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It takes non-Power 5 prospects to make this year's tight-end class an all-timer

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INDIANAPOLIS --What makes this year's tight-end class so deep is the abundant quality that is to be found not just from a host of Power Five products, but from a quintet of tight ends from Group of Five, FCS and Division II schools who so far have shown they belong with players like O.J. Howard and Jordan Leggett, who spent their college careers playing for national championships.

A quick look at five players whose emergence makes this the best tight end class in many years -- and perhaps all-time.

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GERALD EVERETT, SOUTH ALABAMA**

COMPETING ON EQUAL TERMS

The juxtaposition between Everett and SEC products Howard and Evan Engram of Mississippi during Senior Bowl week illuminated his potential. Everything that Howard and Engram could do, Everett did, as well. He matched the two step for step, catch for catch, block for block.

"I think it feels pretty good to be with such great tight ends, the elite caliber," Everett said. "Coming from a small school, we don't really get as much publicity as some of those SEC programs. But to be able to be at the same threshold and on the same pedestal as those guys is monumental for me."

Everett's blocking technique needs refinement -- and he knows that. But he demonstrated desire and effort when he focused on that area of his game; his description of himself as a "willing blocker" is accurate.

The keys to getting better?

"Just making sure I get my first step in the ground immediately as soon as the ball is snapped and keeping my hands tight," he said, "and making sure my hand placement is where it's supposed to be."

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MICHAEL ROBERTS, TOLEDO**

BIG HANDS, BIG-TIME

"Hauling in 16 touchdowns ain't easy to do," Roberts said of his a senior-season haul that saw him emerge as the most efficient red-zone target in college football.

But it helps when you have massive, 11.5-inch hands that are the largest of any offensive player at the Scouting Combine this year.

Roberts used those hands to become the nation's most efficient red-zone target last year, earning invitations to the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. In those two weeks of all-star work, he showed how he can use his size and his hands to his advantage, roaring from off the radar to join a crowded, talented group of tight ends that could be a defining draft class at the position.

"I have had reporters put their hand out to mine and take a picture of it; I've seen some of those on the Internet. But I'm used to it now," Roberts said. "I don't think people understood how big my hands were until the East-West [Shrine] Game; ever since that surfaced, it's just kind of been a frenzy."

Still, it's not about the size of the hands. It's what you do with them.

"It's really about your mental concentration," Roberts said. "But don't get me wrong; they do help me wrap around the ball. If I touch it, it's not going anywhere."

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ADAM SHAHEEN, ASHLAND**

BULK THROUGH BURRITOS

It wasn't until the start of last season that the 6-foot-7, 278-pound Shaheen became aware that the NFL was not only a legitimate potential destination for him, but that he was already on the radar of teams' scouts.

"Just about every practice there was some kind of scout there," Shaheen recalled.

What they saw was one of the most versatile tight ends in this year's class. The Division II school's coaching staff lined him up inside, outside, in the slot -- "everywhere that they could put me, he said."

Shaheen arrived at Ashland as a 195-pounder. Early in his matriculation there, he was up to 225. Now, at 278 pounds, he's able to throw up 24 bench-press repetitions -- the most of any tight end -- while keeping his agility and fluidity.

How did he do it?

"A lot of Chipotle burritos. A lot of burritos," he said. "No, in all honesty, it was a lot of burritos. But it was a ton of consistency. … I couldn't go in and doing one hard week of training and then lazy the next. It was a year and a half to two years of constant, 'Sorry, guys, I can't hang out. I gotta go eat.'"

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ERIC SAUBERT, DRAKE**

FROM A BARREN FIELD, A ROSE BLOOMS

Saubert was so lightly regarded coming out of high school that he was only recruited by Drake, Valparaiso and Division III schools -- all of which play non-scholarship football.

Of course, it was hard to get noticed when you play for a high school team that went a ghastly 1-26 over a three-year span. Saubert played at Hoffman Estates High School in Illinois, which won just once in his final three seasons there and usually fell by lopsided margins.

His time at Drake was considerably more successful. After redshirting in 2012 as a freshman, Saubert helped the Bulldogs to three winning seasons in the last four years, with a 25-19 record in that span.

After his third season, Saubert was invited to a junior pro day at Iowa State, just up I-35 from Drake's campus in Des Moines.

"That's when I knew I was going to take this experience seriously and pursue my dream," Saubert said.

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Go behind the scenes at the Broncos' trip to the 2017 Scouting Combine. (photos by Ben Swanson)

JONNU SMITH, FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL**

HARNESSING HIS ENERGY

Like Roberts and Everett, Smith capitalized off his work at the Senior Bowl.

"Coming in, there were a lot of questions about the level of talent I played at in Conference USA," Smith said. "Coming out and showing that I can play with the guys in the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and so forth -- I definitely showed that I can succeed."

He showed that -- but sometimes he got caught out of position and put himself at risk for penalties. In time, Smith should be able to keep his adrenaline in check and play within himself.

"Just being patient and not too aggressive," he said when asked what he learned about himself during Senior Bowl week. "[Being] overly aggressive can hurt you sometimes in pass protection. Sometimes you want to get a jump sometimes against the guy off the edge.

"Just be patient," Smith said he learned. "It'll come to you."

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