This is the fifth in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Tight ends.
News Sports Reporter
Mel Kiper didn’t mince words when describing the depth of the tight end class in this’s year’s NFL Draft.
“Very poor,” ESPN’s longtime draft analyst said Tuesday on a conference call.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock offered a similar opinion, calling it a “weak class.”
That’s not good news for a team like the Buffalo Bills, which may potentially look to add a player at the position. New offensive coordinator Greg Roman is expected to use a scheme that utilizes multiple tight ends.
So even with the high-priced acquisition of Charles Clay as a free agent from the Miami Dolphins, the Bills may still have a need at the position.
“He said sometimes he might use four on game day, being active, so it would not affect us,” Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said of Roman, referring to whether the signing of Clay would alter how the Bills approach adding a tight end in the draft.
Behind Clay, the current depth chart reads Chris Gragg, MarQueis Gray and Chris Manhertz. Gragg and Gray have combined for 23 catches, 242 yards and two touchdowns. Manhertz, meanwhile, is a former Canisius College basketball player trying to transition to football.
“We have some young guys that are on this squad now and we’re excited to see how they progress,” Whaley said. “But if that tight end is the guy that’s sticking out there in the second or third round or whatever and we want to get him, no, it’s not going to” stop us. “It’s like a salesman, I say; when you’re a salesman, your boss never says, ‘Stop selling.’ Coaches never say, ‘Stop giving me good players.’ ”
The consensus best tight end available is Minnesota’s Maxx Williams. The redshirt sophomore is just 20 years old. Williams, though, decided to enter the draft after setting single-season school records for both receiving yards (569) and touchdowns (eight) by a tight end.
“I put a lot of thought into staying or leaving,” Williams said. “It was a long process for me. … It started about midseason. It kind of crossed my mind that maybe I had an opportunity to leave. I finished the year playing well and after our last game against Wisconsin I sat down with my parents and we actually made lists. … It came down at the end it was the right time for me and my family to declare.”
Williams comes from athletic bloodlines.
His father, Brian, was a former first-round draft pick of the New York Giants, and his grandfather played quarterback for Notre Dame. Williams’ mother captained the volleyball team at Minnesota, and his older sister played hockey for Bemidji State.
“We like to say in our family my mom’s the most athletic,” Williams said.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah has compared Williams to former Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap.
“Because of his penchant to make special catches,” Jeremiah said. “Maxx Williams, though, may be a little better blocker coming out. Heap maybe a little more top speed. But I love the way Williams is a hands catcher.”
The second tight end expected to be taken is Miami’s Clive Walford. He could be on the board when the Bills select at No. 50 in the second round.
“Clive Walford will be a solid second-round pick,” Kiper said. “You could make an argument he’s the first- or second-best tight end, no worse than the second.”
Walford doesn’t lack self-confidence. Asked at the NFL Scouting Combine what the team that drafts him is getting, Walford responded: “A dominant player.”
“A dual-threat tight end,” he said. “A competitor. A will to win. I play with my heart, so they’re going to get somebody who will lay it on the line every down.”
Walford says he tries to emulate New England Patriots All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, the Amherst native.
“His running with the ball after the catch, making crucial blocks,” Walford said. “Pretty much everything. He’s an all-around tight end.”
Both Walford and Williams are receivers first – which isn’t a surprise in this class of tight ends.
“There is not, that I can find, a true blocking tight end in this draft,” ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden said on a conference call this week. “There’s not a Jason Witten in this draft. Not on tape.”
After Walford and Williams, there is no consensus on the next tight end to be selected. The group competing for that honor includes Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman, Southern Illinois’ MyCole Pruitt, Penn State’s Jesse James, Florida State’s Nick O’Leary and Rutgers’ Tyler Kroft.
O’Leary, who plays with no receiving gloves, is perhaps best known as the grandson of Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus. O’Leary won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end in 2014, but faces serious questions about how his athleticism will translate to the next level.
“I feel like I can do it all,” O’Leary said. “People say my route running is not that good. I feel like it is. There are a lot of guys at Florida State who weren’t able to cover me, and guys we played against. We’ll see how it is.”
An intriguing late-round prospect at the position is Oklahoma’s Blake Bell. He started his career as a quarterback with the Sooners before changing positions prior to the 2014 season. He had 16 catches for 214 yards and four touchdowns in his only season at the position.
“I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m also only getting better,” Bell said. “I felt like I was getting a lot better toward the end of the season, and every single game I was picking up new things and better technique. Even going into the East-West Shrine Game I felt good going against some of the best guys in the country. So I’d say that I’m happy with where I’m at, but I obviously want to keep getting better.”