The tight end position was a source of concern for the New York Giants in 2023. The team traded a third-round pick to acquire Darren Waller from the Las Vegas Raiders, and Daniel Bellinger was apleasant surprise in 2022.
However, the Giants elected to double down on Waller’s skill set as a hybrid receiving tight end and keep Lawrence Cager as their only depth at the position. Considering the Giants’ problems with blocking this past year, they could look to add another “complete” tight end to their depth chart.
If so, Michigan’s AJ Barner could be a sleeper worth watching in this year’s draft process. Barner spent the first three years of his collegiate career at Indiana before transferring to Michigan for his senior season. He doesn’t have the receiving stats that normally get evaluators excited. However, he has the size and traits to appeal to almost every offense in the NFL.
Prospect: AJ Barner (89)
Games Watched: vs. Nebraska (2022, with Indiana), vs. Rutgers (2023 - Michigan), vs. Rutgers (2023)
Weight: 250 pounds
- Competitive toughness
- Receiving upside
Barner is a prototypical “pro style” tight end prospect. He has an archetypal build at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds with good length, mass, and athletic upside. He has the ability to line up all over the offensive formation, from wide receiver to fullback, but was usually aligned as an in-line or detached tight end.
Barner has played in 40 games over his college career, which saw him transfer from the Univeristy of Indiana to Michigan prior to the 2023 season. He quickly emerged as a starter for the Wolverines and the secret weapon in the running game which carried them to their National Championship win.
Barner is quietly an excellent blocker in both the run and pass game – and is better than a lot of offensive tackles. He does a great job of sinking his hips to achieve leverage prior to engaging defenders, then uncoiling to drive them back once he’s under their pads. He also consistently seizes inside leverage, striking opponents’ chest plates before locking on and controlling them. From there he drives and looks to sustain his blocks through the echo of the whistle. Barner is strong enough to stand up to edge defenders and athletic enough to block off-ball linebackers or defenders in space.
While he wasn’t a primary receiving option at either Indiana or Michigan (he had just 64 total receptions in college), Barner was effective when the ball went his way. He does a good job of laying chip blocks when releasing into routes as a “Y” tight end. Once in space, he presents a good target to his quarterback, contorting his body to shield the ball from defenders and maximizing his receiving window. He has the strength to fight for yards after the catch as a check-down option, as well as enough build-up speed to attack the seam vertically.
- Short-area quickness
- Catch consistency
Barner has the potential to be a “complete” tight end, but he’ll likely need to improve his receiving to take a starting job at the NFL level. Barner isn’t a bad receiver, per se, but there are notable inconsistencies in his game as a pass catcher.
Most notably, he doesn’t make full use of his length to attack the ball in the air, and can allow it into his chest. Likewise, his hands can be a bit suspect when he’s forced to make high-difficulty catches on poorly-placed balls. This could simply be a result of him primarily being a blocker at both Indiana and Michigan, and could improve with coaching at the NFL level. However, it’s notable now because tight ends are frequently used as safety blankets for quarterbacks, and that leads to them needing to bail their QB out on occasion.
And while Barner is a good athlete, he doesn’t quite have the elite athleticism needed to overcome some of the limitations imposed by his size. He has solid agility and short-area quickness, but his second and third steps can be a bit slow. His speed is much more of the “build up” variety, which can allow coverage players to stay with him on intermediate routes. Likewise, he’s good at dropping his hips when blocking, but his high-cut build can force him to round some breaks.
(Barner is Michigan TE number 89)
AJ Barner projects as a good “number two” tight end for most teams, with the upside to become a starting tight end with a bit of development. He has a classic “Pro Style” build with the blocking acumen to satisfy a run-heavy attack athleticism to contribute in a modern passing game. Barner will need to improve – or at least become more consistent – as a receiver to reach his full ceiling as an NFL player. That said, he can help most teams immediately thanks to his blocking and competitive toughness.
Does he fit the Giants?
Yes. Barner could solidify the Giants’ tight end position and can become a “complete” tight end who can play on all downs and distances.
Final Word: An early Day 3 value with Day 2 upside