring and punching underneath the defender’s pads. And from then onward, he showcases an ability to stiff-arm the inside hand to lock the opposition at bay.
All of which make him a go-to lead on outside runs, where defensive backs are forced step up and make stops versus an oversized barrier. Yet while he is an asset in the run game, it would be remiss to call him seamless.
Niklas will occasionally lose sight of his target off the snap. Every so often, he will also exude ‘now what?’ body language after defeating his defender. But when he doesn’t defeat them, it’s often because he will catch bull-rushers, leaving his length on the wrong end of leverage.
Much like in the ground game, Niklas is a dynamic contributor in pass protection. And while he’d likely rather be running routes than blocking for them, he remains a flexible blocker who knows how to bend his knees, lower his hips, and kick and slide laterally. He can take on edge-rushers with swiftness and a powerful anchor, but he can step into a defender and seal them out of the arc when the play unravels as well.
These characteristics go a long way towards sustaining play-action rollouts and quarterback scrambles.
Now his athleticism assists him in recovery when he casually exits his stance, but it comes at the sacrifice of technique. Wasted movement and misreads can snowball into defensive ends knifing inside or around the corner. At that juncture, he has a tendency to bend his waist and rely upon his range to slow pass-rushers. This can end with Niklas grasping at helmets instead of bodies, particularly against edge players who can bend and burst underneath his arms.
Taking it all into consideration, Niklas had a lot on his plate in Notre Dame’s blocking scheme. And that was even realized through his bubble-screen blocks, like the one he delivered versus the Temple Owls in Aug. 31.
On 1st-and-10 early in the first quarter, the Irish offense assembled in “11” personnel inside its own 20. Niklas evened up on the left hash as part of a trips grouping, but only one of whom would be embarking on a route.
That was senior wideout T.J. Jones, who, as the inside-most target, was prepped to reel in a quick screen and find a runway outside Temple’s sugaring seven-man front.
He would need a key block from Niklas to ensure a starting point.
Quarterback Tommy Rees handled the shotgun snap and stepped left to face the slot receiver. Out in front, Niklas took an angle parallel to the intended direction of the run.
He monitored 5’11”, 190-pound Owls defensive back Stephaun Marshall, bracing for contact.
Rees released the ball; Jones readied to receive it. And as the wideout maneuvered towards the flat, he had reinforcements maneuvering towards the secondary.
Niklas leaned in and cast his arms out to forklift No. 29.
Then he ran through.
By the time Jones harnessed the ball, he had room to roam. Niklas got underneath Marshall’s chest plate and knocked him back onto his heels.
Jones turned upfield, where Niklas had moved his defender from the seam to the numbers.
He continued to move him until the boundary. Jones was long gone by then.
The play passed through four defenders and netted a 51-yard gain.
Niklas was a vital part in that outcome.
When accounting for his high school blocking background, his 34 1/8-inch arms, and his muscular yet well-grounded build, you’d think Niklas was a third offensive tackle on the field.
That’s how he was utilized.
An Unrefined But Underutilized, Big-Play Receiver
Niklas’ receiving role in the Notre Dame offense was tempered. With the raw skill and size to mismatch secondaries, there’s reason to believe he could have been unleashed in more third-down and red-zone situations than he was. There’s reason to believe he could have dictated coverage to open his teammates more than he did.
Instead, he was used like the antique muscle car your friend’s father used to drive on sunny Saturday afternoons.
Over the four games observed, Niklas ran 75 routes combined. In some cases, he wouldn’t run his first route of the contest until the second offensive series. There were times where he would go upwards of 25 consecutive plays between patterns. There entire games where he’d run as few as a dozen in all.
Yet when he was taken out of the garage for a drive, he exemplified the home-run ability NFL teams look for in a tight end.
Niklas looks the part of an inline “Y.” That said, he is no stranger to splitting off the line or merging into the slot. Niklas breaks off the ball faster than most would anticipate. Albeit without great burst, he has respectable get-up speed for his size, and he can stretch the field to alleviate the underneath.
Along with that, he shows the lower-body litheness to twist and turn in and out of breaks to some success. And when space is allotted, Niklas is comfortable catching the ball in stride and turning downhill.
On the other hand, there are concerns with the cleanliness of his routes, as he doesn’t always sell his movement or synchronize his pattern as well as he’ll need to at the next level. Defenses can sit on these miscues, and it can yield to misreads by the quarterback, as well as problems optimizing the depth of the back line in the end zone.
One of the most prominent issues with Niklas’ route-running is his willingness and stability in fighting through contact. He lacks the jolt to bypass responsive linebackers and safeties. Branching off of that, he can get jammed off the snap and bumped at the top of his routes.
When he neglects to keep his head on a swivel, his balance and chances of finding coverage voids are hindered. There isn’t always time for the QB to wait for him to break free from a man-to-man linebacker matchup or a safety shell.
Due to this, Niklas will have to become more aware of his on-field surroundings and how to use his basketball build to his advantage. He runs his fair share of out, corner, post, comeback and seam routes, and getting the most out of each one will be paramount.
In the meantime, though, he can still create plays by thrusting off defenders and fighting back to the ball. He can still stretch the seam or swing down the sideline to find the soft spot in coverage. And although those wrinkles aren’t visualized on a snap-by-snap basis, they aren’t outliers, either.
He displayed them against Arizona State on Oct. 5.
Approaching the red zone on 2nd-and-10 with four minutes to play in the third, Notre Dame dispersed in an empty-backfield set.
The element of the run may have been gone, but with the Irish route-runners gearing up for a double-smash concept, there was room for surprise.
Niklas’ seam route was an added variable for the Sun Devils’ zone-nickel blitz to calculate.
As the play got underway and Arizona State’s nickelback stormed the backfield, Rees had to think on his feet to find the zone’s flaws.
Niklas was quickly exploiting one, as 6’1”, 236-pound linebacker Steffon Martin abandoned the tight end to cover the deep corner.
That left Niklas waving his hand as he crossed through the 10-yard line. No safety was in the vicinity.
It took Rees time to identify his red-zone threat. The edge rush flushed him from the pocket, forcing him to adlib in the hopes of keeping the play alive.
Niklas did some adlibbing himself, extending his vertical pattern by veering around the back of 5’11”, 195-pound safety Alden Darby.
He saw his quarterback, he saw Darby, and he saw where he could get open.
Niklas accelerated through the turn and grazed the defender to establish inside seating. As he did, Rees fired the ball his direction before scampering out of bounds.
Niklas used his size to shield and attack the ball at its highest attainable point.
He snared it with both hands as Darby flailed before him.
It was a 21-yard touchdown on a broken play.
Niklas will drop a pass when he hears footsteps on occasion, yet he will come back and latch onto the next one. He understands how to track the ball, box out, leave his feet, and use his 10-inch hands to secure.
The rest takes care of itself.
Niklas has the features of a multidimensional difference-maker at the tight end position. He has the features of a player who can command the line of scrimmage as a blocker, test coverage as a runner, contest the catch point as a receiver, and barrel through opponents as a ball-carrier.
He may not be that player now. He may never be that player. But he carries all the features to become that player.
And considering he was a linebacker two years ago, it appears that Niklas is well on his way.