Skip to main content


Canadian tight ends ready for NFL Draft spotlight


The road from Canada to playing tight end in the National Football League is not a well-worn path.

That makes an NFL Draft where two Canadian tight ends are likely to be selected all the more significant.

Penn State’s Theo Johnson and Arizona’s Tanner McLachlan are both expected to hear their names called between Thursday night’s opening round in Detroit and the final selection sometime late Saturday afternoon, with Johnson projected as a Day 2 pick (rounds two and three), and McLachlan projected for Day 3 (rounds four through seven).

Johnson, of Windsor, Ont., was the top-rated Canadian high school player in the spring of 2020, choosing Penn State over such schools as Michigan, Iowa and Georgia. His role grew steadily over four seasons with the Nittany Lions, grabbing 34 catches for 341 yards and seven touchdowns during his senior season last fall.

McLachlan, from Lethbridge, Alta., started his career as a receiver at Southern Utah, then made the transition to tight end where he caught more balls at Arizona than some guy nicknamed Gronk, hauling in 79 passes for 984 yards over his two seasons with the Wildcats.

There’s no doubt that Georgia’s Brock Bowers will be the first tight end off board. Beyond that, however, it’s a bit of a guessing game among Johnson, Ohio State’s Cade Stover and Texas’ Ja’Tavion Sanders and others.

“Theo Johnson is definitely in that mix,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said recently. “He is my fourth tight end. Obviously, the traits and the tools are there when you're 6-foot-6 and you're almost 260 pounds (and) you run 4.57.”

Johnson has had a strong off-season dating back to his appearance at the Senior Bowl in January, the last full-contact exercise for players in the draft process. He followed that up with a memorable NFL Combine performance, becoming the first tight end prospect ever to run a sub-4.6 second 40-yard dash and vertical jump more than 39 inches at a weight of more than 255 pounds.

The tight end position doesn’t exist as an every-down role in Canadian football, so Johnson primarily played receiver in high school, although his frame and athleticism dictated he could maximize his talents elsewhere.

“Canadian football doesn’t lend itself to a tight end, typically, so he didn’t play much tight end for us. We tried to put it in the system just so he gets some reps with it,” said Rob McIntyre, Johnson’s high school head coach at Holy Names High School in Windsor. “We played some games in the U.S., and he played against some American competition. So, I think he had a good understanding of it, not a full understanding. I know when he got down there [to Penn State] it was a bit of a shock.”

Despite his success growing up in the game, Johnson wasn’t sure he would get a chance to compete at the highest levels of American college football until late in his high school career.

“Yeah, I think I started to believe it right around when I was getting recruited,” he said. “I knew that I was talented. I knew I was bigger than a lot of other people … I moved a lot better than some other people, but I wasn't sure, being from Canada,” he said. “There's a lot of stigma on American football and a lot of people think it's people are such bigger, faster, stronger over here, and the competition is just different.”

Johnson has long been recognized for his physical traits but has fought the perception that he’s an athlete more than a football player. Jeremiah said he sees lots of football instincts and skills in Johnson.

“He's got a huge catch radius,” he said. “He can really get down the seam. He's [got] understanding in terms of the physicality after the catch. I love that competitiveness there. He's not the most defined, precise route runner. I think there's some development to take place there.

“But … If you told me he was the second tight end to go, I wouldn't bat an eye.”

In terms of players who’ve grown up in Canada and gone on to play tight end in the NFL there are four that come to mind, two well-known and two less so.

O.J. Santiago of Whitby, Ont., was the first, playing six seasons total, including with the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in a Super Bowl. Luke Willson of LaSalle, Ont., played eight seasons, mostly with Seattle, playing in two Super Bowls and winning one.

Beyond that there are a couple of U-sport products – Laval’s Antony Auclair who played mostly with Tampa Bay and retired after the 2021 season, and York’s Nikola Kalinic, who played briefly with Hamilton in the CFL and is now a member of Los Angeles Rams.

Since only Santiago and Willson have been drafted as tight ends from Canada, that all-time number is expected to double by the end of the weekend. And while most projections have McLachlan as a late-round selection, Jeremiah is actually higher on him than Johnson.

“If you're asking where I think he's going to go, I'd say probably he goes late in the third round, maybe in the fourth round,” said Jeremiah. “I have him personally rated higher than that.

“He's my second tight end in this draft, which I think probably might surprise some people. But I was a big fan of his game. He does really good work in the middle of the field. I think it's an instinct position. He’s got as good of instincts as anybody in the draft at that spot. Being able to work in space, find holes, accelerate through the ball, trust his hands. His effort is there … There's enough want-to that you can work with him. I'm a fan.”

While Johnson plays the tight end position in a traditional role, including as a skilled blocker, McLachlan is cut more from the mold of a receiver, which is exactly what he was until two seasons ago.

McLachlan also excelled on the basketball court growing up, a sport he originally committed to play at the University of Lethbridge.

“I think you look at a lot of great tight ends, they’re late bloomers because a lot of them were receivers or basketball players,” said McLachlan. “And I just stuck with that mould and kept it with me throughout the process … I think that’s the upside I have coming into this draft, that I’m still relatively young at the position.”

The Canadian fraternity of NFL players, which was once made mostly of offensive linemen and special teams players, has broadened in recent years to include every position on the field.

Now it will include two Canadian tight ends stepping into the league at a time when the position has never been more instrumental in the NFL game.

“We knew of each other, being the only two Canadians to play tight end in the NCAA, but we kind of caught up at the combine and got to know each other,” McLachlan said. “Simple conversations like, ‘Hey, just keep representing.’

“He grew up on the east side of Canada and I grew up on the west. But we’re both representing Canada and we’re super proud to do it.”