With the 2014 NFL Draft only a few months away, we reached out to some of the draft prospects we believe the Green Bay Packers could target in May. Today, we hear from a guy that has just finished participating the NFL Scouting Combine over the weekend and is an early round tight end prospect in the draft, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas.
As a junior, Niklas started all 13 games in Notre Dame’s offense last season and finished third on the team in receiving with 32 receptions for 498 yards and five touchdowns. 2013 was his only year as a starter after playing behind former first-rounder Tyler Eiffert as a sophomore.
Since Niklas decided to forego his senior season and declare for the draft, he’s been considered a top-five tight end prospect by many draft analysts and is a prospect that offers good size (6-6, 270) and potential for the position.
As a former linebacker, Niklas is one of the toughest tight end prospects in this year’s draft class. He’s an excellent run blocker and has the soft hands and big frame to be a real weapon in the passing game. He’s a guy that could sneak up draft boards as more people break down his 2013 film.
Because Niklas could be real option for the Packers early in the draft, I reached out to him and had the privilege to speak with him over the phone.
Q. Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you first get into football?
TN: I grew up in Southern California. I was a very active kid. I played football, basketball, and baseball all the way up until college. I always had a burning desire to play football though. Ever since I was seven. Watching my uncle Bruce Matthews in the NFL inspired me to play and pursue football as a career. I did well in Pop Warner, and football was something that just seemed to click for me.
Q. Is that the same Bruce Matthews who is related to Clay Matthews?
TN: Yeah. Clay and I have the same uncle. We’re not blood relatives, but related through marriage. I guess we’re distant relatives. Bruce is related to me through my mom’s sister. So I know Clay a little bit, but not real well. I’ve talked to him a few times, but we didn’t necessarily grow up together. He might recognize me if he saw me.
Q. As a California guy, what led you to play for the Fighting Irish?
TN: Living in Southern California most of my life, I felt like I had to get away from the area a little bit and see other parts of the country. I had the opportunity to play at Notre Dame out of high school, so I decided to go there and branch out a little bit. Notre Dame has been a great opportunity in and of itself. Now, I have the opportunity to play for a pro team. I feel blessed.
Q. You began your career at Notre Dame as a linebacker then switched to tight end. What made you decide to play the tight end position and what caused the position switch?
TN: I always wanted to play tight end. I always felt like that was my best position. I got to Notre Dame and they wanted me to play outside linebacker. I played linebacker for over a year. I even started one game on defense. I had some fun doing that, but I knew tight end was my real position. My coaches switched me over to tight end my sophomore year. I got to learn a lot. I learned a lot playing behind Tyler Eiffert that year, and then I began to realize my potential. I ended up being the starting tight end as a junior after Eiffert left for the NFL.
Q. How does your brief experience as a linebacker help you play the tight end position?
TN: Playing on defense helped me a lot as a tight end, just knowing about leverage and defensive coverages. It helps you out a lot both as a blocker and receiver. Just knowing what it feels like to get blocked and what it’s like to key step. It also helps to know the things that suck as a defender. You can use those things as a tight end to gain an advantage over the guy you’re blocking.
Q. The draft is only a few months away. Are there any specific things about your game you’ll be working on improving before May?
TN: Just working on everything really–my flexibility, strength, speed, position work, footwork with blocking, and hand placement. I’m working hard. I’m working out six days a week just trying to get better. But if I had to pick one specific part of my game I’m really focused on improving, I’d say it’s my route-running. Just really getting comfortable running all kinds of routes and trying to perfect the entire route tree.
Q. What are your strengths as a tight end and how would you define your game?
TN: I’m pretty physical. I can block or catch the ball. I just get after it. I’m aggressive on the field. After I catch the ball, I don’t like to have one guy take me down. I like to break tackles and hit people. I love to play physical. I would say my game looks refined. I have taken the time to really develop myself and be good at what I do. My strengths as a blocker are hand placement and footwork. I really try to perfect my technique. Even though I am strong, you have to have good technique to be successful. I try to have a complete game.
Q. Are you more of an in-line blocker or slot receiver?
TN: I can do both. Catching balls is a lot of fun and blocking is a lot fun. Part of being a tight end is embracing both parts. I’d say I’m a pretty versatile tight end. I try to do everything well at the position.
