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Why the Las Vegas Raiders should still draft a tight end in 2023, 3 potential targets

Over the past couple of days, the Las Vegas Raiders have signed O.J. Howard and Austin Hooper, but those additions shouldn’t prevent them from dipping their hand into a pool of talented tight ends to find a long-term starter at the position.

Hooper has two Pro Bowl seasons on his resume and could open the 2023 campaign in the starting role. Though he’s four years removed from a 75-catch term, the 28-year-old has shown the ability to produce when targeted consistently in the passing game.

Related: Las Vegas Raiders draft picks 2023

Since 2020, Hooper has posted average receiving numbers, though we should weigh the context of his production. He played in run-heavy offensive attacks that ranked top-11 in rush attempts and 28th or lower in pass attempts with the Cleveland Browns (2020-21) and Tennessee Titans (2022).

In other words, Hooper saw significantly fewer targets during his years with the Browns and Titans than he did with pre-washed-up Matt Ryan in Atlanta.

Nevertheless, Hooper signed a one-year, $2.75 million deal, and the Raiders have questionable depth behind him.

Related: Las Vegas Raiders mock draft 2023

Room to improve the Las Vegas Raiders’ tight end room

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
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Howard hasn’t played up to his first-round pedigree. Furthermore, he seems to have lost a step as a receiver after tearing his Achilles in 2020.  In each season between 2017 and 2019, Howard racked up at least 432 receiving yards. Since 2020, he’s accumulated just 426 receiving yards in total, hauling in 35 catches in that span.

Last offseason, the Buffalo Bills cut Howard before Week 1 of the season. He signed with the Houston Texans, starting in 10 out of 13 contests, catching 10 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. On a positive note, Howard provided value as a pass-blocker on the edge.

By the way, Howard has played one full season in six years. He’s not a lock to earn a spot on the depth chart or finish the 2023 campaign on the active roster.

The Raiders may have a gem in Jesper Horsted, who had an impressive preseason showing last year as an inline blocker and pass-catcher, hauling in all seven of his targets for 108 yards. He came over from the Chicago Bears along with assistant general manager Champ Kelly.

Horsted could surpass Howard on the depth chart and see a moderate spike in playing time next season, but that doesn’t mean the team should bank on an undrafted Princeton product to break out in his fifth season.

Cole Fotheringham, who’s currently TE4 on the depth chart, hasn’t played a regular-season snap on offense or special teams.

Related: Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh McDaniels unlikely to be on hot seat in 2023

Finding a well-rounded tight end

For now, the Raiders have put a decent Band-Aid on a void they created after trading tight end Darren Waller to the New York Giants for a third-round pick (No. 100 overall).

Whether general manager Dave Ziegler traded Waller for good reason or not is irrelevant right now, and he has to figure out how to replace the pass-catching tight end’s production and upgrade the blocking at the position.

Related: NFL GM believes Las Vegas Raiders’ McDaniels wants specific 2023 QB prospect

Though Hooper, Howard and Horsted could become a solid trio with a cool nickname “Triple H” as many fans called them on Twitter, the team will likely consider taking a tight end within the first four rounds of the draft.

Because the Raiders have so many holes on the defensive side of the ball, they should reserve their first- and second-round picks for a cornerback, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety or edge-rusher unless McDaniels has his eyes on a new quarterback to succeed Jimmy Garoppolo. So, forget Dalton Kincaid and Michael Mayer, who may come off the board late in the first round or early in the second round.

Fortunately, Ziegler and McDaniels can still find a quality tight end with one of their two third-round picks or in the fourth round.

Who might be available?

Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State

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Let’s start with an under-the-radar South Dakota State prospect in Tucker Kraft, who made a highlight tape against FCS competition, though his athleticism, toughness and ability to operate in space as a blocker and pass-catcher should translate on the pro level.

Over the past two years, Kraft hauled in 92 passes for 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s not a big threat to beat defenders vertically, though Garoppolo’s tendency to scan the middle of the field would benefit the young tight end who should be a viable intermediate target right away.

Luke Schoonmaker, Michigan

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Texas Christian at Michigan
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Like Kraft, Michigan’s Luke Schoonmaker isn’t going to challenge defensive backs with vertical speed, but he has the athleticism and field awareness to pose a threat on passing downs. The former Wolverine caught 35 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns last year.

Schoonmaker will do most of his pass-catching work on underneath routes. With that said, he’s a solid inline blocker, which makes him a suitable complement to Hooper, who struggles in that area.

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At 6-5, 251 pounds, Schoonmaker has the size of a prototypical pro tight end, though he needs to work on his play strength to win contested catches in the seams and in the red zone. If the Michigan product does that, he’ll post solid receiving numbers in the passing game.

Darnell Washington, Georgia

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If Ziegler and McDaniels want upside, they should consider Darnell Washington, who had an impressive showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, including a 4.65 40-yard dash and an outstanding performance in the sled drills.

Though Washington is unrefined in his blocking and route-running technique, he fulfilled his run-blocking assignments well and averaged 17.2 yards per reception (45 catches for 774 yards and three touchdowns as a collegian) through three terms at Georgia.

With good coaching, Washington could become a joy to watch as he mauls defenders in the run game and mows over them after the catch. The former Bulldog can solve the Raiders’ red-zone issues in passing situations if he figures out how to use his immense frame to box out defenders for contested catches.

Maurice Moton covers the Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.

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