Last week, we started our annual look at the the newcomers to Alabama’s football program with a breakdown of the Tide’s new offensive linemen. As an extension of that, moving on to the tight ends was a natural fit.
Nick Saban’s program here at Alabama has a long, storied history of not utilizing their tight ends in the passing game as much as fans want, yet the group generally has two regular contributors every single year.
In 2021, Cam Latu seemingly came out of nowhere after switching from being an edge rusher to become a mostly dependable blocker and was behind only Brock Bowers in terms of touchdowns from the TE position in the SEC. On the other hand, Jahleel Billingsley fell way short of expectations and has since transferred, leaving Alabama with one wide-open spot on the depth chart.
Because of that, Saban pulled in three TEs in this class, whereas 1 or 2 has usually been the norm. It was clearly viewed as a position of need this year, and there’s a very, very good chance one or more of these players become a true freshman starter for the Tide.
As one of the longest standing commits to Alabama from his class, Brown was a forgotten 4-star prospect with no drama attached to him. He signed and has already enrolled on campus. He’s got the prerequisite size and athleticism to play as a flex receiver, but also the frame to quickly grow into a true in-line tight end.
He’s also not too shabby as a punter with a 37 YPP average, if Alabama needs a backup punter!
Brown is a long-limbed athlete who’s got a surprising burst of speed that can beat high school linebackers to the sideline or get open down the seam in a hurry. No one is going to mistake him for a wide receiver running routes, but his long stride can be a mismatch when forcing linebackers to keep up with him.
He seems to display natural, soft hands, and can hang on to passes through contact as well as a good feel for catching and quickly bursting upfield to pick up as many yards as he can without wasting time.
With the ball in his hands, he doesn’t display too much wiggle, but does have a way of subtly changing directions at the last second so would-be tacklers often bounce off with glancing blows.
As a blocker, he’s aggressive down the field, often looking to bully and pile drive much smaller defensive backs. He’s not been used too often right on the line of scrimmage, and is more of an open-field blocker than an extra lineman at this point. He does have the frame to become an in-line blocker, though.
Brown is a fairly similar player to Alabama’s current starter, Cam Latu, but with a much more natural feel for catching the ball. He’s likely to wind up being closer to 250 pounds to become a Y-TE for the Tide, but has the ability to flex into an H-back role occasionally if needed. I imagine Alabama will look to turn him into a block-first player with the ability to be a safety valve pass catcher when needed.
I think Brown is a guy that Alabama will want on special teams as a freshman. I don’t expect him to have any major role, though, as the staff will want him to add some size before vying for a starting role a couple of seasons down the line.
Lewis was the Tide’s final and lone signee in February, making it clear that he was a priority target for Nick Saban, as the class had already been filled and completed in December. He was a longtime commit to Cincinnati before getting offers late from Florida, LSU, and Alabama.
Despite that last push from SEC teams, the recruiting services all have him as a 3-star prospect, and the lowest ranked member of Alabama’s 2022 recruiting class.
Lewis is a fascinating prospect that combines his monstrous size and basketball background to be a high-point, contested catch specialist down the field. His team would often line him up as an outside receiver, tell him to run down the sideline, and the QB would throw the ball as high as possible as Lewis would box out his defender, make the leaping catch, the throw the poor defensive back on the ground as he loped in for a touchdown.
Lewis made leaping catch after leaping catch with multiple defense backs draped all over him, and even threw in some diving one-handers to top things off. When guys like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates made waves in the NFL for their basketball skills translating into high-point catches, it became a major trend for a while. Lewis slots right into that style.
He’s also got a little bit of “beast mode” in him with the ball in his hands. He may not be outrunning anyone anywhere, but it’s going to take 4 defenders to tackle him... AFTER he stiff armed the first one into another dimension.
As a blocker, he’s got the size and bully mentality to be a great one. However, he’s not got a lot of experience in that regard in high school.
Lewis is a type of tight end that we haven’t really seen at Alabama in the past. Most of Alabama’s tight ends are blockers first, some are decent chain movers with soft hands, and a few have been speedy mismatch threats. But the jump ball specialist is a new type of weapon for the Tide.
Of course, if Bill O’Brien is Alabama’s offensive coordinator again in 2022, don’t forget that he is the one who helped develop a role for Rob Gronkowski as a size-mismatch with the New England Patriots a decade ago.
This is a hard one. On one hand, it’s easy to get excited for such a uniquely skilled and sized player and envision him as a touchdown machine for Bryce Young next year. On the other hand, Lewis has a lot of practice to go to become a dependable blocker at the collegiate level, and he isn’t enrolling early.
I don’t think he’s a regular starter, but I do think he winds up carving out a role as a freshman as a redzone package guy as the 3rd TE, and I think he gets a touchdown or two on about 6 targets this season to make the fans all excited about his potential in the future.
Niblack was a relatively unknown prospect going into 2021 before making waves behind the scenes at Alabama’s summer camps, earning an offer, and drawing a lot of rave reviews that leaked out to many of the recruiting outlet folks. He’s a bit of a hybrid player that the recruiting services don’t totally know what to do with.
On3 has him as a 5-star prospect, 247 and Rivals both view him as a top-100 player, and ESPN has him around 300th and barely a step above a 3-star prospect.
Is he a tight end... A receiver... Or even a pass rusher? Most expect him to wind up as a flex tight end, similar to the role we wanted Jahleel Billingsley to excel in at Alabama this past year.
Amari Niblack is a monster of an athletic specimen at receiver. He’s every bit of 220 pounds and can line up wide and just torch high school defensive backs on vertical routes. Throw it high, and he’s got a tremendous vertical jump and high point ability to win fades and make tough leaping catches on inaccurate throws. When you talk about guys with a catch radius that make things easy on a QB, Niblack is one of those guys.
As a receiver, he’s not the most nuanced route runner yet, but he’s got a great feel for settling down in zones and moving to get open on scramble drills (both attributes that should blend nicely with Bryce Young and Bill O’Brien running the offense). He’s got the explosive ability to lull a defender into stillness as he settles down for a curl before shooting away from them across the field for a wide open catch.
He’s extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands, as he nearly always makes the first tackler miss, can outrun a defense to the sidelines, and will fight through gang tackles for an extra 3-4 yards on nearly every catch.
Niblack was not often used in a true tight end role, but he was a more than competent perimeter blocker on wide receiver screens and wide zone runs.
Niblack will likely be looked at as the same role that Alabama used for Billingsley - a tight end that moves around the formation and can just as easily play wide receiver at any given time. O’Brien has a history of using athletic TE’s as receivers in the passing game, and Bryce Young clearly likes hitting players over the middle on scramble drill, all which fit right into Niblack’s game.
I won’t be shocked at all of Niblack winds up as a day 1 starter for the Tide. He’ll have to prove he can block close to the line of scrimmage and work on cleaning up his route running when he arrives this summer, but if he does, I think he gets the other starting job with Cam Latu.
If he’s further behind the curve in blocking than we hope, then he may not be a true starter, but will absolutely find his way into meaningful minutes later in the season as a pass catching threat.