Q. Many analysts have you as a top-five tight end in this year’s draft class. As of now, do you have any idea where you might be drafted?
TN: I probably won’t speculate right now. I don’t know where I’ll be drafted, honestly. We’ll see how it plays out. When I heard back from the NFL Draft Advisory Board they said I could be drafted in the second round, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where I’ll be drafted.
Q. As a player, do you pay attention do any of this draft stuff, like draft projections, mock drafts, and player rankings?
TN: I don’t really pay attention to any of it to be honest. I’m just concentrated on what I can control. To be dedicated. Work really hard and perform well for scouts and teams in my workouts.
Q. There are a handful of really talented early-round tight end prospects this year. What makes you different from the other tight ends in this draft?
TN: I am a complete tight end. A guy that can go out and catch the ball and a guy that can block the six-technique in the run game. A guy that can be a force to be reckoned with. The defense won’t know if I’ll be going out for a pass or block for the run when I’m in the game. I’m not predictable, which makes me tough to defend.
Q. Tight end is a major need for the Packers going into the draft. How would you feel about being drafted by Green Bay?
TN: I’d be pretty ecstatic, especially getting a chance to work with Aaron Rodgers who is a phenomenal quarterback. That would be pretty awesome. The fanbase is huge in Green Bay. It’s a great organization. That would be pretty awesome if that happened.
Q. What kind of player would they be getting?
TN: I’m a focused, driven guy who is dedicated to getting better. I’m dedicated to producing for the team. A guy that really will do anything to get better and make a play on the field. Someone who will fight to get that extra inch.
Q. What kind of teammate would they be getting and how do you see yourself fitting in their locker room?
TN: I’d like to think I’d be a good teammate and would get along with everyone. But honestly, I don’t really know the paradigm yet. I don’t know how the NFL locker room works. I haven’t been exposed to that world yet, so I can’t say for sure. I think I’ll be a teammate that gets along, produces, and does his thing. Usually as long as you do your job, you’re fine, but I can’t say for sure until I get there.
Q. Do you know much about the team?
TN: I know quite a bit about the team just from watching Clay play. He’s a good player and fun to watch. I’ve tried to follow him because of the family connection. I’m also familiar with guys like Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, and A.J. Hawk. I’ve been watching them definitely, and they’re all good players.
Q. Being from California, are you okay with playing in the cold?
TN: Well, I went to Notre Dame. I made it through that, so I think I’ll be all right.
Q. If the Packers drafted you, what would you bring to their offense, and what could you learn from players like Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson?
TN: Their offense would be getting a dynamic blocker, route runner, and pass catcher, but as far as what I could learn, I think of the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I can’t tell you everything I’d learn from them because I’m not there yet, but I know I’d probably learn a lot. That whole world hasn’t been opened to me yet, but it will be soon.
Q. Tell us a little bit more about yourself. Were there any players you watched growing up then that inspired you to pursue a career in football?
TN: I’d say definitely my Uncle Bruce. Watching him inspired me to play football. Growing up, I also watched Jeremy Shockey play and it was cool to see how badass he was at tight end. It motivated me to be one of those badass type of tight ends on the field.
Q. Who have been the most influential people in your life?
TN: Definitely my parents. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. Also, all my coaches along the way. I’ve been blessed with a lot of good football in my life and a lot of really good friends that have helped steer me where I am now. I had a lot of good direction with trainers, like Scott Prohaska, in high school. They helped me along the way. They taught me how to train, build up my strength, and just get in good all-around shape.
Q. When you’re away from football, what do you like to do in your free time? Any favorite hobbies?
TN: I like to be active. I like to surf and go to the beach. I like to go for a hike. Really anything outdoorsy. I like to get more in touch with nature. I like to go hunting, fishing, or paintballing. Anything active. I’m not a sedentary individual.
Q. Finally, is there anything else you’d like Packers fans to know about you before I let you go?
TN: I am a really dedicated, pretty easy-going guy that just enjoys life.
Career college stats
• 2013 – 32 rec, 498 yds, 5 TDs
• 2012 - 5 rec, 75 yds, TD
• 2011 - 20 tackles and 2 QB hurries
Film on Troy Niklas
Troy Niklas against Michigan: 6 rec, 76 yards, and a TD
Troy Niklas against USC: 4 rec, 58 yards, and a TD