2023 NFL Draft breakout candidates at TE include Arik Gilbert, Jahleel Billingsley

Arik Gilbert and Jahleel Billingsley lead the top breakout candidates at TE in the 2023 NFL Draft, but who else joins them on the list?

As of now, it’s Michael Mayer at the pinnacle of the next TE class. But these breakout candidates could help strengthen the top of the 2023 NFL Draft TE group and potentially earn selections in the early-to-middle rounds. Who’s primed to emerge in 2022, and what do these prospects have to offer?

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2023 NFL Draft breakout candidates at TE

The 2023 NFL Draft breakout candidates at TE are led by two highly-rated recruits with mounting pressure, but there are other, lesser-known competitors to keep an eye on as well.

Arik Gilbert, Georgia

Arik Gilbert’s football career rests on a major precipice in 2022. Gilbert was a consensus five-star recruit out of high school, labeled as a generational tight end prospect. He started off fast in 2020, quickly finding a role with the LSU Tigers. But he soon transferred to Georgia, then sat out the 2021 season due to personal issues. A tumultuous path has now led Gilbert to this point — presumably healthy and primed to have a purpose in the Bulldogs’ offense.

At this point, it feels almost impossible to rank Gilbert among the 2023 NFL Draft tight ends, as we simply haven’t seen enough from him. But one thing is certain: The talent is there. Gilbert has a long, well-built 6’5″ frame and was reportedly around 265 pounds in the spring. He looked phenomenal in Georgia’s spring game, using his size and athleticism to outmatch defensive backs up the seam and in the red zone. If Gilbert is ready to go, 2022 can be the setting for his true breakout.

Jahleel Billingsley, Texas

Like Gilbert, perhaps to a lesser degree, Jahleel Billingsley is a former highly-touted recruit still waiting for his breakout on the college football stage. Billingsley was a four-star prospect out of Chicago who initially signed with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Billingsley played three seasons for Alabama and was expected to break out in 2021. But an offseason of uncertainty and critical comments from Nick Saban led to an unspectacular season and Billingsley’s inevitable transfer.

Now, Billingsley finds himself as part of an on-paper dream team at Texas. And Steve Sarkisian, who has a history with Billingsley from Alabama, should be able to find a role for the talented pass catcher. Billingsley profiles as more of a WR/TE hybrid whose mere skill set puts defenders into conflict. Billingsley has the athleticism to separate and work in space, but he can also win in contested situations with his 6’4″ frame. It’s all about putting it together for Billingsley, who may have a chance to do just that in Texas.

Brevyn Spann-Ford, Minnesota

The Minnesota offense isn’t known for its passing attack as much as it once was. However, there’s still talent worth keeping an eye on at the receiving end of Tanner Morgan’s throws. Dylan Wright and Chris Autman-Bell are intriguing prospects at wide receiver. And at tight end, Brevyn Spann-Ford might be an underrated breakout candidate at the tight end position in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Spann-Ford experienced a mini-breakout in 2021, going for 23 catches, 296 yards, and a score. But there’s a sense that the 6’7″, 270-pound pass catcher has more in the tank for his senior season. A dual-threat tight end with good all-around utility, Spann-Ford’s combination of smooth athleticism and overwhelming size could help him ascend in the 2023 NFL Draft cycle.

A.J. Barner, Indiana

A.J. Barner caught my eye while I was doing the preview of Indiana’s 2023 NFL Draft class. Only a true junior, Barner is just now entering the range of eligibility. Thus, there’s no guarantee that he will declare. But Barner has the traits to potentially break out for the Hoosiers, especially with Connor Bazelak providing hope of stability at the QB position.

Barner only caught 14 passes for 162 yards and a score in 2021. But within that sample, he flashed plenty of appealing traits. Barner is an athletic 6’6″, 251-pound weapon with smooth mobility in space and impressive body control at the catch point. He’ll need to prove himself, but after the departure of Peyton Hendershot — who caught 46 passes for 543 yards in 2021 –, there’s room for Barner to step into the top spot.

Luke Musgrave, Oregon State

2021 was a reasonably productive year for Luke Musgrave, who caught 22 passes for 304 yards and a score in Oregon State’s offense. But with fellow Beavers TE Teagan Quitoriano joining the Houston Texans via the NFL draft, there’s little standing in the way for Musgrave to take an even greater target share in 2022. And with that target share, Musgrave could go on to eclipse the fifth-round range where his teammate was selected.

On the surface, Musgrave looks like a higher-upside receiver than his counterpart. Musgrave has a compactly-built 6’6″ frame but moves with surprising control and deliberateness in space. He’s a fairly explosive athlete with enough speed to stretch open seams. And while he does need to minimize body catches, he has shown he can control his body and effectively place himself. Musgrave is a prime breakout candidate in 2022.

Ian Cummings is a Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and follow him on Twitter: @IC_Draft.

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