With the Texas Longhorns eliminated from the College Football Playoff last Monday, junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders declared for the 2024 NFL Draft on Saturday, he told ESPN’s Pete Thamel.
Texas star tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders tells ESPN he’s leaving school early to enter the NFL Draft. He’s ESPN’s No. 2 ranked tight end and projects as a first round pick. He had 45 catches for 682 yards and two touchdowns for Texas this year. pic.twitter.com/BP7YMMuUen— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) January 6, 2024
“After talking with my family and praying to God about it and thinking long and hard about it, this decision is what’s best for me and my family,” Sanders told ESPN. “Coach Sark, he supported me in whatever I do. He wants [me to] be great in whatever I do.”
After coming out of Denton Ryan as a consensus five-star prospect ranked as the No. 13 player nationally and the No. 1 athlete in the 2021 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, conventional wisdom was that the highest upside for Sanders as a prospect was actually as an edge rusher rather than on offense. Sanders and the Texas coaching staff, however, chose to focus on his abilities as a pass catcher and train at tight end. After not registering a single reception as a freshman while mostly playing on special teams, Sanders burst onto the scene as a sophomore and logged his first of two first-team all-Big 12 seasons.
By the end of his career on the Forty Acres, Sanders owned three school tight end receiving records, both single-season yardage and receptions, as well as the top spot for career receptions. Over the last two seasons, Sanders recorded 99 catches for 1,235 yards and seven touchdowns despite dealing with a lower leg injury for the second half of the 2023 season.
The departure of the 6’4, 243-pounder puts a dent in the tight end room of position coach Jeff Banks from a top-end pass-catching standpoint, but the cupboard is hardly bare for Texas.
While not the elite athlete that Sanders is, rising senior Gunnar Helm saw his name called a few times in the passing game, while also serving as a more blocking-focused tight end in the sets. Juan Davis, who came in during the same 2021 recruiting class with Sanders, is another athletic option who has flashed in the past for Texas, but dealt with injuries early in his career. Texas also has a bevy of untested young options, with Spencer Shannon and Will Randle redshirting this year after coming in as a part of the 2023 class and 2024’s Jordan Washington joining the room to bolster the numbers.
Ranked as the second-best tight end in the class behind Georgia’s Brock Bowers, Sanders will likely be the first Texas tight end drafted since Geoff Swaim in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His projections, although high, may not be high enough for him to become the highest-drafted Longhorn tight end, an honor held by Lawrence Sampleton in the 1982 class when he was selected with the No. 47 overall pick in the second round.