Why Undrafted?: Cole Hikutini

By Charlie Campbell, @draftcampbell

Three years ago, we started a series of articles on why certain prospects went undrafted. In that series, I reach out to sources with NFL teams to find out why their organizations passed on drafting a given player, and/or, what were the reasons for other teams to pass on that prospect. We got a lot of positive reader feedback about the series, so we decided to expand in the genre to investigate why some prospects slid in the draft. A year later, we started the Why Slide? series, and this year, it is back. Feel free to email me requests for “Why the Slide?” and “Why Undrafted?” at [email protected]. I can’t promise to get to all of them, but I will do my best and definitely respond.

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson took college football by storm last year by leading a prolific offense that was a point machine for the Cardinals. That led to Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy. Jackson did a lot of that himself as he didn’t have a great supporting cast around him, but one of the players who was a legit NFL prospect was tight end Cole Hikutini. Hikutini played well in 2016, notching 49 receptions for 656 yards and eight touchdowns. He showed nice athleticism and quickness as a receiver. Surprisingly, Hikutini went undrafted.

Some sources said that they had a sixth-round grade on Hikutini, so there were teams that had him as a draft-able player. However, it was a very good tight end class at the top of the 2017 NFL Draft with depth for all seven rounds, and Hikutini just slipped through the draft. Team sources feel Hikutini was a player worthy of a third-day pick, but he just happened to not get selected.

After going undrafted, Hikutini signed with the San Francisco 49ers. They are probably a good team to sign with, but this is a new regime, so it isn’t clear how open they are to undrafted players beating out veterans or other draft picks for roster spots. Generally, new coaching staffs and general managers are very willing to move on from players taken by the previous regime.

The 49ers did draft a tight end on Day 3 in Iowa’s George Kittle. Kyle Shanahan likes to use double-tight end sets, and Kittle has the versatility to contribute as a blocker and a receiver. If Hikutini performs well, he could be a tight end to go with Kittle and Vance McDonald. McDonald and veteran Garrett Celek had modest production last year, but obviously played with bad quarterbacks. Celek may not be around a whole lot longer.

Hikutini will need to contribute on special teams to help his chances of making the roster. He could spend a year on the practice squad, developing his blocking and strength for the NFL. In a year Hikutini could be better prepared to compete for playing time. Hikutini has some talent, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up becoming a backup rotational tight end in the NFL.

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