This is the second of an eight-part series previewing the NFL Draft on May 8-10. Today's installment: Tight ends.
When it comes to tight ends, it's far too often an either-or proposition for NFL teams.
Either they draft a player who can block, or they draft a player who is a glorified slot receiver.
Rare is the prospect who can do both, a la Amherst native and New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski.
“You don't want to be one-dimensional – to just be a pass-catcher or just be a blocker,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “It would be nice to have some characteristics of each category to make yourself a complete tight end. Unfortunately, not everybody has those. Those are tough to find.”
The 2014 draft class may have some of those diamonds in the rough.
The consensus top tight end is North Carolina's Eric Ebron, a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder who broke Vernon Davis' Atlantic Coast Conference record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end with 973 in 2013.
Davis is the player Ebron has drawn the most comparisons to.
“He's powerful. He's very strong at the line of scrimmage,” Gruden said of Davis. “I love everything about him.”
Ebron said nearly every team he met with at the combine asked about his blocking ability.
“Every team wants a complete tight end … not one that can just run down the seam and catch passes,” Ebron said. “They want a guy that can block, too. I tell them that I've been working hard on it, which I have, and that I'm not bad at it, which everyone thinks.”
In the last four drafts, only one team – Cincinnati – has taken a tight end in the first round. The Bengals have actually done it twice, selecting Jermaine Gresham in 2010 and Tyler Eifert last season, both with the 21st overall pick.
The last time a tight end was taken in the top 10 was 2006, when the San Francisco 49ers selected Davis. Ebron seems like a first-round lock, and a strong possibility for the Buffalo Bills at ninth overall.
After re-signing Scott Chandler, the team has four legitimate candidates for the 53-man roster, also including Tony Moeaki, Chris Gragg and blocking tight end Lee Smith.
The addition of a dynamic player like Ebron would allow the Bills to run more two tight-end sets, which in turn would give the offense more versatility.
“You have to do some projecting when you're looking at the tight ends. But I do think it's an evolving position. It's changing. Offensive coordinators are being very creative in how they align the tight end,” Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He can line up in that fullback position. He can line up as an H-back. He can line up in the No. 1 wide receiver position as well.”
The evolution of the college game to use more spread offenses has made the job of NFL talent evaluators more difficult. Smith recalled a time a couple years ago when the Falcons had to go through two years worth of film to find five snaps of a prospect in the formation they wanted to see.
“No fault of theirs, but it's a tough position to evaluate right now because of all the spread offenses,” Gruden said. “You look at their size, their strength, obviously their length, to see how they handle the edge, the outside linebackers, the defensive ends and pass protection. … Are they good enough to be split outside all the time to create the mismatches that you want? There are a lot of characteristics in a tight end that can bring different things to your team.
“You don't see a lot of on-the-line tight ends, true blocking tight ends very often anymore,” Gruden continued. “But there are still some guys that utilize the tight end position in college, and those are the guys that you get a good chance to look at.”
Notre Dame is one of those teams that utilizes the tight end, and the Irish's Troy Niklas is one of this year's more intriguing prospects. Niklas has played tight end for only two seasons after switching from outside linebacker.
The 6-7, 270-pounder caught 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns last season for the Fighting Irish.
“He's an interesting guy, first of all, because of his size,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said of Niklas. “The first year he had Tyler Eifert who had most of the attention while he was trying to learn the position. So effectively, you're looking at one year of production as far as catching the football, so I think what he is, if he commits to becoming a good in line blocker, he could be the best blocking tight end in the NFL in two or three years.
“If I was his father or I was his coach, I would try to impress upon him that he should try to become the best blocker he can. He'll make a lot of money for a lot of years. Secondly, he's a better receiver than people think. … He can catch the ball short or intermediate, understands how to use his body to position it.”
If a team is looking for more of a polished receiver and isn't as worried about blocking ability, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro qualifies as a late first- or second-round option.
Amaro, 6-5 and 265 pounds, set a Football Bowl Subdivision all-time single-season record with 1,352 receiving yards in 2013. He was named a first-team All-American.
“I think right now people are looking for tight ends to catch more balls than they are to make more blocks,” Amaro said. “When I'm asked to block, I know I can block. I know I can block guys down. There's a lot of times where I do that and I feel like it's something that's very overlooked of what I can do and then it's something I'm going to have to show at the next level. But I know I'm willing to and I know I'm going to.”
Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins is another big option (6-5, 262 pounds) who set school records for career receptions (146), receiving yards (1,840) and touchdown receptions (21) among tight ends. He's not expected to make it out of the second round.
“I think Seferian Jenkins could play in any scheme,” Mayock said. “He should be a better blocker than he is given his size but he's athletic enough to block. I think he's tough enough to block.
“At Washington he was split out so often, I don't think he developed as much as he could have as a blocker. … but I was impressed with his catching radius, his ability to use his body against defenders and his ability to twist in the air and catch the football. He's got great hands.”
Day three prospects include Arthur Lynch of Georgia, Crockett Gillmore of Colorado State, Colt Lyerla of Oregon and Larry Webster of Bloomsburg (Pa.).
Lyerla's talent is on par with the top four tight ends in the class, but he has some serious character concerns, including leaving the Ducks team after an unspecified rules violation. He later pleaded guilty to cocaine possession.